It had been a few days since they left Kalm. Aeris's muscles were getting used to the hiking, the weight of her belongings on her back. The surrounding country-side dwarfed Midgar; the city once her whole world. There were such sights, smells and textures to experience out here. A blue sky above her instead of the murk that hung over the city or the imposing mass of the upper plates. The smell of Mako became conspicuous by its absence, the scent of grass and flowers so much more intense out here in the open.
Further south a vast mountain range, once the centre of the mythril trade, rose up on their right forcing them to skirt around its base. If Barret's memory was correct, in the grasslands beyond they would find a route through the obstacle. The mid-afternoon sun was hot and Tifa suggested a break from the boys to clean up and do their washing. They traced a small creek through the foot-hills, grass becoming sparse as they climbed the landscape. After a mile or two they found the source; a clear pool of water, bordered by a thin gravel beach and screened by a rock wall. While not as convenient as an inn, it would do for cooling off and washing.
Tifa pulled her boots off and slipped her feet into the water, sighing in contentment. Aeris stared at the water, not wanting to delay a wash; sweat still clung to her back where her backpack had rested. It was a new thing to not be able to wash each day. In Midgar it had been vital during the day - the miasma of pollution and Mako clung to her skin whenever she was outdoors. Whenever Midgar got this warm she would take a shower, Elmyra's house too small for a full bath.
The pool looked tempting. Minor problem; she had no swim-wear, had never had the need for it. Aeris glanced back the way they had come. The others were nowhere in sight. The pool looked shallow enough - she would be okay if she could still stand, right? A cloud moved away from the sun, and sweat prickled across her skin. Aeris did not waste another moment. She undressed, folding her clothes in haste and strolled into the water. Oh. She would never have considered this could feel so pleasurable. Such a simple thing, but so relaxing. A splash nearby drew her attention. Tifa was staring at her. She looked away when she met Aeris's eyes and the flower girl could not help but smirk. She crouched and shuffled forward, letting the water cover her shoulders as she moved a little deeper.
"Don't want to take a dip as well?" Aeris asked as she spread her limbs, feeling the cold water rush around them.
Tifa looked at her, coughed and looked away again. "It's tempting. But I don't have a swimming costume." She glanced back towards where the others had made camp; she could not see them from here. The excuse did not sound convincing.
"I think you'd be fine without it." Aeris smiled and followed her gaze. "I doubt they'd even try coming over this way." Tifa bit her lip, her gaze flicking from Aeris's face to the water. "Best way to wash too," she added, remembering she needed to retrieve her clothes and the soap. Tifa fidgeted and her face flushed. She dithered, fidgeting, fingers toying with her suspenders. Tifa needed a little more privacy it seemed.
Aeris turned away, keeping her back to Tifa, ignoring the rustling sounds behind her. She turned back just as Tifa waded into the pool. Her friend was moving fast, nervous and uncomfortable, her left arm diagonal across her chest. She crouched in the water still moving, only relaxing her arm after the water was around her neck.
Tifa still looked red though her embarrassment was dissipating. "I haven't been able to do this in a long time," she said.
"A favorite past-time in the mountains?"
"Yeah. I always liked swimming. Though I did wear a swimsuit most of the time."
"'Most of the time'?" Aeris asked raising an eyebrow.
Tifa smiled, face still flushing again. "When I went swimming with anyone else I would always take my swimming stuff. But when all my friends left home, one time I went off on my own. Completely forgot to take anything with me and when I found the lake I was so hot I just wanted to cool off. There was no one around, very little chance of anyone stumbling across me, so..."
"You went skinny dipping?"
"It sounds so sleazy when you say it like that." She sounded exasperated. "But I suppose yes." She glared at Aeris. "Once."
Aeris laughed. "Sorry."
Tifa shook her head now smiling. "It's fine."
"Wish I'd at least had the chance to try," Aeris said. "I'm not sure Sector Five had a pool. As nice as the river beside Mom's house looked, she never wanted me going near it."
"Well, we'll take every opportunity we get," Tifa said looking sky-ward. "As long as the weather holds us. And we might still need some form of swim-wear."
"You don't trust the others?"
"Well, I do. I... I'd feel better with something on too." Tifa glanced at her. "As nice as this is," she added.
"Any chance of you helping me learn how to swim?" Aeris asked.
Tifa blinked. "I can try. It's been ages since I've been swimming either." She looked around. "Not sure this is the best place. We need somewhere a bit larger."
"Let me know when we do find somewhere usable."
They sat in silence for a while, until Aeris announced they should do at least some of their washing. A look of panic crossed Tifa's face.
"It's okay," Aeris said. "I'll get your things."
"Thanks." Why was Tifa so nervous? Was it just embarrassment or was she hiding something under her arm? The thought jolted her. Nibelheim. Five years ago. Sephiroth had forced the Masamune from her hands, injuring her before she tumbled down the metal steps of the reactor. Sephiroth had left his mark on her. She should not have persuaded Tifa to bathe nude; was the injury still visible or was it out of habit that she protected it? No. That did not matter. It was no concern of hers. Aeris retrieved the soap and clothing together, plunging them into the water.
"How do you want to do this? Do you want to wash and I'll wring it out and lay them out to dry, or shall we just do our own?"
Tifa again looked nervous for a moment. "I'll wash if that's okay?" Aeris nodded. Tifa scrunched up the bundle of clothing and drew each item out of the mass, scrubbing at it with the soap. She passed each to Aeris who squeezed the water from them and waded back to the shore to lay things out to dry.
The once clear water was now filled with suds. "At least it'll help us get clean too," Aeris replied when Tifa commented. "Want me to help wash your back?" Tifa smiled but shook her head at the offer. They both saw to themselves, adding more suds to the water, moving into clearer patches of water to get the soap off. The realization they had no towels only occurred to Aeris once it was time to get out. She suggested they let the sun dry them, and made a show of facing away from the pool. Tifa still dithered in the water until Aeris suggested she sit behind her. Skin pressed against her back as Tifa sat down, the moment fleeting as Tifa slid a little further away.
"Thank you," Tifa said after a moment.
"Hmmm? What for?"
"Not saying anything," Tifa mumbled. "I don't like people seeing it."
Aeris licked her lips. "Your scar?"
"Yeah," Tifa's voice cracked.
"I'm sorry as well, I wasn't thinking when I suggested we go in the pool."
"Don't be sorry," Tifa said. "It was a great idea and I really enjoyed it."
"I'm glad. I liked it too"
"We should do it again." Tifa's voice was closer than she expected, and a shiver ran through Aeris's back as she felt her breath brush over her skin.
"We should," she agreed, trying to keep her voice steady. She felt lips touch her shoulder, the motion quick and nervous. There was another touch of skin against her back. Aeris turned her head, looking over shoulder to meet Tifa's eyes. She was wide-eyed and nervous. Out of the corner of her eye, Aeris could see Tifa's arm resting against her back, still covering part of her chest. Unimportant compared to the look in Tifa's eyes. Aeris twisted a little further around, one hand brushing Tifa's cheek as she leant forward.
Tifa tensed as Aeris's lips touched hers but soon relaxed and kissed her back. She broke the kiss first and sighed. "Thank you." Tifa looked flushed, staring down at where her hand touched the ground. "That was my first kiss."
"You mean you and Cloud never...?" Aeris trailed off. Tifa shook her head.
"No. I liked it though."
Aeris twisted a little further around and they kissed as the sun dried them and their clothes. She resisted the urge to turn and embrace Tifa. Too fast, too soon. And for now just kissing was pleasing. It had been a long time since she had kissed, a long time since she had curled in Zack's arms and locked their lips together. With a sigh Aeris broke the kiss. As enjoyable as this had been she was aware of how much time had passed. They needed to get back.
Clothes and bodies dry, they walked through the grass back towards the camp barefoot, hand in hand.
"Hope we can find another place like that," Aeris said.
"Me too," Tifa replied glancing back the way they came. She frowned, her eyes following something towards where Aeris stood. "Aeris." She stared down.
Confused, Aeris looked and gasped. Thick grass surrounded her feet, far thicker than the surrounding terrain. She stood at the end of an obvious trail stretching back towards the pool. The fauna bulged up from the ground, thick with tiny, multi-coloured flowers. Even as she stood still, flowers budded and burst into colour faster than she had ever seen before.
"Am, am I doing that?"
"The power of the Ancients," murmured Tifa smiling. "I've never seen anything like it. This must be why you could grow flowers so easily."
"Y-yeah," Aeris said. "I never really wondered how before." She glanced at the heavy boots in her hands.
"I would have spent a lot more time bare-foot if I'd known. Though I think I'll keep them on when we want to avoid notice."
"Might be the best idea."
Aeris looked up at Tifa. "This doesn't weird you out too much? Your girlfriend making flowers grow just by walking?"
A look of surprise crossed Tifa's face but she smiled.
"Not in the slightest."