Title: nightwatch

A/N: For the FVII In Bloom zine! I wanted to write a little Tifa and Aerith friendship.

Summary: It was easy, when talking to Aerith, when dreaming of the future, to forget that every place Tifa had ever called home lay in rubble.

Crouched in front of their fire's remnants, Tifa raked the ashes with a long stick. Flickering embers sputtered to life as she fed them dry twigs, guaranteeing the fire continued for at least another hour. As the blaze jumped and grew, the heat warmed her skin. She leaned back on her haunches, glancing at her friends sleeping nearby. The layers of clothes and bags were keeping them warm, but barely just. They were lucky it wasn't raining or windy.

That said, fire was dangerous out here in the wilds, and she glanced around warily for any nocturnal monsters. They had been travelling for a week now almost aimlessly and if there was one thing she'd learned, it was that nowhere was safe. Her arms ached from how much they'd fought, her knuckles raw from punching.

If only they could go home.

Tifa lowered her eyes. That was a stupid thought. Home didn't exist anymore. She glanced in the general direction of Midgar. They were so far out that she couldn't spot the city's bright lights for once. Even so, she could still picture the sickly, greenish hue of reactors, the darkness of the slums. The pile of rubble that now represented sector seven. The friends they couldn't save.

Damnit all, what had they been working for all this time?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"It's a nice night," Aerith softly said as she sat on the ground next to Tifa. It was frightening how silent she could be, her footsteps entirely muffled as though the darkness ate the sound. She pulled her knees to her chest, keeping her body as compact as possible.

Brought out of her thoughts, Tifa hastily wiped the tears from her eyes. Fortunately, Aerith politely ignored her, focusing on rubbing her hands in front of the fire. Hoping her voice didn't crack, Tifa asked, "Couldn't sleep?"

It wasn't as strong as she hoped, but at least she didn't sound like she'd been crying. Aerith shrugged, leaning back now to also look in Midgar's direction. "It's a little hard, after everything. My mom…I hope she's safe."

Tifa felt a pang of sympathy for the other woman. It was so easy to forget that not everyone here was alone, that there were still people waiting for their return. Shifting so she sat cross-legged, Tifa smiled at Aerith. "I'm sure she is, now that we're gone. I don't remember if I got to say this before, but thanks for protecting Marlene." She looked at Barrette snoring away. "I don't think he could have handled it if anything happened to her."

"And you?" Aerith asked, wrapping her arms around her legs and pressing her cheek to her knees as she observed Tifa.

"And me too," Tifa admitted. Her shoulders slumped, just thinking about it. It hadn't been long since she'd joined AVALANCHE, but it had become a second home to her. Another place to protect.

Another place to lose. "After Jessie and the others…if Marlene also…" This time her voice did crack. Tifa bit her cheek before she could cry, furiously blinking back the tears as she did so.

Aerith reached out, squeezing her shoulder. "But she's fine now. Safe. If anything, my mom'll probably stuff her silly."

Not trusting her throat, Tifa merely nodded. That was something good, at least. Marlene was alive. Barret was alive. At least she hadn't lost everything again.

"She's probably taking better care of her than my flowers," Aerith continued, pouting. Lifting her head, she glared into the distance. "At least check them once a week!"

Tifa chuckled, her shoulders shaking. How long had it been since she'd last laughed? Too long.

Aerith grinned. "You look better already."

Stopping abruptly, she snapped her head to Aerith. "You came here—"

"Because I couldn't sleep," Aerith interrupted, still smiling broadly.

"Right, right." Tifa couldn't remember the last time someone looked after her, instead of vice versa. A warm, bubbly feeling filled her. "Your home was beautiful, I can't believe there's sunlight there. And the flowers…" She sighed, remembering the endless rows of white petals. "I thought it was impossible to grow them."

"It was hard," she admitted, tucking her hair behind her ear with a pleased smile. "I think they just take to me."

"Take to you?" Tifa frowned, not comprehending. Sometimes, Aerith talked like the planet talked back to her—even now, when they wandered through the forest, she'd stop and touch the trees and plants, almost checking with them.

"They just like me cause I give them lots of water," she explained, glossing over it with a smile.

Tifa frowned, not sure if she believed it. Still, they all had secrets, things better left untouched. Barret's was Marlene's past and her's was… Involuntarily, she looked at Cloud, dozing away under a tree, his sword standing next to him. A SOLDIER at rest. Nothing about that image, that thought felt right.

"Wish Cloud was here instead?" Aerith teased, misunderstanding her look. "I could wake him up, you know."

"No, no!" Tifa's skin burned hot at the idea and she shook her hands quickly. "That isn't it at all!"

"Really?" Aerith leaned closer, her smirk growing bigger by the second. "You sure?"

Quickly, she nodded. "I was just…I was…thinking about home."

"Home." Aerith's lips formed a 'o' as she remembered and her smile dropped. "About what Cloud said at the inn?"

"Yeah." Tifa took a deep breath and stared at the flickering flames. Even now, she could picture the fires in her village, burning everything and everyone. They engulfed house after house, until not even rubble remained to indicate the place that was once was her entire world. "I thought I was alone. I didn't realize he'd survived too."

Aerith didn't say anything, just reaching down to squeeze her hand comfortingly.

"You know, my mom tried to grow flowers. It wasn't like Midgar; everywhere in Nibelhelm had sunlight but my mom couldn't do it." Tifa closed her eyes as the memories overwhelmed her. Going to Mt. Nibel, the promise with Cloud, working as a tour guide. The baker who used to give her samples, the metalsmith who kept scaring kids away from his workshop. All gone. All dead. And no one but her and Cloud to remember them all. The stories she'd forgotten, the names lost—she dug her fingers in the ground. "Sometimes I can't believe they're all gone."

"It doesn't go away, does it?" Aerith sighed, her shoulders slumping. "There was a SOLDIER who used to help me a lot. He…I…" Her voice sounded impossibly fragile, like glass on the verge of shattering. "I though he'd come through the doors again, with a silly grin." Even softer now, she added, "I would have forgiven him. I would have forgiven anything."

Tifa could understand that. Even the people she hated, she'd give anything to see them again one last time. And her father...there was a lump in her throat at the thought. Her village was a blank spot on a map and still she wondered if she walked up that mountain path, if she went stepped down that familiar route, she'd find it just around the corner.

Sector 7 was just another ghost on top of it all. "Even with what happened in Midgar—I want to be angrier about it. Or sad. Or just feel something, anything about it, but I'm just tired of it all." Weariness ate at her bones and she wondered if it would be okay to just stop. To give up on saving the world, on stopping Sephiroth. If she couldn't protect Nibelhelm, if she couldn't protect AVALANCHE and 7th Heaven, what hope did she have in protecting the whole world?

"It's okay to take a break." Aerith murmured, pressing her face to her legs and muffling her words. "To just rest."

"Rest?" Tifa echoed, the word sounding like a foreign language.

"Uh-huh." Aerith sounded like she was on the verge of tears herself. "Sometimes, I'd pretend I was leaving Midgar for good. Maybe I'd move to the Gold Saucer or something."

It sounded like a luxury. A dream. Tifa wanted to indulge in the fantasy of it all. "That'd be a good place to start over. Maybe I can open another bar. They could use the competition."

"What'll you call it?" Aerith asked, still not looking up.

"7th Heaven, just like the first one." Tifa chuckled, remembering how silly she'd found the name before. "This time, there won't be a secret base under it. It'll just be an ordinary bar, serving ordinary people."

"Hmmm…well, that could work." Aerith lifted her head now, gnawing her lip as she considered it. "As long as you don't let Barret decorate it. I saw your old bar. It was ugly."

Tifa wanted to bristle at the comment but she couldn't deny it. The entire place had Barret's touch all over it. "I'll make sure he doesn't."

"I can do it," Aerith offered, perking up at the thought. "Flowers in every corner, hanging on the walls, even—"

"It's not a flower shop," Tifa interrupted, shaking her head before the bar could turn into a plant paradise. "We can't have them on everything."

"Fiiinneee." Aerith grudgingly recanted. "A few vases of flowers." With a wicked grin, she added, "But maybe I'll open a rival flower shop."

That didn't make any sense. Tifa frowned, knitting her brow as she tried to understand. "How are flower shops and bars rivals?"

"We just are." When Tifa still stared in disbelief Aerith raised a brow, a challenging expression on her face. "I'll steal your customers, just you wait and see." However silly the idea, she didn't lack any confidence in it.

Tifa snorted scornfully, feeling a little defensive of her imaginary bar. "Just you try it. You'll be out of business in a week."

They stared at each other and burst into laughter. There was a small noise of displeasure from around them and they quickly covered their mouths, stifling the laughter.

Calming herself down, Tifa murmured, "Maybe, after it all, we could do that."

"Yeah." Aerith nodded brightly. "But Marlene's on my side."

"There's sides too?" Tifa tried not to laugh again, not sure if she could stop this time. Leaning back, she stared at the stars as she confessed, "You know, I saw you."

"Well, I'm here and I'm not a ghost," Aerith replied playfully, raising a brow.

"No, back at the slums. You sold flowers at the corner. I'd pass by you, every so often." Tifa paused, her cheeks flushing a bright red. This next part was embarrassing and she was grateful for the fire, a readily explanation for the colour on her skin. At least she didn't have to see Aerith's expression through all this—she didn't think she could keep going if she did. "Your flowers were so beautiful and you were always so cheerful…it was…" She faltered, stumbling over the last part.

"It was?" Aerith prodded, her voice a low whisper.

"It was a…a…" Tifa took a deep breath and forced her words out. "It was a bright spot. Everything, everyone else was just…I don't know…broken. Sad. But you…I wish I bought a flower from you earlier. Met you earlier. We could have been friends."

"Oh." Aerith fell silent.

Tifa dared a glance at her. Damnit, she regretted saying anything. Backpedalling, she blurted out, "We can just forget—"

"No," Aerith growled quickly, grabbing Tifa's free hand. Squeezing it tightly, she shook her head. "Never. I saw you too, you know. Carrying food to the bar. Playing with Marlene. You always looked so strong, so kind—I wish we'd become friends earlier too."

Tifa blinked, not sure what to say. Swallowing hard, she asked, "Really?"

"Really." Aerith smiled happily, not letting go of Tifa's hand. "But that's okay—we're friends now, right?"

They were, weren't they? Friends. Family. Tifa glanced at the slumbering figures around her, her eyes stopping on Cloud. A part of her first home. She might have lost a lot, but she still had pieces and maybe she could make a new home, a third home.

"Yeah." She reached out with her other hand and clasped Aerith's hand tightly. "We are."

This time, she wouldn't lose it. She'd make sure of it.