CHAPTER 29 (EPILOGUE): PRECIOUS LIFE

"Is she here yet?"

Cloud glanced out of the bedroom door and into the apartment's living room, thinly restrained unease on his features.

"Not yet!" Marlene called from behind the curtains. Her fingers were splayed against the glass and her breaths caused the cold pane to fog up near her nose and mouth. "But the snow is getting worse and it's getting dark. I can't see very well!"

Outwardly, Cloud was calm. He couldn't let the kids see the panic that was beginning to well up inside, for it seemed to be the thin barrier that prevented the current situation from dissolving into mild chaos. Marlene had been practically bouncing off the walls with gleeful excitement for over an hour, now. Luckily, Denzel was much more contained and reserved. The boy was kneeling at the coffee table trying to make progress on his homework, unaware that his anxiety was showing through the gentle tapping of his pencil against the wood.

It had taken longer than Cloud thought to feel comfortable in his role as the head of a family. After the destruction of Midgar, Cloud, Tifa and Barret had struggled to quickly put together some sort of 'normal' life in the newly growing city of Edge. With the help of many others, they'd constructed the new 'Seventh Heaven' bar with an apartment on top, providing both a source of income as well as a living space. Barret had left Marlene in their primary care for an unknown amount of time as he helped the WRO search for alternative energy sources. Legally, she was Barret's daughter. Tifa had acted as a 'mother' of sorts to the little girl for so long that it didn't faze her, but Cloud found himself quite unsure of his role in her life.

Orphaned, homeless and sick, Denzel had run into Cloud almost by fate in the debris of what used to be Sector Five. It was never a question to Cloud and Tifa that they'd adopt the boy, but building a relationship with Denzel hadn't always been straightforward. Being a father was something that Cloud truly wanted, though this wasn't quite the way he'd envisioned it happening. So much change happened so quickly, which was overwhelming for Cloud. But after the boy's formal adoption paperwork had been finalized, things seemed to calm down for a time. It was hard to believe that two years had passed since then.

Slowly, the four of them had worked out their own routines and traditions. Cloud hadn't noticed just how much he needed this order in his life to thrive and feel at peace. He had drowned in chaos for so long that it had become a way of life for much too long, and he was thankful for every lazy day, homemade meal, and mundane chore. It wasn't quite the dream life he'd imagined, but he was more than content where he was. Disappearing back inside the bedroom, Cloud moved toward Tifa's hunched form. She stood up from her perch on the bed and pressed herself flush against him, a trembling sigh shivering out from her spirit. This was so much harder than she'd thought it would be.

"Oh," Tifa gasped.

She clung to him tightly as she rode out another contraction, gritting her teeth and hissing as her body clenched in upon itself. Together, they languidly rocked back and forth to help her cope with the pain, like a slow dance of sorts. The lamp light was low and warm in their room and the bedsheets were tousled from frequent laying and rising to pace about with bare feet. One of Cloud's oversized black shirts hung loosely over Tifa's shoulders, but her swollen belly pushed at the fabric around her middle.

It wasn't really the pain that shocked her. It had been four years since Gaia had been saved from Sephiroth, four years since she and Cloud decided that they were ready to start their family, and four long years of trying to conceive. What had astounded Tifa was how difficult it had been to get pregnant (after it had been so easy and unexpected in her teens!), and that even after she discovered she was expecting at long last, there had been little joy throughout the months of her pregnancy. Soon after the rapturous discovery of a positive pregnancy test (finally!), her giddiness had quickly spiraled into darkness. How foolish she'd been to get so absorbed in trying to have a baby that she hadn't considered the emotional toll it would take!

The wave of pain crested for what seemed like ages before slowly subsiding once again, and Tifa panted in its wake. Cloud held her close, supporting her as her knees trembled. The quiet, comforting shhhh from his lips helped to steady her breathing, and she pressed her face into his chest. This was progressing so much faster than it had with Aria, and she was frightened.

"It's relentless now," she said, voice trembling. The circling of the ceiling fan wasn't enough to dry the sweat that beaded under her bangs. "I think it's coming, soon."

The anxiety regarding the baby had been crippling. Through the long weeks of her pregnancy, Tifa had felt herself splintering as guilt, joy and fear fought for dominance inside her. With each successive prenatal appointment, she had trouble trusting that it was true when the obstetrician said the baby was healthy, and the terror of another stillbirth overcame any positive feelings that she wanted so badly to feel. She'd tell the baby in her womb how much she loved it every day, fearing that one day, without warning, it wouldn't be alive anymore. As the months went by, Tifa became ever more anxious about her ability to care for a newborn and keep it alive. Cloud had been so patient and supportive, and she couldn't help but feel as if she was stealing his chance to be excited about this pregnancy. When she broke down crying at her baby shower, her husband made a suggestion that changed everything.

"Ana is here! She's here!" Marlene squeaked from the hallway.

They listened as two pairs of little feet rushed down into the bar space to unlock the front door.

"Oh, thank goodness," Cloud sighed, voice dripping with relief.

He looked torn between going to greet the midwife and staying with Tifa, but her solid grip on his hand made the decision for him. Before she could vocalize it, another contraction rippled its way through her core and the pain took her breath from her. Cloud held her through the pain before guiding her back toward the bed.

While it hadn't solved all of her problems, hiring a midwife was probably the best thing she could've done. Ana came into the picture when she was about seven months along and desperate for emotional relief. A practiced professional in her sixties, the midwife kept her greying hair tied back in a loose ponytail at the base of her neck. When she spoke, it was with a motherly, soothing tone that instantly put Tifa at ease. She taught her different activities to ease her anxiety, assured her that it was normal to experience emotions other than joy and helped Tifa regain her sense of identity as a mother after losing her only child. Without her assistance, she wouldn't have prepared her heart for the possibility of post-partum depression or other tumultuous feelings that may come after the birth. The older woman reminded her that her grief over Aria would remain with her forever, but that was normal and the passage of time would make it easier to bear. Ana was her anchor when she felt life was spinning out of control, and Tifa would be forever grateful.

Cloud exited the room once more, and she heard his voice welcoming Ana and telling the kids to play downstairs in the empty bar space until he came to get them. It was with wild eyes that Tifa watched him go, for she felt so fearful and vulnerable that being separated from her husband—even for a moment—seemed unbearable. Gripping the sheets in her fists, she whimpered at the paralyzing memory of giving birth alone. Cloud was her rock, right now, and she needed him so badly. If she was alone, surely something bad would happen! Weary and agonized, she laid back upon the pillows. When her husband and the midwife entered, Tifa wished to greet her, but only managed to moan and roll on her side.

"That far along, are we?" Ana smiled as she set her bag down on the vanity.

Cloud returned to Tifa's side, wringing his hands as he updated the midwife: recounting details of the labor while watching her set up her equipment and don a pair of latex gloves. Uncertain of what to do next, he took his wife's hand. Tifa whimpered, immediately reaching to hold onto his arm instead as she writhed in discomfort. Ana calmly removed the comforter and placed a plastic covering under the sheets to protect the mattress. This was it! Tifa's eyes rose to the ceiling as tried to take in deep breaths. Her ideal image of their family had always been like a song she couldn't get out of her head. But now that it was finally happening, Tifa was more frightened than excited.

"Alright, sweetheart," she said, taking a second to wipe Tifa's brow with a cool cloth. "Let's have a listen to that beautiful little heartbeat, shall we?"

Ana knew Tifa's story. She'd been told about the circumstances of her first pregnancy at such a young age, about the stillbirth and the myriad of fears that resulted from it all. Checking for the fetal heartbeat had always spiked Tifa's anxiety, so the midwife knew just what to do. She held her client's hand firmly as she put the stethoscope to her swollen belly, smiling as she located the baby's thrumming heart.

"There it is—beautiful and even," Ana breathed softly, giving Tifa's hand a reassuring squeeze.

Still, Tifa wasn't convinced that everything would be alright. She remembered these birth pains and how they'd been followed by the greatest emotional anguish she'd ever known. Another contraction squeezed its way through her and she cried, squeezing her eyes shut against its intensity. Oh, how she wished for her mother! Picturing Lia's face provided a small amount of comfort, but remembering her beautiful voice was what allowed her to breathe and concentrate through the pain. Imagining her mother there, singing to her through her contractions, temporarily distracted her from how overwhelming it all was. It was as if she could hear her voice beside her—tune distinct but the words indistinguishable—and she almost smiled as her head sunk further into the pillow. Briefly, she noticed Cloud's lips kiss her forehead in her weary fog.

All of their broken dreams had led them to this very moment.

When she opened her eyes, Tifa realized that there was indeed a soothing tune in the air. Ana was humming calmly as she worked, checking her patient's dilation and assessing the baby's position. Tifa gripped the sheets as she did, whimpering through the momentary discomfort before letting out a distressed breath when she finished. Crimson eyes looked fearfully for Ana's brown ones, certain that she'd have some sort of bad news. The wrinkles at the corner of her eyes deepened as she smiled, and the expression made relief flood through Tifa's bones. Ana's presence reminded her of home. Having the chance to give birth in her own bed was reminiscent of her rural upbringing, and the comfort of familiar surroundings during such a vulnerable time brought her some security. After Aria's traumatic delivery, she wasn't sure she could bear having a baby in a clinic again.

"You're ready, my dear," Ana said, her tone even and soft. "You have to push now."

Tifa remembered the pushing stage. She remembered straining and struggling for well over an hour before finally giving birth, and she remembered the team of doctors trying to revive her tiny baby. How many times had she relived those horrible moments in her dreams? There was great pressure between her legs and the urge to push was strong, but Tifa was so afraid of what would happen once the baby came out. Her legs trembled as her next contraction—strong and long-lasting—squeezed her body like a vice without her permission. The pain and fear swirled together in a dangerous cocktail.

"I can't—I'm scared!" she cried, her voice quaking with emotion. "I'm not ready!"

But her body was working without her consent, the muscles in her abdomen pressing and pressing. Cloud swallowed nervously, eyes large with panic as he tried not to regret their decision to have a baby. Tifa had been so fearful and timid during her pregnancy and it all seemed to manifest in this moment. Never before had he seen her in the amount of distress that she was in now, and he fought to push away the guilt that loomed over him. Blue eyes turned toward the midwife, desperate for her to work some sort of magic to take away his wife's blinding terror. And to his great relief, she did.

Ana took Tifa's hands in her own, stroking her palms with her thumbs. "Tifa, listen to my voice. You are strong and you are capable. I'm here to help you. Cloud is here to help you. You are not alone, my dear."

Tears welled up in Tifa's eyes, for everything was so overwhelming.

"Breathe, breathe," whispered the midwife. She squeezed her hand and looked into her eyes. The wisdom Tifa saw there influenced her to obey, turning her focus to taking steady breaths. The air entering her lungs brought little relief to the pain and distress of her body, but it helped her calm down some.

"Now, let's concentrate," Ana continued. She moved into position to help deliver the baby and instructed Cloud to help hold onto one of Tifa's legs. "I want you to push with the next contraction, and don't stop until we count to ten. Alright?"

Tifa nodded, because there was nothing else she could do, and moaned as the next wave of pain washed over her body. Dizzy with anxiety and agony, she tried to focus her body's efforts on getting the baby out. Tucking her chin to her chest, she pushed and pushed. Cloud was there, whispering calm encouragements. Ana was there, kindly instructing and praising her hard work. Her mother was there in spirit, watching over her. Denzel and Marlene were downstairs, waiting anxiously to meet their 'sibling'. Whatever happened, Tifa didn't have to face it on her own this time, and she had to believe that things would not be as they were those long years ago. Faith, like hope, is a rope and anchor in a shifting world. Tifa decided that she would take hold of it with both hands.

It happened so quickly, it seemed—her mind had automatically assumed that it would all be as difficult as it had been last time. But in less than twenty minutes of bearing down and concentrating, the little one came rushing into the world. Delirious from fatigue and newfound physical relief, Tifa lifted her head from the pillow to try and see her baby. Cloud took her hand, praising her with one of his rare, toothy grins before kissing her briefly upon the lips. The sound of the newborn's cry filled the room—shrill and startling—but to Cloud and Tifa, there was no sound more beautiful. After all the fearful anticipation, their baby was alive! After clamping and cutting the umbilical cord, Ana chuckled warmly as she cleared the squirming baby's airway and wiped it down with a towel.

"Here he is," Ana beamed as she handed the baby to his mother. "Your healthy, sweet little boy."

Tifa reached out to take her son, hands trembling uncontrollably. So many feelings swirled about inside her: shock and fear, fatigue and relief. They rose up past her chest and sat in a ball in her throat as the weight of her swaddled son settled into her arms. She didn't notice when she choked out a soft sob as she gazed upon the little red face of the infant, who screamed with his strong little lungs and balled fists.

"C-Cloud," she whispered, but was unable to say any more.

Within moments, the baby quieted, feeling the comforting sensation of his own skin against his mother's. Tifa held her breath as his big blue eyes blinked open, staring up at her as if to see who it was that belonged to the voice he'd come to know while inside the womb. Just as nothing had prepared her for the devastation when Aria wouldn't take a breath or open her eyes, there was no warning for the awe and wonder of meeting her own living flesh and blood—an extension of her love for Cloud and a symbol of their perseverance toward their dreams. When she found the strength to tear her eyes from the child, Tifa turned her head to look at her husband. It was only upon seeing the tears streaming down his cheeks that she became aware that she, too, was crying.

Tifa kissed the baby's head before offering him to Cloud, who gently reached out to receive his son. It was a fascinating sight: she'd seen him break steel into splinters with his mako-enhanced strength, but he handled his newborn with such tenderness that one could easily forget the power he was capable of.

He was in such a state of awe that he couldn't bring himself to smile, only stare incredulously at the baby in his arms: a little boy who would grow into a man with his own ambitions and hopes. How overwhelming it was to finally experience a dream that had come to fruition after all the years that had gone before them. Things had been so challenging, even after Sephiroth's defeat, and both he and Tifa had struggled to adapt to their new life together. He'd wake up some mornings wondering what he was doing in this strange new place with two children and his wife to lead and support. The weight of so many past traumas and disappointments whispering in his ear had made him feel as if he was dangling by a thread from time to time. But together, they'd held on and were beginning to discover the people they were meant to be. Success is found in one's willingness to grow, and Cloud and Tifa refused to be held back any longer.

Running the pad of his thumb over his son's pale, downy hair, Cloud let out a quiet breath. He smiled, thinking a fleeting thought about how not all treasures could fit into a rusted coffee can like his child-mind had once believed. It was hard to comprehend that this little person was real and would change their lives forever, just as Marlene and Denzel had. Being responsible for the life of another human being was daunting, yet exciting, and Cloud decided that he was satisfied. More than satisfied—he was wonderfully at peace. There were answers to the myriad of questions he'd have about raising these children, but for now, he was content to leave them in another's keeping.

"Shall I get the children?" Ana whispered, and Cloud realized that they'd already been ogling over the baby for almost half an hour.

"Yes, please," Tifa answered, a bit breathless from fatigue and overwhelming relief. "They should come meet their brother."

The kids rushed in, trying with great difficulty to be quiet as they sped toward the bed. They looked like two overfilled balloons, appearing contained but ready to burst with excitement. Marlene bounced up and down as she gripped the side of the bed and Denzel's eyes were almost as wide as his grin. Tifa felt tears stinging at her eyes once more as she watched Cloud proudly introduce the children to the newcomer. Having a second child would not replace Aria, and the pain of losing her would always live inside her heart, but she knew with certainty that this baby would be a constant reminder that no matter how terrible the storm, sunshine would always follow.

"Oh! He looks like Cloud!" Denzel gushed.

Marlene gasped. "He's got blue eyes!"

"Told you he would."

"Did not!" The girl frowned, playfully shoving Denzel. She timidly reached out and mused over the baby's tiny fingers and toes. "He's so little! I can't believe he was what was inside your belly all this time."

She climbed up on the bed and snuggled in close to Cloud, gently stroking the infant's cheek with her finger. Automatically, Denzel followed suit, settling closer to Tifa. With a puzzled expression, he turned toward his guardians.

"How did he get inside there, anyway?" he asked.

"That's a discussion for another day," Tifa chuckled. Exhausted, she leaned her head back against the pillows. "Right, Cloud?"

A dusting of pink threatened to bloom upon his face, for he certainly wasn't prepared to answer these types of questions now (or ever, if he was completely honest with himself). Cloud glanced down at the baby, who blinked back up at him, and he knew that there would be more than one awkward conversation in his future.

"Yes, definitely not today."

Thankfully, the kids were too curious about the newborn to protest much. Huddled there on the bed together, the family quietly celebrated the arrival of their newest member. The snow was whipping against the bedroom window with each gust of frigid wind, but they were safe inside, warmed by the electric space heater and their love. They weren't in their coveted house by the sea, nor were they quite the traditional 'family' they'd dreamt of in their youth. But neither of those things was important, now, and they'd learned that there was bliss and beauty outside of their original goals and dreams.

Happiness wasn't something one earned. It was a gift: given to those who had the courage to search for it, even in the hardest of circumstances. The journey was hard and the road was long, but facing the hardest things—the lowest of the lows—allowed them to truly experience the highest joys. There was no genuine happily ever after and struggles never ceased. One hardship would come to a close only to be replaced by another, and it seemed that would never change. Cloud and Tifa had learned that it was the way they evolved to handle such hardships was what really mattered. Coming close together and trusting one another is the only way to progress and thrive. Life is full of pain, and life is full of loss. But life is also full of joy, full of gladness and blessings. And in this moment, their biggest blessings were right there, cuddled around them.

Together, they'd come to understand that people are not defined by the things that make them separate and distinct, but by the moments they shared and memories made with others. They were shaped by the cherished hands held within their own: some would be tightly grasped for a lifetime, and others would one day be gently released. Home, it seemed, was not merely a mark upon a map any more than a river is just water. It is the center of a compass from which every path radiates and where the heart is fixed. It is a force that forever beckons one back, lures one on, and instills a sense of security and belonging. Tifa looked up to lock eyes with her husband, who smiled at her with such relief and happiness that her spirit filled with peace.

For where the home is, there lies hope for the future.

Fin.

A/N: I cannot believe that this 3 ½ year journey has finally come to an end. Writing this fanfic and its prequel has been a challenging and rewarding experience; I am so thankful for the support I've received from so many of you over the years. Writing both of these fics has helped me navigate the rollercoaster of my own miscarriage and express that loss in a productive way.

I've received quite a few inquiries about whether or not I will be writing the events of Advent Children or Dirge of Cerberus. Unfortunately, at this time, I can't commit to such an endeavor. I will be having my second child, soon, and with a toddler and full time job, I can no longer give writing the attention I once did. Never say never, though! Maybe one day, I'll find the time. : )

Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who enjoyed 'What It Means To Be Living' and 'In This Cage'. Please drop me a line for one last hurrah—I'd love to hear from you all! What did you like? What did you hate? I hope to take your opinions and constructive criticisms with me as I continue to practice the beautiful art of writing.