I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields –Chp. 96

Aeris loitered by the window, watching another dull afternoon on the wane. It will be night soon, she thought to herself. Already the darkness had begun to metastasize across the clouded sky. Aeris breathed a soft sigh.

Another day sinking into dismay. Another day without him.

The girl tore her eyes away from the grim world outside back to the confines of this small room. She reckoned she should return to bed. Tifa would be coming up here soon to deliver her dinner and evening medication. She would be displeased to find her thus when she should be resting. But truth be told, Aeris, though certainly plagued by weariness, did not wish to retire just yet. A part of her still clung to the faint hope that he'd walk in any minute.

God, how she wanted him here with her right now. She wanted to talk to him again. She wanted to touch him again…

The silence however merely mocked her despair. He will not come tonight. She could pine all she liked, he will not come tonight, just like the night before and the one before that.

Defeated, Aeris sat down upon the window sill. Her spirit felt so restless, so low as if crushed underneath an immobile rock. The tranquility of the room only fermented these emotions further. Another day, and where did she find herself? Once more, languishing by the window in her nightgown, with the same wretchedness wrangling her senses. Aeris looked around at a loss, but upon finding no solace for her anguish, dropped her troubled gaze to the floor.

Another day gone, still no news from *him*. Once again, Aeris would have to spend the night with neither the knowledge of his whereabouts or reassurance of his safety. Another day, still no closure. Sitting here alone, Aeris faltered as this turmoil began to mangle her heart. And there at its center stood a man- solitary, aloof, and out of reach.

Vincent. Always Vincent.

Aeris blocked him out of her mind for a moment. She sought refuge, however temporary, in mulling over past events. It helped kill time. More importantly, it distracted her from the tumult the sheer thought of him provoked.

Eight- no wait, nine counting today, she corrected- nine days had elapsed since she'd awoken from her coma, only to find herself in hospital, surrounded by her two friends Cloud and Tifa. For three weeks, she was informed, Death had hovered at her bedside, unable to accept this girl had escaped its clutches thanks to none other than Davoren. Aeris herself had struggled with this fact; she too had found it impossible to accept she owed her life to the gunman- THE gunman, that is until she'd received his letter.

He didn't ask for forgiveness. Instead, Davoren spoke of this new bond that had bloomed between them. He hoped they would meet again someday, when they'd each built a life upon a foundation of truth and peace, not falsehood, fear and pain as before. He called her "Aeris" at last. With one letter, his words, so warm and gentle, Davoren had thus quietly shut the last door connecting her to the past.

No more would he stalk her. No more would she have to recoil from the shadows, dreading the moment he ambushed her again. That demon had perished in the Reactor, just like her former self. Perhaps therein lied the power of their bond- their "death" and "rebirth". Aeris would always remember their last encounter with a calm sort of contemplation. The man had loitered across that crowded foyer, smiling so benevolently back at her.

And then, in a mere moment of distraction, he disappeared. She never saw him again.

Still, Aeris had decided to keep Davoren's letter. It rested safe within the top desk drawer. To her, this paper symbolized the lessons that man taught her, the special link they shared, and the course they'd decided to pursue now that they'd each laid the past, with all its sorrow and hurt, to rest.

Aeris shifted her attention for the gunman to the days which followed. While in hospital, Dr. Moira had guided her recovery at a slow, steady pace. The worst, she explained, had been managed during her coma. But by no means did the treatment end there. Aeris underwent two additional pulses of material therapy. A bone scan afterwards confirmed all major fractures had knit. Everyday, the nurse removed more bandages to reveal the healed flesh beneath.

She no longer required machines to sustain her, though Dr. Moira had insisted on keeping her in the intensive care unit out of caution. With such constant care, life began to trickle back to this frail body. Aeris' face, before so frightfully grey, regained its lovely glow. Movement became easier, pain and incoordination far less restrictive. When deemed strong enough, Dr. Moira permitted her patient to walk again- at first a few minutes, then a full hour- yet always under strict instructions not to exert herself beyond the limit.

"You may be on the mend, but remember," the good doctor had warned her, "You're still in a precarious state. You must take matters slow and easy, alright?"

All this time, Cloud and Tifa has spent every minute available by her side. She could not have received better or more steadfast support. As promised, they never pressured her to recount details of the ordeal she's suffered that fateful night in the Reactor. Instead they concentrated on the present. Both followed her progress with meticulous interest. How great their joy when, after weeks of confinement to bed, she started to walk again. Cloud, overcome by rapture, had even swept her off into a small, clumsy waltz- she'd never laughed so much in her life! Tifa brought a homemade lunch every afternoon; the three of them would sit by the window and chat while enjoying their meal.

Indeed, the memory of the night they'd first rushed here, only to find Aeris a comatose wreck, had carved a horrific anxiety into their souls. The farther away she receded from danger, the greater grew their peace of mind. Both were genuinely happy to have their dear friend back. Neither however would be satisfied until the doctor released Aeris into their care. After four straight weeks of woe, the couple yearned to draw this whole affair to a conclusion.

Dr. Moira had already taken their wishes into consideration. By mid-week, she felt confident enough to discharge Aeris, provided Cloud and Tifa obeyed her treatment plan to the letter, a condition the pair readily accepted. Dr. Moira explained at length what this entailed: Aeris' convalescence period would span several weeks. During this time, she required constant care and regular follow-ups here at the hospital. She would have to spend most of her time in bed; she still needed lots of rest while her body rebuilt its strength. In addition, her medication regimen had to be observed on the strictest terms.

The two assumed those duties at once. Tifa in particular vowed she would obey all instructions given. Thus assured and content, the doctor signed the discharge form.

Tifa and Cloud had treated Aeris' release from hospital as a momentous occasion. They'd closed their restaurant for the day in anticipation of her arrival. The morning had been dedicated to preparing her room. The furniture had to be rearranged, the floor swept and the bed linen changed. Since Aeris possessed no clothes, Tifa had kindly supplied her bare closet with garments from her own wardrobe. Other necessities she'd bought, such as shampoo, soap, a comb, and toothbrush.

Cloud meanwhile had managed to procure the finest bouquet of lilies for Aeris, knowing of course how much she adored flowers. Tifa had placed these white beauties in a vase by the window. Afterwards, she'd retreated to the kitchen to cook, as promised, "the best meal in culinary history". Cloud had helped her with minor tasks until the clock struck five, whereupon he took his leave; it was time to fetch their friend from hospital. Tifa, in the heat of preparation, asked him to go alone.

"I still gotta make the soup," she'd insisted, "You go on. I'll have everything ready by the time you guys get back."

Aeris arrived at her new home just before seven. It struck Aeris, as the cab pulled up near the house that evening, how slender it seemed wedged between the row of large complexes. Despite its humble appearance, the house overlooked the main street with a particular quiet dignity. Cloud and Tifa had already told her so much of this place. They'd bought it about a year ago, then invested all their resources into its renovation. From these modest origins rose "7th Heaven", christened so, Aeris had been informed, in honor of Tifa's old bar.

Cloud, upon paying the taxi driver their fare, fumbled out of the car then dashed around to Aeris' side, who'd already opened her own door. The young man, however, would not let her stand for fear it might aggravate her frail condition. Instead Cloud had insisted he carry her up to her room. Aeris of course had no choice but to accept.

Thus wrapped up snug in a woolen blanket, the girl emerged from car to behold what Cloud cheerily called "Home, sweet home."

The restaurant, as Aeris noticed, occupied the entire ground floor. A couple of steps lead up to a glazed door, guarded by a narrow bay window on each flank. The sign lynched above read "7th Heaven". Through the glass, Aeris spied the interior- one large room interspersed with tables and chairs, some couches and a broad bar at the very end.

Cloud however did not enter by this route, though he did swear to the disappointed girl he'd take her on a restaurant tour later. Instead, they snuck to the side of the house, where after unlocking the iron fence, Cloud carried her up a flight of stairs to the second floor. The two found Tifa waiting there at the door. Flush with joy, she darted forth to embrace Aeris. "Thank God. Oh, thank God," she kept muttering, by now on the verge of tears, for she hadn't quite believed their friend would return to them alive until that moment.

Her first evening here left an eternally warm imprint upon Aeris' heart. Cloud and Tifa welcomed her whole, surrounding her with affection, support and care the instant she crossed the threshold into their home.

The couple resides above their restaurant on the second floor. Though small, these living quarters inspired a pleasant comfort within its visitors; the love its two owners bore for each other certainly reflected the care they'd invested in furnishing this home. Cloud had shown Aeris around. The giant sword majestically propped above the fireplace evoked silent reverence within her- that sword, Cloud told her solemnly, was the weapon he'd used to slay Sephiroth. But what truly sparked her interest stood in the dining room- a tall glass cabinet which displayed a menagerie of artifacts he'd collected during his worldly travels: luminous rocks, woven bracelets of colorful feathers, wooden carvings, stone statuettes, a small ShinRa emblem, photos, and other fascinating treasures.

"Heh! I'll tell you all about them later," Cloud had smiled at her eagerness to learn the story behind each object, "But for now, let's get you to bed."

They crossed the dining room into the main hall, where they ascended another staircase to the loft. The steps lead up to a square landing. To the left a door awaited. Upon opening it, Cloud carried Aeris into what would become her room.

The girl broke away from her reverie a moment to reflect upon her present surroundings. It was a small, cozy room with a sloping ceiling. A rather large bed occupied the center, which compared to this room made the size difference all the more conspicuous. The closet stood by the door. The desk, sad and isolated, cowered in one corner while its partner the chair loitered near her bed.

Aeris liked this room. The little paintings scattered across the walls made an interesting study. The vase of flowers, so charming perched here upon the window sill, enhanced the atmosphere's sense of serenity. Her first night here had been wonderful. No sooner had Cloud settled her into bed than Tifa entered, bearing three hot dishes of food on a tray, their smell the most divine to ever tickle Aeris' nose. That night they stayed up till late, eating, chatting, laughing.

And yet…

As the days passed, Aeris learned more about her new home. The restaurant opened at ten sharp. The couple worked throughout the morning till mid-afternoon, whereupon one of them would come upstairs to spend an hour with her. The second shift ended at six, though sometimes the influx of customers lasted until nine. Indeed, fortune smiled brightly upon their business right now. Tifa had only recently hired a part-time waiter and an assistant chef to help her manage this busy place.

It surprised Aeris, with all the hustle and bustle below, that none of it ever reached her ears. Nor in fact could she hear anything from the first floor, where her friends resided. The loft insulated her completely from the world.

She found various activities to pass the time though. Tifa had procured some books and magazines she thought might interest her, along with a small radio, which rested upon the shelf. Early every morning, before work commenced, Cloud practiced his swordsmanship in the courtyard behind the house. Aeris enjoyed watching him from her window, smoothly swinging and thrusting that formidable blade as if engaged in a deadly dance. She wasn't the only one either. Many passer-bys paused to admire such gracefulness and strength. The man always maintained his focus. Each training session endured at least one solid hour, after which he returned inside to help Tifa open the restaurant.

The couple forbade Aeris to visit the restaurant until she'd recovered in full. Much as this disappointed the girl, she had to agree with their decision. Aeris still fatigued easily. Her body hadn't yet gathered enough strength to combat pain and imbalance beyond a couple of hours. Medication kept the former in check. Rest alleviated the latter.

Aeris' two friends insisted she rest as much as possible. Dr. Moira had made herself clear. Cloud helped her cheat on occasion however; he'd bring her downstairs to the living room so she could watch television or peruse the treasure cabinet on her own, but always under oath she would remain on the couch and not roam around.

"Or else Tifa will crucify us both!" he'd warned her, only half-joking.

Whenever work finished, the pair retreated upstairs to spend the rest of the evening with her. By now, Cloud must have told Aeris every travel anecdote he could recall. Tifa described how, once she'd fully healed, they'd raid the shops for some serious retail therapy. "Just us girls," she'd winked. The hour passed thus, with much merriment and discussion, until Aeris had to retire to bed.

Yes, things were good and peaceful. She pondered that awful moment Professor Hojo revealed the filthy truth about her; how he'd destroyed her entire sense of self with mere words… "clone", "image", "mother"; how he'd kept reeling her back to his madness despite all her tears and resistance. At one point, she remembered wanting to just surrender to him. She would have too were if not for Vincent. Incredible how only a few weeks had passed since then, yet to Aeris it still seemed ages ago. Now for the first time ever, she was truly free. No more fear, no more running, no more hiding. Life was good and peaceful. It offered her endless causes of celebration: her survival, her enlightenment, her friends, her new-found sense of self.

Then why, deep, deep inside, did she feel so…

Desolate? Incomplete? Perturbed? Lonely? Nothing Aeris conjured up quite expressed what she felt as she loitered upon the window sill this dreary winter's afternoon. Perhaps all four emotions had melted into a fifth no one word could describe.

Vincent still haunted her mind like a ghost. The harrowing memory of his battle against Hojo, the diabolical brutality she'd witnessed, often tainted her dreams at night. She'd wake in dire need to know where he was, what storm so black kept him away, and why- dear God, why- was he not here. They'd assured her he was fine. By now, his body must have healed entirely. True, the blood and wounds may have disappeared, but intuition insisted a far more fierce war still raged within him. What was it? In despair, Aeris would then return to the very last time she saw Vincent: him holding her close, gazing intensely down at her as the bedlam screamed around them. Despite her physical agony, she'd felt such joy to behold him. He was safe and alive. Nothing else mattered.

But now, everything was such…. such a mess…

Thus much to poor Aeris' consternation, she found herself back where she started, back at the very thought she'd striven hard to escape; Vincent.

No matter what she tried, she kept fumbling against this wall for a door, a passage, even a tiny crack, to reach the man hidden beyond. But it was useless. Vincent had built the wall too thick, too perfect, and for all her desperate efforts, refused to let her through.

The day Aeris regained consciousness, Tifa, albeit reluctantly, had told her of Vincent's deliberate disappearance. "Vincent's not here, Aeris," she'd admitted, "he's gone away". Where to, the man hadn't revealed. Why he would not disclose. Tifa had reckoned Vincent needed "time to sort things out", but what this really meant no one knew. Cloud and Tifa must have discussed him many times before, though neither ever mentioned him in front of Aeris for fear it might upset her. Nor did she, despite her acute yearnings, inquire about Vincent. She saw no point.

So where did that leave her? Night faded to morning, morning matured to afternoon, afternoon died into night again… eight days had rolled by. Soon the ninth would also pass, still no word from him. Aeris surveyed her room again. Nothing but the same derisive silence.

A familiar sting suddenly welled up within Aeris' eyes- no, no crying, she ordered herself. She didn't want anyone to walk in on her like this. She'd have to explain these tears. She'd have to submit to these emotions tumbling within her bosom. No, she mustn't cry.

Aeris composed herself by force. She wiped her wet eyes. Only then did she realize how tired she'd become spinning in these mental circles. Best to retreat to bed. Tifa will be arriving any minute. Besides, what good did sitting here do except intensify her heartache?

Another day gone without him. Another day waiting in vain. Yes, best to go to bed now. He wasn't here.

Aeris ruefully rose from the sill onto her feet. Before drawing the curtains though, she paused to survey the world outside one last time- not searching for anything in particular, just brooding upon the gloom with melancholic yearning. The backside of "7th Heaven" overlooked, like all other houses along this street, an old courtyard. Aeris' bedroom window offered her a picturesque view of this venerable courtyard. It extended to the row of houses on the opposite end of the block. A tall brass gate separated the two territories, though the trees, gnarled and defiant, crowded against this barrier and stretched their bare branches through the bars to reach their brethren on the other side. The place usually buzzed with people throughout the day. On occasion, Aeris, out of boredom, spent an hour or so observing them from above.

She disliked the courtyard around this time however. It became eerily deserted. The tangled trees to her resembled a black labyrinth- a festive ground for shadows to enjoy till morning scattered them again. Aeris turned her attention skyward. Nothing remained of daylight now save a dull blue hue. In the distance, the houses huddled together as evening's bitter air began to coil around the city. Even standing here, Aeris could sense the chill seeping through the window into her room. She gave a slight shiver. It will be another cold night, she mused.

And with that final thought, the girl closed the curtains.


Many shadows indeed lurked about the courtyard this frosty night, amongst them one whose red eyes had been studying her all this time.

There amidst the trees, a tall, solitary figure loitered behind the brass gate, with both hand and claw loosely clutching the metal bars. He'd blended himself so well into the surrounding darkness; he appeared no more than a vagrant phantom, belonging to neither this world nor the ghost realm. He knew he could watch the girl from here without risking detection. Even were that to happen, she'd never find him, not while he stood hidden behind the trees, the gate, the very veil of gloom.

To contrast, this location offered him an excellent view of her room. Every night he crept into the courtyard, long after the crowd had dispersed. He preferred it that way- just himself and Aeris. Every night he waited exactly here to catch a glimpse of her figure at the window. If she did not appear, he still stayed; he would contemplate upon that window- of all windows in the city, *that* one- wondering how she was.

Tonight however he had seen her face. She'd lingered behind the glass gazing into the sky, blissfully unaware of his scrutiny. He'd found her so beautiful, with her hair in loose, long curls and the weak afternoon light caressing her gentle features.

The sight of her had frozen him. Only when she'd disappeared behind the curtains did he remember to breathe. He'd wanted to see her. Often the intensity of that desire overwhelmed him. Yet as the same time, he wished from the core of his soul, that he hadn't seen her. The mere thought of her tormented him non-stop. Now her face sharpened the agony a hundred fold. He felt his whole interior twist and coil to near suffocation. His eyes glowed fire under strained brows.

Questions. So many accursed questions spun around him.

But outside, he remained the same: silent, statuesque, still staring through the tree branches up at her room.

She probably believed he'd maintained his distance during these past few weeks. Truth be told however, he'd kept a much closer eye upon her than she ever suspected. He just never revealed himself to her, choosing instead the secrecy of the shadows.

She did not know of the many times he'd visited her at the hospital. He always came in the dead of the night, when the halls had emptied and the weary staff on call would neither notice nor care about him. Aeris did not know how often he'd stood behind the observation window, his morose gaze riveted solely upon her. Lying there unconscious, she couldn't have known of the times he'd pressed his hand against the glass, wishing he could touch her skin instead.

He never ventured inside however, as if he… mistrusted something deep within himself…this… he had no description for it, which unsettled him all the more. Or maybe he actually did; he just couldn't confront it…

Though concealed, he still managed to follow her recovery course meticulously, thanks of course to Dr. Moira's notes (which he'd read and returned before anyone realized the theft). In fact, that's how he obtained Aeris' discharge date. He had assumed quite correctly that Cloud and Tifa would take her. When the hospital at last released her, he'd waited opposite "7th Heaven", again hidden from view, until she'd arrived at her new home.

Since then, he'd come here every night.

Every night he stood here alone in the dark and cold to watch her window.

And at the end of each vigil, he left again.

He could go up to her tonight. But then what? What would follow? What would he say, after all that had happened? Turmoil wrangled his mind, emotions, hesitation and wretched, wretched uncertainty plagued his heart- how could he articulate this jumble to her? He couldn't even grasp it himself. And where would he start?

His past? Lucrecia? The Reactor? The moment he kissed her? When she declared her love for him? The words he told her when she'd asked him to abandon her? The horror of witnessing those claws rip across her flesh, the blinding wrath afterwards, or the searing anguish of holding her bloody body while life slowly drained out of her?

What, Vincent, the clamor pounded his skull, what would you tell her? What will you do? What do you want?

In response, Vincent tore himself away from the gate, the questions, that window, everything, and marched off.

End of Chp.96