Chapter 11: Impassive Moon

There was nothing left for me, nothing tying me to this forsaken world. The one thing that had made me doubt the absolute corruption of this planet lay at my feet, unbreathing, unblinking, dead by my hand for the second time.

I turned on Hojo. I was hollow inside, echoing and empty, save for the one thing left for me to do. I reached out an arm, fire engulfing the appendage all the way up to my elbow, and focused all of my hatred, abuse, and malice.

His eyes were wide with fear over the prospect of his life ending.

Ending by the hand of his own son.

All of my hatred dulled. No matter how much I wanted to kill him, despite years of fantasizing about it, decades of dreaming how I'd end him and finally be free, when it came down to it, I could not kill him.

My flower girl had taught me that all life is precious, no matter what.

With tears rolling down my face, emptiness consuming me, I extinguished the flames licking my skin. Hojo's slumped slightly, realizing my unwillingness to kill him.

No, I wouldn't take his life. Despite my anger, my sorrow, I could not.

I invaded his mind, enveloped his consciousness, and forced him into a deep sleep. His eyes rolled back and he crumpled to the floor.

My attention snapped to my wilted flower, motionless and unbreathing, blank stare fixated toward the ceiling. I fell to my knees at her side, terrified of what I'd done.

I called out her name, over and over, until I was screaming.

She didn't answer.

She didn't blink.

I couldn't breathe, couldn't see. My sobs came in great waves, my anger and desolation shaking me to the core. So palpable was my anguish that I began to inadvertently push outward; I'd unwittingly sent the tables to the wall, my mind beating outward and looking for escape.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Cloud, his face solemn.

"Was this what it was like, when I took her from you?"

He nodded, and I could see the trail his tears has made cascading down his face.

There truly was no escape.

The clock on the wall continued to tick - the world, unchanged, despite the death of its daughter, kept spinning - and I fell within myself. I once thought I could live without her - I'd freed her in Costa del Sol, after all - but that was partnered with the idea that she could again be happy, feel the sun on her face and the wind in her hair.

The body that lay on the cold, sanitized tile floor would never again take even so much as another breath, never know joy or sadness, never again feel love...

For a brief moment in time, I felt myself go completely insane. I thought how much better of a world it would be if I hadn't been stopped, if, once upon a time and a long time ago, I hadn't failed in my attempt to gain godhood and remake the world.

I scared myself with the thoughts that rushed my head. I gathered great clumps of my hair in my fists, inhaled, preparing so scream...

But.. there... in the back of my mind... A tickle? A flutter? A breath?

Cloud had sensed it too; he looked around, alarmed. There were five presences in the room; Vincent, Hojo, him, myself, and...

Cloud fell to his knees, bending over Aerith. He looked confused. Taking her wrist up, he felt for a pulse. He looked to me, his brow knitting. I took Aerith's hand as well, but felt no pulse.

A hissing, a release of steam from across the room, and Vincent, Cloud, and I jumped to our feet, prepared for whatever was about to emerge from the chamber. What we were absolutely unprepared for was the small, lithe body that tumbled out and spilled to the floor, a curtain of chestnut hair wrapped around her. I was at her side in less than a heartbeat, letting Cloud and Vincent scramble behind me. Carefully, I pushed her hair from her face.

It was Aerith!

She was breathing, she was alive!

I tore a strip of fabric from my shirt, knowing that the first thing she would want to do when she woke would be to open her eyes.

"What are you doing?" Cloud inquired. There was a hidden urgency in his tone, and over my shoulder I saw Vincent flip out his phone.

"She'll likely go blind if I don't make sure she can't open her eyes. She's essentially been floating in a tank of mako, meaning she's very sensitive, albeit physically weak."

Cloud knelt next to me, reaching out a hand to push some of the hair from her face. He let out a breath, his face saturated with both relief and wonder. "Floating in a tank of it? She won't get poisoning, will she?"

I checked her pulse, her breathing, making sure she was truly living. Her breathing was somewhat shallow, but stead. "Mako infusion can mimic mako poisoning, but the effects differ. Mako poisoning usually kills, whereas infusion is slow and gradual, usually strengthening whoever it's injected into." I thought back to when Aerith had needed regular injections, to help wean her off of the high dosages she'd essentially been floating around in. "Though it makes you want to explode." I added, knowing he'd understand.

"I'm so confused; if Aerith's body is over there, how is she here?"

And then, it was like a little bell went off in the back of my mind, ringing clear and loud. "Hojo wasn't making clones; he was making spare bodies. That's why he made me... made me kill her again; he had fully planned to bring her right back."

"But if he had spare bodies, why didn't he just use one of those instead of sending you to hunt her in Costa del Sol?"

"Her spirit."

"What?"

"Her spirit. That part of her which belonged to the Lifestream. Until a few moments ago, this body was just a husk. Once the first Aerith died, her spirit was sent to this one. A body without one is useless; Hojo knows this, given how many failed clones came after me in which he tried to make something from nothing. That's why he started using people."

"But that doesn't answer the question; why did Hojo send you after her when he could've had her killed, then pop right back here in the labs? If her spirit just travels from body to body, why does it matter?"

I took a deep breath. "We'll have to ask him when he can talk again," I mused, eyeing the sleeping form on the floor.

The distinct sound of a phone snapping shut echoed through the room, and Cloud and I both turned to look at Vincent. He wore what remains to be the closest thing to a smile I've ever seen on the man, and he met my eyes alongside it. "Reeve has the surface perimeter under control and luckily had a feeling we'd need medical attention after our encounter. Take her to the hospital ward; they're expecting you."

I smiled and nodded my head in thanks. Carefully, I picked Aerith's new form off the floor. "Can the two of you take care of everything down here?"

Cloud scratched the back of his head, but before he could open his mouth, Vincent spoke. "I'd already informed Reeve of the situation, and he's sending down a squad."

I nodded again, phased out, and shot through the ceiling. Up, through layers of concrete and electrical wiring, though desks and filing cabinets, until I came to the hospital ward. The situation was too delicate for me to worry about who would see me phase back, so I simply popped back into the visible spectrum right in the middle of one of the nurses station. Several of them screamed at my appearance, but a few official-looking ones with clipboards had obviously been expecting me, and had a stretcher ready for the body in my arms.

They began to wheel her down the hall once she was in place, and I was fully intent on following until one of the nurses attempted to direct me to the waiting area. I shot her a look filled with ice, and promptly informed her that her newest patient would go nowhere without my escort. She opened her mouth in an attempt to argue when Reeve walked through the elevator door. Aerith was already halfway down the hall, and my temper was wearing thin.

I was truly beginning to like Reeve; he was absolutely amazing at picking up body language and cues. He nodded to me, placed a hand on the shoulder of the nurse who was attempting to bar my path, and handed me a badge with the other. I looked it over for a brief second, noting that the piece of laminated paper cleared me for any place in the building. This kind of clearance was reserved for whomever was running the company, and for Reeve to bestow such on me showed how much he had come to trust me. I nodded my thanks and began down the hall as he began to apologize, albeit sternly, to the nurse about where I should be.

They'd already set Aerith up in one of the rooms near east side of the building. When I walked in, she had was already plugged in to a saline drip, and several people in long white coats were dictating notes for the respective recorders.

One of them looked up at me when I entered the room, noticed the badge, and turned as if the paper clipped to my chest made me invisible. I might as well have been; with top clearance came the fear it imbedded into those without. Shinra was corrupt within; those with power abused those with less, and so to deny or anger me would be to risk their jobs.

I'd have to do something about that. I'd talk to Reeve again, once everything calmed down...

One of the doctors made to remove Aerith's blindfold. A sharp and booming, "no" from my lips made them all jump.

I cleared my throat, entering the room further past the doorway. "I apologize. I've dealt with this recently, myself having been one to go through it, as well. Her eyes will be overly sensitive - even the dimmest of lights could blind her - and, conversely, she will be nearly deaf for a short time."

One of the doctors nodded, then pulled a notebook from his pocket and began to scribble. Another yet came and held out his hand in front of me to shake.

"General, it's good to see that you're well."

I shook his hand in return, but the look of uncertainty on my face must have hurt him. Reluctantly, he introduced himself, obviously saddened by the fact that I hadn't recognized him.

"Sull Ludwik. I was in a squadron you trained, back before I decided fighting wasn't for me. You, personally, wrote my letter of recommendation that got me into the Shinra medical program." He had a slight accent, and he stood up straight and tall, meeting my eyes. I liked him already, even if I couldn't recall who he was.

Despite my inability to place him, I knew Sull spoke truthfully. When I was training soldiers for Shinra, I was careful with what men I selected for my personal squadrons. Many of them showed promise, but not all with weapons. If I felt a soldier might do better in the field of medicine, I would recommend he change his mind in regards to where he would head after basic training. It helped weed out those who, while they might have made decent soldiers, would end up being far better at something else. In the end, I was ridding the battlefield of soldiers who might end up hurt or dead before long. I didn't really think of it as saving lives back then, just making cleanup easier.

Not that I'd be volunteering the information to the good doctor, of course.

"Can you tell me anything about her condition, sir? Any outside information would be helpful. From my current standpoint, I'm not sure what to make of her. Given her obvious weakened state, I'm hesitant to wake her. You said yourself she'd be temporarily deaf, as well, so asking her outright would prove useless at this point."

"Given that you work for Shinra, I trust you're well versed in the ways of secrecy." I scanned the room.

Sull snapped his fingers, and everyone in the room ceased their scribbling, closed their notebooks, and promptly filed out from the room. When I raised an eyebrow at him, he shrugged. "Top medical clearance. I'm familiar with more than Shinra would like me to know, I'm afraid."

"I'm well aware of the curse. Might I ask you if you're familiar with any of Professor Hojo's work?"

He stilled, then sighed and shook his head. "I've read up on it, but I've never worked with the man."

"Depending on how competent his records are, and how accessible they may be, you may be aware of Hojo's work regarding the Cetra."

Sull's brow furrowed. "That's very privileged information, Sir. Hardly a handful of people are aware that there was a Cetra within Midgar for a time, and that the professor had her in his custody for a short while a few years ago. All data regarding the matter thereafter, however, is lost. One of the storage labs caught fire last year. Everything was destroyed."

"I can tell you now that it likely wasn't an accident, doctor. The girl who sits before you is the very same Cetra that Hojo had in his grasp."

His eyes widened, his gaze snapping to look at her again. "I... I didn't know how to process the information. I mean, one hears stories of the Ancients as a child, but you never really understand or believe them. Are you sure, sir?"

"Absolutely."

He was quiet and still, intently fixated on her. He was curious, that much was for certain.

"Is there... is there anything special I need to do, sir?"

"When you shoot her up with mako, cast Wall around the machines."

Sull's eyes shot back to mine. "Sir?"

"She processes it in an entirely different way, being both female and Cetra, than anyone in soldier might have. Despite being a Shinra doctor, I'm sure you've never injected either with Mako, have you?"

He shook his head.

"Doctor, let me be clear. I'm telling you this so that you know what you're dealing with. Nothing I say will leave this room. I'm putting her health and safety in your hands on the grounds that if something happens to her, you're to blame. Do you understand me?"

He nodded, without hesitation, and I knew my instincts were right to trust him. Despite the fear I was still able to instill in the hearts of men, I was capable of understanding more than giving orders and sentencing punishments. There might have been ice behind my words - implications of bodily harm, to be sure - but fear wasn't the reason the doctor nodded. Despite Shinra's grip on him, I could sense the goodness within him.

"Good, now let me fill you in on what's been going on, particularly in the last year or so."

I left out much detail, obviously, but I went on to tell the good doctor about the rebirth of my flower and I, and everything I could think of that might be useful to him. Now that he understood what he was dealing with, I felt he was more capable of nursing Aerith back to health.

He, however, looked slightly overwhelmed. "How many others know about all of this?"

"A very privileged few. I'll make sure you're able to identify them, so that if they show up to see her, you won't feel threatened. First and foremost is Reeve Tetsui. If you've any questions and I'm not around, talk to him and mention Aerith's name. He'll help you in any way he can."

Sull took a step back. "The new president?"

I raised an eyebrow. "How new?"

A choked laugh sounded from the doorway. "A few hours, tops," Reeve replied, closing the door behind him. "After confronting Rufus directly, I found that he was well aware of what Hojo was doing. He's in police custody, and because I was the one who dared stand up to the man, the Turks took to calling me Mr. President, and so, everyone else has, too."

"It puts you in a good position, given the circumstances."

"I was quite pleased with my previous job, and working the inside out. Now I have to be upfront with what changes I want in the company."

"Not going to resign, then?"

"Not until I turn this place around." Reeve held out his hand and shook the doctor's own outstretched one. "It's good to meet you, Doctor Ludwik. I presume Sephiroth here has filled you in with a few necessary details regarding your new patient."

Sull nodded. "And a few pieces of information I was informed few were privileged to know. You can trust me, Mr. President; I, myself, have been trying to make changes for the better within the company since I was positioned."

I winked at Reeve. "I trained him; he's trustworthy enough." I'd still keep an eye on him, of course. Just because I trusted him didn't mean that that trust was complete.

From there, I told the doctor everything I could about any problems that could arise in regards to Aerith's health. Her weakened muscles, what to do when she needed Mako; anything I could remember about the time she spent in my care.

"She seems stable enough for now," Sull mused, still gazing at her in awe. "We'll keep her under close watch."

Reeve nodded, then flipped his phone out and sent a message. The doctor and I continued to converse, but were shortly interrupted by a knock at the door. Reeve answered it without hesitating, meaning he'd likely requested the person to come up in the first place.

I still, however, wasn't expecting Yuffie. She bounced into the room, exuberant, smiling when she saw Aerith alive, albeit asleep, in the hospital bed. "So how did you do it, big guy?"

Sull cleared his throat, informing us that he'd leave us to ourselves momentarily.

I shot Yuffie her a questioning look after the doctor had closed the door on his way out.

She rolled her eyes and pretended to be upset I wasn't on the same page as she was. "The whole fight. I haven't had a chance to talk to Vincent, since he's still underground, and I want to know what happened."

"I killed her. Again."

Yuffie paused and stilled, her entire face going white.

"We underestimated Hojo, Yuffie. He snapped a new collar on me, and forced me to take her life."

She shook her head, covering her mouth with her hands. Then, she looked to the hospital bed, confused and scared.

"Hojo wasn't making clones. He was making spare bodies for us. He made me kill her as punishment, and I had little doubt he would have kept her newer rebirth a complete secret from me this time. But, just as I'd underestimated him, he underestimated her. She took Vincent's gun and shot the collar off, but it was too late, and I-"

I was unprepared for the hug she gave me. She leapt at me, wound her arms around my neck, and squeezed me close. After the initial moment of shock, I slowly closed my arms around her in return. "I'm fine, Yuffie. Aerith's fine, too, and Hojo will be locked away."

She wasn't crying, but she shook in my arms.

"Yuffie, come now. Everything is going to be fine."

"I know what it must have done to you, though. Your memories, your love for her, your-"

"That's why I told you; because you'd understand."

"And that's why I called her up here." Reeve cleared his throat, and Yuffie let me go, moving to stand beside me, holding my hand. "Yuffie, I need you to make sure that this is kept under the rug. I've talked to Vincent and Cloud, who both agree that Aerith's second death at Sephiroth's hands will be kept secret. If anyone presses, everyone involved is to maintain that she was caught in the crossfire. I called you up here to ask you to keep it hidden."

Yuffie shook her head. "No, no no no. This isn't okay. I can't lie to them."

Reeve sighed, and looked to me. "Not everyone in the group trusts Sephiroth. This would give them ample reason to further shun him, and we can't have that, not now. We might tell them later, but for the time being, when tensions are this high, we need to keep it hidden. It shouldn't matter how she was hurt, only that she's well. "

Yuffie looked to me.

"I'm ashamed that I wasn't strong enough to fight it, that the woman who saved me had to again die by my hands."

She shook her head and hugged me again, wiping the tears from her face. I knew, deep down, that sharing my memories with her had been a good idea. She knew what I'd endured, knew what I'd gone through, understood what I felt. "Alright," she finally caved. "For you and Aerith, I'll do it. But I'm not going to be happy about it."

I squeezed her hand. "I'd never ask as much."

Reeve clapped me on the shoulder. "I am finding myself in need of a favor."

"I owe you much, Reeve. Tell me what it is you need."

With a little reassurance on Yuffie's part, I was coaxed from Aerith's room and into the hallway. Sull pushed past us, and I saw over my shoulder as he and Yuffie gave their introductions.

"We need a way to infiltrate Hojo's labs from the surface," Reeve explained as he led me down the hallway, back toward the elevators.

"Whatever it is you're looking for, Reeve, you won't get it. At least, not in a way you'll understand."

Reeve shook his head, looking almost hurt. "I don't want his research. I want it gone."

Ah. Reeve truly was a good man. "You need me to escort a team to dismantle the labs?"

"I want you to escort a team down there so we can torch the place. I want it burned, then sealed up. Nothing from the Under-Haven is to breach the surface again."

I paused for a moment. I'd never known that's what the apartment tenements had been called. A little ironic, I think, considering what hell I'd caught below.

I thought of my time with Aerith, holed up in the tiny apartment. Perhaps it's wasn't all wasted time...

"Hojo's in custody, correct? How tight is his security?"

"Tight enough that I doubt you could get through it without doing that invisible, walking through walls trick. Plus, though it's a bit low, we've all agreed to keep him somewhat drugged until we can get him a court date."

"Court date? He's to go on trial, then?"

Reeve shrugged a shoulder, depressing the down button on the wall. "Yes, but it won't be much of one. The evidence is so overwhelming against him..."

"What will his sentencing be?"

"It's up to the counsel."

I nodded the elevator digging its arrival. We entered, but not before allowing several nurses off on the floor first.

"What do we do now?" I asked, feeling lost. "What do you need me for? I want to... I want to stay with Aerith as much as I can."

Reeve nodded. "I need you to find how Hojo was entering the labs and clear the way so I can send my men down. If Hojo's made spare bodies for you and Aerith, I've little doubt he'll have them for himself. He's, however, too smart to keep them all clustered together. Based on his travel records in the last six months, we can guess where his other labs might be, but..."

"He'll never crack and tell you where they are all located."

Reeve shook his head. "If it comes to it, I need you to pry open his mind and get any information you can."

I took a deep breath, closing my eyes and shaking my head. "I tried once, when I was much younger. His mind... isn't like that of a normal creature. He's twisted, his mind is fragmented - almost like it's been blown to pieces - and only his madness holds him together."

Reeve sighed. "We have no other choice than to try."

"Very well, then. I will... try. But, only if it comes to it."

I wasn't alone on my quest to find where Hojo's hidden tunnels were, leading to the lab he'd bribed and killed to keep secret. Vincent came to my aid, and together we found, in total, seven, though we feared, given how well three of them had been hidden, that there were more. A small squadron was sent down with us, along with a few of the Turks, and together, it took the better part of a week to disable all of the machinery and burn any and all documents. Anything on a computer was trashed; frozen with liquid nitrogen, then smashed into tiny pieces, then burned.

No one asked me to enter the chambers that housed the... spare bodies. In fact, Reno attempted to make small talk while the others... while they were busy.

"It's nice to have you back, General," Reno informed me, taking a drag on his cigarette. He blew the smoke over his shoulder, trying to draw my attention away from the hallway.

"Relax, Turk. I won't snap."

He shrugged, taking another puff. "I don't care one way or another, to be honest, but the boss-man asked me to keep an eye on your mental health for the day."

"Lucky you."

Reno met my eyes, met my stare, then smiled. He held out his hand, and I shook it, taking a seat next to him on the countertop, our backs facing the hallway the others were busy in.

"I have to admit that it's somewhat nice to have you back. Those in the Soldier program are excited to see you return."

"They still think me some kind of war hero?"

Another puff. "Can you blame them? None of them know how things went down, none of them know how close they all came to becoming stardust."

I sighed.

He shrugged. "I played a part in what was going on, even if I didn't have the decency to give a fuck about what was happening for a while."

I raised an eyebrow.

"I fought against Cloud and the others, intent to keep Shinra's best interests on the top of my priority list. It wasn't until I saw that giant fucking space rock hanging in the air over the planet that I really changed my tune. I mean, I was a asshole. Well, I still am, but I used to be, too."

"And you've change? You now care?"

Reno scoffed. "Not at all. Well, not really. But, I respect the hell out of you."

"Respect, Reno, or fear?"

We shared a pregnant pause.

"A little of both. You were ready to kill everyone and everything. I remember you, from before you snapped - you were a pretty decent guy. Not a saint, by any stretch. In fact, you were kind of an asshole, too, but, you got your ass beat pretty badly in the end. Sometimes, that's all we need; a good beating. And, well, hushed up word on the street is that you recently got yourself some Cetra pussy to calm you down."

"Refer to her like that again and I'll knock your head clear off your shoulders."

He snickered.

"Where did you hear that from, and who else knows?"

"Reeve gave us the short version - Rude, Tseng, and I - but I decided to fill in the blanks myself. Meant no disrespect, I was just seeing if what I'd concluded was true."

"You've still too large a mouth, Reno," the one with the slicked back dark hair said as he entered the room. Tseng. I hadn't had much interaction with him as of yet, but I could tell, right away, that while he wore his Turk uniform, he was nothing but business. Even as he entered the room, he pored over a clipboard, scribbling notes and checking lists.

Reno elbowed me. "He's just pissed off because you got to her before he ever could."

Tseng's face flared red, his hand stilling. He looked up at met Reno's gaze. If looks could kill, there would be nothing left of the red-haired Turk,not even ashes.

"Not that he stood a chance," Reno challenged though another drag of his cigarette. "I mean, a Turk with a conscious? Who would have thought?" He turned to me. "You should thank him, honestly; he kept your pretty little Ancient safe when Hojo would have stuck her in a jar and locked her away."

Tseng met my eyes, not knowing what else to do. He was intimidated by me, that much was obvious, but he was also angry.

I reached over and shoved Reno off the counter, backwards. "I appreciate all that you've done to keep her safe," I told the Wutain Turk. "I'd ask for you to excuse Reno, but you likely know him far better than I do. I fear he's only become more mouthy over the years."

Reno stood up, cursing me for bending his cigarette.

Tseng nodded, then went back to his clipboard.

I wonder what it had cost him, mentally, to empty the tanks in the other room of Aerith's spare bodies.

I'd have to ask my little flower of her adventures with the Turks when she awoke.

Oh, yes, still Aerith slept.

I spent my nights in the hospital room with her. Though she remained asleep, the good doctor assured me her health was improving at a slow, but steady, rate, and that I had little to worry about.

Despite his reassurance, I still worried. When she'd been in my care, deep below the city those many months ago, it hadn't taken nearly as much time for her to wake as it was taking her now. I fretted, but it was unwarranted and unwelcome; the machines told me she was well, and the stress only made rest harder to come by.

Reeve came to her room one night, shortly after midnight. He'd brought her a new bouquet of flowers; he'd changed out the ones in her room every second day, adamant that she should see nothing short of beauty once she regained herself. When I mentioned that it would be some time before she actually opened her eyes, he waved me off with a smile and a shrug. I suspected that he was changing her flowers not only as an excuse to check up on her, but to also momentarily escape his newly appointed position as head of the company. I said nothing, however, as I could hardly blame the man.

"I've been putting it off for as long as I could, but we're going to need to interrogate Hojo by the end of the week," Reeve admitted, reluctantly. He was not pleased to deliver such news to me, but I knew he had little other choice.

"I am assuming we're to keep silent of the entire ordeal?"

He nodded, taking a bite of an apple he'd carried in with him. After chewing and swallowing, he went on. "I'd ask anyone else if I could."

I nodded, displeased but back into a corner. If Hojo had made bodies for Aerith and I, he'd likely have made ones for himself. But, ever the clever little cockroach, he'd likely hidden them away well enough that it would take years to find them without knowing where to look.

Sull entered the room, smiling. "Good news, gentlemen," he announced, brandishing a file folder of documents. "All tests are looking well; Miss Gainsborough here will be able to open her eyes when she wakes."

I sighed, pleased beyond belief. Her body was making a speedy recovery; now, if she would only wake. How I longed to see her pretty green eyes, curious and accepting, stare up at me, or bodies entwined and our hearts aligned with the heavens. Just to feel her touch...

We spoke for a short while, but I wasn't really paying attention to the words that either fell from my mouth or filtered through my ears. Too preoccupied with the prospect of being united once more with my angel love was I that Reeve had to physically touch me before I looked to meet his gaze.

He smiled a little sadly, then motioned for the doctor to leave us.

"I need another favor, after you break Hojo for us."

I sighed, but waited for instructions. I knew Reeve only asked me because he had little other choice.

"After we take down Hojo's hidden labs, I would like you to come back here and work for me."

I blinked up at him in surprise, shocked he'd ask such a question. After a moment, I shook my head. "I won't train another army, under control of a corporation, Reeve. You're a good man, but I've watched as greater men crumble under power."

He nodded, then said nothing until someone knocked on the door. Much to my relief, it was Yuffie, though she was followed closely by Vincent. I hadn't decided how I felt about the man; he reminded me of myself.

Yuffie bounded over, then jumped in my lap. She held a piece of apple candy to my lips, and when I opened my mouth to protest both what she was doing and where she was sitting, she shoved the sweet into my mouth. She giggled evilly while she stood, tucking a plastic bag into my hand. It was the rest of the candy.

She winked, knowing I'd like them, no matter how much of a fuss I put up.

Vincent sent a curious look our way as he closed the door after Reeve. I shrugged, moving the candy in my mouth from one cheek to the other.

Yuffie sat next to Aerith next, fixing her chestnut hair and placing a flower behind her ear. "You'll never guess what happened today," the little ninja chatted, talking to Aerith as if she wasn't unconscious.

I turned my gaze to the lone gunman. When a knock at the door sounded, he opened it and stepped past, allowing a large, wheeled folded mattress through the door. He pushed it toward Aerith's bed, and I helped him set it up after the orderly had left.

"Yuffie wants to sleep here?" I asked, tucking the corner of the fitted sheet deeper under the mattress.

Vincent shook his head. "It's for you."

I stopped, confused.

He shrugged. "You've been sleeping in a chair next to her bed all week. I'd imagine a bed would feel nice, no matter how lumpy spare mattresses in hospitals can be."

"Thank you."

"It was Yuffie's idea. She seems to trust you. She makes sure to tell everyone you're a friend, now."

I looked over to the young woman next to my flower girl. Inside, I was beaming. I liked how that sounded. I had a friend. She knew of me, of my past, and wasn't frightened away.

The night wore on in a comfortable lull, Yuffie chatting away to Aerith, then to Vincent and I when she grew bored of having a one-sided conversation. It was obvious from Vincent's body language - tight, upright posture, hand never far from his gun holster - that he still didn't trust me. But, he had relaxed somewhat. The corner of his lips curved up when Yuffie told me a bad joke, and he even lowered his guard enough that it was comfortable to play a game of cards.

However, as the night made way for morning, Yuffie began yawn more and more. When Vincent suggested they turn in for the night, Yuffie demanded she be carried to bed. When I'd deducted, back at Aerith's home in Costa del Sol, that they were together, it hadn't struck me as that odd. But, as I watched Vincent pick her up in his arms, lay a kiss atop her forehead, and walk out of the door with her in his arms, I saw, up close, how wonderfully contrasting the two of them were, yet how perfect they balanced one another.

I looked back to Aerith, wondering if others might see us, some day walking hand in hand down the street, and think the same. I smiled to myself.

I curled up next to her, snaking my hand up through the bars of the hospital bed, entwining our fingers. I slept for the first time in what seemed like months.

The next day was rough. I was pleased that I'd managed to sleep at all. I was tasked with sealing any of the entrances and exits of the labs, slowly making my way upward.

Much to my surprise, Cloud offered me his help.

Not long ago, we'd been at one another's throats. Now, we worked together, side by side, a mutual goal, our paths not merely crossing, but slowly drifting together.

Though I'd be an idiot not to assume he was down with me for completely innocent reasons. Reno had been open about his looking after of me. His honesty was refreshing. Cloud likely thought he was killing two birds with one stone; keeping his eyes on me while he oversaw what was happening below.

It was tiring work, but I really was the only one capable of making such quick work of it all. Using my telekinesis, I caused the tunnels to cave in as I walked through them, pulling rock free and making sure it was dense enough to keep anything out of it, human or animal. Then, we laid concrete into the piping and ventilation shafts.

I almost returned to what once had been my home, the hole in the ground dozens of stories below, where I'd spent so much of my second life. It seemed like years had past since I'd last returned, but in reality it had hardly been a few weeks. I wondered how my garden looked, if the hydroponic lights had continued working, if my flowers had bloomed. When they were grown, I'd bring them to meet Aerith. She would love them, I was sure.

Cloud was pleased with the work we'd accomplished. He informed the other men we'd been working with, and even spared a nod in my direction.

But I wasn't sure how I felt. I was tired and restless, but holding my temper. Any moment I didn't spend with Reeve or the others, helping make amends of the mess we'd created, I spent with my dormant flower. I tried to reach out my consciousness to her, help her feel safe, but she recoiled into herself, her mind trying to protect itself.

Cloud and I were looking over the crudely drawn map we'd created together, marking off the tunnels we'd collapsed. He stilled, his eyes suddenly glazing over and dilating. The room quieted, the fluorescent lights overhead flickering. I watched as goosebumps erupted down his sleeveless arms.

Then, his eyes snapped to mine. "She's awake," he announced, his voice strained.

I looked to the other men in the room, all of them looking at the two of us. "Continue the work. We'll be back." Then, I took a handful of Cloud's shirt, phased the two of us out and shot through the ceiling. We re-entered the span of visible light outside the door to Aerith's room.

"Call the others," I instructed him. Be it due to years of training under his belt, or the authoritative tone of my voice, Cloud didn't hesitate and took out his phone in an instant.

Slowly, I opened the door to Aerith's room and slipped inside.

"Where am I?" Her sweet voice rang out like a melody.

I breathed a great shaking sigh. "In the hospital."

She smiled. She could hear me. Her body must have recovered far faster while she was asleep; I wondered if she could already take her blindfold off.

"What happened? Did anyone tell you what's been going on?"

"No one needed to tell me. That psycho has been locked away, and you're safe."

Her smile widened, and she heaved a sigh of relief.

"I'm... I'm sorry for what happened." I felt like an awkward teenager once more, tongue-tied, filled with words and feelings I didn't understand how to express. I don't know why I didn't just rush to her, collect her in my arms, and bite the heads off anyone who tried to come near; my mind felt like it was stuck in a slow gear, while the world around me spun in circles.

She cocked her head to the side, as if she didn't understand, but before I could get another word out the door opened and Yuffie, in three half-running steps, made it to Aerith's bed and threw her arms around the flower girl's neck. The little ninja was babbling, sniffling behind every few words, her face buried against Aerith's neck.

Ever patient, my flower smiled and hugged Yuffie back. "Who else came to see me?" she wondered out loud, due to her lack of sight.

"Everyone," Cloud said as he entered the room behind Vincent. He wore a smile so large I feared it might fall off his face.

"Are my eyes okay?" She asked, touching a hand to her blindfold as Yuffie pulled away.

"So far, our tests conclude that you'll be fine," the kind doctor announced as he entered the room. Clipboard in hand, he made his way past the group of unlikely friends and to Aerith's side. "We can take if off now, if you'd like."

"Oh, yes, please!" she was excited, like a child receiving a precious gift.

As Sull began to unbandaged Aerith's eyes, pulling the lacy cloth from her face, we all gathered around her bed. It felt like something out of a movie, all of us standing around our friend as she recovers in the hospital, flowers decorating a good portion of the room.

The bandages gone, Aerith slowly blinked open her pretty green eyes. She looked around the room, from one friend to the next...

Then to me.

She screamed.

Everyone in the room was suddenly on edge as Aerith reached for Cloud, as he was the closest of her friends on the opposite side of the room as I. She clutched his shirt, trying to press herself close against him in an effort to get as far from me as she could.

My blood ran as ice. "What is going on?" I asked, looking to the doctor.

He looked to me and shrugged, then back to Aerith.

"What's he doing here? Why is he here?" Aerith's voice shook as Cloud carefully wrapped his arms around her shoulders.

"He saved us, Aerith; he saved you."

"Saved me? He's the one who stuck me through!" She was weeping now, confused and frightened.

"Aerith?" Vincent's calm voice sounded. She turned her head to look at him, her eyes wide with a range of emotion, none of them good. "What is the last thing you remember?"

Her eyebrows drew together, as though he was asking what that giant, warm ball of light in the sky might be. "The City of the Ancients; releasing holy; him trying to kill me."

Half of those in the room gasped, the other half were too shocked to make a sound.

"You remember nothing past that?" I asked her. My voice sounded cold, devoid of emotion; just like I felt.

"Past? How long have I been here in the hospital?"

Yuffie shifted on Aerith's bed, blocking her view of me. "You don't remember how you came back, how Sephiroth saved you from Hojo... any of it?" Yuffie was watching her words carefully; had she added, 'how you fell in love,' in that list, I'm quite sure Aerith would have started screaming again.

"Came back? What are you talking about?"

"Aerith," Vincent began again. "It's been well over a year since we stopped meteor. You were in Sephiroth's care for a time, and we recently had to fight Hojo to make sure you stayed safe."

She shook her head, her face solemn and frightened, tears streaking down her face. She hiccuped, looking at me with such fear in her eyes.

They all looked to me, as if I knew what to do, what had happened.

But I had nothing. Twice now I'd lost the one thing in my life that had been worth living for. I killed the woman I loved, unable to stop myself, then, when, through sick science she'd been brought back, she didn't recall any part of our time spent together.

Nothing of our promises, of our hearts, or changed worlds.

She turned from me, fear and confusion written, clear as day, across her face.

I sank through the floor like a stone sinking in the sea, heavy and unfeeling. I should have been saddened, angry - frightened, even - but I felt nothing. I was shell of a man, an automaton; unfeeling, made of steel.

Truly, there was nothing left for me in the world.

I drifted downward. I don't know why, for when I think back to it I cannot remember much at all, but somehow I ended up in my garden, my secret oasis, my place of peace after I'd freed Aerith. I'd all but collapsed into myself then, and she was alive and well; I was merely without her. It was before I knew she loved me in return.

Now? Now there was nothing. Nothing but my memories of her, locked away inside my head.

I reached out and swept my hands across the air, my palms passing one another as they met in front of me. The statues I'd made swept to the back of the room, against the walls, leaving pathways of cement uncovered by dirt in their wake. Moving my hands back, I settled the dirt over the concrete so none of it showed.

Then, in a burst of power, I forced life to spring from the seeds I'd planted.

In a manner of moments, the room sprang to life with flowers and vines, curling and uncurling, circling the room and climbing the walls and the statues.

The plants flourished on every surface of the room, save for the statue of my flower girl. I'd pushed the stone likeness against the wall, but apparently my subconscious hadn't the heart to cover her completely.

I sighed, trudging forward and lying on the mattress in the middle of the room.

I closed my eyes, a serene numbness overwhelming me. Then, I slept.