I Know What’s Beneath the Snow Fields –Chp. 100

“The fields are so cold, and so empty,” he could still hear Aeris’ words echo across his memory, “Everything is frozen dead, you’d think nothing can ever grow there. But you said in the springtime, the flowers bloom here. So, something was able to grow in these fields after all. There was life hidden underneath, only you didn’t see it.”

Yes, that had always been a fault of his: looking at matters as they appeared on the surface- black is black, sin is sin, guilt is guilt. Dig deeper and you’ll only find more of the same.

And now, here you are again, he commanded himself wearily: look. What do you see?

Vincent reopened his eyes. Fields of snow greeted his vision. They spread out before him into the distance far away, an endless blanket of unadulterated whiteness. It felt strange to stand in the middle of these fields again. So much had happened since his last visit here, it seemed another lifetime ago. So many wounds torn open and coiled secrets unraveled into the ugly light. But these fields remained as before, untouched, unchanged, and unfathomable.

The whole time Vincent loitered in this place, a cruel war of emotion raged within his heart: desperation nagged him. Doubt – constant, infernal doubt- clawed him until his entire insides were bleeding. An eerie foreboding hissed into his ears, telling him not to venture any further, to turn away from here.

Paradoxically though, it was this same presentiment which held him in place, like underneath these fields lay this… this ultimate thing that would give him some kind of rest, hope, or at least a direction to follow. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know where to take himself or these emotions. He feared what he wanted yet what he wanted he did not know.

Vincent reckoned he’d been standing in this spot for over an hour, just staring at the fields. The man however could not see what he was searching for. In truth, Vincent still didn’t know what exactly he was searching for amidst such wilderness or even why he’d returned here to begin with.

Or did he know all along, but was just too hesitant, too cowardly to tread further and find it?

Vincent sighed in bitter defeat. He remained immobile.

After leaving the mystified Rufus with Davoren’s gift, Vincent had retreated to the shadows of Midgar once more. He’d roamed the streets like a wayward ghost, wrapped in his long black coat and a muffler loosely wound around his wan face. People whisked past him unnoticed. Alleys flowed into rivers of darkness; he swam down them without caring.

He dimly recalled the city clock tower chime out the arrival of midnight, but that was God-knows how long ago.

His feet had followed no fixed path. He’d no destination to reach, no purpose to achieve, no end in sight. Vincent had just kept walking, trying to escape *her* but unable to relinquish his mind’s grip on her. He’d pressed on, goaded forward by uncertainty about himself, and hindered back by a painful longing for *her*.

If only he had the courage to turn around and see who she was.

Indeed, all the time Vincent had walked, down the lamp-lit streets, through throngs of shapeless shadows, he could sense *her* right on his trail. She was this presence only he detected, trotting after him wherever he turned. She wouldn’t leave him alone for one second. Worse still, on the few occasions Vincent had paused, weary of his own vagrancy, he’d feel her invisible arms envelope him from behind. Tenderly she’d whisper in his ears; he’d hear her begging him to look at her.

Right then, a wave of desires would flood him: to turn to her, to press her against his heart where she belonged. But every time, Vincent managed to break free. He’d kept walking forward. He’d never once looked behind. No matter how strong her embrace or overwhelming his desire, his fear of facing her always prevailed.

He didn’t want to know whose eyes he’d find staring back at him were he to turn around: Sorrowful eyes from a past 31 years old, still full of the love he’d failed, still condemning him to guilt and misery? Or green eyes beaming love and compassion, the first which rattled him, the latter which pierced him deep, and both of which he knew he did not deserve?

Which pair of eyes would meet his? What if he admitted those weren’t the eyes he yearned to find? Then again, how could he admit anything when he felt so torn by doubt?

For him, Lucrecia remained ingrained deep in his mind like a carving in stone unaltered by time. He knew every detail of her: her dear face and soft caress. Her hair. Her white skin. The way she laughed. The way he could spend hours just sitting with her. The ease he felt around her. How his entire loneliness dispersed at her mere presence. How badly he’d longed for her. The joy that overtook him during the brief moment they had each other- she kissing him, he touching her, just the two of them and quiet ecstasy. It was the last time Vincent remembered being truly happy.

He clung to everything that was Lucrecia; her life that had been his light, and her death that became his damnation.

But still…

No matter how many times he swayed to Lucrecia, his heart kept steering him towards Aeris again: to her beauty and kindness. To her incredible strength. To his desire to protect her from harm and pain, starting as a spark and growing until it became a fire, so intense he’d dived into the Reactor just to retrieve her.

The time he held her tearful face up between his hands and kissed her.

The unrestrained rage that exploded out of him upon watching Hojo slay her.

The bottomless pit of grief that swallowed him upon losing her.

This listless agony he constantly felt without her.

Could he really just go on like she was a bridge to Lucrecia, a mere prisoner behind a mirror, there to assume whosever image he wished to see? What if he said he wanted to go on seeing Lucrecia in that mirror, go on loving her, yearning for her, while the girl suffered behind the glass?

And what if he said that was not what he wanted?

What if instead he smashed through the mirror, through the image of Lucrecia, because he actually wanted to reach the girl on the other side? What if he admitted he was only denying himself a truth he’d known all along?

What was this truth? What was the answer? What did he want?

Thus taunted by the same demons, over and over and over, Vincent had marched on . He’d walked and walked, putting more of the city behind him. He hadn’t realized how far he’d wandered until he’d passed the gates of Midgar Public Park, whereupon he’d stopped dead.

To find himself here again, whether beckoned by some subconscious force or sheer accident, nevertheless had bewildered him. He must have spent a whole minute standing at the arched entrance, watching the gravel path snake out before him into the forest ahead.

He knew where this road lead: to the beginning of an enigma, to the death of a monster and the discovery of a soul. To the words “I know what’s beneath the snow fields”.

Vincent entered. He’d followed the same path he’d taken so long ago. Externally nothing had changed: the grim trees shivered in the cold; the naked bushes and shrubberies huddled together for warmth; the silence weighed heavy upon the air; shadows loomed everywhere. He could scarcely believe he’d once fought a savage battle against Davoren upon these grounds.

But the deeper Vincent had drifted, over arborous hillocks and under gnarled tree branches, the more keenly he’d felt that something had actually changed. It was like some sort of new meaning lurked behind this façade. Indeed, Vincent felt it strongest at the end of his journey, when he finally found the snow fields, a white desert of ice and cold rolling down the hillside into the nothingness beyond. He’d cut his way across this wasteland towards one particular spot.

There he’d stood, and still stood statuesque against the black sky.

He remembered the night he brought Aeris to this place. It seemed ages ago. He remembered how its magnificence had enthralled her. They’d sat down together upon the snow – right here in fact, where he languished alone right now. She’d told him these white fields were very much like him. Vincent didn’t understand at the time, but he did recall, in answering her, how badly he’d wanted her to see him as a monster.

A monster within this shell of some pathetic man, chased by the ghost of a love he’d abandoned, hollowed by years of self-hate and vicious remorse. He still didn’t know why he’d always wanted specifically Aeris to call him a monster. Nor could Vincent explain why it infuriated him inside to have her deny him that name- so much so that he’d attacked her on one occasion.

Maybe he’d already sensed her love for him, at least on some subconscious level. And that had flustered him, frightened him even, because in feeling that, she was directly defying all the guilt and darkness he’d borne inside for 31 years. Even later when she’d tearfully confessed outloud that she loved him, Vincent recalled his whole being had reeled in shock: he’d wanted her to admit her folly, to see he deserved neither her faith nor her heart, only more scorn and punishment.

But somehow, this girl’s resolve always prevailed over his own. He remembered as he’d held her pinned down to the floor, delirious, seething rage upon her, Aeris would not concede to him. When they’d sat here together, before them this wintry wilderness, Aeris had only clung to her conviction more.

She told him, “I know what’s beneath the snow fields”.

Her words resonated vividly within him. Still, the man remained unsure of himself and even less sure of the path to follow.

Vincent’s gaze drifted upwards. He finally noticed it was snowing. The man watched the vast canopy of clouds shed white confetti upon the earth below. How clear the sky had been the last time he’d been here, with a million stars scattered like diamonds across black velvet. Now gloom and despair overcast everything: the heavens, the city, the fields and his heart.

“You never came,” he heard Lucrecia’s miserable whisper stab him across a distance 31 years away, “even though I loved you and wanted you to come so badly, you never came.”

It was the very last thing she’d said before the darkness engulfed her, leaving him to wander the land a lonely wretch, forever condemned by those words.

To love her and hate himself.

To seek forgiveness knowing he’ll never achieve it.

To live a monster. Always a monster.

Hadn’t that been his punishment? Isn’t that all someone like him ever deserved?

But Aeris…

“You’re not the same ‘Vincent’ you were before,” her soft, gasping voice now floated into his ears, clutching him by the roots, “.. that man…his fields were empty. J-just snow and ice. But Lucrecia, she planted a tiny seed in those fields. Your love for her… and… and your suffering after losing her…they helped that seed grow into a flower.”

Vincent narrowed his eyes. In a flash, he was back in that damn hall, watching Aeris bleeding, dying in his arms as she whispered her final revelation. God, how he wished he could tear that one memory out of his skull and trample it to oblivion!

Still, he could hear her gently speak, “If only possible, I’d give up my own life for you to have Lucrecia here instead of me.”

Isn’t that what you’ve yearned for, Vincent?

“I know she’d tell you the same things I’ve said now. She’d say that she’s forgiven you…. she forgave you a long time ago…”

Isn’t that what you’ve wanted?

“.. and n-now that you’ve found your soul at last…. it’s time you… finally…for..g..ave …yourse..lf…”

Look at those fields and for once answer: isn’t that what you want?

Vincent’s vision dropped back to the snow fields. He didn’t know how to answer. But right now, all he wanted was….

******************************************************

Tifa couldn’t believe what a hectic day it had been. Running between the kitchen and bar while her two poor assistants slaved like mules to serve customers. What had made matters worse was that Cloud had decided to take a “training trip” out in the wilderness for the next few days; said he’s been developing some new sword techniques and needed the open space to practice them.

It had meant more work for the rest of them, of course. Indeed, the staff didn’t close shop until quarter past midnight. Tifa felt sorry for her two exhausted employees; after finishing, they had to trek all the way home by train. She, on the other hand, thanked God she lived right above her own restaurant.

She’d already checked on Aeris upstairs. She was glad to discover her sound asleep. The other night she’d caught her sitting up in bed, forlorn, staring through the window at the Midgar skyline. Lately, Tifa had noticed the girl sinking deeper and deeper into a swamp of sadness. She smiled and talked all the same, ate her food, took her medications and followed the doctor’s instructions. To be sure, Dr. Moira had been quite pleased with her progress on their last check-up. But this aura of grief remained wound tight around Aeris. She still had not told them what exactly happened that night in the Reactor. But then, female intuition assured Tifa that wasn’t what preoccupied Aeris. Nevertheless, she had to respect the girl’s privacy and give her space.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Tifa still had the laundry to do before retiring to bed. She’d just finished loading the clothes into the washing machine when, much to her bewilderment, there came a soft knock at the front door.

The woman checked her watch: twenty past one. She couldn’t even begin to imagine who’d come calling at this ungodly hour as she trotted down the hall. Tifa first opened the door to a crack. She found a grim shadow waiting outside, his shoulders speckled in snow and ruby-red eyes peering over his scarf down at her.

Tifa gave an involuntary start at the sight of Vincent. It was the first time she’d seen him since his disappearance one month ago, when he’d entrusted the badly wounded Aeris to their care. She swung the door wide open, yet remained fixed at the threshold a moment longer, horrified to behold this wretch standing infront of her. In fact, Tifa thought he looked worse than before, like this exile had eroded him to his very limits. She couldn’t even muster a simple greeting.

Vincent, well aware of his haggard countenance and more of his friend’s concerned expression, nevertheless waited at the doorstep with eyes glowing gentle meaning. He did not speak. No need; at that moment, Tifa understood what he’d come for.

The woman stepped aside to let him enter. “She… she’s upstairs,” Tifa murmured.

He knew. He’d braved the cold and darkness every night for the past weeks just to catch a glimpse of her at her window. He knew exactly where to find her. Vincent walked past Tifa without a word. He trudged straight through the hall, then climbed up the narrow staircase. Tifa followed him to the foot of the stairs but no further. She anxiously watched the visitor ascend higher until he’d disappeared into the gloom of the loft above.

Tifa lingered at the bottom of the staircase a minute longer. Still she knew despite her own perturbations and worries, this was something only Aeris and Vincent could solve. The best she could do, Tifa decided, was leave them alone.


*******************************************************

Vincent’s feet tread heavily as though they carried the entire weight of his troubles up the stairs. He reached the square landing at the top, where the sole door stood on his left. Vincent stopped squarely before it. He was here. Finally after 31 days of wandering, he’d brought himself here.

“You afraid of letting Aeris love you?” the question cut through him, “Or are you afraid of what you’ll find inside yourself if you look beyond Lucrecia, the past, confusion, uncertainty and everything else?”

Vincent remembered Davoren asking him that, but shook it off, still rattled by its accuracy. He reached for the knob, and opened the door to a crack. He listened a minute for any movement or noise. Nothing. Only silence seeped out. Vincent pushed the door just enough to let him slip inside, then carefully closed the door behind him.

It took his vision a mere blink to adjust to the darkness of the room. By then, Vincent had already found his target. Aeris rested in a large bed, warm and secure under the heavy blankets. He could tell though from her breathing how deeply she slept, completely oblivious of his visit. For now, Vincent wanted to keep it that way. He unwrapped his scarf and discarded it over the hanger by the door, after which he approached the edge of the bed without a sound. There he gingerly sat down and, eyes gleaming fervent crimson, beheld the slumbering girl.

For him to see her again, to be this close to her after a month of separation, it clutched his very breath. Vincent’s gaze devoured Aeris in silence: the curvature of her body beneath the blankets, the waves of brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, her smooth pale skin, right down to her eyelashes. No detail escaped him. Vincent found her beauty devastating, more so when he compared it to the wounded girl he’d held between his arms back there in the Reactor; a wreck heaving raw pain, dripping blood, fading… fading away- the sheer memory of it suffocated him!

She is safe, he tried to allay his frayed mind, she is safe and alive. She is safe and alive.

He must have repeated this sentence a thousand times in his head. Still, Vincent couldn’t dispel the terrible image of her dying. Even now, the tormented man couldn’t bring himself to fully trust that Death would not try to steal her away from him again. Vincent found himself struggling against a strong urge to touch her. He wanted to assure himself of her safety, of her presence and the life which had been restored to her. He managed to restrain that desire however. He didn’t want to disturb her. Besides, he wasn’t too sure what he’d tell her were she to awaken.

Where would he start? How would it end? How could he even-

But Vincent suddenly wrenched his eyes off Aeris, if only to escape those same questions before they surrounded him again. His gaze wandered towards the window instead. The curtains had been left slightly open, just enough to admit a thin sliver of light into the bedroom. Through the gap, Vincent watched the snow pouring heavy and fast outside. It amazed him to realize how far he’d traveled- from the park to this house- in such weather. In fact, he’d hardly noticed. All he could think of during his journey was reaching here, and upon reaching here to see Aeris, and upon seeing Aeris to…

He faltered: to what?

The minutes dragged by. His mind, like the snow outside, just kept falling, spinning into the gloom. A relentless flow of black thoughts and white flakes. Vincent hung utterly lost between the two until he felt the girl give a gentle shudder, as though his morbid aura had chilled her sleeping conscience awake. Reacting with a calmness that surprised even himself, Vincent looked around towards Aeris again. The latter opened her eyes halfway. She whirled her sight around the dark bedroom, only to find this phantom seated at the end of the bed, his keen gaze riveted on her alone.

For a moment, the two remained locked in absolute silence. Aeris, who’d now propped herself up on one elbow, stared wide-eyed at Vincent through stray hair strands. She lay there frozen, like she feared he was merely a mirage that would evaporate were she to flinch.

“Aeris…,” Vincent began softly, unsure what to tell her.

It didn’t matter. The instant he’d uttered her name, a desperate impulse jolted Aeris upright. She embraced Vincent, who before realizing it, had also acted on instinct and yanked her in to clasp her against his anxious heart. He held her safe inside his coat, pressed dear to him, whereby he buried his face into her neck and just stayed there.

“Ah, God,” he heard Aeris whisper tremulously, “You… you’re really here…”

His grasp tightened around her to prove that yes, he was.

Aeris ran her trembling hands over his shoulders and chest, yet still she struggled to believe it. He was here. Right here, where she could feel him.

“When I woke up, I was in the hospital,” she stumbled in her haste to recount everything, “Tifa and Cloud were there. T-they told me you’d disappeared but didn’t know where. I got so worried. I… e-everyday I…”

All in one breath, she wanted to tell him how everyday he’d occupied her entire mind; how the aching to see him had worsened; how she’d loitered by the window searching for him; how she sometimes left the curtains slightly open at night to watch the sky, always wondering to herself where he was; how much she’d-

“Sshh. It’s okay, Aeris,” Vincent soothed her, “I’m fine.”

He heard a muffled sob escape her bosom. Ashamed, Vincent bent further to murmur a humble, “I’m sorry.”

Despite her comfort at his words and Vincent’s quiet joy of holding her after an eternity of exile, the turmoil within their minds persisted. Indeed, the memory of the last time they’d seen each other hung around them like some disease, vivid and cruel. For a minute, they were transported to the Reactor, back to that tumultuous hall where she’d lay dying. Vincent drew Aeris closer upon recalling that awful moment, when he’d realized there was nothing he could do or give to save her. Only watch, soaked in her blood, as she drifted further and further away from him. Watch and cry.

The memory passed however, and the two found themselves back in the tranquility of the bedroom. Vincent continued to run his fingers down Aeris’ long hair until she’d composed herself again.

“Tell me,” he asked at length, “how have you been?”

Aeris pulled out of his embrace to sit up infront of him. Wiping the last of her tears, she peeked up at him to meet his warm, crimson eyes. In return, she smiled.

The girl had plenty to tell him. Aeris began to recount events of the past month, becoming more animated as she went on. Vincent felt content to simply loiter at the edge of her bed and listen. Aeris told him how well her treatment with Dr. Moira was going. All thanks to Tifa’s diligence. She was wonderful to her, assured Aeris, though such a tyrant when it came to her medications and rest. Cloud took good care of her too, entertaining her with his endless anecdotes. He’d already showed her his entire weapon collection and artifacts from his many travels. Some days ago he’d even wanted to take her for a quick spin on his motorbike but of course, Tifa wouldn’t allow it.

Instead, she’d insisted Aeris stay indoors. Tifa fussed over her too much, Aeris confessed. She didn’t mind staying house-bound, though. There was plenty to do. She especially liked her bedroom. It offered a pleasant view of the courtyard behind the house. But what Aeris still wished to was visit the restaurant downstairs. Tifa was such a fantastic cook and business was finally booming.

“Oh, and guess what?” Aeris lightly clapped her hands together in delight, “Tifa even said that maybe she’ll hire me as a waitress in her restaurant. I mean, after I get better, of course. She says she could use the extra help.”

Vincent nodded.

“It’ll be great. I can finally start making a little bit of money for myself. Plus she ‘n Cloud will be there with me. And anyway, I’d like to work. Y’know, to just...”

Aeris trailed off into a long silence, becoming pensive at her own words: yes, to not have to always fear the shadows, wondering which one would grab her and drag her back to that nightmare named “Genesis Retrial”. She could finally look forward and just have a normal life for a change. Before, Aeris wouldn’t have even dared dream it. Now the reality dangled right before her- she was alive, unafraid, and best of all, she was free.

Yet despite her excitement, a shade of quiet wistfulness still overcast Aeris’ face. “It’s funny, isn’t it?” she said at last.

Vincent regarded her quizzically.

“I try to make some kind of plan for the future, but I… my heart and mind… they keep looking in the past. I keep going back to that night in the Reactor.”

Vincent didn’t answer. From his solemn expression though, Aeris could tell he understood only too well what she meant.

“Davoren… he’s left hasn’t he?” she inquired softly.

“Yes.”

“He… back in the Reactor, when everything was crashing down, it was him who saved us and-“

“I know.”

“And… and the Professor…?”

“He’s gone too.”

Aeris mused upon this news. The memory of his brutal battle against Holocaust Hojo flashed across her mind, causing the very walls of her psyche to shudder in its wake.

“So,” she breathed it off, “In the end, you defeated the Professor.”

To which Vincent stated, “No, I didn’t defeat him. You did.”

Aeris looked up at him, rather surprised, only to find his gaze aglimmer with reverent meaning. The girl gave a small smile to accept the credit. She had never battled Professor Hojo like the others. On the contrary, she’d spent the whole night, much like her life, cowering from him. It was only one moment, as she’d watched Vincent persisting despite illness and injury, her supplications and Hojo’s power, to hold his faith in her- only that moment whereupon she’d stood up to confront the demented Professor by herself. She’d never thought of her action as a defeat for Hojo; more like her emancipation from him. Though she reckoned in a way, the first meant the second and vice versa.

Silence soon descended upon the air. It hung thickest around them, Aeris with her eyes cast down in her lap, and Vincent, who’d returned to staring out the window, lost in thought again. Minutes passed. Neither spoke. Both sensed themselves standing together at the very brink of a black river. Where it lead neither could fathom, but they both had to accept that despite their dithering and consternation, this was the only route. All it took was one question to push them in.

Aeris knew that question. She’d been yearning to ask him since the day she woke up in hospital. She could see Vincent patiently waiting for her to say it. Still, she wavered, torn between her desires and insecurities until the conflict strained her brows.

“Vincent?” she forced out very, very softly.

Aeris’ voice tugged at him, but the man did not yield.

“Why have you stayed away from me for so long?”

Vincent remained mute for quite some time. He languished amidst the shadows, almost indistinguishable save the weak moonlight which betrayed his form just enough for Aeris to behold. Even then however, he couldn’t evade her anymore. He didn’t look at her. Yet still, Vincent could see Aeris as she sat there in her loose satin nightgown, with the dim outside light cast across one half of her face. He felt her gaze riveted upon him. Its green shimmer implored him to answer this one question.

All the while, Vincent struggled with an intense vortex rising up his chest. He wanted to answer. He wanted to tell her, but what exactly did he want to say so badly? If he spoke, would it be another deception or the final truth? Which of these emotions came from the core of his heart, and which came from the thick layers of doubt, despondency and damnation encased around it?

“I… I can’t bear to stay home anymore,” Vincent confessed through this mental clamor, his voice not above a weary hush, “The silence there… just chokes me. It’s empty and dark. And every corner I turn, I find you: the living room, where we once sat and drank some herbal tea you made. That book you borrowed from my library, and actually thought I’d be angry because you’d taken it without my permission. It’s still there. I can’t bring myself to touch it. So I go to the hall, but I see the spot where I attacked you when I was delirious. I even find you in…,” Vincent wavered, then added almost inaudibly, “..in my bed, where you used to sleep.”

A mild heat flushed Aeris’ cheeks, but she remained quiet.

Indeed, Vincent remembered trying to sleep in his bed only once. He supposed, being so awash with agony, he’d wanted to delude himself into thinking he could return to his former life. Go on with things like they were before she came. Maybe then he wouldn’t have to confront these changes and feelings tearing him apart. However, Vincent had soon discovered his bed to be the most unbearable place for him. It was there, as he’d lain flat upon his back wide awake, where he’d realized he could still smell her scent. The sheets, the blanket, the pillows- Aeris’ scent was everywhere. It had inflamed his mind so acutely that he’d torn himself away within minutes. He never slept there again.

“Since I couldn’t bear to stay inside, I would walk around the city instead,” Vincent continued, “I’d wander from morning well into the night. But I still couldn’t escape you, Aeris. No matter how much I walked or how far I reached, I was always thinking about you.”

He could feel his own words carving him open inch by inch for the turmoil within to leak out, “It was…,” he confessed, “It was as though I was running to and away from you at the same time. My mind, Aeris, was constantly being hammered with uncertainty, and worse…. Fear. Fear of coming to you. Fear of looking at you, or speaking to you, touching you or even thinking about you because ultimately I… I was afraid of where it might lead me. I’d spent so many years on one path. I believed this was the only path for me, the only path before me and the only one I deserved. But then, with you, it…”

He wondered if she understood any of this. Vincent wasn’t too sure he understood it himself. What was he trying to tell her? For a moment, he loitered in miserable silence.

“Today however, I was passing by the Reactor, and I happened to find Davoren there,” he resumed, “we talked for a while. He said I should block all those thoughts and fears out for one minute, and ask myself: what do I want? He said the very first answer I got would be the right one.”

Aeris regarded him closely.

“Tonight, I went back to “Snow Fields” Park. Maybe it is like you said: one tries to make plans for the future, but the heart and mind keeps looking in the past. I don’t know why,” fumbled Vincent, “but I was certain I would somehow find the answer in those fields. So I went there, and stood in the exact same spot where we once sat. I stayed like that until at last… I managed to asked myself that question.”

Her throat constrained with uncertainty, “And,” she finally whispered, “what was the answer?”

Vincent did not reply. Instead he raised his eyes to imprison her dead-on. He thought it surreal how the snow kept falling outside, the world kept turning unawares, yet inside this room everything remained tranquil and isolated. It was just the two of them and silence in between, the space getting smaller as he deliberately leaned towards her. He raised one hand to caress her cheek- God, she felt so soft and warm. For a moment, Vincent held her thus in limbo, just studying her face up-close, absorbing every detail while she waited, rigid with anticipation but always watching him.

His lips found hers easily in the darkness. A shudder of pleasure rippled through Aeris at the contact, first a gentle press, then pushing deeper as he felt her tension melt and hunger rise. Aeris only let him withdraw his mouth away from hers a moment, just enough for her to breathe, before both arms encircled his neck and pulled him to her again. Vincent glued himself against her; his real hand roamed her body. His claw clamped around her to keep her close.

They retreated further and further into bed, all the while feeding off each others passions. Vincent could taste fresh tears on her cheeks. She was weeping. But even then, Aeris would not extract herself from him. On the contrary, she’d already unbuttoned his shirt halfway to seek the muscles underneath. Vincent had long since slipped off his coat. He began to unlace her nightgown, his lips moving from her mouth to her throat to her collar bone as he exposed more flesh.

In return, Aeris buried her face against his neck, if only to restrain herself from sobbing aloud. Still, the outflow of tears wouldn’t stop. Yet at the same time, she didn’t want to release him. Thus torn, Aeris remained shivering against Vincent’s body. The latter, who by now had realized that something was wrong, trailed to an uneasy halt. He let her linger there a minute.

“Aeris…?” Vincent began, but stopped as she wrenched herself away from him.

Aeris sat squarely infront of him. She wiped her tears, trying her best to compose herself while avoiding his eyes. Nevertheless, she couldn’t conceal from him the anguish strained across her face.

At first, Vincent thought he’d hurt her- perhaps in the heat of things, he’d embraced her too hard or touched an injury that had not yet healed. The longer her silence stretched however, the more Vincent feared he’d misinterpreted something and botched up the whole matter. Maybe it would have been better if he’d stayed away. It certainly wrangled him to see he’d upset her.

“Do you… want me to leave?” he asked Aeris earnestly. Whatever her answer, he would comply.

“No,” she whispered, clutching his sleeve. She’d languished for what felt like forever yearning to see him again, and tonight he’d finally come here. She could not endure another eternity knowing he’d disappeared again and she’d let him.

Aeris beheld Vincent, who remained in place, waiting for her to speak, “Y-you say…,” she quivered, “…you say you’re ‘uncertain’ whenever you think about me. Is it because you’re also thinking about… Lucrecia?”

This time, it was Vincent who broke away from her gaze, visibly stung by that name.

“Look at me. No please, look,” Aeris begged in desperation.

Vincent obeyed. He forced his turbulent red eyes to return to Aeris. The solemn man found her struggling to keep her distress in check. She regarded him all the same however, him and the ghost of Lucrecia who still loitered behind him.

“You say you’re afraid of being with me,” Aeris asserted, “You’re afraid of the uncertainty and start doubting and questioning everything inside of you. But I’m telling you,” she pleaded, placing one hand upon her heart, “There is no uncertainty about how much I love you or the amount of faith I have in you. I don’t know, me being a… a clone and all, and after the experiments Professor Hojo did on me… I don’t know if I’ll still live out a normal life or what’s going to happen to me later. But I do know that I want to go back to you, and spend whatever time I have left with you.”

The man absorbed her confession word by word, but said nothing.

“It’s just, Vincent… I don’t want you to return my love with the feelings you have for Lucrecia. And I don’t want to be a replacement for her either,” Aeris wrestled her agony a moment before declaring gently but passionately, “I want those feelings, your eyes and your heart for myself. I want it to be *me*. So if it’s…. if it’s Lucrecia you saw as the answer, if it’s really her you came for, her you’re seeing, her you’re wanting and not me, t-then…”

She wanted to say ‘then please stop because to go on would just be too painful for me’. Instead though, the girl fell quiet, flushed with bitter melancholia. She found she no longer resented Lucrecia. Why hate some poor, dead woman? No, the weary Aeris now simply wished this rivalry between them would end. She had opened herself wide and laid it all bare before this man. Looking at Vincent, she realized how sorely she loved him, with rabid want constantly rolling inside her. Yet Aeris fought to subdue the former and hide the latter from him. She’d decided she’d rather let him go than have him without truly having him.

Vincent remained mute for a very, very long time, gripped both by the candor of Aeris’ words and the intensity of her emotions. He knew what she was asking of him: the whole truth, no matter what. She was right. All she had said was right. Paradoxically though, the more he brooded upon her words, the more keenly swelled his feeling that Aeris was also wrong. Or not wrong per se, more like…

Vincent couldn’t explain it that well. It just felt like what she’d said encompassed only a small fraction of a much larger truth; a truth that he’d come bit by bit to discover over the course of this day: from the Reactor grounds where he’d spoken to Davoren, to his conversation with the tormented Rufus, to the snow fields, and finally to Aeris, who now sat infront of him, her watery green eyes fixed upon him.

There was more, Vincent realized. A lot more to be said. A lot more he was holding back from her, and worse, from himself. They couldn’t dawdle in darkness any longer. He felt Aeris deserved to hear this final truth as much as he felt determined to at last seize it. This shapeless shadow lurking about his heart- this was what he’d been fearing. For all the time he’d avoided it, Vincent now delved in to capture it. He wanted to pull the whole truth out into the space between them for both her and himself to see.

He didn’t know where to start however or even what exactly he would say. His thoughts and feelings, secrets and struggles, spun like shreds of fabric. One brushed by his conscience. Vincent instantly grabbed it, only to find he held an old piece of cloth, 31 years old in fact, still perfectly preserved, for he’d guarded this memory very well right down to its minutest detail.

As his mind caressed it, filled with longing and joy, tortured by sorrow and agony, Vincent heard himself gently weave the words together “For 31 years, I have blamed myself for Lucrecia’s suffering. I loved her, Aeris. Nothing happened between us, not in that sense, But all the same, I loved that woman deeply, desperately.

His gaze wandered to the window, “but Lucrecia had already decided on her path… a path she could not turn away from even later when she came to regret it. She was infront of me the entire time. She was crying, frightened, hurting, alone. And me, I was too cowardly and pathetic to go save her or even comfort her.”

Vincent’s tone dropped to a bitter hiss, “Instead, I pretended I could not see her misery; that it was somehow best to just let matters slide in this direction. I simply watched Lucrecia drift farther and farther down the path towards the darkness until at last it poisoned her body and killed her. Only then did I realize what an awful crime I’d committed against her: I loved her but I’d failed that same love and abandoned her. Not protecting her, standing by while she slipped away from me… that has always been the biggest regret of my life.”

Aeris listened despite the pain in her bosom. It was the first time she’d heard him speak this openly about Lucrecia.

“Without her, all I had left were guilt and self-hate. That, and constant yearning: yearning for her, for her forgiveness and for release from this Hell, even though I knew I could never have any of those three. Years passed. Then one night,” Vincent announced, “you crashed into me.”

With this, the man’s eyes flick back to Aeris, “I could understand you better than anyone else. I knew what it’s like being chained to a nightmare. That was the very first reason I felt such a strong urge to take you in: to protect you from that life. But diving deeper,” confided Vincent, “I found the more selfish reason was that I also saw you as a way of amending my past. I pretended what I did today could somehow rectify yesterday, and in the process, I made you Lucrecia’s replacement.”

Aeris tensed. It stung her to hear such a candid statement. But Vincent offered no apologies for his honesty, just like he offered no excuses for his selfishness. The girl glanced away from him a moment. In truth, a terrible sense of dread tumbled within her. Still, Aeris could feel his gaze drilling into her. She realized he was waiting for her to ask outloud what she was already asking inside.

“And..,” she ventured at last, “And what about… now?”

The man pondered what his answer would be. He regarded her, all the while recalling the many times he’d pushed her into Lucrecia’s shadow, and the many more times he’d reached through her out to his past- to his crimes, his beloved, everything. But now with Aeris sitting before him, with so much behind him, with Lucrecia’s aura still about him, now it…

“Now it’s time I admitted to myself that I can neither escape or change the past. It will always be there. As for Lucrecia, I… I can never love anyone the way I loved that woman. Lucrecia will always own a part of my heart that no one else can ever touch, not even you, Aeris,” Vincent pressed on solemnly, “It is wrong of me to pretend you can replace her. She is simply irreplaceable to me.”

A heavy silence flooded the vacuum his confession had created. For her part, Aeris struggled to keep herself afloat. She’d listened to Vincent’s every word. She saw how ashamed the man felt to think he could ever find a substitute for Lucrecia. A jewel was a jewel, she mused, and cannot be replaced by even the most delicately crafted glass. Yet neither the softness of Vincent’s tone nor the finality of her realization blunted the anguish inside her.

An intense pressure built up behind her eyes. Aeris squeezed her tears back and dropped her vision to her lap, trembling with pain.

Likewise, the demure man had cast his eyes to the ground, boiling in his own pensive stew. Aeris was actually glad he’d looked away; she didn’t want him to see her acting so pathetically. In retrospect, Aeris admitted she’d always known what Vincent would say. She’d hoped she would be wrong, though. That maybe Lucrecia would yield just an inch of her property for her to build herself a small home inside him. Now however, Aeris had to concede to her. She could never build anything upon a land that once, still and always would belong to someone else.

“I… I understand…,” Aeris whimpered at length. She really did. Still, this anguish inside her just kept-

“However, that wasn’t the answer I got when I stood at the snow fields,” interrupted Vincent suddenly, his voice still low and calm, yet gaining an ardent edge which rather startled Aeris.

“The truth is, I stood at those fields for a long time until I finally asked myself ‘what do I want?’. But there was no answer,” he breathed, “There was only you.”

The girl, eyes wide open, remained absolutely silent.

“These past 31 years, I have felt nothing but pain,” Vincent recounted, that last word visibly turning within him, alive and vivid, “the pain of loving Lucrecia and losing her, of blaming myself and thinking myself a monster. So much despair and hatred and violence. That was my past. It was like a war.”

“With you, however,” Vincent contrasted, “There was finally peace. Peace after 31 years of total war. You gave me your kindness and faith when I felt I deserved neither. You refused to call me a monster. You protected me when I could find nothing inside worth such effort. You absolved me of my sins when they had completely consumed me. But most importantly, Aeris, you dug out my soul from beneath the snow.”

Aeris, in response, edged closer to him. He didn’t want any comfort, though. He wanted her to listen. Just listen and watch him tear down the wall between them stone by stone until they could behold each other in full view.

“You once told me that the old Vincent was dead; I’d killed him. Loving Lucrecia planted a seed inside of me. The pain of losing her, of seeking redemption, that made the seed grow into a soul. If that’s true, then you’re the one who pulled it out and embraced it till it was warm.”

No, that wasn’t all. There was more. Vincent hesitated for a painful moment, then asked the mute girl, “After Hojo injured you… do you remember the last thing you said to me before losing consciousness?”

He needn’t look at her to know she did. Nevertheless, Vincent revealed in a bitter whisper, “You said you’d give up your own life for me to have Lucrecia in my arms instead of you.”

He knit his brows at the repetition of her wish. Inside, Vincent felt the same stab of emotion he’d felt the first time she’d uttered it. Back then, he couldn’t comprehend what it meant or even what this emotion was. Now he did. Indeed, Vincent gathered himself up, now turning to face Aeris, eyes glowing crimson intensity, “I got no answer at the snow fields,” he confessed plainly, “All I realized was that while I’ll never love anyone quite the way I loved Lucrecia and she’ll always be part of my past, she… it’s not her I want for my present or future. It’s *you*.”

The word ‘you’ clutched Aeris by the core. Its grip tightened as Vincent leaned closer to her, so close she could see herself- *her* and no one else- reflected in those eyes, “I don’t want Lucrecia in exchange for you, not when you’re this important to me,” he muttered with hard resolve, “And you have to know that, just like Lucrecia, you own a part of my heart that no one, not even her, can take. But if anything else, Aeris, you have to know that I never loved her the same way I love you *you* right now.”

The girl remained transfixed by the paradox of his gaze: fierce, piercing but also earnest and burning tenderness. All of it directly upon her. Small tears began trickling down her face. She didn’t even notice until she felt Vincent’s hand wipe one cheek, whereupon he began to falter, “I may… I may not be able to change my past. But with you, there’s not just peace. There’s also reconciliation with that past. And when Hojo tore through you, I… the fear of losing you, the anger and pain of having failed you, that…”

Through his touch, Aeris sensed that vile memory coil around Vincent like a vicious serpent: those claws unsheathed, her blood splattered, his anguish intolerable. Instantly, Aeris clasped his hand as he held it against her cheek. The beleaguered man watched fold his hand between both of hers and press it dear to her heart. He saw the girl tearfully smile at him. In the silence, she soothed him, proving to him that that awful memory didn’t matter: here was her heart. It was still beating, and every beat belonged to him.

In return, she beheld through his eyes an endless land of love and yearning. It wasn’t Lucrecia’s kingdom through which Aeris had often wandered, admiring its splendor yet knowing not one inch of it would ever be hers. This land was new, born on the moment she’d crashed into him, expanding, rising, growing until tonight, where he now let she view it at its most magnificent.

No one had ever tread here before her. No one was permitted to enter except her: Aeris. But best of all, it belonged to her. Beautiful, warm, safe, vast, complete- this land, this home, and everything inside of him were hers.

With only a small distance between them, both moved in to close the gap. Vincent reached her first. His mouth ravenously fell upon hers. By instinct, Aeris clung to him. As their hunger intensified, the two withdrew farther across the bed. Vincent somehow managed to kick off his boots and discard his coat. He felt Aeris unbutton the remainder of his shirt, only to slide her hands over his exposed chest, all the while kissing him, from his lips to alongside his jaw line to his neck and back to his lips again.

The thrill of it pushed him even closer against her. They tipped over and landed together on the bed, with Aeris pinned flat upon her back, and Vincent crawling under the heavy covers to join her. He settled on top of Aeris, who welcomed him whole into her folds. There the scent of her body, just as he remembered it, rose up to fill his nostrils like some wonderful drug. The intoxicated Vincent jealously nestled his metallic claw against her flank to keep her. All for himself. He refused to share her, even with the darkness around them.

For a minute, Vincent hovered over Aeris while she lay sprawled beneath him. He simply wanted to look at her – this girl, his salvation from Hell, his reconciliation with his past, his respite after years of strife, his strength and his purpose- all of that contained between his arms.

Aeris raised her hands up to untie his bandanna. He watched her remove the red strip, whereupon his long, black hair draped around her like a curtain. She cupped his face, then guided him down to her mouth once more. She kissed him deeply: her courage, her warmth and hope, her security and shelter, right here. He was right here.

By now, Vincent had already unlaced her nightgown in full. He peeled it off her right shoulder, where the white skin awaited beneath. He remembered the horror of witnessing Hojo’s talons tear across her flesh. He could find no hint of the wound now, not even the faintest scar. Yet the man leaned down to kiss it as though he could still see it. He heard Aeris weakly moan something into his ear. It sounded like his name.

Very, very gently, Vincent began to trace this invisible injury with his lips, pulling away more and more of her gown as it coursed across her torso.

*****************************************************

The entanglement of their limbs underneath the bed sheets.

The pressing of his soul against hers.

Their breathing intertwined.

Their heat moving within each other.

It all flooded Aeris mind like sweet water as she stirred awake. In the darkness, she found herself flat on her stomach. Vincent lay almost completely over her, molded against her backside with his face buried along her neck, softly breathing in and out. Aeris did not move. Instead, the girl savored this blissful state of paralysis. Her exhausted body still tingled with pleasure, from her face, her arms and trunk down to her legs, every inch over which he’d wandered, claiming it for himself.

She wondered what time it was. Still pitch black, from what she could see through the window. Aeris instinctively drew deeper under the covers, if only to wallow in this cocoon of warmth and safety, protected from the darkness outside. She reckoned after such a long, voracious feast, her and Vincent, both spent to breathlessness and delirious, had sunk into wonderful unconsciousness. Aeris wasn’t sure how long she’d been out, though; probably several minutes.

She remained motionless for many more minutes. Her senses relished the silence around them, and the feel of his naked body against hers even more. Loitering thus, Aeris became aware of Vincent’s arm as it lay across her, holding her secure in place with his claw mere inches away from her face. Aeris gazed long at that metallic sentry. She noticed she didn’t fear it anymore. In fact, the girl daintily ran her fingertips along its surface, over the forearm, the knuckle ridges and down the finger-blades.

He’d been quite careful, she recalled. At first, Vincent had refrained from letting his claw directly touch her. She saw he was genuinely anxious not to frighten her, knowing how much it unnerved her. To be sure, Aeris could remember the first time that claw touched her, or rather clamped over her mouth. The terror had petrified her to stone. Even afterwards, she could never become quite comfortable around it.

To reminisce about that now however merely amused Aeris. All of him was dear to her, claw included. Indeed, she remembered the heedful Vincent drawing up a bed sheet between her supple waist and his claw before holding her down. But she had immediately pulled away this cloth barrier and instead pressed his claw against her side; right here, where metal caressed bare flesh.

The move had surprised him a little. Yet upon beholding the resolve in her face, a warm tenderness had risen within Vincent as he understood what she was silently telling him: she knew he couldn’t feel her skin. That didn’t matter. She’d just wanted to prove she wasn’t afraid.

In response, he’d wrapped both arm and claw around her and greedily pulled her whole to himself. That moment, a boundless sense of safety had overwhelmed Aeris. It was like that night so long ago, when he’d drawn her into his bed and embraced her away from the demons tormenting her. She remembered back then how she’d wished from the depths of her soul that this feeling would last. She remembered weeping because she’d known it would not. To suddenly find this lost sense of security again, to become sheltered once more…. it still roused a small smile to her lips.

Aeris wafted amidst this reverie like a tiny sailboat down a stream until her eyelids grew heavy with sleep. Just then, Vincent snuggled closer against her, whereupon she felt his tongue teasingly slide alongside her neck.

“Ah! That tickles!!” Aeris giggled in surprise. She heard him chuckle softly behind her. All this time she believed he’d been sound asleep, the man had actually been awake, enjoying the tranquility as much as her.

Aeris shifted beneath him. Vincent let her roll onto her back once more, after which he rested his head just above her bosom and closed his eyes. The two loitered in total silence for quite a long time. Aeris, solemn again, gazed meditatively upon Vincent as her slender fingers ran fondly through his hair.

“Vincent?” she called at length.

“Hm,” he mumbled.

“When I’ve completely healed, will you take me to visit the snow fields again?”

The question rather took Vincent aback. Intrigued by its meaning, he raised his head, only to find the girl serenely awaiting an answer. He nodded in consent.

Joy swelled within Aeris at his response, “By then, it should be springtime,” she cooed, “the snow would have melted and the fields will be completely covered with flowers… all of them in full bloom.”

Vincent stopped. He felt her words caress his core as kindly as her hand now touched his face. He remembered he’d once told her how the barren fields of snow changed to a vast heaven of flowers come spring. Aeris wanted to return there. She wanted to behold the true beauty of those fields after warmth has defeated cold and life, hitherto buried, stirred under the frozen soil.

The same way she now beheld the fields of his heart, reflected in her green eyes for him to see as well. Vincent gazed long upon this girl, mystified by her prophetic aura just like before, when she’d whispered to him the secret ‘I know what’s beneath the snow fields’.

He leaned down at last to kiss her. He pressed deep, not leaving her lips until several moments later.

“I love you,” he breathed into her.

Aeris smiled, “I love you,” she echoed.

“It’s almost dawn,” he whispered, “Go to sleep now.”

Vincent slid off to settle next to her. Aeris, who could already feel the allure of slumber beckoning her, shifted towards him as he enveloped her in both arms. She buried her weary head against his chest, this wonderful, warm wall of muscle. There, she listened to his heart beating on the other side.

Minutes passed. Just the two of them lay like this, absolutely silent and still. Soon, Aeris drifted off to sleep.

Vincent remained awake for some time afterwards. He stared across the room at the window. The snow was still falling outside. But it was inside this room, as he held Aeris, that Vincent finally acknowledged what it was he’d been fearing the most: happiness.

All this time, he’d been afraid to release his self-hatred and guilt, because he’d known it would mean facing Lucrecia again and he’d feared to find no forgiveness in her eyes, even after three decades of atonement. He’d been afraid of clearing the old ruins of his life and building anew. He’d been afraid to take Aeris faith. To believe her when she said he was forgiven. To receive her heart or let himself return her love.

All because to do that meant to achieve happiness and absolution, and neither was something he believed he deserved.

That is until tonight, when he’d decided he would finally accept Aeris’ faith in him whole, and let that guide him away from a past now at rest…. down a different path, towards some sort of reconciliation.

Vincent nestled against Aeris and closed his tired eyes. After 31 years of war, here at last – at last – he’d found his peace.


The End