I Know What's Beneath
the Snow Fields -Chp.32
Aeris found herself helplessly enshrouded in darkness. The eerie silence filled her heart with dreadful fear. She was all alone.
"Wh..where am I..?" she whispered to herself.
She tried to walk forward, but could not move her legs a muscle. Some invisible force, infinitely stronger than her, rooted her feet to the spot. The heavy silence crushed her senses to bits.
"My dear... my precious little darling..," hissed a mocking voice suddenly into her ears, "..look at her..."
Aeris shivered on feeling a fervent breath tickle her neck from behind. It grew more and more hot until she thought it would devour her whole body. Yet surprisingly, Aeris dared not even try to move. She froze in her spot, offering no resistance whatsoever. Her anxious eyes frantically searched the black surroundings in hopes of finding the mysterious speaker: nothing but total darkness. She felt cold, especially in her feet.
"Who..who are you??" she asked when she had mustered up enough courage to speak, "What do you want with me??"
"We must complete the experiment..," whispered the same evil voice, "...where is she?...she can not hide... We must finish.."
Silence again. Aeris looked around herself to search for the invisible speaker.
"What do you want with me? What?!!" she cried through the darkness.
"Heh heh heh heh..," the malicious voice chuckled from behind her, "..where is she hiding?... look at her..so perfect...so deliciously perfect..."
Aeris felt a burning hot hand fondle her neck, as if admiring her perfection.
Frightened out of her wits at the loathsome touch, Aeris frantically struggled to escape this mad nightmare. She cried, screamed for help, tried to wrench herself out; but her feet grew more leaden with her futile efforts. The malevolent voice, on the other hand, surrounded her from every direction to block her way. It hissed loudly into her ears until tears streamed down the poor girl's cheeks.
"Leave me alone!! Go away!!!" Aeris shrieked madly, "I know who you are!! I don't want to go back there!!! Leave me alone!!!!!"
When she had finished screaming those words, the evil voice faded away into oblivion. The haunting tranquility returned once again. Aeris was alone.
"..leave me alone..Professor..," she whimpered through her tears, "..please...leave me alone.."
Aeris gaped tearfully at the empty darkness for a seemingly long time. Slowly, she crouched in her spot, huddled her feet together and stayed perfectly still. Her cold limbs refused to stop trembling. Intense nausea sickened her anguished heart. The ghostly silence only doubled her fear. She felt like a helpless child, lost in a black nightmare without anywhere to run. Her pathetic feebleness irritated her beyond measure, yet at the same time frightened her.
Much to her surprise, Aeris finally noticed a round mirror hanging right infront of her face. Where such an object came from, she could not guess. Moments ago, she saw nothing but utter darkness. The girl stared blankly at the glass, as if it alone would explain the mystery to her.
Strangely, Aeris could not see her reflection in the mirror.
"But..what..does that mean?" she asked herself in a soft undertone. Her anxious eyes remained fixed on the mirror in hopes of obtaining an answer.
"Why isn't there an image on the other side? Why?" cried Aeris in distress, "Why can't I see myself?!"
"You see no image because YOU are on the other side.... *YOU* are the image!" boomed a thunderous voice right behind her.
Aeris gaped incredulously at the empty mirror. The nausea nearly choked her as she desperately searched for her image. When she found nothing, frustrated tears welled up in her eyes. She seemed to have placed such childish importance on finding her reflection.
"It's you! You are the image! The perfect image!" sneered the loud voice straight into her numb ears.
She covered both ears as she screamed at the top of her lungs, "STOP IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
On hearing her own piercing scream, Aeris suddenly shot her eyes wide open. She found herself comfortably snuggled in a very warm bed, half of her face buried in the pillow. Her swollen eyes stung with many hot tears; she had been crying in her sleep. She lay on her side, sheltered under several thick blankets. Her limbs felt quite numb; her breathing fast.
For maybe five whole minutes, Aeris did not even twitch a finger. She wallowed in the peaceful silence, welcoming her scattered senses back. Slowly, she clasped both hands over her breast to soothe her pounding heart. It had all been only a bad dream.
"..I remember that dream..," she whispered inaudibly to herself, "..I had a similar one... when Vincent first brought me here.."
She did not move a muscle as the monotonous tic-tock of the clock fell on her dull ears. A calm darkness dominated the bedroom, accompanied by a most gentle stillness. Aeris scanned the dim room without lifting her head: the curtains were drawn across the windows. The desk, closet, and all other furniture stood in their proper places, just as she remembered them.
However, the bedroom door had been left ajar. Aeris gazed in silent wonder at the bright light smuggle through the opening, and cast a sharp, irregular shape on the floor. She nestled herself further into the soft bed, reluctant to abandon it just yet, then closed her tired eyes. They stayed shut for a long time.
She thought she felt somebody peek into the bedroom, then quietly slip away. When she finally managed to open her eyes again, Aeris found no one there.
She could not recall whether she had fallen asleep again or not. Aeris forcefully induced herself to sit up in bed. After rubbing her tearful eyes, she hopped out of bed with new vigor. Such long, deep sleep had refreshed her immensely.
She found her cream-coloured shawl still lying on the ground, where Vincent had discarded it last night as he pulled her into bed. Aeris picked it up, then wrapped it around her shoulders. She carelessly tied her disheveled hair into a tight bun, ignoring the stray curls that dangled against her neck. When finished, Aeris slipped her feet into her warm slippers, and left the dark room.
The bright lights of the hallway dazzled her eyes for a moment. Faint sounds of the television in the living room immediately attracted her attention. After some hesitation, Aeris wandered down the corridor but halted at the entrance of the room. She looked inside.
The lights in the living room had been dimmed greatly. The curtains were drawn across the window, thus darkening the room further. Its volume reduced until barely audible, the T.V jabbered away in the far corner. Grey shadows danced on the walls whenever the bright screen flashed. Other than the low gibberish of the T.V, all was silent in the living room.
In the couch right infront of the entrance, Vincent lay slumped back with a folded wet towel plopped on his eyes and forehead. Since the back of this comfy seat faced Aeris, she could only see the back of Vincent's head. He made no movement at all. Aeris hesitated a moment between retreating and entering the dim living room. At last, she decided to venture in.
She tip-toed up to Vincent from behind, then paused at the coffee table, where she could see him in full view. The man rested comfortably in the couch, with both feet carelessly heaped on the table. His head bent sharply backwards so as to keep the towel on his face. His metallic claw lay on his chest while the other hand dangled over the arm of the seat. Aeris studied his tired figure for a long time. He seemed to have fallen asleep.
Her eyes wandered to the coffee table which supported his heavy legs. His black gun lay discarded on the tabletop, along with the apartment keys attached to his wallet. Evidently, he had returned from work not too long ago.
Aeris glanced timidly back at Vincent, who hadn't moved a muscle from his resting spot. She wondered whether she should re-adjust his position to make him more comfortable in the couch. However, the thought of perhaps disturbing his precious sleep strongly discouraged her, more the fear of irritating him with her petty cares. So instead, she chose to let him sleep in peace.
But before the girl could retreat, Vincent's calm voice suddenly asked, "Awake at last, are you?"
Aeris gave a start on hearing the unexpected question, but managed to falter out, "Ah..y..yes. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you, Vincent."
"I wasn't asleep," he stated monotonously.
For a full minute, neither spoke a word. Vincent took absolutely no heed of Aeris as she fidgeted by the coffee table, unsure what to do now that she had been discovered. His head remained thrust back against the couch, and the upper part of his face soaked in the wet towel. He did not lower his feet off the poor table, nor would he remove his claw off his chest.
"Sit down," he invited the timid girl.
She sat obediently by his side on the couch. Aeris drew both her legs together as she tightened the shawl around her shoulders. Vincent only re-adjusted the towel on his forehead, but made no other movements. He seemed to have forgotten Aeris' presence altogether. The muffled T.V continued its senseless jabber, angry that no one paid attention to it.
Aeris felt very awkward in this uncomfortable silence.
"Did you sleep well?" Vincent inquired all of a sudden. He still did not lift the towel from his forehead.
"Eh? Oh..oh yes," Aeris replied nervously as she fingered her shawl, "I slept like a baby all day today."
He made no reply.
"I felt so tired and exhausted, I couldn't even lift my head off the pillow," she continued, glancing cautiously at him, "I guess it's because I hadn't slept that well these past few days. And once I managed to actually fall asleep, all the weariness just piled on me."
"When you spend a full *week* instead of a day nursing the sick without any sleep, it's only natural you'd feel so tired," Vincent remarked meaningfully.
Aeris' cheeks flushed crimson on hearing the honest comment. She turned her head away, silently berating Tifa for revealing the truth to Vincent. Fortunately, he did not peruse the matter any further than that remark.
"You've been at work today, right?" Aeris asked after a short silence.
"I didn't hear you come in."
"You were still asleep."
She nodded to herself with a faint "Oh"; it must have been him whom she felt peek into the bedroom while she slept.
"You should have stayed home for today at least," Aeris reproached gently without looking at him. Her voice softened as she added, "..I don't want you becoming ill again... with that horrible fever tearing at your body and brain.."
"I'm all right, Aeris," he answered curtly.
In saying that gruff assurance, Vincent finally forced himself to sit up in the comfy couch. He lowered both feet, careful not to knock over the objects on the table. He slipped the towel off, wiped the water off his pale face, then plopped the wet cloth back on his forehead. With a tired sigh, Vincent sunk back and shut his eyes once again.
His hand held the wet towel to his forehead. His metallic claw now stretched itself fully along the back of the couch, well past Aeris' head. the girl tensed slightly on feeling such a sharp, frightening object outstretched just behind her, but made no protest. She looked concernedly at Vincent, whose eyes remained shut.
"I had a coughing fit today," he sighed under his breath, "...and I think I'm having a little relapse now because of it."
His plain words alarmed the poor girl greatly. She immediately edged nearer to help him.
"It's nothing serious," Vincent reassured before she could speak, "..just a slight fever, that's all."
"Do you want me to.. wash your forehead, Vincent?" Aeris suggested as she touched his hot cheek, "Maybe it's better if you lie down for a while and let me..."
"No, it's okay," he interrupted gently without opening his weary eyes, "Just sit here with me."
Aeris paused a long time to study his face. Since he wore no bandanna, his thick black hair tumbled all around his head, some even over his face. He held the wet towel against his hot forehead, letting the cool water trickle down his hot cheeks. Both his eyes were lightly closed.
She also noticed Vincent's chest heave slightly every so often, as if bearing a dull pain snuggled deep within. To be sure, most of the signs of severe illness had disappeared, but Vincent still lacked a certain healthiness in his appearance.
"At least let me make you some herbal tea," Aeris pleaded, "Tifa taught me how to make this special kind of tea, and it's supposed to be really good for you. Do you want me to make us some?"
Vincent glanced askance at her, then nodded his head twice.
"I'll be back in a minute," she smiled in relief. With one quick pat on his knee, Aeris got up, and left the living room.
When she had gone to prepare the special herbal tea, Vincent nestled himself further in his restful spot. On discovering the remote buried under the cushion, he closed the troublesome T.V at once. He held the wet cloth against his feverish forehead without stirring a muscle. From the kitchen, he could hear Aeris humming sweetly to herself as she made the drink.
However, he suddenly noticed an old book dumped on the arm chair next to him. With curious interest, Vincent picked up the book and examined it silently: it was some novel from his personal library. After discarding his wet towel away, Vincent carelessly flicked through the pages, wondering how this book had landed in the arm chair.
"Okay. Here you are," Aeris announced as she entered with two small bowls of tea on a tray.
On placing the tray on the table, Aeris spotted the old book in Vincent's hand. She froze in her spot, overcome by great shame and extreme embarrassment. Without a word, Vincent watched the girl fidget nervously before him.
"I..I'm sorry," she faltered out guiltily, "I've been reading that book without telling you."
He made no answer to her confession.
"Sometimes, I get bored sitting here by myself, so I borrowed one of your books," Aeris explained, casting her eyes downwards, "..it was the only one I could actually understand. All the rest of your books are too... scientific, or just too hard for me. I was going to return it, of course! I accidentally forgot it there because I was too busy taking care of you."
Instead of replying, Vincent carelessly dumped the book on the table and turned his pensive face away from her.
Mistaking his reaction for anger, Aeris apologized with a humble bow, "I'm sorry, Vincent. I should have asked your permission first. I certainly didn't mean to..."
"You can keep the book if you like it," he dismissed casually without even glancing at her, "...and you don't need my permission for anything, Aeris. You've lived here for about a month now. This apartment is your home as much as mine."
Her cheeks blushed at his kind generosity. She murmured a very soft, "Thank you."
When he noticed the nervous girl still lingering before him, Vincent picked up a bowl of tea, then remarked coolly, "If you don't drink your tea, it'll get cold."
"Oh! Y-yes!" Aeris fumbled out at once.
She sat by his side again, and took the other bowl of tea for herself. Vincent watched her gradually overcome her confusion from the corner of his eye, but spoke no more.
"Wait, don't gulp it down at once," Aeris instructed before he could lift the bowl to his lips, "You should sip it nice and slow. And try not to drink the leafy herbs; they give the tea its flavor."
Being inexperienced in the art of drinking such special teas, Vincent dutifully obeyed her advice. He took a quick sip, then waited silently for the result. Aeris fixed her anxious eyes on his face to check his reaction.
"How... how is it?" she asked at last.
"It tastes a bit funny," he described after another sip, "..but it's not too bad."
"Then you like it!" Aeris beamed with delight, "This is the first time I actually make such a tea. I was afraid you wouldn't like it."
Vincent eyed her thoughtfully , but did not reply.
The two sat comfortably on the couch, sipping their hot tea in peaceful silence. Vincent in particular seemed to enjoy this tranquility. After finishing his tea, he placed the bowl in the tray and leaned back against the couch. Soon, his eyes shut tiredly as he sunk into his usual gloomy meditation.
Aeris, on the other hand, gazed intently into her bowl of tea. In truth, her faint reflection in the tea had caught her attention so suddenly, she could not tear her away from the bowl. That dreadful nightmare she had just escaped crept back to her: she instantly recalled the blank mirror, and the evil voice hissing the word "image" into her ears. A slight shiver tickled her spine.
"You look troubled," Vincent commented suddenly, startling her out of her reverie. He kept his eyes shut.
"Eh?" Aeris faltered, "No..I..I'm just.."
"When I checked on you an hour ago, I heard you crying in your sleep. Were you having...a nightmare?"
After some confused hesitation, Aeris mumbled, "Yes."
She nodded her head, even though he wasn't looking at her.
Nevertheless, a deep frown darkened Vincent's face at her silent reply. His entire countenance, in fact, grew quite sullen and cold. Aeris tried to resume sipping her tea, but soon abandoned her bowl on the tray. She cast her eyes down at her feet.
"Nightmares..are awfully strange," Aeris remarked quietly, "...especially those that repeat themselves. I mean, you know what's going to happen, and you know how it'll end. but you're still scared when you wake up. You know it's all just a nightmare, but you still go through it as if it were real."
Vincent finally induced his keen, red eyes to look at her. He studied her lovely face from the side while she sighed to herself, oblivious of his scrutiny. He did not interrupt her.
"I've lived here for a month now...far away from the Professor and that hellish laboratory of his. And yet, he still hunts me down in my nightmares...he loves to torture me out of my senses. At times, it seems so real, I wake up thinking he's actually caught me. And it's the same nightmare, Vincent, over and over again until I burst out crying. It's like his way of *promising* me he'll capture me one day."
Vincent said nothing.
"Last night before I fell asleep, I made a wish," Aeris recalled, trying to sound more cheerful, "It's okay. You were so bored and tired, you probably don't even...."
"No, I remember," he retorted calmly, "I listened to you the whole time, Aeris. You told me you wanted to feel absolutely safe, just like you felt at that particular moment."
Aeris bashfully nodded her head (she hadn't quite expected him to have been such an attentive listener last night). She finally continued in a low but scornful tone, "..yes. That wish...it was such a silly thing to say, because I then told you that wherever I hide, whether I'm asleep or wide awake, I will always feel the Professor around me. I'll always know he'll try to grab me from behind... and drag me back. I just wanted that wish to be true so badly...that's why I said it. But it's still just a stupid wish."
"I don't think it's 'stupid' at all."
She blinked in surprise at his calm, gentle tone, then looked timidly to her side where he sat. In return, Vincent gazed thoughtfully into her green eyes, his aloof expression having softened at his own remark.
"I used to wish for the same thing every night," he whispered, bringing his face closer to hers, "..wishes could be impossible to achieve, Aeris, but that doesn't mean that they're 'stupid' or 'silly'."
Aeris looked in silence back at his face. Neither spoke a word.
At last with some effort, Vincent slowly forced himself to stand up. As he wandered over to the window, he pulled out his red bandanna from his side pocket, and wrapped it around his head several times. When he had finished, he peered gloomily through the window pane. His back faced Aeris.
The girl sat perfectly still in her spot, studying Vincent's tall figure without a word.
"Aeris?" Vincent called coolly.
"I want to go out for a walk. Would you like to come along?"
Much taken aback by this sudden invitation, Aeris checked the clock on the wall, then sprang up.
"Now?! B-but, Vincent, it's nearly ten o'clock!" she protested nervously, "Most of the shops are closed, and there's hardly anyone outside at this late hour."
On turning to face her, Vincent looked straight into her eyes as he calmly said, "I know. That's why I want to go out now."
Aeris stared back at his face for a minute, then deliberately answered, "...all right. just give me a moment to change my clothes."