"You, my dear," echoed a haunting voice, "are just part of a test... "
"What?" Aeris whispered, turning around in alarm.
Aeris found herself standing in utter darkness. The silence ruthlessly crushed her, but she felt sure there was somebody with her, watching her closely; only she couldn't see anything.
"Why, girl, what's wrong?" hissed the voice suddenly.
"Who... who are you?!" she cried as she tried to see the speaker.
"Fah! Look at you!" the voice scoffed, "You're just an image of another person! You're not real at all!"
The voice broke into wild, hysterical laughter, but it seemed to surround Aeris from all directions. She covered her ears and began rushing through the darkness in hopes of escape; all in vain. The laughter cruelly pursued her.
Noticing that the cackling had ceased, Aeris stopped to catch her breath. Her heart pounded loudly. Nevertheless, she was frightfully alarmed at the sudden stillness of the place. She thought perhaps the speaker had vanished.
"You are such a pathetic creature!" the voice boomed again, startling her, "Did you think you could escape me?"
"Wh... what do you... want with me?!!" she faltered angrily.
"You are part of a test... "
"But, you are just an image... "
"What test?! What image?!"
Aeris screamed desperately in all directions, but no answer came. Another deathly silence filled the darkness, almost suffocating her.
"This... is some nightmare!!" she sobbed.
Suddenly, a firm hand gripped her shoulder and forcefully swung her around. Much to her astonishment, Aeris found herself standing in front of a full-length mirror.
How that mirror had been produced, she could not guess. But, more importantly, she could not see her reflection, only a blurry image dancing playfully on the other side. Aeris tried hopelessly to distinguish the image, as if her life depended on it; as if she *should* know what it was.
When the image settled down, it gradually began to form a distinct picture... of a young girl...
Aeris froze solid as she stared at the image on the other side. All thoughts, emotions, and sensations abandoned her immediately. Her breath quickly shortened and her legs trembled with fear.
A young girl with grey eyes blankly returned Aeris' stare. A peaceful, though rather stoic, expression shrouded her beautiful face. Her hallow eyes didn't gleam or glitter; her lips, slightly parted, were white. But the paleness of the girl's skin frightened Aeris the most; the girl was as white as snow.
"Dear God... ," Aeris muttered, finding her voice at last, "She's dead... and
yet... she's me! She looks like me!"
"Or rather, *you* look like her," corrected the same malicious voice, "You are the image, she is the reality."
In an instant, the image melted away, leaving the mirror empty again.
"Who are you?" Aeris asked.
There was a stiffened hush for a few minutes. Aeris stared sternly at the mirror, as if expecting to find an answer there.
"Who are you?!" she cried out, "SHOW YOURSELF!"
No sooner had she uttered those words, than a most horrific image popped up on the mirror. A thin, sickly man in a tattered lab coat stared straight at her mockingly. Aeris was dumbfounded by his flaring yellow eyes and slimy-green skin that twitched incessantly. He greedily licked his lips, as if wanting to devour her. Though his dull black hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, several strands literally sprang out and dangled defiantly in front of his gaunt face.
Slowly, his thin lips curled upwards, displaying all his sharp, rotten teeth. Aeris thought he was trying to smile.
She sat up in bed with a start and gasped for air. Clutching her chest, she attempted to calm her throbbing heart, but to no avail; that nightmare had frightened her out of her wits. It seemed so real to her... to real...
"Hey, you okay?" asked a gentle voice.
Despite the dimness of the room, Aeris noticed a young woman by her bedside, bending over her with genuine concern. This woman had long, beautiful dark brown hair and gazed kindly at Aeris with her bright honey-colored eyes. Aeris was certainly surprised; she had thought she was alone in the room.
"Who... are you?" she asked confusedly.
"It's alright," replied the woman, sitting by her on the bed and holding her hand coaxingly. She was eager to disperse any fear or mistrust Aeris had, "I'm a friend... um... that is, I'm a friend of Vincent. My name's Tifa."
Tifa smiled good-humouredly, but Aeris merely stared with unconcealed puzzlement.
When she realized that Aeris made no sign of recognizing her, Tifa stood up and studied Aeris' face intently.
Yes, guessed Aeris tiredly, I know. She's like that man; she'll say that I'm her friend... and that she knows me... but I can't remember anything! I don't remember her either.
"This is so strange!" exclaimed Tifa, studying Aeris' with interest, "Um... Vincent... he told you that you... "
"I... ," interrupted Aeris indignantly, "... that Vincent says the strangest things! And he won't explain anything to me, either! he's just stupid!! He says that I should know him, but I don't! He says I died, but I'm alive! He says I should remember everything, but I don't remember anything!!"
By the time Aeris finished, her eyes had welled up with frustrated tears. She felt strangely angry at Vincent, as though he were somehow responsible for this misfortune. Tifa quickly embraced her, trying to soothe her wrecked nerves with gentle words.
"Shh... don't be too hard on Vincent, Aeris," she pleaded, "You should have heard him when he phoned me. He was just as confused as you are now. Vincent doesn't mean any harm. He... well... all of us are so shocked! See, you were a very close friend of mine and Cloud. And all of a sudden, you just... "
"Yeah, Cloud," Tifa repeated with slight uneasiness. She immediately recalled how both girls had been undeclared rivals for Cloud's affections in the past. Some strange feeling pricked Tifa's heart as she looked into Aeris' green eyes. She couldn't quite explain what the sensation was.
"Is Cloud... another friend of mine?" Aeris inquired.
"Yes. Cloud, Vincent, me... we all want to help you."
Aeris looked down in silence.
"I'm sorry. I've been losing my temper a lot lately," she finally said.
"It's okay. You're only human."
That remark left a bitter tinge in Aeris' heart. She instantly recalled that nightmare, and shuddered with disgust.
"You must be cold," commented Tifa, "here. I got you some clothes. I hope they fit you."
"Well, yeah. You don't wanna go on wearing Vincent's shirt, do you? It's way too big! And besides, what'll the poor guy wear?"
So, after some hesitation, Aeris at last agreed to wear the clothes Tifa had brought her. As she quickly undressed, Tifa handed her a warm, long winter dress. It fit her perfectly, although the sleeves were slightly too long for Aeris' slender arms.
"ah! That can be fixed!" smiled Tifa, folding the sleeves once. Now the dress was flawless. Nevertheless, Aeris frowned with discomfort as she felt her new clothes.
At least they're more decent than the one *he* gave me, she thought.
"Right," said Tifa with a brush in her hand, "do you want me brush your hair now?"
"No, no, it's okay," replied Aeris, immediately edging away, "I can do that by myself. Thank you."
Tifa discerned some uneasiness in Aeris' face and tone, so wisely decided to "give the girl some breathing space". She nodded her head quietly, then walked out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Aeris was left alone. She slowly picked up the brush Tifa had placed on the bed, and searched the room until she discovered a small mirror hanging in a corner. She walked up to it, but stopped short when spotting her reflection. strange to say, she did not brush her thick, long hair. Instead, she gazed intently at her face in the mirror.
Suddenly, Aeris spotted the same horrifying man behind her reflection in the mirror. His eyes glowed brightly and a wicked grin spread across his hideous face.
She turned around sharply in alarm, but there was nothing behind her. She looked again suspiciously at her reflection: nothing there either.
"I must be going mad," she murmured.
Tossing the brush on the bed, she marched to the door and opened it to a tiny crack. The corridor was deserted, but Aeris could hear two voices discussing something in the living room down the hall. One spoke with obvious excitement; she didn't know his voice. The other answered with a surprisingly subdued calmness; that voice she immediately recognized.
That must be Vincent, she deduced. A cold shudder tickled her spine.
"Well?" asked the unfamiliar voice with agitation, "what do you think?"
"I can make no definite conclusions about her for the time being," replied Vincent coolly.
"She couldn't have survived! Impossible!" he cried, "you were there with me, Vincent! You saw it when that bastard stabbed her!"
"Yes, and when I told her about that, she went into hysterics."
"I had to carry her back to bed and calm her. She was very upset because she couldn't remember anything."
"Forget that!" shouted the irritated voice, cutting Vincent short, "How the Hell could she be *alive* in the first place?!!"
"Cloud, please calm down," pleaded Tifa, who was also in the room, but had remained silent.
"All three of us were present when she was killed, Cloud," continued Vincent, not at all offended with Cloud's outburst, "and we all saw you place her body in that lake. But... "
"But now, after a whole year, she just runs out of nowhere, and can't even remember her name?! Damn it, it doesn't make sense!!"
"As I said, I cannot offer any logical explanation, but... "
Vincent stopped short when noticing that Aeris had been standing at the doorway with a deeply troubled look. Both men were standing near the bookcases while Tifa sat nervously on the couch, trying to appear calm.
Vincent suddenly cut the conversation by gruffly turning his back to Cloud. He obviously did not want Aeris to hear this discussion. Cloud, who had his back to her, turned around quizzically.
The silence lasted one full minute, during which Cloud stared at Aeris as if struck by lightning.
Aeris ventured one step into the room, glancing timidly at Cloud, her so-called "friend". He was a tall, slim young man, with a shock of spiky blond hair. She instantly noticed his bright blue eyes which actually gleamed at her. Scratching the back of his head, he looked at Tifa helplessly.
Tifa understood Cloud's meaningful look, and got up from the couch.
"Aeris," she began, clearing her throat, "this is Cloud."
During the awkward silence that followed, Vincent walked to the window with apparent irritation. Keeping his back to all the others, he gazed out the windowpanes, and did not flinch a muscle. No one noticed him.
Cloud finally extended his hand to Aeris amicably.
"Hi," he greeted with a warm, though nervous smile.
"Hello," answered Aeris, but she didn't extend her hand. She had a foreboding feeling about this meeting.
"Okay," said Tifa, breaking the silence, "Aeris, I bet you're all confused and lost in this mess. So, here's what we'll do... why are you standing? Sit down, please."
Aeris obediently sat down next to Tifa on the couch, while Cloud drew up a chair and leant forward on its back. His eyes betrayed extreme curiosity in what Aeris would say. Vincent, however, mutely refused to budge from his spot by the window, as if this affair bore no significance whatsoever.
"Some things never change," sighed Tifa, indicating Vincent. She suddenly recalled that strange man who had insisted on knowing Vincent's whereabouts. She thought she should mention it to him later.
"Aeris, now take it nice and easy," said Cloud gently, "First of all, tell us what you remember."
Both Cloud and Tifa stared at Aeris attentively, waiting for her to speak.
"Well," she faltered, "I... I remember the laboratory, and the cell I was locked in, and the Professor."
"Professor?" asked Tifa. Cloud seemed slightly perplexed.
"I don't know how he looks like," continued Aeris, addressing Tifa, "I've never seen him. But, when he drugs me and I'm half-conscious, I can hear his voice... actually, it's more like a hiss."
"And you've never seen him? Never?" demanded Cloud.
"No... it's always dark when he speaks."
"You mentioned that he used to say strange things," added Vincent suddenly, without turning around.
"Yes... ," she muttered with downcast eyes, "He said that I'm ' perfect'... and that I'm 'just like Aeris'. I don't understand anything he says."
Her face darkened as she sunk into deep thought. Cloud glanced significantly at Tifa. Vincent remained stubbornly by the window, oblivious to the heavy silence in the room.
"Go on," Tifa encouraged, "You can tell us."
"I don't remember anymore," Aeris concluded sadly, "That's all I can remember. the Professor wanted to do something to me... something that really hurts me... but, I managed to run away."
"Do you know where you ran from?" asked Cloud.
"Of course not! But, I ran for a very long time, and ran through so many streets, because I was being followed by some men."
"Yes, we know," interrupted Tifa, "Vincent told us how he 'disposed' of them"
Several haunting memories cluttered Aeris' brain at the mention of Vincent's name: the ice-cold sensation she felt when he muffled her mouth with his claw; the ear-splitting gunshots she heard when he ruthlessly killed those men. Even she could not explain why Vincent aroused such fear in her heart. She just did not feel comfortable with him near her.
"Perhaps now," she asked meekly, fidgeting in her seat, "you could tell me about myself?"
Cloud and Tifa exchanged another look. Tifa nodded resolutely to Cloud.
"Very well," he consented firmly.
So, he began telling Aeris all he knew about her. He mentioned her mother, both real and foster, and then how they had met and what was said. He talked of ShinRa; what they had hoped to gain out of her, because she was the last "Cetra".
"Now... um... about you death... " continued Cloud uneasily.
"Yes, I want to know about that the most!" Aeris exclaimed.
He carefully explained about Sephiroth, and Jenova, even a bit about his personal past and how he became involved. Finally, he described vividly how Sephiroth stabbed her as she prayed, and how they left her body at the bottom of that clear, blue lake in the Forgotten City.
A heavy silence lingered in the room for a long time; no one dared to break it. Aeris, overwhelmed with this torrent of history about herself, sat very still on the couch. Cloud searched intently in Aeris' face for something; some hint that perhaps she vaguely recalled anything. But Aeris merely returned his look with confused eyes: she obviously could not remember any of this.
"It's okay," comforted Tifa kindly, "Just give it time to sink in."
Cloud shuffled out of his chair and walked up to Aeris, crossing his arms solemnly. His face showed a curious mixture of dismay and concern. He bent over Aeris.
While gazing into his glittering eyes, she struggled to remember this man who seemed closer to her than Vincent, Tifa, and everybody else in the world, but nothing! She could not recall ever seeing him before.
"If you're walking among us, Aeris, then how could you not remember any of what I told you? Better yet, how could you be *alive* in the first place?"
Aeris blinked at him with surprise, but did not utter a word.
"We saw you die, understand? Die! How could you be alive now, but can't even remember our faces? You either came back to life somehow, or you're just some dream... some image."
Aeris fixed her eyes on the floor, ashamed she could not provide any explanation to Cloud. However, Vincent suddenly turned around to face the others, with his bloody-red eyes narrowed sharply in grave contemplation.
"I don't know... ," whispered Aeris dejectedly, "all I know is that I will never, ever go back to that laboratory or that Professor."
Everyone was silent. Tifa gently put her arm around Aeris.
"It's a blessing from God I met friends like you," Aeris went on, "You've done so much for me, and are very kind, even though I can't remember any of you. I... I'm sorry I can't help you in return... I just don't remember any of what you've told me."
"Aeris, don't be sorry," Tifa answered, "What matters is that you're safe and well. Believe me, none of us would allow anyone to take you back to that lab. Me, Cloud... ," she paused momentarily as she glanced at Vincent, "... and Vincent too. We're all your friends!"
Vincent scoffed noiselessly, as if contemptuous of the title "friend".
"Yeah!" added Cloud warmly, "Just relax, Aeris. You're not alone anymore. You've got us now."
Aeris looked up with a cheerful smile. A feeling of genuine safety swelled in her heart; with these two trustworthy friends, she could finally live peacefully, far away from the Professor!
And Vincent? Could she trust him like the others?
Although Tifa had assured her Vincent meant no harm, he never failed to arouse intense feelings of anxiety, even fear, in her heart. He seemed too detached, too dispassionate, to even care for Aeris or her "friendship". In fact, Aeris could not erase the notion that perhaps Vincent despised her.
"Well, anyway," began Tifa, "we have to decide where Aeris is gonna stay until this blows over. Aeris, would you rather stay here with Vincent, or come with us?"
"I think she'd better come with us," voiced Cloud confidently, "We run a restaurant, but there's plenty of room on the second floor. We even have an extra bed for her."
Aeris twiddled her thumbs nervously, as if letting Cloud decide for her.
"I... I don't want to trouble anyone... ," she muttered.
"Oh, it's no problem at all!" replied Cloud with a laugh, "It would probably be better for Vincent too. he doesn't like people that much."
"Cloud!" whispered Tifa harshly, kicking his shins.
Cloud tried to stifle a cry of pain. Vincent, however, only glanced at him, unruffled by the impudent remark. Turning to Aeris, he skimmed her face, then gave Tifa a meaningful look. Tifa seemed to instantly grasp what he wanted to say.
"Cloud," she said, "I think Aeris should stay here with Vincent."
Aeris stared at Tifa, greatly distressed.
"Those men that were pursuing her are probably combing every inch of Midgar in search of her," explained Tifa sternly, "and we run a restaurant. They could just walk in, dressed in civilian clothes, and recognize her. And we wouldn't even know it!!"
" I realize that," protested Cloud," but, I was going to protect her."
"No, she's right," interrupted Aeris, standing up, "I don't want to endanger anybody. Those men may harm you just to catch me... but they won't know where to find me if I stay here... with Vincent... "
Cloud evidently understood her meaning; he reluctantly nodded his head in agreement. Tifa turned uneasily to Vincent. She felt she was forcing all this trouble on him, without even asking his consent! But Vincent made no response to her quizzical look.
"I'm sorry... ," Aeris apologized meekly, addressing no one in particular.
Vincent silently brushed past her, and left the room.
All three followed him with their eyes until he walked out, then fidgeted awkwardly. Aeris in particular felt most upset at this turn of events.
"I shouldn't stay here... ," she faltered, "I have no right to... "
"Hey, he didn't say anything, right?" smiled Cloud, trying to calm her," If he doesn't speak, it means he doesn't mind."
Cloud hurriedly ran after Vincent, leaving the two girls alone.
"Tifa... ," whispered Aeris very softly, "Vincent scares me a bit... "
"Wha?! Why??" cried Tifa with surprise.
"He has such strange eyes... and he's so pale... like a ghost! And... well, he has a claw!! I don't think he likes me at all... "
"Hey, easy!" interrupted Tifa, placing both hands on Aeris' shoulders, "Listen: Vincent may be a bit on the dark side, and can be cold sometimes, but I know you can trust him. Don't let his appearance fool ya!"
Aeris said nothing, but those words greatly comforted her.
"I'll come visit you again very soon," continued Tifa, "but now, I really have to go home."
When she stepped into the hall, Tifa spotted both men by the main door, discussing something with apparent seriousness. As she picked up her coat from the table, she caught some of their conversation.
"So... ,"said Cloud in a low voice, "if she needs anything, you be sure to call me and *tell* me. And fer God's sake, don't scare her with your moody attitude! she's only a girl!"
"I understand," replied Vincent.
"And, if you need anything, like money or... "
"I have money, thank you," answered Vincent gruffly.
"Really?!" exclaimed Cloud, quite astonished, "How? Did you scare a bank or something?"
Vincent turned away in annoyance, trying to suppress a violent outburst.
"I have a job," he muttered forcefully.
"A job?!!" cried Tifa, walking up to them as she put on her coat. The idea obviously never struck either of them that Vincent would actually get a job.
"What do you work as?" she asked, very much interested.
"A gunsmith. I work for a small company in Sector 1"
"Wow," blinked Cloud with unfeigned bewilderment, "Y'know, I always thought you'd go back to that coffin and rot in there. I never would have dreamed you'd get a job, and live here in Midgar... "
Tifa kicked his shins again, which silenced him effectively. She cleared her throat in a business-like air, then faced Vincent.
"So, you'll take care of her for the time being?"
"And don't upset her like you did last time."
Vincent merely scoffed scornfully.
"Okay," concluded Tifa resolutely, "I'll visit her again. You make sure she's safe. Vincent, please guard her."
Though he nodded dismissively, Tifa knew from his eyes that he would protect Aeris. Dragging Cloud by the arm, she bade goodbye to Vincent, and left.
Vincent mechanically shut the door. As he leant back on the door tiredly, his breath rapidly turned to short gasps. Sweat broke out on his pale face.
Suddenly, his head jerked forward, but he covered his mouth firmly and squeezed his eyes shut. His shoulders and back throbbed continuously, as if ready to burst any second. He dropped to the ground, but would not remove his hand from his mouth. The throbbing turned to violent shaking; still, he refused to utter a sound.
Aeris peered out from the living room, and started on seeing Vincent shivering by the door. At first, she thought he was crying, but then noticed red droplets trickle through his fingers and stain the floor. He was, literally, fighting a coughing seizure.
He struggled like that for a long time. Still, some ominous feeling prevented Aeris from going to him. She lingered by the doorway, too afraid to approach him, yet too concerned to leave him.
Back to I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields.