Again, all the normal 'Warming Up' warnings qualify: I am playing with characterization and pairings both for fun, so I have temporarily forgotten the meaning of OOC. Ha!

Promised to Cendrillo and delivered as her Christmas-fic.


In reality no-one had been surprised when they'd found her at the Northern Crater: that Holy-Lifestream thing had Aeris written all over it, no need for fingerprinting, blood trace is the surest way. She'd been in everyone's thoughts, first and foremost now because hey that Sephiroth thing was out of the way and it had reminded them all of the price they'd paid. It had felt like Aeris herself – blood trace - seeping through the cracks of that earth and out to boost Holy, to catch Meteor. It had felt familiar, like her hands and hair and face and will was what was out there, glowing green and white and magic.

The Lifestream was wrapped about Aeris like the mother it was and she bloomed from it like a flowergirl, her hair in dripping petals and arms outstretched and wrapped in green stems of tendrils and glowing. She was floating on top of a column of Lifestream which upshot from the ground in a geyser of green light.

And there she floated.

They called and asked and yelled (Barret) and pleaded (Cloud) and reprimanded (Tifa) and threw things (Yuffie) and in the end bribed Vincent (Yuffie again) to leap skyward in an attempt to determine her condition. "Unconscious," was all he said (at which point Yuffie promptly demanded her Bahamut back). On the third day of their campout the radiant light began to subside back into the ground and by the fourth day Aeris was lying prone on the still-glowing ground. ("Unconscious," Vincent repeated.) Finally Cloud reached out and touched her, and when the ground didn't leap out at him in anger and retribution he scooped her up and brought her back beside the fire and spent the rest of the evening staring into her face like a haunted man.

On the fifth day Aeris opened her eyes. She knew nothing that day, no speech, not even words, although she knew enough to follow these strange beings, to be fed, to be led to the most comfortable bed they could put together. The stake-out at the Northern Crater continued (much to Yuffie's boredom, though she didn't want to complain) while Aeris slept for three more days – slept straight, so solid that Tifa had to check on her almost every hour to make sure she was still breathing.

This time when Aeris awoke she knew: she knew their faces and names. She knew what had happened. She knew her own death, which is like knowing a secret, only one that was not true: and the knowledge of how she had died left doors open to whisper things into her mind. Knowing one's death is hard enough on normal human thought when you are one of those rares who knows the future, knows what will happen: to have already died, and know it, is something much like heartbreak, only worse. But to know you have died and have been given a second chance is something much like falling in love. Aeris felt her mind flowing and her brain whispering and her heart careening through the two extremes all at once and breathed.

It turned out to not be as monumental as they'd thought/hoped/feared: the human body just cannot take that much emotion all at once, or we'd overheat, we'd fry, we'd evaporate. Plus they'd all kind of expected it anyway, after watching Aeris's handiwork write its name on the planet with laughter and defiance: she'd be back. And so it settled, like dust after wind, like Lifestream seeping back into the dry ground: something resembling, if not exactly like, calm.

Within a day or two Aeris was much of the flowergirl they'd all known and everyone else was back to themselves, if only a little more prone to tears. (Cid vehemently denied that he'd been crying, even when no one asked.) They all retreated back into their own set personalities for safety's sake and it was decided that everyone should go home and check on their loved ones and their lives and they'd all be in touch through PHS to decide what came next, if anything.

Cloud said, "Aeris, come with me," but Aeris, in the best imitation of her former self yet, primly declared that it wouldn't be appropriate for her to live with Cloud and as Cloud's face fell into that haunted darkness Tifa heard herself say: "Aeris, you can live with me, I've got room."

In retrospect there may have been a better solution, but this was Lady Tifa Lockheart the Self-Sacrificing, Especially Where Cloud Strife Is Concerned; and Tifa was no stranger to haunted looks. Nibelheim thus gained one more resident, and Tifa a roommate.

Awkwardness reigned, as it turned out that everyone had forgotten something. Aeris had forgotten bits and pieces of daily life and every now and again would be found standing still in the hallway, staring into nothingness, with a look in her eyes much like heartbreak. Every now and then she forgot simple things, absentminded little details like water for tea, or towels in the shower. She'd turned to Tifa for help so many times, the same apologetic little smile on her face, that Tifa found she was forgetting just how stubborn and self-reliant Aeris had once been. Was this the girl who'd led Cloud to Wall Market for a rescue? Was this the same Cetra who had set off on her own to pray to the Planet and stop a madman?

But Tifa had forgotten other things too, mainly how much she'd loved her friend. She'd forgotten that Aeris could make her laugh wickedly with her impressions of Barret, and that she'd once commented on how the girls should get together and make their own floral shampoo, something Aeris knew a lot about. (They did, of course, although Yuffie burnt hers, swapped it with Tifa's, and ran.) She'd forgotten that Aeris had been the sole member of the team that could tell when her mood had descended into darkness, and that Aeris was the only person willing to leave her alone, and keep the others away too, until it left. She'd forgotten Aeris's smile.

And somehow they'd both forgotten Cloud. Tifa found somehow that she was more concerned – or perhaps, merely, preoccupied – with helping her friend regain those little bits of life that were missing. It was an easy transition, and a very Tifa one: care for Cloud, care for the woman Cloud loved. But Aeris had forgotten – something, along with the bits and pieces and towels and tea. She smiled at Cloud, but whatever it was, it wasn't there, and it always made the whole room feel something like heartbreak.

Cloud had – well, it wasn't forgetting, because he remembered everything about Aeris: he brought her flowers she'd said she liked, and made her coffee the way she'd had it with Elmyra (although Tifa noted that, when alone, Aeris drank it black) and took her to Cosmo Canyon because she'd apparently mentioned to him once that she'd wanted to watch a sunrise there.

But Aeris – Tifa suspected Aeris wasn't really all there, somehow, that there were blanks behind her eyes occasionally, where the future and the past bubbled up from the depths of her green eyes and splashed like sunrise on the surface.

Cloud would complain, sometimes, to Tifa, while Aeris wandered the yard and occasionally paused to look up at a fascinating treebranch. So he'd forgotten, too, the truths he'd read inside Tifa's mind as she patched his own unconscious; he'd forgotten the unwhispered whispers of their night together outside the Highwind. (Or perhaps he was just preoccupied, but in Tifa's mind, that was forgetting, too.)

And Tifa would always say, "Cloud, you can't make this Aeris be the last Aeris. Let her be who she is."

And Cloud would shake his head like his ears were buzzing and go outside to catch Aeris's arm (she always jumped a bit) and talk about something they'd shared that he'd never thought they'd share again.

"He asked me again," Aeris said this time when she came inside, and Tifa looked up, surprised.

"Asked you what?"

"To come live with him." Aeris's voice was a little dreamy, and Tifa moved more into the girl's line of sight (she'd learned that this helped). Sometimes Aeris had fits where she thought voices were talking to her, not the voices of the planet but the voices of the dead, of angels, of demons. Sometimes the fits struck her during the day and made her a little hazy; but Tifa had learned to help her focus. (Sometimes they struck at night and she crawled into Tifa's bed, shivering, much like Marlene had during Midgar thunderstorms.)

"Are you going to?"

"No," Aeris said, and smiled. "I live with you now."

Tifa shrugged because it hurt, a little. Once she'd felt that Aeris had stolen Cloud away: not in a way that made her angry, but in a way that made her sad. Now it felt like Cloud was trying to steal Aeris away. Maybe they'd never be happy until they were together. Maybe she'd never be happy unless she had one of them. Did it matter which one? She hated being alone.

They were everything she'd lost in her life, Cloud and Aeris. One lost and reborn; one never hers.

"Tifa?" Aeris asked, and her voice was sharp and prim. "Are you in one of those moods again?"

Tifa shrugged again (only a little pain) and Aeris reached out and hugged her, throwing her arms around Tifa's neck (Aeris had grown in the Lifestream, much to her private amusement) and leaving Tifa to hesitantly wrap her arms around Aeris's waist and wonder.

"Cloud's not," Aeris said, her voice slightly muffled in Tifa's hair, "he's not the – oh gods, Tifa, there are holes everywhere," and she started to shake.

So Tifa held on tighter because she was just so sick and tired of people hurting her friend: Aeris, the All-Holy, and she should have been jealous but instead there was just this ache inside, this hole that only caring-for-Aeris could fill.

She turned her head and kissed her friend on the cheek. "It'll be okay," she said, and so what if she made it up as she went along?

Shakingly comforted, they both looked each other in the eye for a long telling moment, and Tifa could see the bubbles bursting over Aeris's eyes like a film. Past and future: which was she? Which was Aeris?

Aeris saw nothing in Tifa's eyes but concern and a thin sheen of tears: her eyes had no room for anything but the present. Tifa rarely did.

"What do you see," Tifa whispered, "when you're not here?"

But Aeris let go and went to put on water for tea, leaving Tifa with the strange feeling that her friend had kissed her on the cheek again before she'd gone. Later she realized that Aeris had forgotten to turn off the stove and she did it gratefully, happily, as it meant that her friend still needed her. Would Aeris heal? Would she leave?

That night the dreams were particularly bad and Tifa woke up to see Aeris standing over her, shivering, her eyes wide and unfocused – or distracted, focused on something floating in the air between them. Tifa reached up, grabbed Aeris's hand – gods, they were cold, cold as death – and tried not to panic.

Aeris sat down on the bed and Tifa wrapped her arms around her friend, trying to warm them both up – gods, her whole body was like ice – and Aeris was still, calm as death as she looked into the void only she could see.

"I see visions, that's what I see," Aeris whispered, and then Tifa began the shivering that Aeris wasn't doing, because the girl's voice was empty and light, like a priestess possessed by some spirit. "It's people – all kinds – dead and alive – in the Lifestream - and it's past and present, and I can't tell, and – Cloud -"

Tifa couldn't help the twitch at his name but somehow it was the jolt of electricity that restarted Aeris and the flowergirl jumped in her arms as if she'd been struck, and started breathing again.

"Tifa?" Now that was her Aeris's voice. Tifa buried her face in Aeris's ponytail and tried to stop shaking and realized that she was too scared to look into Aeris's eyes.

"Tifa?" Aeris repeated softly. "Where am I – what did I say?"

The moment was thick with awkward disaster as Tifa slowly detached herself, moving – oh so slowly – eyes fixed on the sheets, on her own trembling hands, on Aeris's hair falling down her back, and she didn't want to look up because it was like punishment, all she'd lost, all the wounds she wasn't able to heal. Aeris had always been the healer; when had it become her job? When the healer herself was wounded, who could stop the bloodflow?

She hadn't fixed Cloud either. So which was better, to lose, or to fail?

But Aeris's hand came out and gently cupped her face, tilting it up, and Tifa didn't have a choice. Aeris's gaze was only slightly hazy, to her surprise; most of the bubbling time-conduit had vanished, replaced with something that looked almost like heartbreak.

How can I fix you?

Neither knew which one had whispered it, but it was healing to both, and Aeris bent down and gently kissed Tifa, once on each cheek, soft as a ritual, and then once, very briefly, on the lips. Whisper-quiet like a hymn, like yellow and white flowers in a church that no longer stood.

"Cloud can't fix me," Aeris whispered (leaving Tifa to forever wonder whether she'd asked aloud or if Aeris had read it in her own eyes), "because he can't – he doesn't see how – he doesn't look that deep into - my eyes," she trailed off, as the words failed her.

"I know," Tifa whispered back. He only sees you before. He sees what he lost.

What do I see?

"He can't fix you because he can't see that you're - broken," Tifa said, and her fingers reached out to clasp Aeris's. But I can.

"Broken," Aeris murmured, as if it had just occurred to her, and Tifa wondered if she'd hurt her friend's feelings; but Aeris looked up, and nodded, and said simply, "Yes. In a way."

"Aeris – I - " and she twined her hand around the other girl's like vines, fingers locked, and all the words she'd thought wouldn't come out: Let me try to heal you, even though-

"I know. You're broken too," Aeris said, and Tifa paused as she realized that Aeris was finishing her thought aloud.

"He is breaking me more, Tifa," she whispered. "Sometimes, I don't even know where I am. It feels like I'm still … there, and…"

"Here," Tifa said, and solemnly leaned forward to kiss her friend: soft, like a ritual. "You're here. You're back. The rest can wait."

Aeris's eyes flooded with green tears for a moment, almost words Tifa could almost read: Sephiroth, the Lifestream, glimpses of a Promised Land. Then the shimmer faded, sinking back down into the depths, becoming a mystery language. "Back … to life?" she asked softly.

Tifa nodded. "Back to life," she urged. "Back to us."

"Cloud thinks I came back for him."

"Didn't you?"

Aeris shook her head, hesitantly at first, then more surely. "No."

Not for him. The unspoken words lay between the two, like a book Tifa could have picked up to read. Two broken women, with one man inbetween.

I don't know. Aeris's eyes said that there may have been no reason: that the Lifestream may have just used her body, her Cetran blood trace, then spat her back out into the life she'd left, only with a few more holes in her soul than normal. Tifa wasn't sure what was better, or worse. But she didn't know a lot about magic – real magic, life-magic – and so she'd simply continue to hold her friend until all these wounds healed over.

But not for him.

She wasn't doing it for Cloud any more. Neither of us are.

The next morning they woke in Tifa's bed, curled about each other like two commas, and since Aeris's eyes were still thick with nightmares Tifa made coffee. Aeris drank it black.

She said to Tifa, "I'm not going to leave."

Tifa wondered how Aeris had known her fears, but then she wondered if all thoughts had passed between them as they'd kissed last night, and she simply nodded.

"Even if we fix you?"

She knew Aeris would understand without further words, and was rewarded by a bright smile she remembered from the girl's first life. Maybe there could be healing: moving back or forward, past or future, didn't matter as much as she'd thought.

"No," Aeris said. "I live with you now."