Clean glasses clinked together before returning to the rack along the wall. Light trickled in from the sparse windows to illuminate the dim interior. An old tune from the even older radio crackled through the speakers. Tifa hummed along, washing the counter for the second time that morning out of habit more so than necessity. Come evening, the neon lights in the window would flicker to life and the doors would unlock to give way to returning patrons and new faces.
Something routine, something normal. It was a breath of fresh air after the hell she walked through.
Not just for herself, though—the former AVALANCHE members craved for the banal more so than ever before. Funny what a borderline apocalypse brought out in people. For some, it was fixing the bridges once burned and for others, it was escaping to reclusive corners of the world for tranquility.
For Tifa, it was running 7th Heaven, a place for people to drink away their sorrows or rejoice in a recent turn of events. No matter the case, it was home—for Tifa, for her patrons, and for anyone wishing to find solace from the world.
What she loved the most, however, were those quiet moments long before opening time. She lost herself in idle cleaning, inventory checks, and display redesigns. No one told her what to do except herself. Just her and the music. Nothing more.
It was in those moments she swore she heard her again.
A small, yet distant bout of laughter intermixed with the radio. She paused and brought her gaze to the opposite end of the bar. Dust particles danced in the light before falling to the shadows. Part of her expected to discover her examining the decor or reading the brews on tap. Nothing of the sort entertained Tifa.
Nothing but a dream from a lifetime ago.
Halfway through writing up the price changes on the chalkboard, the stutter of a lock opening tickled her ears. She paused and tilted her head; the back door opened and gave way to heavy footsteps.
Tifa couldn't help but smirk. "You're early," she called out.
Emerging into the bar was Cloud, examining the space before settling onto Tifa. "Yeah. Some orders got canceled."
She lifted an eyebrow. "Everything alright?"
He shrugged. "Not my problem if people can't pay for a delivery."
"Don't I know that."
"Did get you this, though."
A thud landed on the counter. She finished up her writing, wiped her hands clean from the chalk, and peered back. A logo comprised of a grinning moogle branded each side of the cardboard box.
"I wasn't expecting this for another week," Tifa said while jumping down from her perch to rifle through the box.
"Figured you'd be excited about it," Cloud said, leaning into the counter to watch.
Tifa pulled out a single bottle and held it up to the limited light. "Smashed Moogle's new seasonal—Tonberry Ale. Want to try some?"
"Not like you have another delivery until afternoon. Come on, when was the last time you sat down for a drink with me?" His silence was enough of an indicator. "You work your ass off, Cloud. The least you can do is enjoy life once in a while."
"You should speak for yourself."
She paused and stared at him. A slight smirk graced his features. The two chuckled together.
"Guess we both need to pry ourselves away from our jobs," Tifa said.
"Keeps us busy, though."
"Yeah, I hear you." She popped off two bottle caps and handed an opened one to Cloud. "Here's to another uneventful year."
Cloud raised his bottle. "And for more to come."
They bumped the tips of their bottles before taking a swig. Tifa licked her lips and hummed. I need to place an actual order for these before they sell out.
"So… is it… actually made from tonberries?"
Tifa almost spat out a mouthful of beer. "No, silly! It's just what they called it!"
He furrowed his brow and smacked his lips. "It's pretty fruity, but… also something else."
"More spices than usual?"
"Do you like it?"
He paused and took another long gulp. Tifa roared with laughter.
"Well don't drink the whole box!" she teased. "I need to give out samples for the brew festival at the end of the month."
The music ended on the radio and gave way to an announcer. They spouted off news headlines, saving the most notable event for last.
"Today is the sixth year anniversary since the phenomenon that was Meteorfall. While many recall the destruction caused in the wake of the horrific event, others choose to remember it as a second chance at life. In these times of peace, people remember what was lost six years ago and what we can do to be a better civilization. A memorial honoring those lost in the destruction of Midgar will be held tonight at—"
"It's been a while since we've done anything."
Tifa brought her eyes to Cloud. He gazed upon the radio with a somber expression, fingers mindlessly tracing the outer rim of his ale.
"Yeah," she murmured. "It has."
Once was enough, though. At least in her mind. They rendezvoused where it all started and ended—in that surreal, crystalline expanse, forgotten by the world except for them. They traded heartfelt hopes for the future. They promised to never let her death be for nothing, wearing pink ribbons in solidarity.
One by one, they left that city. Tifa sat by the edge of the still water, as if waiting for something—anything. A gentle breeze, a ripple along the surface, a lost whisper. None of it came into existence.
Tifa ran fingertips along the ribbon she still wore on her bicep. The color faded over time and the ends frayed from wear and tear. She refused to replace it, handling it better than her beer glasses. It was a reminder of a number of vows, one of which was to never let her death be in vain.
She was smiling in the end, Tifa always remembered.
"Barret was talking about having a small get-together," Cloud interrupted her thoughts. "Nothing special. Just you, me, him, Marlene, Denzel… I think Cid is in the area, too. Reeve also expressed interest, if that's alright. But it would be this weekend, if you wanted to."
After a deep breath, Tifa nodded. "Yeah. That would work." Better than crying and drinking alone.
"If you don't want to, you don't—"
"No, I do." She smoothed the ribbon against her arm. "I… she would have wanted me to. You know… be with friends and good company and all that."
Cloud nodded slowly. "Yeah."
Music returned to the radio after a string of local advertisements. Tifa stared out the windows and never touched her beer.
"Do you…." She scoffed at herself. "No, it's silly."
"Humor me," Cloud offered back.
With a sigh, she found clarity in her chaotic thoughts. "Do you ever hear her? Or see her? Like she's right there, but isn't? It's stupid, I know, but sometimes I… I just…."
Holding her breath, she looked to Cloud. He, too, struggled to make eye contact.
"Sometimes I hear her humming or see her out of the corner of my eye. It's always when I least expect it, like I'm caught up with deliveries and all of that is the last thing on my mind. Part of me wonders if I'm imagining it. Old habits, you know?" Tifa nodded and he continued. "But I try to remember… that the Lifestream is real. The Planet is alive. She's everywhere and nowhere. I mean, all of us have at least experienced that once since… you know… but she was closer, I think, with us."
Closer. That was one way to put it. There was no denying that Aeris had an unspoken connection with Cloud. It was evident in her body language, her smiles, and her laughter.
"He reminds me of an old boyfriend," she once told Tifa.
Those gentle, innocent words cracked her already broken heart.
All she ever wanted was a moment to slow down, to breathe, and wrap herself up in Aeris. She knew the other woman and yet she was still a stranger. Tifa yearned to spend a lifetime getting to know her, either through conversations or caresses. She was a beacon of light, despite the terrors that lurked behind her. She reminded Tifa to smile when she thought she lost all reason to ever do so again. She was an anchor in Tifa's merciless, mental storm.
She was everything Tifa longed to protect and love.
The night she left still burned into Tifa's memory like a perfect photograph. Tifa awoke to her packing her belongings and heading for the open road. She latched onto her and demanded to know why she believed it was alright to face the elements by herself.
"You don't need to do this," Tifa had pleaded. "We can do this together. Please… you're not alone, Aeris."
And she turned back to Tifa, the moonlight reflecting in her vivid, emerald eyes. She stepped into Tifa, looped her arms around her neck, and whispered along her ear.
"I know I'm not. And you never will be, either."
Their bodies melted together. Their heartbeats became as one. They bumped noses and Aeris smiled while Tifa cried.
She should have kissed her then. She should have begged her to never go. She should have run after her.
She should have and she didn't.
"She always loved you."
Tifa swore she imagined those words. Hitching her breath, she stared at Cloud. Not a wrinkle in his face gave way to a humorous note.
"What?" Tifa asked, her voice cracking in her dry throat.
"Aeris," Cloud said, albeit with a tremble. "You know that, right?"
Was he saying this to soothe her nerves? Or perhaps to feed her another lie? She shook her head, both in response and to banish the toxic whispers.
A short-lived smile flashed across his face. "It was in the way she looked at you when you weren't looking back. Even when you two first met back in what's-his-face's mansion… she was starstruck. I didn't realize it then, but I remember she looked at you the same way she looked at the Highwind for the first time or even the fireworks at the Gold Saucer. It was all the same to her." He rubbed the back of his head. "I figured you knew."
Maybe she did or at least her heart convinced her as much.
"And if you're still seeing and hearing glimpses of her," Cloud continued, "then I think that's enough."
"Enough for what?"
"Enough proof that she never stopped adoring you."
Tifa's eyes fell to the countertop. If only she was still there—in the flesh—even if for but a moment for Tifa to unravel all she kept locked in her heart for years.
"I never thought she'd look at me like that," she murmured. "I was too worried that she'd laugh at me or not care. I probably should have said something back then."
"We all had our regrets," Cloud reminded her. "Wasn't that something we vowed to never do again? To not carry regrets for the rest of our lives? Because she wouldn't have wanted that."
Tifa smiled. "You're right. It's just… more difficult some days."
"Yeah. I get that." He paused. "Hey, Tifa?"
A gloved hand cupped over her own.
"You're not alone, remember?"
She stared at him, those words echoing in her ears. After a breath, she squeezed his hand back.
"Yeah. And neither are you."
They finished off their beers in silence. As Tifa collected their empty bottles to clean and recycle, they discussed the rest of the week's shipments and deliveries intermixed with playful banter. By the time Cloud collected his belongings and retraced his path out the back door, Tifa ran out of chores to occupy herself with.
She whipped out her PHS and scrolled through her contacts. Maybe Barret needed a hand with Marlene and the other kiddos who tended to flock to the house. Maybe Cid wanted to hang out if he was indeed in the area. She paused halfway through the collection of numbers she amassed over the years.
Who she longed to speak with didn't exist on her contacts list, but she never needed a number to begin with.
Tifa exited through the front door and locked up before meandering the streets of Edge. Along the outskirts of the now thriving city were the ruins of a place better of forgotten. If Meteorfall did accomplish something, it was the end of a destructive company and those who flourished at the expense of the downtrodden. People were quick to erase those darker times and thus few ever explored the untouched wreckage.
The sun loomed high above by the time she reached the church. She squeezed past the ajar doors and ambled down the center. Each step echoed in the broken ceiling. No one stirred in the abandoned building except Tifa.
She knelt in the green patch at the end, careful not to step on the flowers. The broken floorboards gave way to a fresh pool of water. The sun glittered across it and washed over Tifa. She hummed and skimmed fingertips along a blossom. No one, to her knowledge, ever stopped by to tend to the flowers, yet the small garden flourished better than what most gardeners tended to.
"I miss you," Tifa whispered. "I wish you were here."
A subtle wind shifted through the rafters. Birds sang in the distance. The water rippled.
Tifa lay down in the lush grass, eyes cast elsewhere. Her hand fell from the flower to settle into the ground. She closed her eyes and wished for a life she could never have.
And a tender hand enveloped hers.
"I'm right here."
She hitched a breath and fluttered her eyes open.
A white light bathed over the area. The church walls disappeared. Nothing but flower fields rolled to the horizon.
And a familiar face mirrored hers along the grass.
She smiled, like she always did, and interlinked her fingers with Tifa's. "Hey."
Tifa swallowed hard and ignored the tremble of her lips. "Hey."
She squeezed her hand. "I missed you."
"Me too." Tears welled in her eyes. "Always have, always will."
"That's okay, you know. You don't need to be ashamed of that."
"I guess… but it feels like I should've moved on by now."
Tifa shrugged. "For reasons I've forgotten." She paused and mustered the strength to ask, "Is… is this real?"
She tilted her head with a sly smirk. "Why wouldn't it be?"
"You… shouldn't be here."
"Neither should you, so I guess we should make the most of it, hmm?"
That much at least made Tifa chuckle. "I wish we had forever."
"Maybe not now, but we will."
"What do you mean?"
"One day." She released Tifa's hand to sit up and stroke her face. "One day we'll have forever to make up all those moments lost to borrowed time. And until that day comes, I'll be here waiting for you."
Easing into that gentle hand, Tifa basked in the warmth residing there. "You mean it?"
She nodded. "I promise."
She bent forward and loomed over Tifa. She smelled of freshly fallen rain marked with vanilla and lavender. She licked her lips before nuzzling into Tifa's face. They clung to one another as if on cue, their breaths tickling the other.
They closed their eyes before losing themselves to a slow, yet passionate kiss.
Tifa tried to memorize the movement and softness of those lips. She tried to savor her like a delicacy and consume her as if she died of thirst. She tried to pry away before she became addicted. She tried to melt further into the only woman she had ever bestowed the key to her heart to.
"I love you," she whispered upon Tifa's lips in between breaths. "Never forget that."
She inhaled those sweet words and dared to open her eyes. The sunlight filtered through the broken rafters. A breeze caught in her hair and dispersed throughout the church. The pool beside her stilled.
Licking her lips, Tifa sat up and hugged her knees. Her heart refused to slow down. The tears prickled past her eyes, yet a smile remained.
"I love you, too, Aeris."