I Know What’s Beneath the Snow Fields –Chp.90



Her senses, scattered and stagnant for so long in a swamp of darkness, finally stirred. Bit by bit, they began to gather at one place, an ever growing jumble of faces, voices, flashes and impressions. Slowly they raised her towards the surface. She drifted upwards, but at the same time, something felt amiss. What, she did not know. Just this special something very precious to her, she realized it wasn’t here with her anymore. She looked around in desperation.

She had to find it!
    Where could it be?
        Why wasn’t it here with her?

Amidst such a chaotic congregation of thoughts and questions, she pushed her way through until she discovered her lost treasure floating right there before her: a man.

Beneath the frost, she’d uncovered within him guilt and ever-consuming sorrow. Beneath that she’d found gentleness, warmth, and the most beautiful soul of all, cultivated out of love and its own suffering. She beheld his face. She yearned to touch it again. Yet to her dismay, a wide gulf seemed to separate their hearts. Gazing back at her, the man appeared troubled and forlorn, uncertain of some matter he would not share with her. Nor could she fathom what tormented him so; his eyes barred her out. Yes, those crimson eyes. They could always see into her. She however never completely penetrated through them. He never quite let her that far into himself.

She wanted to find out what’s wrong. This distance between them, the way he beheld her, it perturbed her greatly. She reached out for him. She could see her own hand; five fingertips trembling to close the gap…

In vain. The man had already receded to oblivion as if purposefully avoiding her- *her* in particular. Meanwhile she floundered behind, still aching to caress his face. She tried to swim after him when a powerful current swept her far away in the opposite direction. She tumbled and struggled. Soon her mind emerged out of the black waters of unconsciousness to the shores of dim awareness.

**********************

Aeris’ green eyes opened halfway. A white, stoic ceiling greeted her hazy vision. She blinked. She found herself lying supine underneath a warm blanket in an unfamiliar bed. Steel railings bordered its parameter, beyond which the world dimmed to obscurity. A mask covered the lower half of her face. Her breathing sounded so loud within the confines of this plastic case. Several machines surrounded her. They held her prisoner via wired electrodes applied to her chest, tubes connected to her mask, and fluid-filled cannulas, one inserted in her forearm, another in her delicate neck. These electronic sentinels watched over her. They beeped results out regularly as if praising each other for a job well done.

A grey grogginess still coated Aeris’ brain. She did not know where she was. She could not recall what happened or how fate dumped her here. Everything inside her head hung in tatters. Even the contents of her dream just now eluded her, although the emotions it had aroused persisted as a vague fog, especially this feeling of separation, of loss without reason.

The weary girl remained quiet and still. She stared up while sensation seeped back drop by drop to her numb body. She wondered where she was. The machines around her, the wires and tubes, it reminded her of the Professor. But no, this wasn’t the laboratory.

The where…?

As she dawdled longer in consciousness, Aeris gradually discerned a presence nearby. The girl rolled her sight sideways. There at the foot of the bed she perceived a young man in profile, no more than a blur to her haggard eyes. He gazed far off into empty space with arms crossed. Aeris silently watched him rub his temples then fold his arms again, as if so worn out by his own irritation he knew not how to bear it anymore.

His wayward attention happened to then fall upon Aeris. To suddenly discover her awake jolted the man clear out of his reverie. He immediately scurried to her side, where he stooped over the railing to observe her upclose.

Aeris could distinguish his facial features much better now, though in her befuddlement struggled to decide whether he too was another dream or real. He had a shock of blond hair spiked on end. His intensely blue, bright eyes fascinated her. Aeris gazed up at him as she rummaged through her shambled memories in search for him. The young man waited, jaws clenched, repressed stiff under anxiety. A name. Just for her to say his name would set him at ease.

The girl didn’t find him in her head, but preserved safe within her heart. A good friend, how often had he come visit her to keep her company. Him, with his infectious sense of humour, amazing adventure stories and that wonderful smile she loved so much. Yes, she remembered him.

Aeris weakly raised her free forearm up to him. The man clasped it at once into his strong hand and drew it near him.

“..Cloud,” she identified. Her own voice shocked her; it squeezed out not above a whisper.

Yet even if Cloud hadn’t heard her, he caught the spark of fond recognition in her eyes, and that sufficed. A big, relieved grin spread across his face. “Well hey-hey there, gorgeous!” he welcomed Aeris.

His friendliness flowed through her hand to warm her to the very core. No, not a dream. He was real. This was real. As the confused girl fumbled with this realisation, Cloud, still beaming happy sunshine down upon her, motioned aside for someone else to come quick. Suddenly Tifa scuttled into Aeris’ field of vision.

The unexpected encounter took them both by surprise. Tifa clasped her mouth to contain the excitement of seeing Aeris thus awake; the feeble latter whirled in a bigger daze to meet her at all. Aeris searched her heart again to find Tifa’s memory snuggled safe next to Cloud’s. Of course she remembered her too. The glimmer in her eyes indicated so.

Both of them dear friends. Both of them here with her.

By now, emotion so overwhelmed Tifa that regardless of the rail or wires, she bent over to embrace her friend as best as she could. Aeris wriggled her hand out of Cloud’s to pat her shoulder in return.

“Oh Aeris! Thank God!” Tifa exclaimed rapturously, “Thank God, thank God you’re alright!!”

“Heh, you sure had us worried SICK!” Cloud chimed in, “I think I got a couple of grey hairs because of you!”

The joyful reunion bewildered Aeris speechless. It seemed *ages* since she’d last seen her two friends. Another lifetime, another person.

She studied them as they happily hovered about her. Tifa had managed to compose herself again. She stood by the bedside, smiling, her face relaxed at last after an eternity of tension. Aeris noticed how rather unkempt she appeared. Her blouse was a bit creased; her long hair hung in a careless braid. She looked like she hadn’t slept properly for days. Aeris turned to Cloud. He appeared even more tired. Dark circles hung underneath his eyes. Exhaustion weighed heavy upon his shoulders, though now that she lay safe and awake, his ecstasy could vanquish anything fatigue attempted on him.

With better orientation came keener self-awareness. Aeris reflected upon her state as she rested upon this bed. A pervasive stiffness plagued her joints. Dryness kept her throat constricted; how she craved for a sip of water. She felt sore all over, especially her thorax. It kind of hurt to breathe. Every rise of the boson drew in a muffled pang of agony along with air from the mask. Her thin body, barely traceable beneath the blanket, was wrapped up tight in bandages and dressings. These shackles of white cloth wound thickly around her right shoulder and chest, braced her back then bound her limbs. All this conquest beneath a simple cotton gown.

Her senses next lolled about the room. It was square and white. A couple of chairs cowered in a corner; high above them a TV imperiously sat upon a shelf. Aeris’ bed occupied the centre of the room. It thus put her in the crossfire between two windows which antagonised each other from opposite walls. She looked to the left. This window offered a view of the city skyline. Tall, grim buildings and modern complexes. Into these sprawling battlements a dying sun had already begun to sink, casting hues of orange and pink upon Midgar as night slowly invaded the sky.

Aeris glanced at the opposing window on the right. Through its glass façade she watched life bustle about in the corridor outside her room. Unfamiliar people walked past. Wheelchairs and trolleys rolled by. She did not understand any of this. What was this place? How did she get here?

Her perplexed mind drifted back to this private room. Questions persecuted her. Aeris forcefully dug through the darkness enshrouding her memories in search for answers. She last recalled herself… in some… hall. Noise. There’d been a lot of noise, crashing and shaking. At first, she was anxious. But then, she found him. He was with her, holding her, listening as she spoke to him about… about…

The rest fizzled to blank. She could remember nothing afterwards. So what happened? How did she come to be here, amongst her friends again?

“..where am…I?” she inquired at a loss.

Tifa, keen to the girl’s confusion, immediately leaned over to reassure her, “You’re in the hospital, sweetheart. Don’t worry. It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”

Hospital?     What…? How?

Aeris’ bewildered sight wandered around the place again, still uncertain and wary, when an even more important question struck her poor heart into sudden flummox, “Ah! Vincent!” she started, “W-where’s Vincent?!”

Tifa blinked. A flutter of hesitation, quite perceivable despite the manner she cast her brown eyes askance, gravened her expression. She faltered, “Vincent… he’s…”

However Cloud, who’d stepped out of the room for a moment to fetch someone, now returned. An older woman in a white coat entered after him carrying a file and some papers. Behind her walked a tan-skinned nurse.

“Check it out, Doc! She’s awake!” Cloud announced the good news.

The nurse frowned at such informality. But the doctor, a good-humoured lady, boomed back, “Well now! Let’s see!”

Tifa’s answer would have to wait. She mumbled something then retreated as the entourage assumed command. She and Cloud loitered in one corner. From there they attentively followed the main scene at hand. The nurse, a diligent busy-bee, removed Aeris’ oxygen mask with a professional smile. Next off she went copy new information from the machines into the charts. The physician lingered at the end of the bed. She flicked through the file while speaking to the nurse in their cryptic medical language.

Aeris viewed this woman. She was of slender build, with reddish hair piled on top of her head. She had a plain but honest face. It glowed amiability when she turned to greet her patient.

“Good afternoon, Miss Aeris. I’m the senior doctor here. My name’s Dr. Moira Marshall. And how are you now that you’re back in the land of the living?”

Aeris knew not how to respond. Nor did the good doctor insist on one yet. Instead she let the girl enjoy her first breaths of natural air while she reviewed the file more. The assiduous nurse handed her the finished charts. Dr. Moira, upon receiving them, gave her a set of instructions; the latter scampered out of the room to obey at once. The doctor now focused all her attention on her patient.

“You know, you are one very lucky girl, Miss Aeris,” she declared, “With the state you were brought in, to be honest many of us were afraid you wouldn’t make it. But I’m so delighted you’ve pulled through after all,” the pleasant woman opened her file to a new page, “Tell me, how are you feeling?”

“Tired,” sighed Aeris, her voice barely audible.

“Well, naturally you would be,” Dr. Moira scribbled away, “But how’s your shoulder? Is there any pain?”

“A bit. It… it hurts more in my chest when I breathe.”

“Okay. I’ll have the nurse give you another pain killer.”

She wrote further notes into the file. Dr. Moira then turned towards Tifa and Cloud with some question, to which the man duly replied, his girlfriend occasionally adding a remark to assist him. The details of their conversation escaped Aeris; a slight numbness still tingled her ears, plus her interest did not lie in their discussion. Instead during this time, the lonesome girl quietly contrasted the doctor’s cheerful words against her own dim recollections. She tried to elucidate a clear explanation as to what exactly happened.

She’d been injured. The Professor. He’d slashed her across the chest. She saw those talons again, long, hideous knives whetted on malice. Lying here, that moment God knows how far behind her, Aeris could still feel Hojo’s claw cut a swath of gruesome pain across her body. Her mind had then plummeted into darkness. She only resurfaced once, whereupon she’d found herself supported between Vincent’s arms. Something terrible had happened after she’d fallen, what though she still could not say. He’d carried her away to some hall. Together they’d loitered upon the floor, she fading but happy, so happy knowing he was safe and alive.

That’s right. She remembered now: Holocaust Hojo had wanted to kill Vincent. After an eternity of cowering, she’d stood up to protect him, even if it meant her own death.

And death was precisely the fate she’d received.

Yet here she was, alive and secure, surrounded by friends she never dreamed she’d see again. So someone had brought her to hospital. But one point rather troubled Aeris.

“Who?” she interrupted the conversation.

Cloud, in the middle of his sentence, stopped short. Both he and Tifa looked towards her. Dr. Moira also turned back to her patient. She asked, “Sorry, what?”

“You said… I was brought in. Who brought me here?”

She thought maybe Vincent had found an escape route out of the Reactor after all. Maybe he’d carried her to this place. But that scenario seemed highly unlikely. Huddled in that hall, rubble raining hard and earth trembling beneath them, they’d both known that he could never get her out of there in time. It was her fate to die there.

So who? *Who* had defied fate itself?

“I don’t know,” the physician admitted, “He didn’t give his name. Uh, really tall fellow, with white hair and strange pink eyes.”

No name needed. Aeris recognized him at once: Davoren.

A cold chill suddenly shot up Aeris’ spine. The description petrified the girl stiff, so much so that her breath froze inside her tense bosom. Her stunned mind conjured up his image. Davoren, the Professor’s obedient puppet. The hound dog who wouldn’t rest until he’d dragged her back to his master. She’d never borne more than two feelings for him: absolute, mad fear and equal hatred. But now, to hear she owed her survival to the very same man, it left Aeris staring agog at the doctor. She had to know more!

Dr. Moira in return perceived how dramatically this simple revelation affected the girl. So she had the kind grace to stop writing in order to divulge into the full story, “This man, he barged into the ER early morning. He had you flung over one shoulder. Your wound was wrapped up tight in a shirt. My guess is that it belonged to him, because he only had his undershirt on when he came in. He’d also used his own tie as a sort of ‘rope’ to support your injury better, just to keep it all together till he got you here. See, you’d been slashed pretty badly across the chest, Miss Aeris. There’d been a tremendous amount of trauma: to the shoulder joint itself, the collar bone, ribs, lungs and blood vessels. Plus you received some mini-fractures to your pelvis and lower back. The way that man had you wrapped up with his shirt and tie as one bandage, he’s quite clever I must confess. It didn’t stop the bleeding, but it sure slowed it down long enough for us to save you. Anyway, you weren’t the only emergency he’d brought in.”

“I…I wasn’t?”

“He was carrying you across one shoulder and another man on his other shoulder. A young guy, as I recall, with long black hair and this…,” she waved one hand in search for a proper description, “This busted metallic ‘arm’ thing. He was in far worse shape than you. Well, this white-haired man dropped you both off here. Everyone was rushing around. I went away for just a minute. When I came back,” the doctor concluded mystically, “he was already gone.”

Aeris struggled to register this flood of new information, “And… how long ago was this?”

Dr. Moira checked the chart in had. She calculated, “About three weeks. That’s how long you’ve been in a coma.”

Silence.

The girl, rigid as wood, fixedly viewed the doctor a moment longer, but all the details had been disclosed. Nothing else to add. Aeris whispered, “I see,” then twisted her head to one side, where it stayed thus. She asked no more.

Not once throughout the anecdote had either Cloud, looking on with arms tightly crossed, or Tifa interrupted. They’d obviously heard it before. They remained two pensive spectators in the background. Tifa especially seemed immersed in morbid preoccupation, during which she’d riveted her disconcerted eyes upon Midgar’s skyline rather than keep them inside here.

A heavy hush descended upon the room with the completion of the story. Only the consistent bleeps of the machinery prevented its weight from crushing them under. Dr. Moira clearly could not understand the uptightness of this lot. However, being the amicable woman she was, she attempted to diffuse some of Aeris’ tension with a smile.

“Well, what’s important is that you get better,” she dismissed the topic, “It hardly matters who brought you here as long as you’re alive now, right?”

If only it were that simple. To learn that she owed her life to that man- *that* man of all people- confounded Aeris mute. She spun in a whirlpool of thoughts and emotions. He who’s mercilessly torn her away from this world, from her friends, from Vincent’s arms on that cold, dreadful night. He was the same who’d saved them both from a sure death.

Aeris returned to that frightening instance inside the dungeon, when she’d stood pressed back against the wall with Davoren towering high over her. She’d called him a monster. Foolish little child that she was, she’d thought she knew what that word meant until he made her touch his skin; he actually took her trembling hand and ran it alongside his face.

She remembered the words he carved deep into her soul; words which altered her perception completely. She remembered his intense stare boring straight into her. He’d then lit his cigarette lighter and held it between them. Through those pink eyes he’d let her glimpse another person trapped behind there. Him but not him, burning amidst such sorrow, such pain it struck her more so now that it did before.

Aeris realized that was the last time she spoke to Davoren. They’d parted ways without her ever understanding that part of him. That part buried far beneath the brutality and blood-lust.

Was this the part which finally emerged on that night to save them?

The entry of two orderlies disrupted Aeris’ reverie. They wheeled a bed-trolley into the room. Dr. Moira acknowledged them with a quick “Ah, right”. She turned to give the head orderly a list of commands. He grunted something then with his partner began to prepare their vehicle for loading. Amidst the bustle, the physician had a brief opportunity to explain to Aeris, “These two gentlemen are going to take you to the X-ray room downstairs. We just need a couple of shots of your shoulder and hips, okay?”

The girl nodded. By now, the tan-skinned nurse had returned to help the transfer. So the doctor bid Aeris a temporary farewell before departing. She walked out into the main corridor with the file.

“Dr. Moira?” called Cloud.

She looked behind to perceive him and Tifa, both having also left the patient, trotting after her rife with questions. She understood at once. She motioned for the couple to follow her. Down the hallway the three marched until they reached a door at the very end. The physician unlocked it then escorted her guests through. They entered a small office, consisting of a desk, some chairs and an overstuffed bookcase in one wall. Tifa and Cloud were politely requested to sit. They obeyed. Dr. Moira closed the door then, dumping Aeris’ file upon the desk, assumed her own place behind the table. With fingers intertwined upon its shiny surface, she waited for either visitor to commence.

Cloud cut straight to the chase, “Tell me, Doc, is Aeris gonna be okay?”

In addressing such uncertain issues as prognosis, Dr. Moira adopted a more solemn front. “Well, she’s made it through the worst part, but she’s not out of the woods yet,” she proceeded cautiously, “Her chest is still in pretty bad shape. The wounds haven’t completely healed. Plus we’ve detected various chemical substances in her system, but the dialysis has fortunately removed them completely. The damage they’ve done though is difficult to assess.”

“Chemicals?” he echoed, perplexed, “What kind of chemicals?”

“Some we’ve identified. Drugs, like sedatives and muscle relaxants. Others we just don’t know their purpose or even what they are. That, and there are markings; I mean like rope marks, needle injections and other bruises all over her body,” Dr. Moira rubbed her temples at the list of harm, “It’s like she’d been tortured as some kind of… lab-rat or something.”

She’d hit the mark a lot closer than she realized. Tifa pressed one hand against her distraught heart to steady herself. The horrific image of Aeris poisoned and senseless, tied up with Evil hovering around her, touching and hurting her so perturbed the young woman. Cloud leaned forward in his seat; he absorbed the doctor’s every word. His weary, stern face radiated contemplation.

The physician however had some hope to offer, “Aeris has suffered multiple traumas. As I’m sure you’re aware of, the New Government has implemented that ‘Natural Resource Protection’ law which severely restricts the use and sale of materia. It’s not like the old days anymore. Even in hospitals, material is used only in extreme emergencies, and it’s not the highest grade either, more of a supportive measure. But her condition has stabilised now. We will continue our treatment plan with a couple more pulses of materia. It’ll heal her wounds better, even prevent scarring, and most importantly help mend her broken bones. I cannot foretell the future of course. But like I said, the worst is over. She’s conscious and holding out reasonable well. Hopefully, she will be alright.”

Towards the end of her speech, Dr. Moira had re-opened Aeris’ file to record the rest of her assessments. Still scribbling away, she tossed an extra comment into the discussion, “That man white hair… Heaven help us. If he’d brought her in any later, the she definitely would have died. We still don’t know what happened to that other man he carried in, though… the one with long black hair.”

A certain nervousness crept into Cloud at the mention of this “other man”. He and Tifa exchanged a significant glance.

“Come to think of it,” the physician realised, “We never found out his name either. He had no wallet or ID card on him. I told you before that he was brought in with Miss Aeris,” she looked at Cloud, “You wouldn’t happen to know him too, would you?”

“No, afraid not,” he apologized, a little too quickly.

“Hm.”

Cloud straightened up in his chair, “But, uh,” he tried to maintain the smoothness of their conversation, “You say he was in even worse shape than Aeris, right?”

“Mr. Strife,” she announced, “I have worked here for seventeen years, and never, *never* have I seen anyone in such a critical state as THAT man,” she momentarily lowered her pen to recount this amazing anecdote to her two listeners, “Severe haemorrhage, fever, multiple trauma to bones and internal organs, an assortment of wounds throughout his body, from cuts to slashes to gunshots. He was unconscious but still breathing. It simply boggles the mind to wonder who could endure so much abuse and still be *alive*. Not an ordinary human, that’s for sure,” she reflected deeper upon the matter, “Actually, that man made an extremely intriguing case.”

Cloud shifted uncomfortably. All this talk about Dr. Moira’s “intriguing case” put him ill at ease. Tifa however inquired, “How do you mean?”

The physician turned to her, “Well, besides the fact that he was alive at all, we discovered many- how shall I put it? Unique finding about him. His particular physiology just didn’t seem to the fit with norm. His body had these incredible ways of coping with blood loss and injuries. With just basic therapy, his wounds began healing a lot faster than usual,” Dr. Moira resumed writing, at the same time saying, “Anyway, we treated his messy condition as best as we could. I was going to summon some consultants and scientists from another hospital to come have a look at him. I’m sure they would have been interested in his ‘abnormalities’. Unfortunately, he disappeared on the third day after his admission.”

“Oh,” remarked the young woman quietly.

“Nobody knows how. I wouldn’t be surprised if he just woke up and left. But what’s so bewildering is that shortly afterwards, everything we had about him disappeared too. The medical file we’d written on him, his findings, even his details on the computer system. All gone without a trace. So technically speaking,” she emphasized the conclusion to the two, “This man never existed.”

Listening to this story, the silent couple had a good idea about who had erased that data, although both would not reveal the perpetrator’s identity to the befuddled physician. Turks were skilled at sneaking around just as much as covering their own tracks and destroying evidence. Yes, Cloud regretted lying. Then again, behind their grave façades, he and Tifa were sure glad this particular Turk managed to escape before he fell prisoner to endless investigations and curious probing.

They watched the tireless doctor inscribe more notes into Aeris’ file. Notes about her condition, her results, her outcome. Cloud frowned. To sit thus with Aeris’ case on display, surrounded by many questions still unanswered, evoked especially strong feelings of frustration within him. He stared down at his clenched fists while mulling over his own emotions. When he could bear it no longer, the man asked straight out, “Doc, how soon before Aeris can come home with us?”

Dr. Moira raised her head. She looked kindly upon him, “Now Mr. Strife, that’s-“

“Not that we’re ungrateful for all you’ve done,” he interrupted, resolved to convey his thoughts across the table to her, “I mean, you’ve taken excellent care of her. It’s just that Tifa and I have been worried crazy about her these past few weeks. It’s really been pure Hell for us. So we’d feel a lot better if you let us take Aeris home. Plus I’m sure she’d rather come with her friends than stay here alone in the hospital. We got an extra bedroom she can live in. Tifa is a top-notch nurse. She’ll make sure Aeris is properly cared for. I’m no medicine whiz, but I’ll look after her too, you can count one that.”

His earnestness seemed to impress the good doctor. Indeed, she pent a moment revolving his request inside her head. She glanced meaningfully at Tifa, who nodded to show she supported her boyfriend’s decision 110%. Yes, both of them very much wanted this.

Dr. Moira returned to Cloud. “Let me consult the other doctors, okay?” she smiled, defeated but still benevolent, “We’ll keep her for a few more days. If she shows enough improvement, then we’ll consider discharge, deal?”

The compromise worked for them. They discussed Aeris’ treatment plan a bit more until Dr. Moira received an urgent phone call; some new admission in the ER required her immediate presence. So she excused herself. The three left the office. Cloud and she shook hands on their agreement, after which she hurried away to attend other business.

Meanwhile, the couple strolled off back to Aeris’ quarters. They stopped by the visitors’ lounge which served hot beverages. Cloud purchased a cup of black coffee. Tifa did not want any. Onwards they wandered down the long corridor, solemn as a funeral procession. Between them hung a gloomy silence neither cared to break. Together this morose pair walked into the ward.

By now, Aeris had returned from her trip to X-ray. But her two friends, rather than enter the room, loitered outside in the corridor. They watched her through the observation window, like they’d done a dozen times before over these past weeks.

They lingered side by side behind this transparent wall, Cloud glumly sipping his coffee, Tifa with arms loosely folded across her chest. They both studied Aeris as she lay supine in bed, her head turned slightly away so that she could watch the television; one of the nurses must have switched it on after her return. The girl had been hooked back to everything except the ventilator. She did not move. Nor did she make a sound. She just rested there in perfect stillness, watching that flickering screen, unaware of those two pairs of eyes in turn watching her.

Tifa sighed to herself. She rewound events to the beginning then let them roll across her mind again. This was how she’d always passed the hours while observing Aeris: remembering, just struggling to keep her sanity from cracking.

About four weeks ago, Vincent and Aeris had both disappeared. It curiously coincided with that infamous shoot-out at the Midgar Public Park. The following morning, while the city buzzed with talk about the brutal incident, Cloud had set off to visit the two, only to come back bearing odd news: neither was home. At first, Tifa had dismissed his uneasiness; she said they’d probably went out together to the shops or for a walk and would return soon enough.

But they never did. Twice Cloud went; twice he came back with the same report: neither was home.

They bombarded the place with phone calls. Still nothing. The next morning they’d marched up to Vincent’s apartment. Half an hour they wasted slamming their fists against his door and calling for him. He didn’t answer. They contacted the landlord, a reclusive old gentleman who occupied the ground floor. He did not know where Vincent might be. He usually kept out his tenants’ businesses as long as they paid their rents on time. With Tifa’s persuasion, he agreed to unlock Vincent’s apartment for them to search inside. No one there. No Vincent. No Aeris.

Cloud had then traveled all the way to Sector 1, where he found the gunsmith shop his missing friend worked at. He’d only reported there once in the last few days, apparently to obtain powerful ammo for his weapon, and lots of it too. He made an excellent gunsmith, the manager had admitted to Cloud; many customers came asking for him. But he’d always been a strict loner. Besides work, he shared nothing with his colleagues. So if he had gone off to some place, doubtful he’d tell anyone here where.

At this stage, anxiety had infested Cloud and Tifa’s minds. Something terrible must have happened. Their fretful imaginations concocted all sorts of possibilities. Days dragged by, an eternity of waiting and wondering. They’d finally decided to alert the police when late one evening, a little more than a week since the disappearance, Tifa received a phone call. She’d recognized the tired, calm voice on the end of the line at once: Vincent.

He wouldn’t answer the hailstorm of exclamations and questions which followed. Instead he assured Tifa, quite composedly, that he was alright and would explain everything later. For now, she and Cloud had to go to the Midgar Hospital. That’s where Aeris lay; she’d been there for the past three days. He’d then hung up.

Three weeks had passed since that chilling phone call. She and Cloud had frantically rushed here, only to be guided to this room, where through the window they beheld an unconscious, wasted Aeris connected to those machines. The scene so terrified Tifa that she still vividly remembered disintegrating to tears. Dr. Moira had told them the story about the white-haired man. She kindly kept them updated throughout the ordeal.

God knows how they kept their restaurant running in the meantime. They slept very little, thought of nothing else besides their friend. Three weeks traveling to and fro, holding vigil by her bedside, praying she’d wake up soon.

Now here they stood, still watching and waiting.

“Damn him,” muttered Cloud at length, unable to contain his seething vexation anymore.

Tifa heard him. However, she continued to view the oblivious girl without comment.

“He should’ve got us involved, Tifa. He should’ve let us help him. Damn that bastard.”

“Don’t,” she begged softly.

“But Vincent should have at least told us from the start what happened, not leave us hanging like that!”

“I know,” Tifa agreed, “Just please, don’t.”

Her gentle supplication indeed placated some of his wrath. For now, the sullen Cloud returned to drinking his coffee in silence.

Tifa meanwhile reminisced about events following Vincent’s phone call. Several days later, the man himself had appeared at their doorstep unannounced. The second Cloud spotted him, he’d lunged at him in a fury and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. He’d shook him, hurtling raw anger into the man’s face. He felt such rage at him for vanishing like that, for what happened to Aeris, for leaving them in a state of mad worry. Vincent never resisted. He let Cloud shout at him till Tifa had to intervene; she mollified the latter into allowing the former to speak.

In truth, Vincent’s miserable demeanor had struck a strong cord within her. Not just his appearance, with his morose, wan face and mutilated claw wrapped up in some strip of cloth. Through his ruby red eyes, she’d perceived a wretchedness gnawing on his insides too. Whatever happened had changed him in ways she couldn’t begin to fathom.

Vincent looked like he’d fought in some demonic war. He soon revealed that he actually had. Seated at the kitchen table, the demure man gave them a truncated version of the story. He’d confessed to his involvement in the explosion at the abandoned ShinRa Headquarters some time ago, along with the shoot-out at “Snow Fields” park. In both cases, there’d been an attempt by the Professor’s minions to recapture Aeris. The first try, he’d foiled. The second, they’d succeeded.

Vincent told his two disconcerted friends he’d spent about a week searching for her on his own; hence his disappearance. He’d followed what clues he amassed until the path led him to one of the Mako Reactors, where a secret laboratory thrived underground. It emerged that this “Professor” Aeris had spoken so fearfully about was none other than Professor Hojo, a revelation to which Cloud reacted in alarm. There he’d battled the scientist to save Aeris, though in the end he couldn’t protect her from his claws. Vincent assumed full responsibility for the destruction of the Reactor. He did not know what befell Hojo. He he’d woken up, he’d found himself in hospital. It took him three days to muster enough strength to escape (though by no means, Tifa noted, had he recovered from that war), after which he’d contacted them.

Vincent explained the Professor’s experiment “Genesis Retrial” in brief. Yet he left a significant amount of detail surrounded by an impermeable haze of mystery. Certain facts he deleted completely: he never mentioned the ex-Turks or Rufus ShinRa. That part he deemed better kept to himself. When Tifa inquired about “that man with white hair”, he’d brusquely passed him off as “a friend” and refused to divulge any further.

“So this ‘white-haired’ guy,” Cloud suddenly cut into her thoughts, his tone rather icy, “Who is he really?”

“Vincent only said he was a friend of his.”

After a deliberate pause, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me before that you’ve already met him?”

“I don’t know,” Tifa mumbled, “I guess it didn’t seem important to me at the time.”

Indeed, it was only after Vincent’s explanation did she confess to the confounded Cloud that she’d encountered this enigmatic man before. She recounted how she’d went to the café as requested by that anonymous note. There she’d met him, a genteel, tall man with white hair and pink eyes. The description matched Dr. Moira’s. He never disclosed his name. He’d just wanted information on Vincent’s whereabouts. He even showed her a file picture of the man back in Turk days.

True at first she’d made little of it: she’d denied any knowledge of her old teammate’s location. He believed her then left. Hardly worth bothering anyone about.

But as time progressed and events unfolded, Tifa’s suspicions about this stranger intensified. She’d mentioned this meeting to Vincent once. His apprehensive reaction had only deepened her misgivings further. She knew more existed to the man than Vincent let on, but how much more? Was he actually an enemy? Did he serve the Professor or work with a private agenda? How did he fit into this mess? Who was he anyway? How did he Vincent know him?

Questions piled upon more questions. For now however, Tifa reckoned they would just have to accept the vague term “friend”.

Maybe she did, but the ireful Cloud sure could not. Vincent’s revelations and Tifa’s confession had both hurt and incensed him, emotions which burned on till this moment. It was one of the few times she’d ever tasted real anger from his usually generous heart. He’d felt as if the pair of them had kept him in ignorance when he had the full right to know what the heck was going on.

Cloud tossed his empty coffee cup into the trashcan nearby. He spat, “So. You meet this guy and just decide I needn’t know, even when you start suspecting he has something to do with this mess. Vincent gets HIM involved, a stranger we have no clue about, whereas US he leaves in the dark for a whole friggin’ week,” the very statement raised his temper almost to boiling point. He chided her aloud, “What the Hell were you thinking, Tifa! And him! Didn’t he think we’d worry about him?! Or about Aeris?!”

“Sh! Lower your voice,” she implored.

A nurse trotting by cast a warning glare upon the quarrelsome two. Cloud suppressed his voice to sharp hiss; his fury though, still fixated upon Tifa and the absent Vincent, expanded further and further by its own harsh heat, “Dammit! Aeris and Vincent are my friends, Tifa! I care about them too! Didn’t it occur to you that I might wanna know about this? Didn’t it occur to that selfish bastard that we might wanna help him?! Or that we should know what’s going on? He just takes off with telling us shit then suddenly reappears, THIS close to being de-“

At this, Tifa whirled her sight around. “Maybe the reason he didn’t tell us was because he cares about us too and didn’t want us to get hurt like him and Aeris! Maybe he was trying to protect us!” she exclaimed back up at Cloud, who seemed rather taken aback by her passion. She understood his anger at Vincent. Beneath that, she saw the genuine concern he bore for the man as a friend. Yet Tifa, for all the anguish within her soul, couldn’t bring herself to share Cloud’s sentiment, because she’d come to understand Vincent as well; or at least she understood that part of him which thanked her very humbly, almost guiltily, for caring for him during his feverish illness. Right then she’d realized he in turn had accepted them as true friends, both her and Cloud (the one who rather than let him burn spent hours soaking him in the tub).

In Vincent’s eyes, she’d glimpsed dark secrets which weighed heavy upon him. Yet he wouldn’t allow her near them: “There are many, many things,” he’d confessed to her, “I can’t tell you about now because I don’t want any of you involved. I don’t want to endanger your lives when you can be safe as you are now.”

Vincent hadn’t kept his distance out of callousness or inconsideration. Reviewing his words, Tifa found it to the contrary. He knew if he told them, they’d want to help. But then, even he couldn’t imagine what precisely he was facing. Keeping a distance had been his way of protecting them from all the madness which had already engulfed both him and Aeris.

“There’s no excuse for what I did,” Tifa desperately accepted her own guilt infront of Cloud, “I’m sorry for not telling you about that man sooner. I didn’t mean to conceal anything from you. But Cloud, please don’t be mad at Vincent. We don’t know all the facts yet. We don’t know exactly what happened or what was going on in his head at the time. We’ll find that out later. What matters is that they’re both safe and alive. Can’t you just let it be for now?!”

Cloud could say nothing to her plea. Yet to behold her sleepless face so taut with distress and brown, wet eyes beseeching him for some kindness, the young man’s expression gradually softened to cooler contemplation. Without anger, he perceived more acutely how tired Tifa was. Tired of this constant worry. Like him, tired of revolving the many puzzles and questions in her head. Just tired of everything.

Tifa turned away from him to stare through the observation window at Aeris again, who thankfully remained oblivious of the quarrel outside. She recalled when she first saw her friend: an emaciated rag-doll, wired to those electronic guardians with an ominous ventilator pumping air in and out of her damaged lungs. The stark contrast had shocked her witless; that lying in there and the vivacious person she last remembered, so full of hope for a new life, so gentle and childlike it seemed inconceivable anyone could harm her.

But someone had.

The admission poured a cold feeling upon her anxious heart. Tifa chafed her arms a bit. She muttered tremulously, “God, whatever they did to her must have been horrible. Chemicals and torture. They hurt and experimented on her… like… like some filthy ‘lab-rat’. All this was happening to her and we never knew a thing about it,” she bowed her head, quivering, “Look at her. She seems so frail and… helpless. I’m just so happy she’s n-not…”

Tifa couldn’t complete the sentence. Just thinking about the alternative still sent her to the verge of tears.

Cloud regarded her. He felt a pinch of regret for venting such anger upon her and Vincent without ever considering either’s point of view as well. “I’m… sorry too,” he apologized quietly both to her and his missing friend.

Tifa knew she should be stronger. Yet this wave of emotions so overwhelmed her that she covered her mouth least it gushed out. Cloud stepped closer to her. He slid one arm around her shoulder and pulled her near. “Hey, hey now, Tifa,” he said, his voice a soothing comfort to listen to, “Get a hold of yourself. You heard the doctor. The worst is over. Aeris is gonna be okay.”

Yes, he was right. As she struggled to regain her composure, Tifa let him rest her weary head against his shoulder. After four weeks of torment, it felt wonderful to hear those words “Aeris is gonna be okay”.

“Heheh! But geez, what a mess that Vincent made of the Reactor,” joked Cloud into her ear, “The old man sure knows how to ‘bring down the house’, eh?”

Tifa giggled despite herself. That felt nice too, to laugh together after their ordeal. She looked up at him.

“Thanks, Cloud,” she smiled.

He lovingly kissed her hair, then with a gentle “Come on”, escorted her back into the room.


-End of Chp.90