I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields –Chp.91

During this time, Aeris had been watching the television high up there on the shelf. It had been left on some news channel, which never stopped blaring about the "Reactor Incident": about three weeks ago, a bizarre series of events befell the Mako Reactor. It started around four am, when a violent explosion rocked the reservoir area. The blast completely destroyed that part, without which the North section caved in upon itself. Some time later, another calamity far more dramatic than the first swept the building bottom to top. Sources described a strange force emanating from underground. Opinions however clashed about the cause. Most cited an earthquake, even though no such natural disaster had ever passed Midgar's way before. Others proposed some complex chemical chain reaction due to the accumulation of untreated materia waste over the year. An act of terrorism could not be dismissed either.

Whatever the cause, its terrifying power shook the Reactor into a permanent state of turmoil. The shockwaves wreaked havoc upon everything within a one hundred meter radius. Both the Fire Department and Police were summoned to contain the site. Soon electricity, for some reason yet to be comprehended, returned to the troubled Reactor. Underneath an inky-black night sky, it transformed into a brilliant beacon of light to be seen for miles around. Yet not long afterwards the scene deteriorated into anarchy. The power flickered then died again as the proud building finally collapsed to the ground. The area had to be evacuated amidst the ensuing miasma of dust and rubble.

By sunrise, the Reactor no longer existed.

The story must have been told a million times since it occurred that cold, early morning three weeks ago. Aeris passively viewed shaky footage of the Reactor, a heaving colossal tower of technology, engulfed in flames.

That's where it all happened, she pondered.

It felt surreal, resting here observing events from the outside, when she'd also lived them inside that fortress. Aeris saw scenes of amazed crowds in the streets, barred off the site by the Police, watching the infernal Reactor like her from far away. Yet none of them knew a thing of the people inside, the laboratory, the facts or the revelations.

The haziness which first obscured her mind had slowly dispersed as time drifted by. She remembered events better now. Thus while the news raged on in the background, Aeris sifted aimlessly through her memories of that night.

She still recalled standing- no actually, she'd been struck to the ground. Davoren had to support her upright as Professor Hojo laid her whole world to waste, and infront of Vincent no less. She brooded a long minute upon her origins: a clone of "Aeris". Her purpose, to be the mother of Professor Hojo's "God".

Aeris recalled the heat of the brutal war she had to witness between the demented scientist and the obstinate Vincent. Her arguments, her supplications to leave her had failed to sway the latter off his mission. Even after he'd learnt the sordid details about her, even on the brink of death, he wouldn't surrender her. Nor, Aeris had decided, would she surrender him.

At that instant, they'd put their faiths in each other. Suddenly she'd seen truth at its clearest. For that, but more importantly for him, she'd stood up.

In retrospect however, Aeris realized that she didn't know everything of what happened in the Reactor. She wondered what befell Professor Hojo. Was he crushed under the rubble? Did he manage to escape? And Davoren, her mind dwelt upon him too. He'd rescued both her and Vincent. Still, Aeris knew not how to react.

Should she be grateful, when in fact it was he who'd returned her to Professor Hojo's cruel embrace? Should she be angry at him for leaving her so confused? Suspicious about his motives? Hateful?

No. Aeris could not induce herself to feel any of those. She could not sincerely thank him without hurtful memories interfering. She couldn't trust him. And yet, no matter how easier the alternative, she could not continue despising Davoren either. Strange, but she just could not anymore. Something new had arisen between them. This uncanny connection she felt to him. What it was exactly Aeris wondered in quiet bemusement.

Her wayward thoughts returned to the Reactor. That first explosion. It probably occurred when that young man, "Rufus" she believed was his name, destroyed the Professor's treasured materia. But that second disaster, the "earthquake". Had it been… Chaos?

Then Vincent, where was…??

The flummoxed girl darted her attention back to the screen. The television had no answer to any of her questions. Instead it showed some excellent pictures of how the Reactor toppled over. It cut to the grim aftermath; a smouldering mountain of scrap and garbage marked where once stood one of Midgar's most dignified landmarks.

Some solemn newsreporter on the scene live next assumed command. He stated that neither the Police nor the Fire Department could establish whether anyone was inside the Reactor at the time. If there were, very, very improbable they'd survived (and yet, Aeris argued, Davoren made it possible). No loss of life reported outside, though. The public was kept at a safe distance throughout the unfolding drama. Six firemen and five policemen received some injuries, none serious since they couldn't get too close to the turbulent Reactor either. Estimates placed the damages at around 20 billion gil. It would take months before any investigation could be carried out on the vast disaster site. Many doubted one would be conducted at all. Unlike ShinRa Inc., the current government lacked the proper financial means and expertise. Plus in a city as problem-infested as Midgar, investigating the collapse of some abandoned building hardly ranked first on anyone's priority list. Therefore whatever truly happened would most likely remain a mystery forever.

But Vincent…

"Sheesh, Aeris. Don't watch that! It'll only make you depressed," moaned Cloud as he and Tifa strolled into the room, only to hear such a grave story pounding the girl flat. He for one had developed an aversion to the news; this stemmed from days spent by Aeris' bedside with that frightful incident and a dozen other worries crushing them under. At once he marched up to the television to switch stations.

Just as well. Any longer and she would have lost her melancholy mind to the screen. Aeris reeled herself back to the present. She turned her head towards the couple. They appeared noticeably more cheerful than before, unlike their bed bound friend who absorbed their geniality behind a pensive visage.

The smiling Cloud loitered at the foot of the bed. He began joking around about how he'd become a serious coffee addict during his many hospital visits. "I tell ya! The coffee here is great!" he proclaimed. Yet upon noticing Tifa's glare, he added "But hey! My girl still fixes the best coffee in town. THE BEST!" which won her over again.

Tifa then turned to Aeris. "Well, we've got some good news for a change," she announced.

Aeris quizzically looked up at her. Tifa declared in high spirits "The doctor says you got through the worst part okay. They may let us take you home in a few days. That means you'll finally get to check out our place."

"Hey, yeah!" Cloud beamed, "Aeris has never visited us before!"

No, she never had. She'd always lived with Vincent in his small apartment. She only ventured outside twice, and both occasions encountered the nefarious gunman. Aeris had long wanted to see their place. They'd told her so much about it. It sounded wonderful.

But now…

Now, things were different.

The silent girl let the enthusiastic pair chat over her head whilst she strayed off into wistful preoccupation, far away from the merry mood of this room.

So much had changed. In just one night.

She'd have to tell them.

"Yep!" nodded Tifa, "You'll see our restaurant ‘n I'll cook us the most delicious meal ever made in culinary history!"

"And I'll show you my wicked, bad-ass sword!"

At that, Tifa disapproved, "Now Cloud, you KNOW I don't like it when you sword-train in the house."

The man scratched the back of his head. "Aw, I wasn't gonna fight with it or anything," he deliberately teased her, "Just swing it around near those crystal wineglasses you love so much."

"You do that ‘n I'll deck you!" she brandished one pretend fist at him, upon which they laughed together. She chided "How many times do I have to remind you: if want to practice with that huge weapon, you do it outsi-"

"Tifa? Cloud?" Aeris' timid voice suddenly interrupted their banter.

The two looked at her.

"I..," she hesitated, "I have something to tell you."

Both of them meant so much to her. Dear friends, they'd opened their lives to her. But this was not right. She could not pretend anymore she was the girl they saw reflected in the mirror. She refused to. She'd have to tell them everything. About her "birth", her despicable purpose, everything. They deserved to know that their joy and friendship, much as she cherished them, belonged to another girl, not her.

The diffident Aeris faltered in a moment of visible consternation: where to begin? The beginning, she reckoned. Where was that? Their friend "Aeris"? The Professor? When he created her? The bleak night she escaped him?

Strange, she'd imagined this would be a lot easier. She supposed she'd come to accept herself for the most part, although a small sting still accompanied that horrid term "clone". But then, Aeris found herself afraid of their reaction. She cared for Cloud and Tifa deeply, yet how would they respond to the truth? Surprised? Disgusted? Would they feel she'd deceived them?

"I… I'm not the real..," she wavered, "I mean, ‘Aeris' and I, we're not…"

The same? I'm just her copy? No. Nothing she concocted came out right. But she had to explain to them.

Luckily, Cloud saved her. "We know."

Spoken with clear assertion. Aeris gave a small start: they… they knew? The man gazed upon her, his solemn expression proof that indeed he already understood what she'd struggled to say. Mystified, Aeris peeked back up at Tifa. The latter nodded to further reassure her that yes, they both knew.

"Vincent already told us," Tifa confessed. She rubbed the girl's left arm in kind support, saying "He told us about you, and Professor Hojo, and his experiment."

Aeris listened in amazement as the two recounted their torture over the past four weeks. They described Vincent's brusque phone call which led them here, then his visit some days later. He'd revealed Aeris' origins, her development in some "growth accelerator" machine, and her apparent age as opposed to her true age. He'd clarified her central role in Hojo's experiment. Actually, Aeris was one of the few issues Vincent had explained in extensive detail to them.

"Now I still wanna throttle that jerk for keeping us in the dark for so long," growled Cloud half-humorously, "He hasn't told us everything about what happened or who exactly that guy with white hair is. And we won't put any pressure on you to explain either. I guess we'll just… let it be for now," he glanced at Tifa. She smiled back in thanks.

The man edged closer to Aeris' bed, offering her nothing except genuine care straight from the heart. "But see, it doesn't matter to us where you came from, why or how you were made or any of that. We told you from the outset: you're not alone anymore. We're here. We'll all look out for you."

"Even if you're not… the ‘Aeris' we knew from before," Tifa interjected, "You're still our friend. More importantly, you are still you, Aeris. You're the one Vincent went out and fought so hard for. You're the one we couldn't stop worrying about, the one we're talking to right now and the one we want to take home with us."

"So don't worry, okay?"


Harsh insults which for an entire night had reverberated inside her head until she almost succumbed to them. In fact, at the peak of desperation, she'd tried to. Vincent however never let her. No matter how she argued or how far she pushed him away, the man stubbornly stood his ground; the same way she'd held hers when he wanted her to call him a "monster". To him, her origins and purpose never mattered an ounce. Nor, she discovered, did it affect Tifa and Cloud in the least.

The girl viewed the pair for a moment. Their sincerity so touched her that a wet sheen glossed over her thankful green eyes. She'd awoken feeble and unsure, only to find they'd knit this warm shawl of love around her. It felt as though Vincent had planned this for her. He'd predicted that she would want to tell the others, even foresaw her verbal and emotional difficulties in explaining when she herself had just begun to grasp it. So he'd told them instead, probably a lot more eloquently than she could hope to. Thus he'd borne the trouble upon himself to have her wrapped up in such support the instant her consciousness returned; to prove to her that regardless of the horrible facts, Cloud and Tifa would stand, like him, by her side. Of that, he'd been certain.

Cloud and Tifa had gathered around her to welcome her back into their lives as their same friend despite all that had changed. Aeris never felt more grateful for these two now. Truly she considered them a blessing.

Still, she…

One concern though remained a passionate fire burning within her breast until she could not tolerate its heat anymore. She was safe and sound, completely secure in their friendship like Vincent had ensured.

Still, she wanted…

"I want to see Vincent," Aeris stated in a hushed undertone.

Again that name. Again that acute hesitation. Her abrupt request at once put both Cloud and Tifa ill at ease, in which they exchanged a look Aeris recognized to be quite significant. They were withholding something from her, something important about him. Immediately an anxious premonition stirred the girl into a flurry.

"Is Vincent alright??" she cried. Despite her grievous condition, she attempted to sit up, "I want to see him. Is he okay??"

"Sh, sh, sweetie," the tender-hearted Tifa mollified her back into place, "Vincent's alright. He was a pretty bad mess, but he's healed up by now and he's fine. He's fine."

"Then w-where is he?"

The question Tifa and Cloud dreaded had been asked at last. Indeed, they'd spoken plenty of Vincent, but the man himself remained absent from the scene. It wrangled Aeris just to lie here waiting for the answer. Her friends dawdled in this atmosphere longer than any desperate soul could endure. Cloud had thrust his hands deep into his pockets. He turned slightly away, thus granting the better qualified Tifa space to break such news.

The latter assumed a solemn countenance as she straightened herself up by the bedside. It would not be easy to reply. But then, unavoidable. She had to know.

"Vincent is not here, Aeris. He's gone away," she addressed her gently yet firmly.

Confusion strained Aeris' expression. "Gone away?" she echoed, "Where did he go?"

"We don't know. He only came to visit us that one time. After he'd explained what happened, he left. He asked us not to seek him out or try in any way to contact him. That was three weeks ago. We haven't seen him since. He's simply disappeared again. I don't know what exactly is going on with him. I guess… Vincent just wants to be alone for a while."

Complete silence followed.

At first, the news spun around Aeris. The girl searched Tifa's grave visage for extra information, a continuation. Yet the latter had no more to add. Nor did Cloud, upon peering over to him, have anything to add. Vincent had vanished again. Where or why no one knew. That was all.

Gradually Tifa's story sedimented into sense. Aeris' troubled look relaxed into one of sad pensiveness. The girl sunk deeper into bed, gutted. Not a syllable she uttered for an entire minute. Instead she stared fixedly up at the ceiling; her eyes shimmered intense, private contemplation.

Her friends waited during this heavy pause. At long last Aeris sighed, "I'm tired. I'd like to get some sleep now please."

Tifa understood the meaning behind that request. She clearly wished she could provide some solace to the despondent girl. However, she thought it perhaps kinder just to give her space at present. So she conceded with a soft "of course."

The pair prepared to depart. The television was switched off and the patient settled snug beneath her blanket once more. Tifa bent over to kiss her forehead before bidding her farewell. Cloud came up to her side too. He asked her to "take it easy". He promised they would visit again tomorrow. In the meantime, did she want anything? Music? Magazines?

"That nurse is pretty strict," he grumbled, "Still, I can try to smuggle in some candy if you like?"

"No," Aeris gave a small wistful smile, knowing he could never get her what she really wanted even if she told him. However, gazing up at his amicable face, she whispered her sincerest gratitude "But thank you. Thank you both for… everything."

The man returned her smile. He squeezed her hand to reinforce their support. Soon he also had to retreat. The two said their final goodbyes at the door. Together they slipped out, quietly closing the door behind them. Through the observation window, Aeris watched them march across until they wandered out of sight.

Alone at last. Just her and this vortex of thoughts.

Her gaze ascended back to the ceiling. That white canvas high above her, where her mind drifted at random amongst ideas and questions. Weariness slowly closed her eyes. The bed swallowed her into its folds. After a week spent in a dank, dark cell, she'd forgotten how fantastic it felt to rest upon a bed rather than a stone floor.

Aeris lay there perfectly motionless, dull and languid, listening to her thoughts above the hum of machinery. She could not capture any particular one. They all wafted about too fast for her torpid senses to grasp. Let them play free then. Thoughts about what she'd learnt these past couple of wakeful hours, about the various stories she'd heard… the Reactor on television…

Holocaust Hojo crumbling before her, unable to tolerate the truth…

Her friends…

"Aeris" and herself…


"Miss Aeris?" peeped a gentle, feminine voice into her meditation.

Aeris stirred awake again. She rolled her sight towards the source. Indeed, several minutes had passed since Cloud and Tifa's departure. She must have unwittingly dozed off, during which some plump, affable nurse had opened the door to poke her head into the room. Aeris perceived this new visitor lingering halfway past the threshold with her hand still on the knob. She seemed unsure whether to proceed or retreat now that she'd unintentionally disturbed the patient, though also rather eager about her mission here.

It mattered little to Aeris anyway. She rubbed the sleepiness out of her eyes then motioned for her to please enter. Relieved, the cheery woman skipped over to her bedside, grinning with a small surprise in her other hand.

"You got a special delivery from someone," she announced.

Aeris hadn't yet comprehended her meaning when, much to her confusion, the nurse presented a sealed envelop to her. The girl stared agog. At first she dithered to accept it. She could think of no one who might write her a letter. Perhaps there'd been a mistake? The nurse however insisted. No, no mistake. The note was definitely meant for her.

But who…?

The girl received it without choice. Lying flat upon her back, she held this envelop up to her befuddled face. External scrutiny yielded nothing. The sender remained anonymous, the envelope's contents a mystery she still wavered to explore. She couldn't quite justify her own hesitancy; nor could she explain the next moment when as she gazed up at this letter, lost in wonder, an eerie sensation suddenly pierced her conscience straight through. Not a premonition, more like a sharp intuitive force which shot out of nowhere right into her. So vivid it startled her blank out of her reverie.

"Wait! Please wait!" she begged the nurse, "Tell me, who sent this?"

The latter, who was already exiting the room after a successful errand, paused at the doorway and looked behind at the perturbed patient. She mused, "Hm… well, he didn't tell me his name, but-"

"Did he have white hair?"

"Why yes, he did. Actually, he was outside in the lobby just a second ago. He came up to me and asked me to deliver that letter to you. He seemed like a nice fella," she added with a playful wink, "Handsome too."

If he was, Aeris most certainly would not have noticed, not while he'd aroused such dread and distress within her since the day their paths first intersected. Her grip reflexedly tightened upon this note. Yes, she knew that white-haired man.


Many times that artful gunman had battled Vincent, never aiming for anything less than a bloody murder. He'd always derived exquisite pleasure from tormenting her. And it was him- solely him- who'd dragged her back to Professor Hojo.

So why? Why would he risk his own life to rescue theirs?

What did he want from her?

How was she supposed to feel about the gunman? And this new, indefinable something binding her to him, what was it? Why had it formed? What did it mean?

Now that the experiment had disintegrated to dust, where did they stand?

In the instant of urgency, when desire for answers exceeded injury or prejudice, Aeris suddenly sprang up. She tossed both the letter and blanket aside and hurriedly scrambled out of bed. Weakness plagued her body a lot more than she'd first imagined. No sooner had the flustered girl escaped the bed than her two scrawny legs wobbled underneath her weight. She almost collapsed in a heap had she not gripped the railing on time. But physical debility bore no importance to her.

She had to find Davoren!

She had to go find him now!

Aeris detangled herself from the wires applied to her skin. Wincing as pain chewed her right shoulder, the persistent patient gripped the IV stand nearby which fed fluids through her arm cannula. This mobile prop served as support. Rumpled up, wavy hair in dishevelment, Aeris limped out of the room with her IV stand into the corridor.

Down the hallway she hobbled. Her entire focus honed in on reaching that lobby. Ironic how she'd always run away from the gunman, whereas now despite her wretched condition she hastened forth on a quest to seek him out. The cold floor stung her bare feet. Her neck catheter flapped loosely in the open. Aeris rushed to the end of the ward. At last she emerged upon the foyer, a grand, bright centre which to any newcomer seemed abuzz in perpetual activity. Even the resolute Aeris stopped short at the entrance rather than venture any further into that whirlpool.

She'd only wandered a short distance from her room, yet already a terrible agony had spread across her torso; punishment for depleting her meagre strength supply. Aeris ignored it. She clasped one fist upon her pounding heart. Breathing fast, the girl cast her frantic eyes around this confusing, noisy place. White coats fluttered about. Nurses dashed forth with endless work. Patients and visitors drifted by.

So many people, none aware of her ordeal to find this one man amongst them.

Aeris jumped from stranger to stranger, every failure goading her into more anxiety, when quite abruptly she spotted her target. The girl froze to a statue. Over there at the opposite side of the crowded lobby lingered Davoren in plain view, both hands stuck deep in the pockets of his open trench coat while his mesmerising pink eyes drilled straight into her. She wondered how long he'd stood thus observing her. In fact, he seemed to have been waiting for her to come.

But now that they'd met again, Aeris, for all the excitement which drove her search, remained rooted to the spot in a mystified trance. Nor did the cool gunman approach her. People bustled across the wide space which separated them. To Aeris, they seemed to meander by in slow motion, ghost-like and unimportant. The din, the lobby itself regressed to the far corner of her mind. Only the two of them, her and Davoren, stood locked within this surreal existence.

The tormentor and his victim.

The prey and her hunter.

Yet so much had changed from that night.

The encounter struck Aeris as chillingly similar to their first. She remembered what insane terror he instilled within her that dreadful day. Just one look at him and she'd realized his exact intentions. And yet, the stark *contrast* between the Davoren she spied across the street so long ago and this present one bemused her beyond description. It was the same man externally. Internally though, Aeris saw a change within him so powerful, so absolute that it illuminated his eyes bright for her to see. Indeed, the difference showed best in those pink eyes. Before cruel and vacant. Now gentle… alive.

Yes, it was Davoren, but not the same man at all.

Within the confines of such an extraordinary moment, Aeris' own eyes, wide and green, beseeched him to disperse the flock of questions swarming around her. The whys, whats and hows, she wanted an answer to them all!

Across the lobby, the composed gunman brooded over her inquiring look. He could've marched up to her and recounted the story: while on the hunt for Vincent amidst the collapsing Reactor, he had chanced upon the girl lying bleeding and senseless in some filthy corridor. At once, the alarmed gunman had skid to a halt, then with a curse dashed over to her aid.

By sheer observation, Davoren had quickly acquired a notion about the circumstances of this tragedy. That gruesome slash across her chest indicated the perpetrator. He couldn't elucidate any clear reason. He'd only this feeling that something intense and tempestuous had happened between her and Professor Hojo, for which she'd paid the ultimate price. He'd then realized the full meaning behind this unnatural catastrophe that had besieged the Reactor. Vincent had either found her slain or, worse still, witnessed her murder first-hand. Whatever the case, Chaos was definitely to blame.

Aeris wouldn't have remembered how the disconcerted gunman crouched down beside her. He'd called her several times in vain. The brutality of her injury, her wasted appearance had certainly made him fear the worst. However, upon checking for life signs, he'd found them present. Faint as a ghost's, but there. Indeed, not much time had passed from when the grief-stricken Vincent had left her there till his accidental discovery. Desperate to keep her alive, Davoren had promptly torn off his ragged tie and shirt to assemble a dressing for her wound. He'd then scooped her up into both arms. With this new companion held close against him, the man had resumed his search for Vincent, more anxiously as both time and dark premonitions pressed hard upon them.

Davoren could've described to Aeris how during the hunt an apocalyptic explosion had suddenly reverberated throughout the area. Undaunted, he'd rushed over to the source. The path led into some atrium. Down there he'd perceived Vincent in acute danger with the deranged Professor on top of him.

He had to temporarily leave the comatose girl near the entrance to keep her well out of the fray. Having selected his vantage point, Davoren blasted Hojo into retreat, after which he'd hurried down to assist his friend. Vincent's condition had alarmed him ten times more than Aeris'. Never before had he seen a body as bedraggled and ravaged as his, just lying there sprawled upon his back in breathless disorientation. Nor did Vincent respond to Davoren's calls. Instead the man left him behind to follow Aeris into unconsciousness, soon death unless he acted fast.

That had totalled two bodies for him to contend with. Not good. The crumbling Reactor of course didn't improve their situation either. But then, the determined gunman had refused point-blank to surrender. First he'd gathered everyone together. Some hours had passed since his last battle, enough for both his invincibility and strength to return to full capacity. So he'd slung one carcass over each shoulder, stood up then raced the destruction all the way back to the storage ward, to the secret exit he and Reno had uncovered earlier.

Down into the sewers they'd ventured. The clamorous din of quakes, crashes and explosions pursued them quite a distance before it finally abandoned the chase. By then they'd cleared the immediate danger zone. Onwards the gunman had sloshed through the murky, ice-cold waters at a steady pace. Like a stern trooper, he'd carried his double load with forbearance. Time dragged by. He never stopped marching. Only when the road terminated did Davoren clamber up one of the manholes to the surface.

They'd emerged onto an empty street several blocks away from the tumultuous Reactor. He'd even paused in awe of the inferno from whence they'd just fled. Truly it appeared as though God had vented his entire wrath down upon that hapless fortress. But Vincent and the girl's grim condition had soon drew back his attention. Off he'd hustled in his dirty undershirt, wet and dishevelled, through the alleys of the city until he'd reached the hospital.

The rest, Aeris knew.

Yes, Davoren could've told Aeris this story. But then, he saw that's not what she wanted. She wanted him to settle her questions, to explain both himself and his answers to her now that everything –everything- had changed.

To all those wants and inquiries however, the man only gave one reply: a kindly, somewhat apologetic smile spread across Davoren's face as he regarded Aeris for the last time, having already reached his own decision about their relationship. The enigma behind that look, both wise and compassionate, intrigued Aeris further.

She sensed a serenity to his spirit not there before. To her it almost felt like he'd somehow… found his lost self again…

"Watch it, kid!" a gruff voice rudely warned her.

Aeris gave a start. She barely managed to make way for some mean orderly pushing a medicine trolley, who glared at her as he wheeled by in a huff. The incident distracted her for only a second. She whirled her sight back to Davoren. But the man had already disappeared. Gone, just like that.

Aeris remained in her place, though. She gazed pensively into empty space where just a blink ago he'd stood smiling back at her. She didn't attempt to search for him again. She knew she wouldn't find him this time. Thus the last shadow of her nightmarish past had dissipated to a mere memory. Still the same questions echoed after him unanswered.

How was she supposed to feel about him now?

Why did he rescuer her that night?

What… what did it all mean?

Aeris heard someone call her name. She looked aside to see a flustered nurse come jogging up to her; it was the same tan-skinned nurse who'd assisted Dr. Moira, although a distinct displeasure marred her expression as she viewed the patient.

"Miss Aeris!" she scolded, "You should know better than to go running around like that, and in your condition too! I'll get into serious trouble here!"

Indeed, she had hardly left another patient's room when, much to her shock, she'd spotted Aeris loitering over there at the lobby entrance. Not only had the girl escaped bed, but also roamed around barefoot in nothing save her gown. The sight of her! At once, the vigilant nurse recaptured Aeris. No excuse would appease her. She promptly escorted the prisoner and her accomplice the IV stand straight back to her quarters, all the way lashing out worried rebuke.

"I'm sorry," Aeris apologized for the third time.

"Just don't wander off again, okay? Geez, you gave me a fright."

They retuned to the room. The nurse helped Aeris back into bed. She reconnected the feeble patient to her electronic guardians then covered her up snug and warm beneath the blanket.

"Now you be good and stay there," she ordered, fists propped against her hips, "No more sneaking around. Get some rest, okay?"

The girl obediently nodded. Her warden left to resume her duties elsewhere. She shut the door behind her.

Once more, Aeris found herself alone to think while staring up at the ceiling. That encounter with Davoren had etched a poignant impression deep into her mind, upon which she dawdled in a state of numb perplexity for several minutes.

She re-visited the Reactor, that Hellhole where various paths- hers, Vincent's, Professor Hojo's, Davoren's, Rufus'- paths so different, had convened under one roof in the name of "Genesis Retrial". And now, the paths had separated again. But by no means were they the same as before. Be it physical or verbal clashes, facts admitted, buried truths and emotions unearthed or even the expression upon a dear face. These interactions had altered their perceptions of themselves and those around them.

So what about her and the gunman? The original connection between them had shattered. How then to proceed, he longer an enemy or even the same person, she feeling this powerful new link to him but still, *still* unable to decipher its meaning?

Everything inside her just flitted about in a tizzy when she suddenly discerned something hidden beneath the blanket near her thigh. Aeris reached under to fish out Davoren's letter. She held it up again. Aeris reckoned in her rush to seek the gunman, she'd flung his note away where it frowned beneath the bedcover. Truth be told, she'd completely forgotten about the letter until now.

Those misgivings about its sender no longer troubled Aeris as much as stiff anticipation in what he'd actually written. She wrestled her hesitations a full minute before she finally decided to tear it open. The girl pulled out a single sheet of paper. Jaws clenched, she unfolded it. Davoren's neat and elegant handwriting at first danced infront of her tense vision. Soon they settled into sentences, which she read slowly in total silence. He confessed:

   "From the moment you and I met, I have caused you nothing but grief, hurt and terror. I dare not imagine that just because I carried you here, it will rectify all my past evil actions towards you. Nor do I expect you to magically start liking or even trusting me. However, I do sincerely hope that we will meet again someday, under better circumstances; when we've each rebuilt our own life and understood it more. If that day comes, I know then I will get down on my knees and beg for your forgiveness. Perhaps even if your generous heart can accept me, I will also ask for your friendship instead of your fear and hatred.

But until then, please take care, Aeris."

She re-read the note then put it down by her side. The girl sunk into profound contemplation, within which she soaked for a long, long time. It struck Aeris how well Davoren empathized with her; he knew she could not forget the past. But through his smile, through these words he'd also shown her that he too realized- perhaps even sensed as vividly- a fresh relationship born out of the old. All of a sudden, it occurred to her: at the conclusion of his message, Davoren had called her "Aeris". This was the first time he'd ever addressed her by her name. Before it had always been the condescending "my dear", "girl", sometimes the callous "A-25".

Uncanny how such a simple realization opened the door to an even more simple yet fundamental one, before which she stood awe-stricken. The gunman, though he'd escaped her many questions, had in fact given her the only guidance she really needed to obtain an answer by herself.

That instant when she confronted the Professor, Aeris now appreciated how she'd more than just destroyed him or cut herself loose from those ropes trying her to his pitiful, insane psyche. She'd actively terminated the road she'd always followed, a road fraught with fear and anguish, for another one which stretched out beyond the door she'd just opened. A different path than her old one, unexplored and shaded under a forest of uncertainty, waiting to be traversed by her two feet.

While the girl thus loitered at the entrance, neither retreating nor advancing, she looked behind towards Davoren. He stood there in the distance, still smiling sagaciously as she'd last seen him.

Yes, so much had changed. He knew that too. They'd changed; their perception of themselves, their surroundings, their pasts, present and futures, the very terms which defined who they were in accordance to "truth" had all irrevocably changed. Perhaps that what had drawn them together into a final meeting: their mutual need to show this new self and hold the other's under the same honest light, if only to help re-shape their tattered old relationship. Indeed, Davoren no longer regarded her as Hojo's lab specimen or his prey, no more than she deemed him an enemy. She'd become "Aeris", a remarkable young woman in whom he'd discerned a new found strength before she even went out searching for him. And in a way, she was his kindred spirit too.

It suddenly dawned on Aeris how much she and Davoren, the last person she would have imagined, actually shared. For such a long time they'd both suffered a life shackled whole to the experiment, around which they'd constructed themselves. Hers she'd built on a false identity, always running and hiding, always too afraid, weak and pathetic to do anything else. His he'd based on violence and evil because his true self, that man she'd beheld burning behind those intense pink eyes, harboured too much misery for him to bear. Different foundations, but both of them had desperately craved the same goal: a refuge from the storms raging within their hearts. In one night, she and the gunman had been shattered to pieces. Everything inside them, the ugliness, sorrow and secrets had burst out into the open of all, themselves included, to see.

But on that same night, both had also derived a formidable power to finally break free; free of the Professor, "Genesis Retrial" and the charred remains of their own false worlds.

And now?


"Rebuilt our own life and understood it more", Davoren had written. Aeris didn't realize it before, but that was exactly what she wanted. In fact, it was what they both desired most: to build a new self around a new life, strengthened by truth and yes, suffering as well rather than weakened by them. Not only that, but they wanted to understand better this new life, both themselves and those living or dead, friends or foes, who'd come to form a part of it.

Maybe that's why Davoren rescued her. Sure, kindness counted. But maybe because he'd seen such similarities bonded them, he'd wanted her to survive so that, like him, she could follow her own road away from her ruined former self towards the new. He wanted her to have the same chance he did. And she in running after him, in beholding him across the hall without enmity or fear, she'd silently given him final confirmation: that while they couldn't *yet* reconcile the past, his victim had come to acknowledge his change as genuine, and validate him as a human being again, not the puppet or soulless monster she'd hitherto thought him.

Aeris believed she understood better now, who this man truly was, what this connection between them entailed. She even began to wish she'd had the opportunity to… get to know him more. To know the Davoren who carried them out of the crumbling Reactor, that "good man" Vincent once spoke of to her with great veneration.

Perhaps one day, she told herself, you will. If their fates ever intertwined again, perhaps then she will learn more about him and finally thank him, even grant him her friendship without a twinge of mistrust in her mind. In the meantime though, their ways had diverged. He'd left to walk along one road. She, gazing forth at the uncharted terrain before her, had her own to travel.

And yet, a part of Aeris still could not.

She remembered that strange dream she had, or rather premonition just before awakening: yes, him again. Vincent.

He was not here.

With the recollection of that fact, a fresh emotional tidalwave crashed hard against the girl, its intensity re-echoing across this void his absence had carved into her heart. The desire to touch him- not just his face but his essence and all it contained as well, overwhelmed poor Aeris to the extent that she caught her breath least it emerged a sob. Aeris wanted to see him again. She wanted to talk to him, to reach him through this black fog she sensed enshrouding him. If only she knew what it was which kept him far away from her.

If only… if only he'd…

But the man remained absent despite her wishes. Where he'd gone, why he'd disappeared, when or even if he'll return, nobody knew. And she found herself here, still lonesome and dismayed, floundering in her own futile deliberations.

The girl sent a sigh up towards the ceiling. She suddenly felt very, very tired. All these discoveries, stories, questions and emotions had eroded her to exhaustion. She'd have to stop thinking for now. Just shelve everything for tonight and try to get some sleep.

Aeris placed Davoren's letter in the top drawer of the night table by her bed. She cast one final glance over towards the left window. Evening had long since wrapped its vast cloak around Midgar. The city lights shimmered in the distance. She couldn't help but wonder where Vincent was this very moment. Wandering those endless streets alone in the cold? At home by the window, gazing at the same scenery as her?

She wondered… what was he thinking about…

Enough, Aeris ordered herself, stop thinking! The forlorn patient forcefully looked away and sealed her eyes shut. She concentrated on the low beeps of the heart monitor nearby. It sung its monotonous tune at a regular pace. She counted the beats. One… two…. three…. four….

Soon, Aeris sailed off into a deep slumber.

-End of Chp.91