Memories don't always have to hurt. That's something Tifa only realizes when sitting across from Aerith in the bar in Cosmo Canyon, spluttering with laughter behind the rim of her shot glass as Aerith's face reflexively curdles under the low lighting. There is something comforting about being in a bar after everything, a nostalgia that has her smile come easy for the first time since they got here, and the whiskey burns her throat but warms her stomach, the hollow space behind her ribs not as cold. Flames aren't flickering behind her eyelids, just worn, well loved memories of puttering behind the bar to Marlene's sweet chatter, of pouring shots, mixing drinks, indulging in small talk with some of her more well behaved regulars. Tifa sets down her glass and drags the back of her hand over her wet mouth, laughing at how Aerith's face is still caught in a grimace, and can't help but think that for all the people who walked in and out Seventh Heaven's doors there was never anyone quite like Aerith.
"Rude," says Aerith once they both have caught their breaths. "Very rude. We all can't be as grizzled at drinking as you, Miss Professional Bartender."
"I've never been called grizzled before," Tifa says, smiling, because Aerith is too ridiculous to not smile at.
"There's a first time for everything," Aerith says, sagely, and links their arms so they are holding a glass to each other's mouths, looking flushed and pretty and simultaneously too close for comfort and not close enough, her smile both sharp and sweet. "Now bottoms up!"
Before, there had been the fire and Cloud and the nausea that sat like a stone in the pit of her stomach. It seemed like there would always be the fire and Cloud and the nausea that sat like a stone in the pit of her stomach, a cruel trick of fate, just like Cloud sometimes seemed like a trick of light. Tifa had turned away from him, from the questions in his eyes that died before ever making its way to his lips, and the distance between them yawned. It feels like you're going far away, she had told him, but really the awful truth was this: Tifa was afraid to meet him. She was afraid of being right, of hurting him and hurting herself, and so she kept letting rope sink into the inky darkness between them.
Sometimes the distance between two people is made of things more cold and lonesome than physical proximity. If she had scooted a few scant inches over their knees would be touching. It just takes a blink, Tifa had thought, but she had kept her eyes stubbornly closed, her body angled away. That was an answer too, wasn't it?
If it was, it was one Aerith wasn't satisfied with. "Let's get drunk," Aerith had said, startling Tifa out of her daze with a squeeze to the shoulder. The embers of Cosmo Canyon burned late into the night and Tifa had remained long after everyone else had parted ways, eyes closed, hands clenched over her knees, but when she looked up all she could see was Aerith: her pluckish smile strangely subdued, the light of the campfire tangled in her hair. Bright. Beautiful.
Here, now, that smile is in full force and Tifa feels flushed, warm from the lights and the whiskey and the wet-hot press of Aerith's mouth, her lips ever so slightly brushing the pulse of Tifa's wrist. A natural consequence of a love shot, maybe, but it almost feels too purposeful to be an accident. Aerith drags her eyes up, drags her mouth away, and laughs, her fingers splayed over her mouth, her grin peeking out between her fingers. Tifa laughs too, the sound strangely stilted to her own ears. Her neck is so hot.
"I think we made the right call, don't you? Isn't this way better than being knee deep in monsters or staring forlornly into a fire? I bet Cloud and them wish they were having as much fun as us right now."
She is having fun. It feels less surprising than it would have a half hour ago when Aerith approached her, when her despair and anxiety still had her stomach in knots. It's like there's a spell in the air because even the mention of Cloud hasn't dimmed the glow of Tifa's happiness. Maybe that's the alcohol. Maybe it's Aerith. Maybe it doesn't matter so long as Tifa is smiling and fully in the present, rooted to here, now, and not the pain and confusion of back then.
"Yeah," says Tifa, smiling so hard her cheeks ache. "I bet they are."
The drinks keep coming. Aerith, Tifa is surprised to discover, is something of a lightweight. She is giggling behind the straw of her Cosmo Candle, a flush riding high on her cheeks, and Tifa feels fondness swell up behind her ribs and catch at her throat, making a home along with all her swallowed words.
"I've never done this before," Aerith confesses. "Drinking in a bar, I mean. Honestly, I haven't done much drinking in general. Even if I didn't have to hide I lived at home with my mom, you know? Imagine her face if I came home drunk!" Her laughter trails off and she suddenly sobers, leaning forward and touching Tifa's hand on the table. Tifa swallows, her gaze flickering between Aerith's bright eyes and her wet mouth. The smile there is—something, soft, strangely earnest. Almost shy or the closest thing resembling it someone like Aerith could look. "But I'm glad I'm doing it with you."
The specter of Nibelheim looms, ever present, a fear that tightens her throat and sours her stomach, but Tifa looks at Aerith and lets herself pretend. She pretends she doesn't have a scar running from her sternum down her stomach, pretends the smell of ash and smoke isn't enough to send her catapulting into a past she can only visit behind closed eyelids, pretends the weight of the wrong words won't shatter Cloud into a million pieces. Pretends that her silence is protection, not selfishness, never selfishness. Pretends they are just two girls out on the town, no SHINRA or Sephiroth or anything else, just themselves. Tifa. Aerith. Two girls who inexplicably found each other.
"I wouldn't have pegged you for a sentimental drunk," Tifa says, relishing in Aerith's loud laugh—startled and warm—but she's glad too, so, so glad. Is there a word for more than this, Tifa wonders. More than happiness, more than gratitude? If such a word exists Aerith doesn't let her contemplate it for long before she is pulling her hand away with a grin and shoving another drink under Tifa's nose.
By the time they pack it in, Tifa is just comfortably tipsy and they have stumbled into the back room they had to squeeze everyone into when the inn's two beds wasn't going to cut it. Their sleeping mats are still laid out on the wooden floor; Aerith's cheek is pressed flat against hers but Tifa watches it round with her smile when she looks at Tifa. Her fingers bridge the gap between them, pressing against the crook of Tifa's mouth. "You look pretty like this."
"Relaxed." Aerith's fingers have moved from her lips, her thumb now sweeping over Tifa's cheekbone. "Happy."
The silence suspends but not in a way that feels uncomfortable. Tifa breathes in, out, watching Aerith watch her—eyes dark, mouth still slick and shiny from her last drink—and thinks of Aerith, strangely subdued by the fire. Thinks of what she had overheard of Aerith's conversation with Cloud, thinks of all the time Aerith had spent with the elders, discussing legacy and oral history, thinks that for all that there is a world inside Aerith Tifa can never hope to understand that tonight they are both lonely and desolate in ways that perfectly match. We are more than our tragedies, Tifa wants to say, but the words feel thick on her tongue. Tifa gently touches Aerith's fringe. Smiles. Says, "You look pretty like this too."
Tifa won't remember who leaned in first, after. What she will remember is this: the heat of Aerith's mouth against her own, the way she could feel Aerith's lips curve when Tifa shivered at her equally hot hand on Tifa's bare stomach, how Aerith traced the hard planes, the trail of her fingers something reverent. She will remember touching Aerith's hair, her cheek, her jaw. Pressing her lips to the curve of it and keeping them there, Tifa's smile tucked into its hinge like the world's worst kept secret.