She almost stayed down on the dock -- hah, a dock, an ordinary word for the only ordinary thing in that underground city of glass and sunlight and impossible stairs; solid dull stone under her feet, unmovable, the only steady thing.
She hadn't felt anywhere near steady ever since the Temple. Breon either, for all that he was built to scale mountain sides that more closely resembled cliffs. She -- they... it was strange, and wrong, everything was. Cloud losing it and striking Aeris to the ground (but Tifa couldn't think about that, couldn't doubt him now, it would destroy him and she did, she did trust him, believe it wasn't his fault, she had to) and Aeris leaving in the dark of night without a word (why? Why? Didn't Tifa deserve to at least know that?) and this place that seemed to vibrate at the edge of her senses with songs she couldn't hear, that made her forearms prickle with gooseflesh anyway.
She watched Cloud and Skally leap over the water from pillar to pillar, reach the stairs' landing, climb up to the platform, the strange altar where Aeris waited, and she almost stayed behind.
(Sitting knee to knee in the gently swinging gondola, Simon breathing against her elbow, Breon's fur ruffling up the falling edge of a pink skirt. But apparently that didn't mean anything, didn't merit a warning, I'm going somewhere, I'll be back soon, don't worry.)
Breon leaned his shoulder against her, and his neck arched; he threw his antlers up, proud and regal. Her fists firmed. "It meant something to me."
"Tifs," said Barret, but she didn't listen to the rest, didn't let him make her hesitate again. She jumped on the first pillar; Breon huffed out a silent laugh, gathered his hooves, and sprang straight to the second, passing her.
She did laugh, nervous and high-pitched, scared that she would intrude on Cloud and Aeris's reunion, be rejected. But taking the chance was... so freeing.
And then Cloud raised his sword over Aeris's bowed head.
"No!" she screamed, horrified. "Cloud, stop!" Breon's voice bellowed over her own; "Simon!"
Still too low on the pillars, she couldn't see Aeris's daemon, but he couldn't be far; he had to do something -- but Skally started prowling forward, head low, hunting, and she was so much bigger, Simon's whole head would fit in her jaws with room left to spare. Breon left Tifa in his dust, leapt over three pillars in one gigantic effort and started for the stairs; she was left scrambling behind and trying to ignore the sudden harsh tug of a strained bond behind her ribs.
Cloud's hands started to shake; Tifa thought she heard his voice, mumbling something, perhaps talking to himself. He still held the sword high, like he couldn't decide what to do with it, like he'd forgotten it. Like he didn't want to. Breon came to a stop on the upper landing, dancing from hoof to hoof, head low, trying to gauge whether he still needed to attempt to pin Skally down with his antlers. The tips were sharp; Tifa knew he couldn't do that without injuring her.
Breathing hard, Tifa attacked the stairs. Cloud's sword fell at his side.
"... What... What are you making me do?"
His voice was so bewildered. Breathing fast with fear more than strain, Tifa reached the top landing, grabbed his elbow, mostly to say 'I'm here' and remind him why he had stopped himself and a little bit because what if he forgot again, and please please please make him keep control, make him be strong enough to fight for himself. Cloud's back and Breon's blocked some of the view, but she could see Aeris, still kneeling, hands laced together, eyes closed, Simon sitting straight at her side like a statue of a cat, paws gathered, tail tucked in. His eyes were open, watching Cloud, but he didn't say a thing.
Aeris opened her eyes and looked up and saw them there, and she smiled, all tenderness and welcome and peace, like there was no reason to be scared, like she hadn't doubted Cloud at all, not one second (had she even noticed?).
Tifa couldn't tell if that smile was for them all, or only for Cloud. The thought hurt. She hadn't expected it to hurt -- Cloud smiling back, yes, she'd thought it would, but -- but --
She didn't want to piggyback onto a long, speaking gaze that wasn't meant for her. Simon was looking up, so she did too.
For an instant her heart stopped.
Black cloak, silver hair, silver sword, black and silver dragon-serpent-beast plummeting down, Aeris and Simon underneath, maw open all those teeth sword no --
Breon charged before she told him to, before she could think it (it was unthinkable anyway) and then his antlers hit and he swept them up -- scooped her up -- and Simon was yowling like a cat you're killing and Tifa was falling to her knees.
She was Aeris. She was everywhere.
She was in the water and it hurt breath-stealing cold, she was on her knees on smooth stone and a serpent with too many tails landed with a floor-rattling thump and coiled before her, and she was the air the water the lake the life underneath the stream and there it was, there it was, if only she could stretch far enough she could
And then a furry muzzle snapped closed on the back of her shirt and heaved, and was it Skally oh god no Skally couldn't touch her it was wrong (Breon was touching Aeris,) but no it was just Nanaki and then she was floating in the water where it hurt but she was falling too, from the platform and
Splash. Water in her lungs. She coughed. She was Tifa-and-Breon, she was Tifa needed to find Breon, Breon Breon where was (AerisSimon).
The brilliant thing fell from her hands and her heart; she'd missed her chance, but no she hadn't, she'd saved her. It was -- it -- who was she, whowasshe who hurtdisappointmentfearlovecare.
Pain, flesh screaming.
But when she touched her stomach there was no gaping wound there.
Right. Right. Her body. She was here. This was her body. But it still, she wasn't, she missed. Something. Missing. She swam toward where it hurt the least, where it screamed for her the most.
Short, stiff fur under her hands. Soul-warmth, rightness. Breon. It ached in her chest where he'd almost yanked himself out of her, leaping over the balustrade with herself -- with, with Aeris -- scooped up in his antlers, stretched things out that shouldn't have been stretched. His hooves brushed her leg in a rush of water as he paddled, but it was automatic, she could tell, without thought, because she was --
Because a girl in pink was draped face down over his back.
Tifa almost shoved her off, pure instinctive recoil, kneejerk reaction. But she might drown, and there was blood in the water -- so cold so cold, mountain stream, just like home.
Tifa shoved, but she caught one of the girl's arms first; Breon paddled away in great big kicks, body racked with shudders, and she pulled the limp girl against her own body and tried to float on her back.
Tried not to drown, when all the lights and all the shivers and the whispers disappeared from the world, leaving her deaf and blind and with only a warm body to cling to.
Okay. Okay. Tifa. She was Tifa Lockhart from Nibelheim and her daemon was Breon he was a Nibel king stag ate grass and lichen and killed wolves, protected the herd, nice and social and gentle, but gentle with weapons. That was him. That was her. That was how she'd always been.
She looked up at the altar, blinked away the strange -- flat -- afterimage. This was the way she'd always seen, it was. It wasn't weird and empty and like she'd gone blind in one eye.
Sephiroth was -- gone. Nowhere to be seen. No silverblack serpent daemon either. There was only a monster left, wet coils of pink and bruise-purple, shades that belonged inside somebody, not out in the air for everyone to see, exposed lungs like wings, obscene and disgusting. Avalanche was fighting it.
Treading water, Tifa pulled Aeris's unconscious body higher up against her chest and scanned the lake for Simon. The altar kept shaking with each assault, dust and bits of old stained glass raining in the water. They couldn't stay there, it was too close to the battle, but if Aeris was unconscious then Simon had to be, too, and he might drown (or worse he might still be up there where Tifa couldn't get at him and his small playful clawful warmth) and she couldn't see him, she couldn't--
Nanaki appeared over the ledge with a limp little rag of orange fur hanging from his mouth and leapt. The splash should have been loud, but the explosions overhead swallowed all sound. The waves his body raised splashed water in Tifa's face and she turned, awkward, trying to shield Aeris so she wouldn't breathe any more water.
Nanaki paddled his way to her, head craned up so he wouldn't put Simon's muzzle underwater. "We need to get them out of the -- Tifa? Are you alright?"
Was she? No, she wasn't, she was more and less than that. She had lost the brilliant thing, the -- but the body came first. She couldn't feel her feet anymore for the cold. Aeris was unconscious and bleeding. Anything else would have to wait. "Ah -- yes. Yes."
But when she turned to the dock she couldn't help but moan in consternation. The top of it rose so far out of the water she didn't think she could have touched it with her hand; there was no way Breon could climb out from there.
Nanaki had apparently come to the same realization; he turned on himself, scanning the area. Tifa was too cold to do the same, could barely feel her hands anymore, or her legs under the knee.
"This way." He started paddling determinedly, away from the dock. Tifa awkwardly freed one of her hands from under Aeris's armpit -- it had been tangled with the shoulder strap of her dress -- and wrapped it around Breon's neck instead, who had come back all cautious and twitchy.
"Shh," she whispered through chattering teeth, "I'm in the middle. No touching." Breon snorted like he wasn't sure whether to believe her, (like he wished she were wrong like he wanted things he shouldn't want) but started following Nanaki, towing her along. Floating on her back, Tifa tried to help by kicking her legs, but her heavy hiking shoes were drenched through, and Aeris's limp body almost slipped off hers, and she was afraid she couldn't hold her back one-handed if she slipped any farther. "I'm sorry," she told Breon. He lipped at her fringe and snorted again.
She was so tired. The great glass walls kept rattling overhead with explosions and crackles of power; it sounded so far away. Bad sign. She was cold, cold, cold...
"There we are! There, turn a bit, give her to me."
A drop of water landed on her face. Tifa blinked up at Nanaki's big muzzle, hovering over her and dripping merrily. He'd found... she looked to the side. It was a tower, she thought, narrow and round, and maybe the water didn't use to be so high (or maybe Cetras just liked weird architecture) because there was a sort of tall window opening right there onto a landing for stairs that spiraled up inside the tower, delightfully dry.
She and Breon turned somehow; she shuffled onto his back to prop up Aeris's limp body, to allow Nanaki to sink his teeth in her red jacket and haul her out of the water. Tifa felt bereft for a second, arms empty.
"Tifa?" Breon said, startling her. He sounded like he'd called her before already. She'd been drifting, hadn't she?
"Sorry." She reached for the edge of the landing and tried to pull herself up. She couldn't close her fingers. Breon paddled closer, allowing her to put a knee on his back and bounce herself up, though she winced when that briefly pushed him farther underwater. She scrambled the rest of the way out and flopped down right there, panting, for a second, before she turned around to help her daemon out.
He outweighed her by several hundred pounds. "Regretting that I didn't settle groundhog yet?" he chuffed, front hooves skidding on the rock for a brief moment before his weight dragged him back into the water. She had to let go of his antlers before he dragged her overboard with him.
She could only grit back "Never" and brace a foot against the stone doorway to try again.
Failure, again. She looked around for inspiration, brain slow and exhausted.
Simon had been left like a soaked pile of rags on a higher stair, out of the way. Nanaki had propped up Aeris next to him; she bled sluggishly, head lolling back, limp all over.
"Maybe with some lever," Nanaki mused to himself. "Ah! Take her vest, put it around Breon's neck; I'll pull."
Tifa eyed Nanaki. He only came up to the top of her thigh, but his body was long and heavy, all over muscle. "Okay," she said, and went to work the jacket off Aeris.
Aeris was so pale under her, her flesh so cold, white as marble. Tifa's hand shook when she rested it against her bared neck.
Pulse. Faint but there. And drenched clothes wouldn't help warm her up anyway. She was as gentle as possible when she guided Aeris's arms out of her sleeves. None of the many stab wounds and scratches Breon's antlers had left when he scooped her up still bled much, the cold had done that much, but there was no way to tell if the impact had given her internal injuries. "Nanaki? Do you have any healing materia on you?"
"No, I'm sorry."
"... Alright, never mind." She went back to Breon with the jacket and threw it around his neck, gave the sleeves to Nanaki, who clamped his jaws down on them and set his paws. She braced herself on the doorjamb again, Breon bounced in the water, and they all went to work trying to haul him out.
It was messy, unpractical work; Breon's hooves skidded on the wet stone once and he fell back in, but on the second try their timing was better, and even though he flopped on his side in a flurry of long thin limbs with ribs-bruising force there was more of his mass out of the water than in, and they managed to haul him all the way across the doorway. Exhausted, Tifa let herself fall on her knees in the widening puddle on the landing and hugged her daemon's neck.
The fight against the monster on the altar was still going on; she spared a moment to worry about her teammates, and then pushed herself up and stumbled her way to Aeris.
The woman was shivering, arms prickly with gooseflesh. Good sign. Tifa picked up an ice-cold hand, tried to rub warmth back into it, and -- oh. Restore materia, right there on her bangle. She hurried to pop the sphere out, slot it into the back of her own glove.
She could only access the lowest spell, and even so it left her exhausted. She hesitated on what to do next for a second, looked back, but the only other person there was Nanaki, who likely didn't give a damn, no matter what that creep Hojo -- she wasn't going to think of that. Okay, then. She started popping open the buttons on Aeris's long, soaked dress with awkward fingers.
The wounds had closed, but long scabs and discolored bruises-to-be were left all over her side, from ribcage to hip. Tifa winced at one of the slices over her ribs; the girl had been lucky the knifepoint of Breon's antler hadn't punched through skin and flesh between two ribs but merely slid alongside the bone. It'd leave a scar, though.
Tifa toed off her own sodden shoes as she worked on Aeris's clothes, cursing her lack of fire materia. She only had ice and earth and a couple of summons, singularly unhelpful at the moment.
She pulled the dress out from under Aeris, twisted some of the water out of it, and left it to dry on a higher step, and then she sat, pulled off her own elbow-length gloves, and cautiously gathered Aeris to her, sliding the other woman onto her lap. Breon made his way to the bottom of the staircase and laid down to block the breeze a little bit. His pelt repelled water much more efficiently than her clothes did, though he was still a bit damp; Tifa leaned on him and sighed, eyes closing, basking. We're alive, she thought, and knew he thought it as well. She turned her face up as he nuzzled down at her brow, hands chafing at Aeris's shoulders to try and warm her up.
"You ought to take off your own shirt," Nanaki commented as he cautiously shook water out of his fur.
Tifa was so exhausted that she didn't even feel embarrassed at first. "Ah -- it's thin enough, it'll dry faster on me." At least her skirt was leather.
Nanaki gave her a doubtful look, but merely flicked his ear in dismissal in the end. He set his teeth in the heel of Aeris's boot and pulled it off, and then the second one, dropping them on the landing, and then he leapt in silence across the three of them. He picked Simon up like a kitten, and, cautiously as possible, he settled him on Aeris's lap.
Tifa suddenly wanted to touch him, that tiny sodden ball of orange fur, wanted to warm him in her hands and cuddle him close, keep him safe. Such a confident, fearless personality, but the body was so tiny, tiny adorable white-tipped paws and tiny head that would have fit into her hand with room to spare.
Aeris was a bit sideways on Tifa, Tifa reclining against the wall and Aeris slumped against her chest. If she shuffled their weights just a little bit he might shift and bump against her arm. Tifa bit her lip and closed her eyes and stayed perfectly still as Breon curved his neck over to breathe a gust of warm air on Simon.
Nanaki sighed and flopped down on their other side, so Tifa's shoulder and Aeris's backs rested on his flank, and he draped a heavy front paw across the three of them. "I should probably climb that staircase, see if there are any exits... At least some manner of window from which to see the battle."
Another boom rattled the staircase, and then was a faraway tinkle-splash of broken glass raining in the water.
She didn't want to give up his warmth. She wanted to keep watching his huge head bowed across both women's laps to groom the housecat. She kept wondering what it felt like, to be able to touch a person and their daemon both, and have it not feel wrong, not feel like encroaching, to be able to show support and care and love with something as easy as physical affection. "Yeah -- probably."
Tifa eyed her daemon's sharp-tipped, wolf-killing antlers. Aeris probably wouldn't look back on that time she had touched Breon with anything like fondness.
Nanaki stayed another few minutes, breathing slow and steady on them, quiet and warm and close, and then he climbed back to his feet with a heavy sigh and went exploring up the stairs. Tifa closed her eyes and rubbed warmth back into Aeris's back and tried to stop mourning the brilliant thing, the thing she'd lost, the thing she might catch falling shards and echoes of if only she let her hands rest on Simon.
Three times she felt Breon's warm breath ghost over Aeris's drying bangs, almost, almost tempted to groom, and say, sorry for hurting you, sorry for touching you, it was magnificent, it was terrible, and it was all my fault. (Please let me do it again.)
(Only then Aeris would see Tifa's own soul right back, this tiny, envious thing, and how could it ever compare, how could it be anything like an equal exchange.)