A/N: Sequel to 'The Meeting After'. Written from Cloud's POV. An ending to an ending. This time, hopefully, forever - but don't count on it. I actually wrote an Aeris sequel after this one. :p
COMING FULL CIRCLE
:: Chapter 1 :: A New Arrival
After that strange meeting three years after the end of our quest, I think I finally found the incentive to change. I'd learnt a lot, and there didn't seem much point in holding on to the past. I'd more or less learnt to live with myself and what I had been, and now the future was something I had to learn to accept instead. And not only to accept, but receive, in open and welcoming arms. Perhaps now, I thought, there would be peace, and all the things I had fought for would be a reality. It would be time to finally settle down. That would be hard to get used to, but well…someday I had to do it. I couldn't be a hero forever.
Tifa and I travelled back to Nibelheim, to our home, and for the first time in years it felt like it – at least for me. It seems strange, but upon returning to that old house, it seemed to greet me in a way it had not done for quite some time. And upon finally walking over that threshold, I truly felt that this was where I belonged, that these were my roots. Almost immediately after that my life began to change. I got a job at the Mount Nibel Mako Reactor instead of wandering around as a mercenary for hire as I usually did. Perhaps the Mako Reactor was a strange choice of venue for me, but I found it the best. Times were changing, and the new president, Reeve, had introduced his Mako-reduction plan. I knew a lot about Mako Reactors and materia and Lifestream, and so naturally I got the job and things went from there. I found some solace in watching the green Lifestream everyday at the reactor. I would remember floating inside it and hearing the dead souls softly speak to me, and I would wonder if they could see me now. I was happy to think I was doing my bit for the Planet, working on the Mako-reduction plan. It reminded me of what Reeve used to say, of how doing his small bit for the Planet had so changed his life. Now he was doing something bigger.
Anyway, once I'd secured my job, I decided to do what I'd been aching to do for ages and marry Tifa. We had been living together for quite some time now, but finally marrying her sorted out a whole lot of my feelings and commitment to her. We had agreed on a small ceremony, and afterwards we went on a honeymoon to Wutai for a week or so. It wasn't much, but both Tifa and I felt that we were both sure of our love for each other, and that our bond was strong enough already. In many ways it was as if we'd already been married before: it was just that now we were man and wife in every sense of the word and somehow that sealed up the way we always wanted to be – and always knew we were going to be.
Those first few days were wonderful; it was new and exciting to know that you had someone beside you, who would be beside you for the rest of your life. I forgot the past, for a while. I became a husband to Tifa, and let that role occupy most of my time for a few months. We spent our time talking, and planning, and making love, and I was perfectly satisfied with the way things were. For the first time in my life, I truly felt happy and fulfilled.
For the first three months or so of her pregnancy, Tifa was sick most mornings and grumpy when she wasn't. After that, however, she began to blossom and her moods gave way to high spirits. It was at this time that her stomach became visibly distended, and I first became truly aware of the child that was growing inside her. I'd lie in bed some nights and run my fingers over the taut, tight skin, and marvel at the thought of it, this miracle of life. Tifa would watch the look on my face with proud and peaceful pleasure, a placid look in her eyes. Tifa could more readily accept the fact that she was pregnant than I could. Sometimes she'd go out for walks and I'd know, somehow, that she was talking to the child inside her all the way. She was like that: I think she bonded with little Aeris a long time before she was actually born.
Anyhow, the time neared when our first child was to be born, and during that time Tifa ordered me to summon the doctor from Mideel to her aid. In all honesty, I must confess that at the time I had begun to feel way out of my depth, and so naturally I obeyed Tifa's wishes. I'd spent about nine months catering to her every whim, and so nothing seemed out of the ordinary anymore. My friends at work used to laugh at me when I recounted stories of how she'd be sending me out to find plums in the middle of winter, or some other sort of impossible feat. They'd laugh at me more because of the fact that I took some of her requests so seriously.
Anyway, as soon as the doctor arrived in Nibelheim Tifa began to relax a little, until her contractions started coming and she gave me another mission: rounding up all of the others in time for the birth. Naturally I worked myself into a state, suddenly realising that I had no idea of where to find Vincent. After many frantic calls to various people, I found he'd stopped in Cosmo Canyon with Red, and so my problem was fortunately sorted out without much trouble. Tifa spent her time laughing at me weakly, which left me in a sour mood. After countless false alarms, Tifa dismissed the doctor from her chambers and called upon me instead.
"I'm sorry," she informed me, when I entered the room, fearing the worst, as always.
"For what?" I asked, puzzled at her apology. I'd expected a lot more awful things than that.
"For giving you hell these past few months," she returned meekly. "I didn't mean to take any of this out on you."
"It doesn't matter," I assured her, feeling strangely relieved that she wasn't going to give me another impossible order.
"Do you mean that?" she asked, a hopeful look on her pale, tired face. I felt myself go weak at the knees in spite of myself. It didn't matter whether she looked like she'd been dragged to hell and back, she still had that effect on me, whatever she looked like. I smiled at her, bent forwards and kissed her on the cheek tenderly.
"Of course I do."
She looked as if she would reply, but then her face suddenly contorted into an expression of urgency.
"What is it?!" I asked in alarm.
Tifa began to gasp and speak at the same time, a pained look on her face, which almost gave me a cardiac. Looking back on it, I suppose the scene would have been a comical one if I hadn't felt so frantic about it.
"…Cloud…" she was trying to tell me, "…Cloud…it's starting…"
"What's starting?!" I cried, up on my feet but unsure of what to do, swaying this way and that.
"The real thing…it's starting…!!" she gasped, "…get me…Cloud, you've got to get me…"
"Get you what?!"
Despite the pain on her face she managed to send me a nettled glare.
"The doctor, you idiot, what do you think?!"
I didn't need anymore of an incentive. Rushing downstairs, I garbled off anything to the doctor, somehow conveying Tifa's message to him in the process. And that was how it happened. Little Aeris was born at midday on the fifteenth of February, and naturally everyone was there to witness her birth.
It seems strange to say it now, but I had known she was going to be a girl from the very start. So when I finally got to see her, lying there in my tired Tifa's arms, I was not surprised when she told me that we now had a baby daughter. I held her in my arms, and my first thought must have been – so tiny, so beautiful! Her eyes had been closed, but as she was passed gently into my arms, the lids gently opened and she looked up at me. I will never forget that first look, so full of unconditional love and acceptance, yet so curious and inquisitive at the same time! I was so happy I felt I wanted to cry. After all the death I had experienced throughout the years, this simple act of giving life seemed to make up for all that pain and suffering. I suppose everyone in the room felt it. A quiet seemed to wash over every person present, a quiet of peace and tranquillity.
"So what are you going to call her?" Barret asked at last, his voice cast low with reverence.
I looked up at Tifa, and she looked at me. To tell the truth, we had not thought much about names, and I had known all along what my daughter – for I had known it would be a girl – would be called.
"Aeris," I replied softly.
There was a silence again, a silence of acceptance, of remembrance, for the things that we had won and lost on that quest that seemed so long ago. And a silence for that girl who remained always so close to our hearts.
Next: The return of an old friend...