It hurt to watch them.
But she did it anyway, standing half hidden within the shadow of the doorway, eyes fixed on the two who stood face to face across the cobblestone of the square. The things she felt as she watched Tifa lift one hand to Cloud's face—the things she felt when he didn't pull away—were unpleasant, unsettling, but not unfamiliar. It was simply the same old longing for what she couldn't have, and nothing drove that fact home more than the sudden, tenuous, careful smile that appeared on Cloud's face. It had been long, far too long, since he'd smiled; Aeris saw and recognized it while aching inside, because this smile wasn't meant for her.
She supposed it was meant to be this way; Tifa had been searching for Cloud for a long time, relentless and diligent in her pursuit, spirits kept aloft by her resolution that she would see him again someday. Cloud, consumed and conflicted by a darkness that had grown within him and would not leave, knew nothing of her search, but it seemed that here and now, faced with the woman who had once been the girl he'd known, that he was relieved to know she'd looked for him. The smile had left his face, but his expression was open, less guarded than it had been in the days since his arrival in Hollow Bastion. Tifa's laughter—clear, buoyant, and completely content—rang throughout the square abruptly, triggered by something Cloud had said. And as Aeris watched his smile reappeared, growing into a small grin, and suddenly she could not watch anymore.
There were two entrances to this small house that had been for the period of the last year her own abode, and so withdrawing into the interior she slowly swung the front door shut, closing it firmly on the man whom she had for quite some time harbored attraction for and the woman he'd clearly missed. When the door was shut she leaned back against it, breathing deep and closing her eyes, telling herself that her disappointment was irrational and unwarranted. Self deception had never been something she was particularly good at, however, and so with another sigh, heavier this time, she pushed herself away and moved across the hard wood floor. Her home, such as it was, didn't hold much in the way of belongings. Growing in the small pots on the window shelf were a myriad of flowers that she'd brought with her from another place and another time; their bright colors against the subdued darkness of the wooden walls and floor reminded her strongly of a church she'd used to frequent. Leaning against the wall near the single bed shoved in the corner was a metal walking staff, crowned at the top with a trio of small colored gem-like orbs. In the small bathroom, situated on the shelf beneath the mirror where her brush and comb resided were a multitude of pale hued ribbons. And completing her small cache of belongings was another orb, slightly larger than the others, milky in color with iridescent swirls that came and went seemingly at random; its position was on the small bedside table, wedged between a lamp and a clock.
Aeris' eyes swept past all of these as she crossed the small room. She had learned early in life not to form attachments to places, but suddenly she wanted to be away, far away, from this house, from this world, from this life. She wanted things to be as they once had been, before she had ever known anything about Heartless. She wanted … something, something better, something other than this … Her eyes fell upon the milky white globe which was covered in madly whirling clouds of faint colors and she made a frustrated, deprecating sound, knowing it was reflecting her mood. She turned to the other door, the one that lead to the side streets, opened it, and stepped through. The late afternoon sun was blocked from view by the roofs of the recently built houses; the pipes that rose from the ceilings threw odd, maze-like shadows onto the cobblestone. Across the way and to the right was Merlin's house; she looked up just in time to see Cid disappearing into it. She debated following him, checking in to see if there were any changes in the daily restoration data but decided against it, opting instead to head to the left. She walked quickly, half afraid Cloud and Tifa would head this way and wanting to avoid such a scenario at all costs. She had almost reached the outskirts of the Borough when she heard her name shouted out behind her, and checking her sigh of mingled dismay and resignation she halted and turned.
It wasn't Cloud or Tifa that ran towards her—it was Sora. The boy, who had transitioned into the state of almost-manhood in the year since she'd last seen him, waved as he approached, his smile as bright as the gleam off the Keyblade slung across his shoulders. He came to an abrupt halt a few paces from her, bending forwards with his hands on his knees in an attempt to catch his breath before straightening moments later and speaking.
"Aeris, have you—" he had to pause here, panting, before going on quickly, "—seen the King?"
She shook her head, smiling a little at the exuberance he fairly exuded. He looked crestfallen for all of a moment before tilting his head to the side and giving her a long, measuring look. The look she gave him in return was quizzical, and he then asked, "Is something wrong?"
"Not at all," she replied immediately, surprised by his perceptiveness.
"Are you sure? You seem … different. Sad."
"Just tired," she told him with a genuine smile, touched a bit by his concern; Sora was a very easy person to like.
"You're sure?" He repeated, looking unconvinced. His expression suddenly sobered as a thought occurred to him. "Is it Heartless? Nobodies? Have you seen them here again?" In one swift and practiced movement he swept the Keyblade out before him and he adopted a defensive stance while his eyes roamed the street from side to side.
"No, Sora. Everything is fine." She almost laughed at the disappointment that crossed his face; she suspected he rather enjoyed showcasing his abilities—ever increasing in strength—to others.
He shouldered his weapon again, placed one hand on his hip and said, "If you say so," in a tone that clearly indicated he believed otherwise. He added, "But I've got to go. If you see the King, will you tell him we're looking for him?"
"I will." She nodded, and he flashed her a grin that she was sure, in a few years' time, would drive any number of girls crazy.
"Thanks!" He said, flipping her a jaunty salute, and then he was off and running back the way he'd come. She watched after him, musing that if he could still maintain cheerfulness after all he'd been through and all that had yet to come, then so could she. Resolute, she turned and began to walk again, leisurely this time, and hummed softly as she did so.
The view from the Bailey was not entirely pleasing to the eye, mainly because from it you could see exactly how bad the Heartless threat was striving to become. But if you looked beyond that—beyond the shattered towers and the empty husk of a once formidable fortress, beyond the small huddle of buildings below that were a ghost of a town past—you could see the sky. Thick, fluffy clouds were perpetual in abundance, cloaking the highest turrets of the broken castle from view. Now, at this hour, the sky was tinted with sunset, spilling over all of Hollow Bastion its warm glow of mingled oranges, pinks and reds. Aeris, perched on the sill of a large cutout in the stone wall that served as a lookout window, strove to lose herself in the onset of dusk. Back against the stone, knees tucked close to her chest with arms wrapped around them, she thought on many things, none of them seeming anymore quite as serious as they had before. Was it perhaps Sora's influence? It was a possibility; the Keybearer had an intrinsic affableness, an ability to brighten the moods of those around him. Or perhaps she'd merely come to terms with the fact that what she'd hoped for, longed for, had only been a dream. Even as she thought this, however, a small ache kindled to life inside her, and she lowered her head with a sigh and rested it on her knees.
The comment, made in a casually idle tone, snapped her head up and around to find that her solitude had been intruded upon. The stranger was a man, of medium height and possessing a head of vivid red hair that rose from his head in a series of layered spikes. Odd markings adorned his face, and a pair of very bright, very green eyes were trained on the sky beyond her. It was his attire that caught and held her attention, and thin wisps of dread began to insinuate themselves throughout her entire body as she realized who in fact stood before her.
"You're from the Organization." She stated, and was relieved to find her voice remained steady and even in the light of her newfound apprehension.
"Was it the robe that gave it away?" He asked, plucking with one hand at the black garment that hid most of his body from view. Twin tassels hung over his shoulders, and a slender silver chain attached both sides of his collar swung loose over his chest.
"Yes," she said, and then realized that his bantering tone had lulled her into instinctively answering the absurd and redundant question. She blushed only slightly at her folly and shook her head before snapping, "Why are you here?"
His eyes flicked from the sky to her face, and he answered her question with one of his own, "Why are you here?"
Aeris' brows descended and her face arranged itself into a scowl. Member of Organization XIII or no, this man was proving to be more annoying than anything else. "What do you want?"
A smile flickered about his lips but did not manifest itself fully. "Information. You seem like the sharing type. Will you answer a question for me?"
"No." She said firmly, slipping off the sill and getting to her feet.
"That's not very friendly," he said chidingly, and turned to watch as she began to edge around him.
"What did you expect?" She asked, a trifle incredulously. "You're the enemy."
"Or maybe you're my enemy. Or maybe we're not enemies at all. How much do you really know?" He leaned in close, his eyes scant inches from her own. "You shouldn't judge people you've just met."
Aeris backpedaled, putting several feet of space between them. She was by now feeling quite vexed by this stranger and his impudence, and underneath her irritation her fear and nervousness were still present. Wishing she'd grabbed her staff before leaving her house, she gestured to the view to be seen through the lookout window. "Look down there—all those things trying to invade—you're no better than they are. You're not helping the worlds."
"Those are Heartless, which have nothing at all to do with me or the Organization," he replied without taking his eyes from her. "And how do you know whether we help or hinder?"
"Sora—" She began, but instantly cut herself off.
"Ah," he said, an exultant note in his voice. His smile finally appeared full force, a curving of the mouth that was neither friendly or mirthful. "Sora is exactly the reason why I've come."
Silently berating herself for the slip of the tongue, Aeris shook her head, "He's not here."
"No?" The stranger cocked his head to the side, a gesture that she was sure was meant to be mockingly inquisitive. "But he was here, wasn't he?"
Aeris pressed her lips together into a thin line and said nothing. There was silence then, as they in turn regarded each other, Aeris with suspicion and the stranger with no expression whatsoever. When, after several long moments he made no effort to speak further, she asked, "What do you want with Sora?"
"He's an old friend. So to speak." The noise Aeris made was one of disbelief, and in a sudden, seamless shift in topic he said, "Tell me—are you this protective of all your friends?"
"I—yes." She replied, thrown off by the change in subject.
"Then they're fortunate, don't you think?" He didn't wait for her to answer, instead going on, "You value your friends. I value mine. We're not so different, are we?"
Aeris stared at him for a span of several heartbeats before saying slowly, "You're no friend of Sora's."
"Are you sure?"
She nodded, inexplicably certain of what she had just said. The stranger smiled again, a twist of the lips. "Pity. This would be so much easier if you were gullible and willing to trust me."
Something in his voice hinted at danger; she saw a shadow of a threat in his eyes the instant before he began to move. And quite suddenly he was before her in a blur of black and red, and even before she had begun to recoil he had caught her by the arms. "Listen closely," he said, leaning close so that her vision consisted only of the conflicting green of his eyes and red of his hair. So stunned was she by the suddenness of his movement that she was rendered immobile. He continued, "I must find Sora. I have to. If you care for your friends then I ask you to understand—what I need from Sora I need because I care for a friend, too."
She wrenched back, succeeded in freeing one arm. His hold on her other arm became iron, and furious then at her inability to free herself she spat, "You're lying!"
His short bark of laughter was humorless. "Wish I were. Kind of ruins my image to go to these kind of lengths for a friend, don't you think?" All traces of expression faded from his face, and he regarded her then with an implacable visage, eyes glinting in the last rays of the sun as they crept through the lookout window. When he spoke next, his voice was devoid of the mocking condescension and ironic, deprecating mirth and became instead grimly somber. "Sora is the only person who can help me to help my friend."
She found herself suspecting that such a serious tone was unusual for him to use. She swallowed, feeling the tight grip of his fingers around her upper arm, and said carefully, "But will you hurt Sora?"
In a mercurial shift expression flooded over his face again, and he flashed her a smile that was by no means happy. "There are always risks."
Aeris shook her head and braced herself before pulling back as hard as she could, managing to tear her arm free. Carried by her own momentum she stumbled back but quickly righted herself again. "Leave," she said flatly. And she brought her left arm up and across her chest, left hand gripping her right shoulder, so that he could see the small orbs inlaid into the metal of her bracelet that were beginning to glow with the force of her anger and apprehension.
His eyes flicked from her face to the materia and then back again before narrowing slightly. "Not so helpless after all, are we?"
Aeris didn't respond. Though without her weapon, she was still capable of defense, although just how useful her skills would prove against a member of the Organization she was unsure. For a moment she thought he was going to rush her again, and the materia set into the bracelet became almost blinding in its brightness. Finally he sighed, a sound of vexation, and shook his head. "I only came here for Sora. You can simmer down; I'm not here to hurt anybody." One corner of his mouth curled slightly and he added, "Yet."
She said nothing, though at his words the materia faded in color, almost reentering their inactive states. Voices drifted into the Bailey, carried on the air from the Borough, and Aeris knew that Leon and Yuffie were on their way to perform their tri-hourly inspections. The stranger heard them too; his gaze moved from her to the doorway behind her, and when he looked back to her again his expression was almost contemplative. "When you see Sora next," he said, "Tell him Axel was here."
The voices were growing louder and the approaching footsteps were now echoing throughout the stone corridors of the Bailey. The stranger took two quick steps back and with a quick and wicked grin he winked at Aeris. "Nice to meet you," he said, and darkness began to pool around his feet. She watched as tendrils of black and purple rose and twined themselves around his body; suddenly he was enveloped in a rush of blackness, and then he was gone from her sight. She was still staring at the spot where he had been standing when Leon and Yuffie came through the doorway behind her.
"Aeris?" Yuffie questioned, and when she stepped around Aeris in order to see her face she recognized the expression the once flower girl wore. She demanded, "What's wrong?"
"A member of the Organization," she said. And having then their utmost attention, she began to talk.