A Labor of Love Chapter 2
Visiting a Grave
By Meriko Robert
Reeve reined in his chocobo outside of Bone Village, examining the evening sky critically. Rain clouds gathered overhead, pregnant with the promise of a deluge. Grimacing at the thought of camping in the valley with naught but a small canvas tent for shelter, he guided his golden bird into the excavation camp.
After a surprisingly good meal of stew and steamed vegetables that the archeologists had generously shared with him, he curled up in a corner, his sleeping roll protecting him from the cold plank floor beneath. Staring into the smoldering fireplace across the room, Reeve's mind, like an unruly child, would not go to sleep. His thoughts whirled with plans and promises, and his heart was full of a strange mix of anticipation and fear. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would go to the Forgotten Capital. Tomorrow he could visit the cavern that sheltered her watery grave.
He laid one protective hand over the knapsack at his side, thinking of the delicate flowers he'd had made. Formed out of a lightweight poly with a plastic coating to keep moisture at bay, these flowers would float over her for longer than he expected to survive. He'd borrowed two gold chocobos from Cloud and shamelessly plundered what remained of Shinra headquarters from top to bottom, loading saddlebag after saddlebag with materia, small electronics, and costly ornaments left behind in executive suites. Rifles, swords, and other unwieldy weapons were pilfered from the storage bays and strapped onto the chocobos' backs. On his way back to the gate, he had stopped by Elmyra's now untidy cottage and taken as many pictures of the garden as he could with all of the cameras he'd found in Hojo's laboratories.
Stopping often to rest the birds, Reeve had covertly made his way across mountains, valleys, and sea to Wutai, where the stolen goods had been traded for a considerable amount of gil and the complete cooperation of Wutai's three finest artisans for a full month. From the pictures Reeve had taken, faithful replicas of Aeris' beloved flowers had been produced. Flowers, buds, leaves, and vines were all wrapped in layers of soft paper and resting comfortably beside him now, awaiting the moment when they would be set adrift across the lake as a final tribute to the Flower Girl of Midgar.
One hand still resting on the leather bag, Reeve sighed and closed his eyes.
The next afternoon, he carefully trod up the gravelly slope to the cavern entrance, mentally praising himself for trading in his suit and loafers for the more appropriate traveling attire of shirts, pants, and boots. Afraid that his rather weighty chocobo might have difficulties with the slippery gravel, he had left the bird near the entrance to the city. There was no fear of it wandering off, for Reeve had spent some time training the bird in such things as he thought might come in handy some day. His choco now knew to stay within a certain range when left alone, and how to respond to both voice and hand signals in case Reeve was injured or somehow rendered immobile.
With the awkward weight of his knapsack, this ever-shifting terrain had already slipped him up twice in the few hours it had taken him to hike here through Coral Valley and the winding paths through the capital. The flowers had escaped destruction, primarily due to the fact that he'd sacrificed his elbows and head in order to keep the knapsack from crashing to the ground. Rubbing his left temple with an aggrieved air - although he wasn't really sure whom he was seeking sympathy from, since he was traveling alone - he stopped for a breather as he finally attained the entrance to the cavern.
And dropped the knapsack.
The sharp cracking of plastic went completely unnoticed as Reeve scrambled and slipped down the rocky path to the lake, struggling to draw breath with suddenly paralyzed lungs. He skidded and then crashed to his knees next to the limp form lying halfway out of the shallows, unable to believe what his eyes revealed to him. With trembling hands, he brushed back the tangled mass of chestnut hair to find the angelic face that so often haunted his dreams. All of the air rushed from his body as if he'd just been gut-punched by a dragon.
He automatically checked her neck for a pulse as his mind reeled back from the shock of finding her body lifted from its grave. Her skin was cold, but a steady pulse beat underneath his questing fingers. Dark brown eyes roved her body, checking for injuries or signs of returning consciousness, and his mind was dealt another blow. Through the jagged tear in her dress just below her heart, a thin line of scar tissue was visible, a tiny reminder of the blade that had ended her life.
...ended her life?
Reeve sat back limply, just now realizing what it was that he was seeing. Mind numb with denial yet heart daring to soar with an almost painful joy, he slowly gathered her into his arms. After checking and re-checking to confirm that she was indeed breathing, that her pulse was still strong, he held her close and gave into the miracle. "You're alive," he whispered in amazement, "you're alive. Aeris...oh, thank God, you're alive..." He let her settle back into his elbow as he freed one hand to brush her damp hair from her face, and to brush off grains of sand with tender fingers. The realization that she was sopping wet and dangerously chilled slowly insinuated itself into his mind, and he jumped into frantic action just as suddenly as he had raced to examine her.
Holding her carefully in his arms, he hurried back to the outer trail that branched and snaked its way through the capital and whistled for his chocobo. Tilting its feathered head at the piercing, three-note shrill, the gold-feathered bird grabbed its trailing reins in its beak and galloped up to Reeve, a useful trick learned during the trek to this lonely place. Reeve walked up to the bird's side and said firmly, "Sit." The chocobo immediately nestled down into the sand, allowing Reeve access to the saddle without endangering his precious burden. Settled into the saddle, he chirruped once and guided his mount with simple pressures of his ankles, carefully walking them over to the largest of the shell houses still accessible on choco-back.
An hour later, placing the back of his hand to her cheek, Reeve frowned to find her not much warmer than when he had first found her. After a brief but fierce struggle between embarrassment and necessity, he had slipped off her jacket, tugged a shirt over her head, slacks up her legs, and then went about unbuttoning her dress under cover of the borrowed clothes. Although not very large himself, Aeris' delicate frame had seemed lost in his shirt and pants, emphasizing her current fragile state. After tugging some socks on her feet - they reached her knees - he had laid her in one of the beds and stripped all of the other beds of their blankets, layering her in them until she was nothing more than a shapeless woolen lump with a head. A real fire had been out of the question in their narrow, wood-floored shelter, so he'd carefully warmed the air in the room with a few strategically placed fire spells...but to no avail. She was still chilled to the bone.
Reeve paced along the curved hallway nervously. She still showed no signs of awakening anytime soon, which negated the possibility of warming her up with soup or tea. He toyed with the idea of riding out to the plains to find a suitable campsite, but any good that a fire might do would likely be counteracted by the wind-swept ride and the drizzling rain that had been falling intermittently since morning. Two more circuits of the spiraling shell-house, and then he stopped before the bed, raking his teeth across his lower lip at her pallor.
Without giving himself any time to think it over, he shrugged off his jacket and crept into the narrow bed alongside her. Gathering her into his arms, he cradled her entire length with his own body, tangling legs and praying that this would work, for he was certainly out of options. Nestling his face into the crook of her neck and pulling the blankets snugly around them, he fell asleep with her pulse beating faintly against his cheek, and her cool fingers clasped tightly in his own.
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