"Aerith? Do you believe in soul mates?"

The question was soft, pitched to carry no further than between the two young women. Opening her eyes, Aerith found Tifa sitting with her arms wrapped around her drawn-up knees, gaze fixed on the blond ex-SOLDIER on the other side of their camp. In a typical yet incongruously considerate gesture, Cloud had elected to take the first watch so his companions could get some rest. Ostensibly, he would wake someone to take over after a few hours.

Aerith would bet gil that Cloud would still be standing guard come morning.

"Or if not soul mates, then... reincarnation?" Aerith had waited too long to reply, and her silence had prompted Tifa to additional nervous coaxing.

With the planet constantly whispering in her head, and the lifestream singing like a thousand voices, of course Aerith believed in reincarnation. The lifestream was proof that souls lived forever, constantly being reborn. That wasn't quite the answer the younger woman needed to hear, however. She wasn't asking Aerith to comfort her about the loss of her father or Jessie or anyone else who'd died too young, too early. Tifa wanted to know if Aerith had ever felt connected to someone the way the martial artist felt bound to Cloud. She wanted to know if destiny could and did and would reunite the halves of a whole, people who belonged together but had been separated by time and circumstance.

She wanted Aerith to validate her feelings.

"I believe in both," the Cetra murmured as she sat up, dragging her blanket with her and draping it around her shoulders against the chill of night. Although quiet, her voice was firm. "When I met Zack..." she swallowed against the sudden swell of emotion his name evoked, "I felt like I needed to be with him. Like something had been missing until he came along. Like...like..."

"Like he was important for reasons you didn't understand with your head, but with your heart." Tifa finished for her, garnet eyes soft and understanding as she turned to face the Cetra, resting her head against her folded arms.

Smiling at the unabashed sentiment in the former bartender's voice, Aerith gently bumped her shoulder against Tifa's in friendly camaraderie. "Softy," she teased.

Biting her lip shyly, Tifa gamely pushed back. "So that's not what you felt?"

"Oh no, I didn't say that!" Aerith shook her head. "On the surface..." she paused, and when she started again her voice was stronger, as if she were more satisfied with her new choice of words: "On paper, Zack was everything I had learned to avoid, to fear. He worked for Shin-Ra, had the taint of SOLDIER, the stigma of Jenova... and was known to be quite the flirt!" Expression fondly rueful, she shook her head again. "Yet I wanted to be with him whenever possible." She stilled, green eyes gazing past Cloud, vision turned inward. "The pull of him was stronger than anything else. I know we were soul mates."

Tifa nodded, and the two lapsed into quiet for a long moment, until Aerith sighed, stretching out her hand to lightly touch Tifa's back. "I think you and Cloud are, too."

Tifa's raised her head, her expression surprised but hopeful. "You do?"

Aerith's gaze held both laughter and certainty. "Tifa... the man dressed up as a woman for you." The statement was flat, unequivocal truth. "He even went to the trouble to try and look sexy, so you wouldn't have to spend a single moment alone with Corneo. That's not something a guy like Cloud does for just anyone."

"He'd do it for a friend," Tifa countered, a touch petulantly. Unspoken was another fact, one that was at the heart of her uncertainty: He'd do it for you.

"It's not the same," Aerith said, shaking her head, expression solemn. Silence fell again, Tifa's doubtful, Aerith's considering. Her next words were a surprise, their content seemingly a change of subject. "That sword Cloud carries belonged to Zack," she said with absolute certainty. "He inherited it from his friend and mentor; there's not another on the planet like it. So I think... he and Cloud must've been friends." In her memory, she heard Zack's voice enthusiastically telling her about the teen from Nibelheim he'd befriended on one of his missions. He hadn't mentioned a name, but the description fit Cloud too well for coincidence. "Whatever happened to Zack, they were together at the time, and they were close. Cloud may not consciously remember, but he recognizes that I was important to Zack... so I'm important to him, too" Once again she reached out to place a hand on Tifa's back. "That's not the same as being important for myself. It's not the same as if he were in love with me."

"Love?" Tifa shook her head. "Cloud doesn't love me. He just... he just feels obligated. When he left to join SOLDIER, he promised to come for me if I were ever in trouble." Her tone strove to sound dismissive and frank, but there was no disguising the wistful note threaded throughout.

"There, you see?" Aerith was delighted by Tifa's confession. "Of course he loves you. A promise made as children wouldn't hold him without an emotional tie, silly." Tifa's expression clearly indicated she thought Aerith was grasping at straws; the Cetra decided to try another tack. "What was it like sharing a cell with him?" she asked archly, hiding her grin behind the hem of her blanket.

Tifa's reaction was both telling and immediate. Sitting bolt upright, she began a rapid-fire explanation about how nothing had happened. At all. Really. No matter what Nanaki thought he'd heard.

Biting her lip to stifle her giggles, Aerith merely nodded. "That's what I thought." Once again she swayed sideways to bump Tifa's shoulder companionably.

Knowingly.

Tifa's answering smile was slow and shy, and she ducked her head down after a moment.

"So... what do you think he was before?" Aerith asked, shifting to lie back down, turning on her side to face the other woman. "In his previous life I mean," she added, when Tifa's expression turned questioning. "Cloud's quite dashing... maybe a pirate?"

Zack, she thought, would have been both a terrible and a wonderful pirate. Terrible, because he really didn't have a menacing or thieving bone in his body; wonderful because he'd look great in the skin-tight pants, high leather boots, and flowing silk shirt. One smile, and women would have swooned to be ravished.

"Oh," Tifa answered, smiling a bit at the thought of Cloud-as-a-pirate, "no, nothing like that." She, too, shifted to recline under her blanket, fingers curling into the coarse fabric, gaze still fixed on the ex-SOLDIER on the other side of the dying fire. "He always wanted to help people. I think he'd have been, oh... a guard, or a traveling merchant, or maybe even a postman... you know, back when the only mode of travel between towns was by chocobo, and bandits were a definite worry." She sighed, turning her head on her make-shift pillow to face Aerith. "Nothing glamorous, but definitely dangerous, or often thankless. Simply because it was something people needed."

"You're right," Aerith murmured after a long, thoughtful moment. It sounded like the kinds of things Zack's friend would have done.

Quiet returned, warm and comfortable, full of unspoken but shared considerations. Aerith was drifting toward sleep, her eyes closed, when Tifa whispered a soft thank you into the night. Smiling, the Cetra snuggled further under her blanket, and answered without opening her eyes. "You're welcome. But what made you ask? Why were you thinking about it?"

Fabric rustled as Tifa moved under her covers. Cracking her eyes open, Aerith could see the martial artist was once more watching Cloud. "Because..." Tifa's voice held a touch of wonder, a hint of confusion, and a large measure of certainty. "Because... sometimes, I feel like I've known him for far longer than I actually have."

"Soul mates," Aerith responded, the words muffled and sleepy but emphatic just the same.

Sighing, Tifa closed her eyes and told her mind to rest. "If you say so."

But there was both laughter and belief in the simple statement.

"I say so."