I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.10

The fresh, clean water had literally revived Aeris' mind. She stepped out of the bathroom, clothed in a warm dress, and took a deep breath of air. Her whole body seemed rejuvenated; the water had washed away all her worries down the drain.

She flapped her towel twice, then wrapped it around her shoulders. Her long brown hair fell in wet, loose coils all around her head. Pushing a strand of hair out of her face, she wondered where everyone was.

The clear sound of the TV in the living room instantly caught her attention. After some hesitation, she wandered down the hall, and turned nervously into the living room.

Everyone was there. Cloud, with both hands in his pockets, followed the words of the TV very carefully. Tifa stood near him; she was completely absorbed as well.

Vincent, on the other hand, sat gloomily on the couch, paying no heed to the troublesome television. He had washed his dirty face and changed his tattered clothes while Aeris had been bathing. She could see him bent over his damaged arm with grave interest, but could not guess what he was doing.

The TV suddenly blared out some incoherent jabber as it flashed a few times. Vincent squeezed his eyes in annoyance, but managed to control himself in time.

"Cloud!" he ordered with restraint, "Turn that down! I can't concentrate!"

"Oh, sorry man," apologized Cloud, "Hey, Aeris! Sit down! Sit down! Something BIG just happened!"

Indeed, both Cloud and Tifa seemed excitedly glued to the TV. Tifa occasionally gasped in surprise, but Cloud hushed her to listen.

Sitting next to Vincent, Aeris' eyes wandered to his metallic arm. Much to her horror, she noticed the top cover of his arm propped open, displaying all sorts of coloured wires, circuits, and other strange "gadgets" inside.

Vincent fumbled in a small tool box near his feet, pulling out a pair of pliers. He dug them deep into his arm, twisted them around, then ruthlessly yanked a sparkling wire out of his claw. He flung it away contemptuously.

With a muffled curse, Vincent picked up a slender black pin from the tool box, and began fiddling inside his metallic arm. His face expressed deep solemnity mixed with vexation. Yet he continued to repair his arm, oblivious to the bothersome television.

He glanced askance at Aeris, who gave an involuntary start on meeting his bloody-red eyes. However, Vincent instantly reverted his attention on his arm again, taking no more notice of her.

"Oh!" exclaimed Tifa loudly, "Here it comes!"

Aeris shifted her eyes to the television, still not understanding the cause of all the excitement. A young woman appeared on the screen with a slightly nervous face.

"And now for breaking news," began the announcer importantly, "A most violent explosion ripped through the former ShinRa headquarters. It occurred in Sector 1 of Midgar, at around 6:30 this evening."

Aeris nearly fell off the couch in alarm. She stared incredulously as images of the devastated building flickered across the screen. Her head suddenly darted back to Vincent, but he seemed more interested in shoving a fuse inside his arm. He did not even raise his eyes to look.

"The whole friggin' building's blown apart!" commented Cloud amazedly, "Look! Even the base is wiped out!"

"That must've been one Hell of an explosion!" added Tifa in awe.

"The police at first believed this was a terrorist attack," resumed the young announcer, "however, many people are reporting they heard heavy gunshots shortly before the explosion. Now police believe that a fight between two rival street gangs caused the explosion."

Aeris sat perfectly still, not daring to lift her eyes. Vincent gracefully twisted a wire around his fingers, and began hooking it inside his arm, scarcely paying attention to the disturbing news.

The announcer explained that a pipe in the upper wall had accidentally been blasted away, causing the entire wall to collapse. However, this pipe also served as some gasket full of an extremely reactive, pungent gas.

"Police add that this gas reacted with the air, and caused the explosion and fire," she concluded.

Tifa and Cloud exchanged more brief comments about the incident before the announcer continued.

"Police have anxiously searched the entire blast site for survivors, even under the wall debris. They assure everyone that, luckily, nobody was present when the actual explosion occurred."

Vincent's hand stopped abruptly, as struck by lightning. Aeris looked apprehensively at the screen, then at Vincent's face. He stared blankly at the television, obviously not believing his ears: he was *sure* Davoren had perished under the wall.

"Yeesh!" said Cloud in disgust, "These gangsters are getting pretty nasty..not to mention dangerous!"

He began flicking through the other channels in search of some comedy show. Tifa suddenly remembered the dinner, and skipped out of the room to set the table.

Aeris still gazed at Vincent, her heart growing sick with worry. He sat broodingly over his metallic arm for a minute, completely lost in thought, but quickly resumed repairing his arm. He said nothing.

"'ShinRa Headquarters'?" remarked Cloud, turning to Vincent, "say, isn't that near the place where you got into a fight?"

"Yes," answered Vincent mechanically.

"Well, it's a good thing Vincent found you, Aeris," smiled Cloud at the girl, "You could've wandered into that dangerous place without even knowing it!"

She fidgeted uncomfortably, muttering a faint "yes" in reply.

"I wanted to go look for you too," he continued, "but Tifa said I'd be better off fixing the door she busted."

Aeris nodded her head slowly to acknowledge his kindness.

"So, how's your arm, Vincent?" Cloud asked light-heartedly.

"I can move my thumb and index finger now," replied Vincent dryly. Though he obviously had no interest in talking to Cloud, he twitched his two iron fingers to show his success.

"Hey, you're a pretty good mechanic!" praised Cloud, "Wait..I thought you were a gunsmith."

"I am."

"Then how do you know what all those little gizmos and diddly-bops do?"

"Well, obviously," Vincent answered sarcastically, "I'd know how to handle and repair my own arm, Cloud. It *is* a part of my body, after all."

"You any good with motorbikes? See, mine got busted last week, and I.."

Vincent glared menacingly at him, as though he would murder him on the spot if he continued to annoy him. Cloud, perceiving that his friend wasn't in his best mood, wisely decided to retreat.

"Um..right," he laughed nervously, "I'd better go..help Tifa..Yeah!"

Cloud scurried out of the living room. Vincent and Aeris were left alone.

The two were very silent. Aeris stared vacantly at Vincent's metallic arm as he resumed the repairs. He pulled out damaged wires, fiddled with control mechanisms, tested the movement of his fingers, yet would not look at anything else except his battered claw.

Digging a slender, thin file into his arm, he began to carefully pick at some device embedded inside. Suddenly, a wild spark zapped his meddling hand, angry at the rude intrusion. Vincent jerked his hand away in pain, and flung the file to the ground.

"Ah..shit..," he growled in an undertone. He licked his burnt fingers with obvious impatience.

"Here, let me help you," suggested Aeris kindly. She picked up the forsaken file, then placed it back in his hand.

Vincent gazed at her for a full minute with a most thoughtful, serious expression on his face. Though she grew increasingly uncomfortable under his scrutinizing eyes, Aeris refused to shrink away from him as before.

"How..how are you now?" she inquired softly, looking directly into his eyes to show her courage.

"I'm fine," he replied, "..and you?"

"Much better."

His musing eyes lingered on her for another moment before he restarted the tedious repairs. An uneasy silence fell on them again.

Aeris glanced quickly all around her, then suddenly reached for Vincent's hand, which froze solid at her warm touch.

"Tell me," she whispered beseechingly, "what that man said back there..about that 'Turk' bit. Was it..true?"

Vincent's whole face darkened mournfully as she pressed his hand for an honest reply. After a brief silence, he reluctantly closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, preparing himself for a long explanation.

"Do you know that place we were at today?" he began solemnly.

"The 'ShinRa Headquarters'?"

He nodded his head, then continued, "ShinRa used to be an extremely powerful company, controlled by a president. This president had this 'special task force', bodyguards called 'the Turks'."

"And you..?"

"Yes. I was a Turk in ShinRa."

The statement sounded very blunt, if not emotionless, to Aeris, as if to say "so what if it's true?". She stole another glance at the door, then drew his hand near her body, looking intently into his face. Vincent did not pull his hand away, but persistently held onto the slender file, and would not return her anxious gaze.

"What about that man..Davoren?" she asked nervously. The very recollection of his face filled her heart with unimaginable dread.

"Oh, him," Vincent muttered, "He was the leader of the Turks when I joined ShinRa."

"He was..a friend of yours?"

"In a way, yes. He was..but.."

He suddenly shifted his keen eyes to her, speaking in an extremely subdued voice.

"Davoren died, or at least I thought he had died, a long time ago. I..I shot him in the head..with a gun."

Aeris stared blankly at his face for a long time, trying to grasp his strange meaning. Vincent turned his head away slowly, and plunged into silent, moody meditation.

"But..how?!" she wondered, interrupting his thoughts, "If you're so sure he died, then how could he.."

"I don't know Aeris, but what worries me is that..this Davoren..he hasn't aged at all, even though it's been thirty-one years since I last saw him."

Aeris fixed her green eyes on his face to make sure she didn't miss a single syllable, even though she hardly understood any of his "confusing riddles". Vincent twiddled with the file as he narrowed his eyed in profound contemplation.

"His hair and his eye colour have changed dramatically, I'll grant him that," he murmured to himself, "but his face, Aeris, his actual face hasn't even changed a wrinkle. it's exactly as young as it was thirty-one years ago."

He focused his eyes on his half-fixed arm, twirling the hapless tool between his fingers all the time. The girl squirmed nervously next to him. She could not think of any answer; his musings simply made no sense to her.

"I have only one explanation," Vincent concluded "he must've underwent the same experiment I did."

Vincent knitted his brows, then attacked his metallic arm with the file, as if stabbing some invisible enemy. He vigorously resumed repairing it, preferring to wallow privately in his own thoughts, but a gentle touch on his arm halted him again.

"What..what experiment?" whispered Aeris. She stared anxiously into his face, with her hand clinging to his arm.

"When I worked in ShinRa, there was this professor in the science department, named Hojo," he explained patiently, "I didn't exactly understand his reasons, but Hojo performed some experiment on my body..'corporal alterations', shall we say.

"Is that how you got.."

"My claw?" he said, finishing her hesitant sentence, "Heh, believe me, this arm is the *best* thing I got out of the experiment."

He suddenly shifted his whole body towards her, and stared feverishly into her wondering eyes. Aeris would've moved back, except that she was already cornered at the end of the sofa.

"But, it's been thirty-one years since I underwent that experiment, Aeris," he muttered mysteriously.

Aeris blinked in confusion, but dared not take her eyes off him for a second. She tightened the towel around her shoulders to stop shaking; his strange tone frightened her beyond anything else she had experienced that day.

"How..is that possible?" she faltered, "I don't understand.."

"The experiment inhibited all the growth factors in my body, and readjusted their chemical balance to adapt to the new, various alterations," Vincent answered automatically, as if reciting some lesson.

Aeris stared at him with a most confused, distressed look troubling her beautiful face. She hadn't understood a single word he had said.

"What does..that mean?" she stammered.

"It means I stopped aging thirty-one years ago, just like Davoren."

Aeris sat upright, thus bringing her face very close to his. She frantically studied every feature of his pale face, finally resting on his gleaming, ruby-red eyes. neither uttered a word.

"But..your face!" she forced out in disbelief, "You don't.."

"It's just an illusion, Aeris," he whispered softly, "This face, this body, it's all an illusion."

Yes, Vincent, he reflected sarcastically, you're nothing but a monster in human form. An illusion to fool everyone..

They stared at each other for a few seconds until Aeris finally turned her head away from him, completely overwhelmed with her emotions. Vincent, who still faced her, cast his eyes down. Different thoughts crammed his mind all at once and rudely pushed each other to the side; he could not settle on any particular one.

"Then..is Davoren working for Hojo?" Aeris asked weakly. Her heart felt sick with worry, "Is Hojo the same professor who's after me?"

"I don't know about that either, Aeris.."

She grew extremely silent.

"Hojo..injected himself with some bio-chemical mutagen that completely changed his body," Vincent continued deliberately, "We killed him a year ago, but I wouldn't be surprised if somehow managed to survive."

He noticed her hands tremble under the towel. Though he looked intently at her again, Aeris seemed to stare at something visible to her alone.

"And if he's really after you," he finished, "then he'll stop at nothing to get you."

The sentence was passed, and her fate sealed. Davoren had somehow survived the explosion, she knew, and would undoubtedly find her again. Then what? He'd just drag her away..back to the Professor.

I don't want to go back there, her mind cried in disgust, I don't want to!! I don't want to!!

So many foreboding feeling, emotions, and thoughts bombarded the poor girl's head from all directions. Her eyes constantly shot from one end of the room to the other, expecting to find both Davoren and the Professor hiding in some obscure corner. The deathly stillness only annoyed her further.

Vincent looked significantly at the troubled girl, yet she did not seem to notice his presence anymore; her fears had entirely engrossed her. He slowly drew his arm around her and leaned her body against himself. Although Aeris submissively nestled her head against his shoulder, she shook with sickening agitation.

His arm enveloped her securely, as though it would protect her from the eyes of the hateful Professor.

But even Vincent knew he could not totally shield her from that invisible creature. It seemed to lurk in every shadow, ready to pounce on her at the mention of its name. Wherever she turned, it laughed silently at her pathetic helplessness. It simply reveled in her misery.

Vincent knew every emotion Aeris felt at that moment only too well: how many times had he himself trudged through them, over a period of thirty years?

Yet it pained him to see the girl suffer from the same agonizing fears, and even more that he could not erase any of them.

"Aeris! Vincent!" called Tifa from the kitchen, "Dinnertime!!"

Aeris instantly pulled herself away from Vincent, hesitating to look up at him for a few seconds. But soon, a warm smile crept to her lips, and she found herself giggling softly as she turned to Vincent.

"Heh heh..are you sure we shouldn't tell them about any of this?" she whispered slyly.

"I don't want to get either of them involved," he answered with a calm voice, "It would only complicate matters."

Aeris nodded her head understandingly, then bounced onto her feet vigorously. She stood infront of him, her entire face beaming with delight. Vincent was quite surprised: he hadn't expected to be so successful at comforting her.

But, in truth, he done so much more to Aeris. He didn't know that when he had embraced her, he had embraced her fears and sadness as well.

And as long as he remained by her side, that burden did not feel so heavy on her heart anymore.

"Vincent," Aeris smiled kindly," I..I owe you more than my life..after all that happened today. Thank you."

He gazed directly into her face, but before he could open his mouth, Tifa poked her head through the door.

"Hey, you two!" she cried playfully, "Better come 'n get your share! Before Cloud gobbles it all up!"

"Ha ha!" shouted Cloud from the hallway, "Very funny!"

"Alright, alright! I'm coming," laughed Aeris, skipping out of the living room.

"You too, Mr. Valentine!" demanded Tifa. She yanked him to his feet, "I cooked this stuff for YOU, and you're gonna eat it!"

So with that final order, Tifa dragged the unresisting Vincent out of the room, barely giving him time to close the top cover of his metallic arm.

-End of Chp.10