Tifa can't accept what's happened to Aeris, not after their promise. [Spoilers. Aeris/Tifa, Cloud/Yuffie. OGC]
Aeris couldn't be dead. It just wasn't possible.
Tifa couldn't get the thought out of her mind. How could Aeris not be alive? There was no blood, no sign that she had been in pain; she was still smiling, her eyes were closed as if she was just asleep. There was no way that Sephiroth could've stabbed her through the heart, the sword stabbing down through her back and out of her stomach with only two tears in the fabric of her dress to mark its passage. It wasn't possible....
But there was no way to doubt it when Tifa touched her face, stroked loose strands of hair away from her closed eyes. She didn't move, didn't even twitch. She wouldn't just sit there if she was alive. She'd wake up and say something, anything.
Yuffie was sobbing into Cloud's shirt somewhere behind her, and she could hear Cloud sobbing too, although she could tell that he was trying to hide the fact. Tifa could hear them both, and she wanted to cry too as she brushed her fingers against Aeris' cold cheeks. But all she could do was wonder if she could've saved her, if she could've stopped Sephiroth herself if she'd been standing next to Aeris...
But that was foolish; she knew that she wasn't strong enough to fight Sephiroth. She'd tried once, a long time ago, and she still didn't know how she'd survived. But she couldn't help it; she would've done anything, even if she'd known deep inside that it was useless.
The city around them was alien and serene. If it had been any other time, Tifa would have called it beautiful. Now it just felt oppressive and cold. Tifa took Aeris's face in her hands and lifted her chin, studied her face - the gentle smile on her lips and the serenity of her expression, even in death - and it struck her then, how different her face looked now from the last time they'd talked...
"Do you ever have nightmares that won't go away, Tifa?"
Tifa turned back from the door of her hotel room, and looked at Aeris. She was sitting in an old black gothic relic of an armchair, and she was almost shivering; she looked like a frightened little girl in her pink dress, a girl who just needed someone to tell her that the monsters under her bed weren't real - that if she just closed her eyes and ignored all of the noises, they would go away. But that was ridiculous, because the Aeris that she knew wouldn't have been afraid of monsters; she was the sort who would've leaned way out over the side of her bed and called out for them to come and be her friends. Even bogeymen would've been charmed by her, Tifa thought; they would've come out to play without having to be asked twice.
But it was clear that Aeris wasn't herself that night. If Aeris had been herself, Tifa wouldn't have discovered her in the halls of the haunted hotel, wandering like a ghost herself, shaking her head and listening to voices that Tifa couldn't hear. And it was equally clear that she needed some sort of answer. "Yeah," Tifa said. "Everyone does, I think. Some of them are pretty bad."
Aeris closed her eyes and shook her head - like a little kid, Tifa would think again later, a child who missed her mother. "They can't be like these," she said. "They just can't be."
Tifa sat down on the edge of her bed, where she could look Aeris in the eyes. "What sort of nightmares do you have, Aeris?" she asked. She remembered her mother asking her about her nightmares like this, so that she could help explain them away, make them seem less scary. Tifa still wished that she could talk to her mother about her nightmares again, from time to time; maybe Aeris needed the same thing now.
"I... I can't explain them." She turned away. "Isn't that silly? They bother me so much, and when someone asks me about them, I can't even say why."
"It's okay." Tifa tried to soothe the way her mother had when she was young. "A lot of people don't remember their nightmares."
"But that's just /it/. I don't forget them, I just can't explain them. It's too hard." She looked back at Tifa. "I sound childish, don't I?"
"Well..." What was she supposed to say? "Who cares? You can sound as childish as you want, and I won't stop you. Promise."
Aeris smiled a bit. "Thank you." She leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes again. She looked like she desperately needed sleep; the circles around her eyes looked more like bruises. "You and me... we're both so used to helping everyone else that we don't know how to take care of ourselves. Don't you think that's true?"
Tifa nodded. She hadn't thought of it that way before. Aeris and Tifa were as different as two women could be in so many ways. Aeris looked sweet and naive, but she knew the slums of Midgar inside and out; she wasn't as strong as some people, but she knew how to wriggle her way out of trouble and charm others to her side, and she wasn't afraid to shock people to do it. And then there was Tifa herself, a country girl from Nibelheim who'd bluffed her way through life, who knew how to fight but didn't know how to convince others of anything; she hadn't trusted anyone since the day that Sephiroth had attacked her and left her for dead in the Nibel Mountains.
They had nothing in common, except for what Aeris had just said. And it was true, Tifa realized. She'd been spending so much time watching over others - Marlene, Barret, and yes, Cloud - that she'd taken very little time for herself. "Yeah," she said. "We really don't."
"I've been thinking about that a lot lately," Aeris continued. She sounded as if she was about to drift off to sleep. "About the two of us, going off on our own little vacation, where wouldn't have anyone or anything to worry about."
"That would be nice." Tifa smiled. "We could go to Costa Del Sol, just relax on the beach - "
"Um... I don't think I'd want to go to the beach for this kind of vacation," Aeris interrupted. "Sorry. I mean, it's nice enough, but I like cooler places better. Besides, if it's a dream vacation, we should make up our own place, a perfect place."
"What kind of place?" Tifa asked.
"I don't know... it has to be the kind of place that would last forever if we wanted it to. Maybe somewhere cool, but not too cold. Somewhere with a forest, and lakes and waterfalls that we could play in."
"And lots of wild berries to pick," Tifa added wistfully. She hadn't picked wild berries since she'd been a child. "And a little cottage, big enough just for the two of us."
"Now you've got it!" Aeris giggled. "We could go there whenever we wanted, just to take care of ourselves for a while."
"It sounds wonderful." Tifa took Aeris's hand. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could make a place like that someday? Maybe not a perfect place, but..." She trailed off. Aeris's smile had faded slightly, for a moment; it quickly returned, but Tifa got the idea that she had said something wrong. "Aeris, what's the matter?"
"I... it's the nightmares again. I just... remembered them." Aeris opened her eyes. "Tifa... they're hard to explain. But is it okay if I try?"
"Of course you can try. What are they?"
Aeris took a deep breath. "Well... let me try it this way. What if you dreamed that everyone you loved was going to be hurt because they loved you? That you'd end up making everyone who cared about you miserable."
"I'd be sad," Tifa said slowly. "That's a horrible nightmare, Aeris. But they're just dreams, they're just our minds trying to make sense of things. They're not real -"
"I know, but... well..." Aeris took a long, shuddering breath. When she spoke again, it was barely over a whisper. "What if your dreams always came true?"
"Came true?" Tifa echoed. She was startled, to say the least.
Aeris nodded. "I... I don't dream very much," she said. "But all of my dreams end up coming true in the end. I mean, when I was a kid, I would dream about things that I didn't understand, and then years later they'd come true, and I'd remember the dreams." She shook her head. "I tried not to dream anymore, but they keep coming. I keep wondering if I can change the future if I try hard enough, but I don't know how to do it, and things just keep... happening."
Tifa didn't say anything; she didn't know where to start. She just put her hand on Aeris's shoulder, felt how she was shaking.
"I... I try not to think about the bad dreams. I just think about the good ones. But this worst one... it's been on my mind a lot lately." She looked up at Tifa. "I'm sorry. I'm not myself tonight, am I?"
"It's all right." Tifa tried to smile a little. "I wouldn't be much of a friend if I just wanted to be around you when you were happy, would I?"
"I guess not." Aeris tried to smile back. "You won't tell anyone about this, will you? I... I don't want to tell the others because I'm afraid they'll ask me about things."
Tifa nodded. She could not suppress a feeling of pride; of all of the people in their little bunch, Aeris trusted her the most. "It's our secret. I promise."
"Thank you. I have to believe... maybe it really is just a dream this time. I mean, I've never dreamed anything like this before. Maybe it's not from... from..." She sat up. "I don't know," she said. "I don't know how to say it."
"Aeris, stay here," Tifa said on an impulse. "Maybe you won't dream if you're not alone."
"Tifa, you don't have to-"
"I know. I don't have to. I want to. I... it's like you said, I haven't done much of anything that I wanted to do, so why can't I ask you to stay?"
"Tifa... you're so kind." She reached up and took Tifa's hand.
"I feel like I've known you forever, Aeris," Tifa said. "Like we've always been..."
But she found herself trailing off. The words weren't working... it was a good thing that they weren't the only way. She let go of Aeris's hand, then knelt in front of the chair and reached up to hug her. Aeris hugged back, her arms shaking as she squeezed Tifa as tightly as she could manage, her head pressed tightly against Tifa's shoulder.
Tifa had no idea what she'd been expecting out of love - church bells and fireworks, probably. But the feeling itself wasn't so dramatic, not like the crushes of her youth. It was a warm, comfortable wave of compassion, coupled with a fierce desire to make her smile, make the signs of her tears disappear. Being around Aeris was nothing like being around Cloud, as much as she cared for her old friend. Cloud barely knew who he was anymore, but he didn't act like it; he hid behind bravado and kept bluffing, just like Tifa had done for so long. But Aeris seemed to know exactly who she was, and you could see it in her eyes; she just didn't seem to know how to say it.
She hadn't planned to kiss Aeris. It had happened almost before she'd known she had wanted to; she'd pulled back just enough to find Aeris's face and had just done it, kissing her quickly at first, then slowly. It had been clumsy and awkward, as if neither of them had ever kissed before. Aeris's lips were warm, almost burning, and she made a sound in her throat that was almost like a sob, and her hand tightened around Tifa's fingers as she kissed back.
Neither of them said anything else after they broke the kiss. They just held each other for a little bit longer, with Aeris's head resting on Tifa's shoulder. Tifa had stroked Aeris's hair, soft as it was. If there's a perfect place for us, she remembered thinking, this must be what it feels like to be there.
It didn't last long enough; perfect things never did. It wasn't long before the yelling downstairs began.
It was Yuffie that they both heard first, screaming about traitors - Tifa felt Aeris stiffen in her arms, and the two separated and stood up quickly. Yuffie went on and on downstairs, so loud that probably the whole hotel had heard it - screaming about the Keystone being gone, about how that stupid no-good cat had stolen it and kidnapped a little girl to make them listen to him, how angry it made her, and how lucky it was that Cloud was telling her not to tear it apart and throw its remains down into the desert...
Tifa finally managed to clear her throat. "I think," she said, "that we ought to see what's going on."
Aeris nodded. "I... I guess you're right. It sounds serious." She didn't sound any more enthusiastic about it than Tifa felt. But their friends needed them... neither of them could say no to that, Tifa thought. That was just the way they were.
They walked to the door very slowly, standing side by side. Tifa didn't want to leave, and judging by the way that Aeris kept dragging her feet, she didn't either... but they had to. Yuffie was yelling, and they could hear Cloud too now, and from time to time other voices - Cait's ridiculous accent, Red's sleepy growls, a chorus of protests as Yuffie's voice reached their ears too....
Tifa pushed open the door, then turned to Aeris. "You'll remember it, won't you?" she said quietly, as they stood in the doorway. "You'll remember our perfect place?"
"Forever," Aeris said, and squeezed Tifa's hand one more time before they walked into the lobby together.
Things had gotten out of control after that. Everything that had happened after that night - the conversation in the lobby, exploring the Temple with Aeris and Cloud - it all felt like a dream that wouldn't quite fade. She remembered the look on Aeris's face when she listened to the Planet, the way that the temple had shriveled into the tiny black sphere, and then Sephiroth coming back and taking it all away. She remembered how calm Aeris had been, as if she'd finally understood something she'd been struggling with her whole life, she'd thought.
If only Tifa had realized how close to the truth that was, she might've stopped her. She might've kept her from leaving. The thought filled her with guilt again, even as she realized how foolish it was; Aeris hadn't wanted to be stopped.
Tifa had gone to sleep that night on a mat in Gongaga Village, close enough to Aeris to hear the slow, steady sounds of her friends' breathing. But when she'd woken up, she'd been alone, and Yuffie and Barret had been on the verge of tearing each other to pieces outside - screaming at the top of their lungs, swearing that neither of them had let anyone into the village on their watch, that there was no way either of them had let anyone kidnap Aeris...
The thought that had been hovering at the edges of Tifa's mind had hit her hard then, and she'd barely recovered in time to break up the fight. "Stop it!" she'd yelled, running out of her hut to get between Barret and Yuffie, turning from one angry face to another and staring at them with eyes that must've looked utterly mad. "Aeris wasn't kidnapped. She's gone. She's left us!"
No one had understood, least of all Tifa. It was ironic that Cloud had seemed to be the only one who hadn't been surprised to hear the news.
Had he expected to find Aeris like this? Tifa stood up and took a long shaky breath, and her mind raced. Had he known? Was this the sacrifice that Aeris had told her about, her answer to the question she'd posed?
Tifa squeezed her eyes shut, and she felt the tears began, running down her cheeks. "I'll remember it," she whispered, and squeezed Aeris's hand one last time. "I'll remember the perfect place forever. For both of us."
She could hear Yuffie running away behind her, leaving Cloud alone there. Tifa knew that she should turn and say somethign to him - they were friends, after all. He cared about her, and he needed someone to talk to at that moment even if he wasn't going to let it show. But all that Tifa all she could think about was Aeris, and how much she wanted to talk to her one last time. She didn't know what to say to him.
She stood up and turned around, and heard her footsteps echo in the empty city as she ran away.
A/N: Written for yuri_challenge. Managed to be fluffy and angsty at the same damn time. I'd like to write a sequel to it eventually... it's probably a bit cliched, but hey, what fic for this game isn't?