Joel Pan

I sat alone, waiting.

A week earlier I had received a telegram from Shinra, informing me that my husband would be returning the next day after a long term of service in the army. I was so hopeful. Too hopeful.

The trains came and went. He never came.

I was angry, naturally. Angry at my husband for leaving me. At Shinra for taking him away. And at myself for being such a fool, for letting him leave, for all the stupid things I'd said the day he decided to leave.

But, as mother had always said, it wasn't wise to hold on to anger. I exhaled, releasing my anger with the cold Midgar air. Slowly, I stood up and began walking home as I'd done for the past six days. For the next few weeks, I continued to visit the tr ain station in the vain hope that he might return after all. Then one day, something happened there that changed my life.

A young woman was lying on the steps up to the platform, a bundle of rags clasped to her bosom. She seemed... different, somehow As I walked closer, I felt a strange sensation pass through me. Something was odd. "Ma'am?" I called out. "Are you oka y?" Then the bundle of rags stirred, and to my amazement, a little girl barely seven years old stood up.

"No." The girl spoke softly, her words ringing with heartfelt pain and sorrow. "She..."

"Help me." The girl was interrupted by the woman who had raised her head to look at me. Her voice was weak and feeble, yet filled with a strange sense of power, and I immediately knelt down beside her. "Help me take care of Aeris... please..."

I looked up at the little girl. Her emerald-green eyes pleaded with me, and I felt a stirring in my heart. I was nearly moved to tears when I turned back toward the woman. "Yes," I whispered. "Yes." The woman looked back at me with a searching gaze. I felt terrified as she held my eyes, and I felt that she was looking for something within me. Sincerity? Conviction? Love? Whatever it was, she was obviously satisfied when she lay her head back and spoke her last words before she closed her eyes forever. "Thank you."

The girl, Aeris, fell to her knees, crying for the lady whom I assumed to be her mother. I looked up and realized that a small crowd of curious onlookers had gathered to watch us. I spoke up, my voice hoarse from uncried tears, "Will... someone help me ? Please? Help me carry her back to my house?"

Those words seemed to be an order for dismissal, judging from the way the crowd immediately dispersed. Only one girl stayed behind to help. I pulled Aeris gently and carried her. The girl picked up the old woman's body and carried it to my garden where we buried it. The prettiest flowers always grew above her grave.

From that day on I began to treat Aeris as my own. My husband and I had never had children, and Aeris was like a dream come true. She was always very quiet, and I came to treasure every word she said. Though she was usually very obedient, I soon realiz ed that she, for some reason, was very independent; aloof from the rest of the world.

It was something she said, when she was ten, that made me realize she was different, after all. She spoke of her mother "returning to the planet", something I remembered hearing from my grandmother when she spun tales of an ancient race known as the Ce tra or the Ancients. The Cetra were one with the planet they lived on, and spoke of death as "returning to the planet".

It made me stop to wonder: Could Aeris be an Ancient? One of the last surviving Cetra? I quickly pushed the thought out of my mind. If she didn't already know, then perhaps she didn't need to know. I had grown very attached to her and didn't want anyth ing to come between us. I loved her very much.

Then one morning I found her standing in the garden at the place where her mother was buried, clutching a white orb to her chest. She said her mother had given it to her in a dream. I did not know what it was, but much later I realized it was materia: condensed Mako energy. We never managed to figure out what it could do, but it was kind of pretty, so Aeris decided to wear it in her hair.

Three years after I saw the old woman at the train station, Aeris came up to me, looked at me with a pair of very sad green eyes, and said, "Someone very dear to you has returned to the planet." I instantly feared the worst, and my fears were confirmed when I later received a telegram from Shinra informing me that my husband had been killed in action. For the next few days I wept in the garden, with only Aeris to comfort me.

She was twelve when I first brought her to the church in Sector 5. She took to the place instantly, visiting it every day to clean it and take care of it. Later she transplanted some of my flowers into a little garden she had prepared in the church its elf. The flowers grew beautifully and after a while she decided to sell them to make some money.

At first I strongly objected to it. The Midgar slums weren't very safe for a young girl to be wandering around on her own. I'd heard stories of how women had disappeared from the streets, only to be found a few days later, defiled and dead.

She went anyway, of course. When that girl set her mind on something -- or someone -- she would get it, no matter the cost. Still, just to satisfy me, she started taking lessons in martial arts. She learnt very quickly, and soon was skillful at using t he staff. When she completed her course, I gave her a wooden staff I'd made myself, using fresh birch from my garden. Baked and hardened with natural resin, it would stand up to any commercial mythril staff. I also finally gave her permission to sell her flowers.

That turned out to be a double-edged sword. While the extra revenue, however scant, helped us buy many necessities we previously could not afford, it also meant that the men in the neighbourhood began to notice her. It was barely two months after she s tarted selling her flowers that she started dating Zak.

Zak was a first class SOLDIER, making him one of Shinra's most elite commandos. He seemed a decent young man and came to our house often to see Aeris, almost always with presents or flowers. He once gave her a materia ring, which she loved and treasure d very much. However, something about his eyes always unsettled me. When I asked him about it, he told me that it was the effect of continued Mako exposure, something every SOLDIER has to go through. I never forgot those eyes.

After almost two years of dating, he disappeared suddenly without a trace. No forwarding address, no goodbye note, nothing. Aeris was devastated when she realized he was gone and for two weeks confined herself in the church. When she came out she seeme d no different than before, but I could tell that something had been unlocked within her, though I wasn't sure what.

Apparently I wasn't the only one to notice. Less than a month after she came out of her solitary confinement, she was attacked by a small group of armed men. Though she fought them off easily, the attacks continued. Month after month, small groups of a rmed men attempted to kidnap her.

Eventually I could hide the truth from her no longer. I told her about the Cetra, and about Shinra. She took it all very calmly. When I had finished, I said to her, "Aeris, I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier. I love you very much."

She looked at me with those clear green eyes, and I felt the same searching gaze her mother had looked deep into my heart. After a long pause, she spoke. "I know." I quite never figured out what she was referring to.

She continued to go to the church frequently and to sell her flowers, of course. They were too precious to her. Shinra kept up its attempts to capture her, but never once succeeded. Sometimes, though, I wondered why they never attacked in force. It see med to me that their attempts were largely half-hearted.

Then one day, she brought another man home. My first reaction was to judge him as a mother would. To tell the truth, I didn't really like him, at first glance. The spiky hair, the obnoxious purple clothes, and that ridiculously huge sword! Aeris introd uced him as Cloud, her bodyguard, and I gave a start. This man was Aerisā bodyguard? Then I looked closer, and saw his face more clearly. Though his face was set and hard, it was also etched with compassion. But his eyes...

They were SOLDIER eyes.

It was evident that he cared very much for Aeris, and I seriously doubted that his love for Aeris was unrequited. Not wanting, however, to have to endure a repeat performance of Zack, I decided to play on his love for her. After telling Aeris to go get the guestroom ready, I asked Cloud to leave in the middle of the night without letting Aeris know. He agreed readily, knowing that his quest to destroy Shinra would only lead to more danger and not wanting to expose Aeris to that danger.

Alas, when I went to wake Aeris up the next morning, her bed was empty save a small note attached to the headboard. "Mom, I overheard you talking to Cloud yesterday. Thank you for your care and concern, but if I really am an Ancient, then it is my duty to help Cloud save the planet. I hope you understand. Love, Aeris." Together with the note I found Zack's materia ring.

Two days later, she came back with a small girl named Marlene and a wild tale about Shinra collapsing the pillar supporting the Sector 7 plate. I didn't believe her, at first, but when half of the Shinra army descended on my house and kidnapped Aeris, I figured her story might have been true after all.

Soon after I heard a loud noise which vaguely sounded like something crashing, Aeris' bodyguard returned, with two friends: a scantily-clad young woman and a large dark man with a gun in place of his left hand. The man claimed to be Marlene's father, a nd while I couldn't see the resemblance, I certainly wasn't going to argue with that arm of his waving dangerously in the air. The three of them spoke of saving the planet and rescuing Aeris. After a while they left, with Marlene's "father" promising to r eturn for her.

Promises. What are they, but words? My husband had promised to return for me, and where was he now? Still, I took care of Marlene as I had Aeris, raising her as my own. It was nearly a half a year later that they returned, as promised.

Without Aeris.

I was both happy and sad when I heard the news. Sad that I'd lost another person so dear to me. Happy that she'd done something worthwhile with her life and had returned to the planet she loved so much. Cloud and his friends left soon after to start ne w lives outside Midgar.

There was nothing left for me now. My husband was gone. Aeris was gone. Marlene was gone. All I could hope for now was a peaceful release from life. To return to the planet.

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