"A Labor of Love" - Chapter 8

By the Well

She leaned back, resting her aching heart in the velvety silence and the glittering brilliance of the stars above. How long ago since she'd stargazed with Cloud those many years ago?

"It's been nine years, hasn't it?"

Heart frantically trying to jump out of her throat, she twisted around to find him standing there as if conjured up by her thoughts. Wearing the same determined and too-old expression as he had almost a decade ago, he sat down on the wooden platform to her left, and the sense of deja vu was overwhelming.

He apparently felt the same sense of reliving the past, for his next comment was, "I'm going to join Solider."

She blinked, still struggling with the shock of seeing him suddenly appear before her. After a quick glance her way, Cloud continued, "It'll be hard, but...

And instead of continuing the well remembered dialogue...

"...but I'll do my best, because I want to impress you. I'm going to join Soldier because I want to be strong and brave. I want to be a man you'll look up to and be able to rely on. I want to be worthy of you." Blue eyes glowed a soft aquamarine in the star-shine as he turned to lock gazes with her. "I watched you all those years we grew up together. I wished that it had been me instead of you who'd been hurt when the bridge collapsed. I joined Soldier to try and impress you. Seeing you bleeding to death up in the reactor hurt me more than being run through by Sephiroth's blade. You couldn't be more a part of my heart now than if we'd spent an entire year together in the lifestream. And I came here tonight because," he paused, and then sighed, "...because I couldn't stay away anymore."

"What about Aeris?" she asked, unable to immediately believe what she was hearing after all the years of hoping and hurting, of silent longing and equally silent despair. Cloud considered for a moment, and then replied simply, "I love her; very much." Tifa felt her heart give a painful wrench at the words. This had to be some kind of strange, sick nightmare...

"I love Yuffie, I love Nanaki, and God help me, I love Barret, too," Cloud continued. "You, Aeris, Cid...all of you are family to me now. We've traveled all over the world in our crazy quest, fought every kind of monster - human or otherwise, and saved the world together; how could I not love you all? But there's only one person I need by my side for the rest of my life, and I've finally realized that it's you, Tifa." As Tifa slowly absorbed his words, he hopped down from the platform and stood facing her, glittering blue eyes looking directly into her own.

Taking her hands in his, he continued, "You're the only one, Tifa. The only one I absolutely can't do without. The only one I count on to be there for me, who I trust to never desert me, who I could ask to sacrifice anything for my sake. And it's not because I'm so confident of your loyalty and your giving heart, even though you are the most loyal and generous person I know, but because I'm sure now of how much I love you. You hear me?" he asked, gripping her hands tight, "I love you, Tifa. I love you."

She nodded her head, tears shimmering down her cheeks as she did. "I heard you," she whispered, heart soaring - daring to believe. Cloud freed one hand to brush away her tears, caressing her cheek softly. "Tell me," he pleaded with her, "say that you love me, too." Smiling up at him, she swallowed her tears and replied with her heart on her lips, "You can always count on me to be here for you, and I'll never leave you, and I'd give up anything for your sake...but not because you love me. Because I love you. I love you," she repeated, joy indefinable in her heart at being able to say the words, "I've always loved you."

He smiled at her, the last piece of his heart finally clicking into place. Taking her face in his hands, he lightly touched his lips to hers, still a bit hesitant. A handful of soft, tickling kisses were exchanged, which slowly grew into a long, lingering kiss. Her arms wrapped around his neck, pulling him even closer to her, and he circled her waist with one arm, running his other hand along her back. Lips now firmly pressed together, they remained in that one lingering embrace for the sweetest minute of their lives.

Lifting his head from hers, Cloud smiled. "I was wrong; I can come home to Nibelheim. Because home is where the heart is; and you're in Nibelheim right now." Tifa laughed and pulled his face towards her once more. Lips brushing against his, she whispered, "Welcome home, Cloud."

The End