Title: on a fragile line (hope walks)
Rating: PG-13
Words: 2,657
Summary: Sometimes all that's needed is a friend. Tifa-centric. Aerith-centric.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything you recognize, sadly. FFVII belongs to S-E.
Notes: This fic fills anathomical's prompt for Wishlist 2012. It also fills the "taking care of somebody" square on my Hurt/Comfort Bingo card and the "sleeping" square on my Cotton Candy Bingo Card.

After the end they go back to picking up the pieces of their normal lives. Tifa chooses to go back to Edge, though she could go anywhere in the world—Cid offers to drop her off wherever—because Edge is the closest she can get to home.

(Nibelheim stopped being home years and years ago.)

Looking at Midgar, these days, makes her chest ache. She's not the only one. It's written in the faces of those who've stuck around—whether they have no choice or whether they do and choose to stay.

It's written in Cloud's behaviour, the way he's hardly around. Denzel and Marlene stick close to her for the first few months and then, as they get used to the idea that she's not leaving, they get more adventurous.

Tifa spends a lot of time alone. When she thinks about it, it makes her mad. When she doesn't, she just drifts through the days feeling a bit blue. It wasn't supposed to be like this, not when they'd set out to make a difference, to change the world.

The world has changed but it's still an awful place.

She rebuilds 7th Heaven because there's no way that Cloud's delivery service is going to keep him, her, and two children in food and clothing and shelter and people will always come around for a drink, even if they don't have the gil to spare for anything else.

(And, she admits, she enjoys being back in a bar. It brings back pleasant memories.)

Once night, after close, Tifa is wiping down the counters when the bell over the door rings. Without turning around she says, "We're closed."

The laugh that freezes her, that answers her, is the laugh of a dead girl. "Even for old friends?"

Tifa sets down her cloth and turns. Aerith stands there, more than a little translucent, but looking well nonetheless. I must have fallen asleep, Tifa thinks. I'm going to wake up in the morning with a sore back and neck because I've fallen asleep at the counters. "No," Tifa says, "no, old friends are allowed."

If this is a dream, she can run with it.

Aerith sits down, looking out of place in her long pink dress in the dark bar. Tifa clutches at her cloth. "You want anything to drink?" she asks.

"No," Aerith says, "just a talk."

"You're lucky," Tifa tells her. "Talk is free."

Aerith laughs again. Her voice echoes oddly off the walls and it raises goosebumps all along Tifa's arms. She doesn't feel like there's any danger, Aerith is a friend, but this is unusual and strange and experience has shown that unusual and strange things are often dangerous and she can't think just of herself any longer, has to think of the children too.

Denzel's already sick. If she disappears, who will look after him and Marlene?

"So," Tifa says, affecting nonchalance, "what brings you here tonight? Aren't you busy-" being dead? "-healing The Planet?"

There's a look in Aerith's eyes that tells Tifa that the other girl heard both questions. "Most of me is busy doing that," Aerith says. "I've got help who is holding down the fort for me tonight." Aerith's green eyes pin Tifa. "How are you doing?"

Tifa feels like she can't breathe. "I'm good," she says quickly, anything to get those eyes off of her. It's like having the weight of the world on her shoulders. Saving it had been enough of a burden for her; she can't imagine having to keep on doing that day after day and Aerith's gaze holds all of that and more. "The bar is doing well and Marlene is fine. She wishes Barret was here but you know him-he's always off working. He comes to visit when he can get the time off. Yuffie drops by now and then, so does Vincent. Cait Sith is around here too."

She's babbling and worse, she can't stop.

"Cid hasn't been around much. He's back in Rocket Town. And Cloud-" Her breath catches and she swallows hard. "Cloud is Cloud."

Never around, drowning in guilt, unable to move on. He's hung up on the ghost she's talking to but that's only part of the problem. The bigger problem is that this world, this broken, brittle happily ever after is their doing and he thinks they should have done it better, somehow.

Aerith looks down. "You're not well," she says softly.

"I… no, I guess not," Tifa replies, crossing her arms defensively. "No one is, not right now. Everyone is still reeling."

And people are getting sick and dying and there's whispers, whispers of it being The Planet itself punishing them and Tifa is talking to The Planet's... most sentient facet. She can't bring herself to ask.

(She's scared of the possibility that the rumours are right.)

"It'll get worse before it gets better," Aerith tells her. "It's a bit like cleaning; you've got to make a mess to get it all back in order."

Are you making people sick, Aerith? The analogy makes sense, it does, but it's peoples' lives on the line and Tifa is so tired of people dying. "It's hard," Tifa says, instead. "Everyone is scared."

"Even you?"

"I'm always scared," Tifa says. "I've never pretended otherwise."

"You're stronger than you think," Aerith says. "It's going to be all right."

Tifa wishes she could believe her. She really, desperately does. "How do you know?"

Aerith smiles. "I believe in hope."

I believe in hope.

"I did," Tifa says. "How do I find hope again?"

She doesn't remember when she lost it but she has. All she has left is the determination to go on, one step at a time, because there are people who rely on her and she can't let them down.

"Well," Aerith says, smiling and looking mischievous-there's the girl, Tifa thinks, that talked Cloud into cross-dressing just so they could rescue her, "let's go and see, shall we?" Aerith offers her hand to Tifa.

Tifa stares at it for a moment and then takes it.

(After all, this is a dream. What harm can it do?)

They walk through the ruins of the Forgotten City. Tifa feels sick just being back here, where Aerith died, but Aerith looks calm and at peace.

"Why are we here?" Tifa asks, trying hard not to look at the lake where Cloud had set Aerith's body down.

"Is there another place we should be?"

"That's not funny. How am I supposed to find hope here?" Where you died?

"I died," Aerith says, seemingly unconcerned about that. It makes Tifa's skin crawl-she can't imagine that sort of acceptance. "Yet here I am. Talking to you. I'm not gone, just different."

"Not gone," Tifa repeats, "just different."

They walk in silence after that until the lake laps at their feet. The water is cool, not cold. Her boots are soaked.

(But this has to be a dream so it's alright.)

Standing where Aerith died, with Aerith by her side, Tifa thinks she understands why she's here.

Just different.

"Where are we going next?" she asks.

Aerith laughs. "Where do you think?"

"I don't know," Tifa says, smiling. "But it'll have hope to it."

"Now you're learning!"

And, with that, Aerith takes Tifa's hand again and the world shifts.

Tifa wobbles and catches her balance, off-set less by the change in scenery and more by where she is now.

The Forgotten City was bad enough.

But Mideel's wounds are more obvious. Dangerous and deadly the Life Stream winds through and around Mideel. Once, where a village had rested, there is little but ruins now. Tifa breathes and the sharp, almost ozone-y scent of liquid life does what being in the Forgotten City, with Aerith, had not.

"This isn't a dream, is it?"

She tests her balance carefully, willing the unsteady wooden planks to hold. Tifa suspects that, even if she's wandering the world with a ghost (The Planet's voice) that falling into mako will kill her anyway.

"I never said it was," Aerith says, sounding surprised. "You did that all yourself."

She had.

"Sorry," Tifa says, looking around and wondering if anyone still lives here. Had the old woman waiting for her husband finally left? "I wasn't expecting this to be real."

"Real," Aerith says, kneeling down to straighten out a board that's fallen half into the mako, "is entirely up to choice." Her hand plunges into the mako fearlessly.

Tifa watches in horrified fascination. She knows, guesses, that it cannot possibly hurt Aerith. Her first urge is still to pull her away.

Aerith's smile, when she looks up, says she knows that.

"I can't be gone long," Tifa says, a bit uneasily. "Marlene, and Denzel—"

"Need someone to look after them." Aerith stands. "You have always done that job."

"No one else would," Tifa insists. "Barret would try—gods know he loves Marlene and he'd look out for Denzel too but he's busy." And he was careless when his temper was riled. "Cid would drop the kids on Shera and never look back. Cloud…"

She falters as a new thought occurs to her.

"Why aren't you talking to Cloud like this? If you can talk to me then surely…"

Aerith's gaze turns distant. "I'm not really doing anything," she says. "Just talking! That's all you really needed. Cloud's not there yet. He's still got too much to work through. If I tried talking to him right now… I wonder if he'd even hear me?"

"Of course he would!"

But Aerith shakes her head. "I think he'd hear me with his ears—but not with his heart. He's not ready to move forward. Youknow that."

"He'd try," Tifa says, "if you asked him to."

"He tries for you now. You and Marlene and Denzel."

"Does that… make you mad or anything?"

"No." Aerith takes a few steps down the wooden planks. "I think it's better for him to listen to life." She laughs. "Not that he listens very well!"

Tifa has to laugh at that as she more gingerly picks her way after Aerith. "What are we here to see?"

"A vision of what will come, when things actually start getting better."

She trails after Aerith, unable to come up with a single reason to not when promised something like that. Hope.

That's the whole point of this.

They cross the village, Tifa hopping from precarious board to precarious board and hoping, praying, that she doesn't touch the mako or fall into it.

"There," Aerith says, pointing at the bank. "Can you see?"

Tifa looks. "I-" Her eyes widen. "Things are growing!"

All along the bank of the deadly mako flooding, there's shoots of green sprouting up like The Planet is growing out a beard and all that's there so far is stubble.

But it's progress.

"It's easier in Mideel," Aerith says, "to repair the damage. It was never quite so bad here anyway. It will take Midgar longer to recover but it will recover eventually."

"You're sure?" Please, Tifa thinks, please be sure.

Aerith nods decisively. "It will. I promise. All it's going to take is time."

Tifa looks back at the bank, fixing the view of it in her memory, so that when she doubts again (and she will, she knows herself) she can remember and know what hope looks like.

It looks a lot like new green growth.

"Thank you," she says, putting all the meaning she can into those two words.

Aerith smiles. "We have one more stop to make. Are you ready?"

"I don't know," Tifa says honestly, reaching for Aerith's hand. "I hope so."

The world swirls and fades out around them.

They arrive in a broken down church that's, nonetheless, in better repair than most of the surrounding area. Sector Six slums. Tifa shivers. The WRO has signs up to prevent people from entering the slums, entering any part of Midgar. There's too much radiation and mako and strange, mutated monsters around.

She silently follows Aerith up the steps without a single protest.

The doors open before Aerith can even touch them. Like the church itself is welcoming her home.

Stepping inside, Tifa can feel a difference in the air immediately. It's cleaner inside, sweeter and softer. Somehow the inside is illuminated, though the sun is down and there are no lights on in this part of Midgar's ruins.

The dusty pews are in shockingly good repair. A few have fallen over and Tifa absently sets them to rights while Aerith walks further into the church. Dust swirls around her feet, each step leaving a footprint on the wooden floor, until abruptly, there's a carpet of flowers.

"I thought they would have died." Tifa says. "Since you… without you here to tend them."

"I stop by now and then," Aerith says. "But even so, they're not that weak. Look, Tifa. It's flowers in Midgar. All by themselves. There's life here too."

"Not much of it." But that doesn't stop awe from touching her voice. Tifa takes a few steps forward, until she's standing at the edge of the flowers and grass. "They're beautiful."

Does anyone else know of this hardy bit of life? Fragile and yet still thriving.

Aerith kneels down and cups her hands over one of the flowers. Tifa contents herself with watching, just breathing in the air, and wondering if Midgar, if Edge, will have air as clean one day?

There's greenery in Mideel that hints that, even here, will eventually heal.

Something tight in her chest, that has been tight for so long that she'd stopped noticing, eases at that thought.

All their destruction, all their damage-it will heal.

"Is there anything I can do?" she asks.

Aerith doesn't look up from her flowers. (They're still hers, even though she's gone and in theory anyone could claim this church.) "Live," she says, "and help other people survive. The bulk of the healing is up to The Planet now."

(The Planet and Aerith. Tifa doesn't know where one ends and the other begins. She's not sure if Aerith knows.)

Tifa breathes deeply of flowers and sunlight (even though it's night) and the warm belief in Aerith's eyes.

"I can do that," she says.

Aerith smiles. "I never doubted that." She stands, brushing her hands against her skirt to smooth non-existent wrinkles away.

"Will Cloud help, one day?" She can't help but to ask.

"That's up to Cloud," Aerith replies. "But with his family around him... I think he will, eventually."

That's another bit of hope. Tifa cradles it to her heart. "I'll believe you. And him."

"Then everything will be all right." Aerith sighs, tilting her head like she's listening to someone else. Someone that Tifa can't see. "We have to get going now. I'll take you back to 7th Heaven."

"Will I see you again?"

"I'll always be around," Aerith promises. "But you might not see me very often. It's a lot of work to be like this and-The Planet needs the energy more."

But Tifa feels warm and loved knowing that even though The Planet needs it more, Aerith had thought it necessary to come and see her.

"That's enough," Tifa says, and reaches for Aerith's hand. "Take me home, please."

The smell of flowers wakes Tifa up in the morning.

She blinks her eyes and tries, slowly, to figure out where the flowers could have come from. And why she's sleeping at the bar. She stretches, her back protesting, as she slides off the bar stool and marvels at the bouquet that someone has set up in a tall glass.

Tifa recognizes the flowers (the church had been full of them) and slowly begins to smile.

"Thank you," she says quietly and though she can't hear Aerith's response, she knows it's there.

You're welcome.

(The world feels a little brighter.)