I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.14

The instant she shut the door after her friends left, Aeris plunged into a sea of confused thoughts; so many cluttered her mind at once, she could not concentrate on any one in particular. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her head ached terribly.

It was very quiet.

Aeris slowly became aware of the deathly silence that had invaded the whole apartment. It crept around every dark room, lurked in the shadows, just to peer amusedly at her pain. Its burning eyes bore right into her soul; it seemed to call her name several times.

She turned around mechanically, then sprung back in alarm: Vincent was staring straight at her with bloodshot, wild eyes.

He had finally woken up.

Vincent stood half-way through the doorway of the bedroom, so that Aeris could only see half of his face and body. He did not flinch a muscle.

Though Aeris could barely distinguish his tall, black figure in the dark, her hands trembled on meeting his glowing eyes. Even if she had wanted to speak, the pounding in her heart denied her any voice.

She retreated a step or two in spite of herself, then stood rooted to her spot. Her legs began to shake underneath her. Vincent slowly emerged from the bedroom, his two arms folded loosely across his chest. As he staggered towards her, his eyes suddenly flashed with strange, hectic delirium. His face, now clean of all blood, looked more waxen and pale than ever before.

He did not stop until he was exactly one step away from Aeris.

There was an agonizing stillness in the hall. Vincent appeared to find the girl's terror quite amusing; an evil smile gradually twisted his lips.

"I must frighten you a great deal..Aeris..," he began in a hoarse whisper. His blazing eyes narrowed keenly on her face.

"N..no..," she stammered softly, "I'm not afraid of you..."

"Then why are you shaking?"

A sharp, cold sensation licked her spine, causing her to tremble even more violently; but Aeris refused to admit her fear. She cast her eyes to the floor in anguish, and remained silent.

"I bet I frighten you more than your Professor..," Vincent chuckled in a low voice, "..I even bet you wished sometimes you could go back to him rather than stay with me.."

Aeris started at the unexpected accusation, unsure whether she should argue or ignore it. She found her quizzical eyes riveted on his pale face, but he only returned her look with a stoic expression.

For some reason, Vincent suddenly stepped away from her. He retreated dejectedly to the darker end of the hall, avoiding her gaze altogether. He hung his head so low, some of his hair tumbled over his haggard face, even over his shoulders. The darkness of the hall shrouded him in some invisible cloth, as though it wanted to conceal a secret from the girl's eyes.

Aeris studied his pitiful figure in silence: his arms appeared much thinner in that loose, sleeveless shirt; the blackness of his hair and shabby clothes only intensified his paleness. Her heart flooded with pain.

Aeris cried in her mind, he's completely lost his mind!

But before the compassionate girl could open her mouth, Vincent shot his ruby-red eyes at her again. They glared with a malicious fire.

"Did you ever ask yourself why I scare you so much?" he sneered contemptuously.

Aeris stared blankly at his figure in the dark.

"Is it my hideous face?" Vincent asked as he gently touched his cheek, "Or my claw, perhaps?"

He lifted his claw up to his wasted face and marveled at its long, sharp fingers that gracefully curved inwards. Aeris thought she heard him snickering.

"You always seem to shake just looking at my claw," Vincent muttered half-audibly, "Is that what scares you so much?"

Aeris, of course, dared not answer. Instead, she pressed her back against the wall, trembling as the madman eyed her from the black corner. Though she could barely make out the outline of his body, the darkness had completely obscured his face from her. Strange to say, Vincent seemed to derive pleasure from wallowing in that darkness. Aeris could see his two bloodshot eyes flicker playfully at her distress.

"But no..," Vincent whispered to answer himself, "You're afraid of me because you're the one who can...see through this mask I hide behind.."

He covered his face with his sharp claw, letting its cold fingers spread all over his "mask" until Aeris could only see one red eye; it glared scornfully at her.

"Heh heh..," sniggered Vincent under his breath, "..a little girl like you.."

Her hands clasped themselves over her breast in an attempt to calm her heart. She had never seen Vincent look so sinister; he looked ready to murder her any moment.

"I could walk anywhere...talk to anyone," he raved on without removing his claw, "..even talk to old, decrepit men on trains..and they would call me 'young man'..."

He pulled his claw away from his face, then scoffed hatefully, "They only see the mask...the idiots! They can't see the monster like you can."

"V..Vincent..," Aeris forced out in alarm.

"I don't mean that monster..the one with the wings and claws..," the madman sighed. He ran his trembling fingers through his chaotic hair, mumbling, "..no..I mean you see the other monster...the one that wouldn't help Lucrecia..it's the one that hounds me day and night...no matter where I hide.."

She took a step towards him, but stopped short on meeting his strange eyes: they had shifted from a spiteful glare to a bitter, melancholy glow. His feet suddenly grew unsteady, and he collapsed to his knees in an instant. The fever had obviously torn all his senses apart; Vincent sat slouched on the ground, not understanding how he had landed there in the first place. He clutched one side of his head in pain, nearly tearing the hair from their roots.

Aeris forgot her fear in a second. she immediately rushed over to him. Yet despite all her entreaties and calls, Vincent continued to clutch one side of his head. His eyes darted from one end of the room to the other, as though he could actually see someone.

"But, it's all for the experiment..," Vincent ranted to himself, "his wonderful experiment.."

Aeris forcefully tore his hand away fro his face, and peered into his ashen, sickly face. Unimaginable pity swelled in her heart. Vincent pressed her mouth with his cold hand before she could utter a word.

"Sh! Sh! Listen!" he whispered cautiously, glaring at one corner of the room, "..he's looking for you...he can't find you, that's why he's cursing so much..."

But this was too much for the poor girl; she could not bear to see him so miserable.

"No one's there, Vincent," Aeris cried as both her hands gripped his, "You have a..a fever and.."

"Sh! Listen!!" he growled, looking all around the room then straight at her, "..now he's screaming! He wants to finish..he must finish the experiment! They..they're all calling me a monster.."

"But you're not a monster, Vincent!!" Aeris argued loudly. She held his feverish face between her two hands, and repeated, "You hear me?! You're not a monster!!"

Vincent's crimson eyes froze on her troubled face when she finished shouting those words. She struck him as particularly beautiful and young at that moment. But no sooner had he realized that than his whole face darkened with immense hatred.

Suddenly, he pounced on the girl in a fit of rage. Though Aeris struggled wildly and screamed to break loose, Vincent easily pinned her against the floor with amazing new strength. In a flash, the madman had her flat on her back, with her two hands firmly implanted near her head.

"What would *you* know about monsters?" he sneered as he brought his face close to hers, "You're just a child! A CHILD!!"

"Ah!! Y..you're hurting me..," Aeris sobbed; his claw was crushing her wrist under its heavy weight.

"Do you have any idea how much blood I've shed?!" Vincent raved, beside himself with anger, "Can you smell it on my body? Can you see it on my face?! Tell me, aren't I a monster?!"

"No!" she snapped back, "No! I don't believe you're a monster!"

"Of course I am! That's why I scare you! It's the monster! Say it! Say: Vincent, you're a monster!"

"You can't be a monster!" Aeris insisted stubbornly, feeling his grip tighten on her, "Even if you change into that horrible creature..it's not you're fault!!! You're NOT a monster!!"

A heavy pause fell on the two again. Aeris gasped out loud, completely overwhelmed with his madness. Vincent gazed down at her coldly, as an animal may study its prey before killing it. An unnatural smile crept across his lips.

"Heh heh..do you know why I even bother with you, Aeris?" he asked vehemently, "Do you know why I seem ready to throw away my stupid life the minute I hear you're in danger??"

She slowly turned her head to look up at him. Her hair had become loose during the struggle, and had scattered all around her head, making her seem more beautiful.

"It's not because I care for you," Vincent answered, "Fah! I don't care for anyone!! It's not because I'm kind or soft-hearted..far from it!! I could still kill as easily as before!"

His burning eyes consumed her in their insane fire until tears streamed down her cheeks. He was hurting her beyond endurance.

"It's for Lucrecia," he dropped his voice to a harsh whisper, "It's always for Lucrecia. I pretend I'm protecting her instead of you..that she's the one near me instead of you..it's her, not you! NOT YOU!!"

The girl clenched her little white fists, but did not answer.

"I'm a selfish..selfish bastard..," Vincent muttered to her softly, "I would have let Davoren drag you away to Hell, for all I care, if I wasn't like this."

She still did not reply.

"Now, answer me: aren't I a monster?" Vincent asked her. He even loosened his grip slightly.

"At first, I..," she stammered after a short silence, "..I thought you were very cold-hearted..yes, maybe I even felt you were a monster..so I hid away from you..because you scared me so much, like I had wronged you somehow.."

Her voice sounded very steady despite her violent trembling. Vincent narrowed his keen, mad eyes, weighing every syllable she uttered. He seemed to grow more spiteful.

"But..," Aeris continued, now looking directly at him, "..when you ran after me in the rain..when you said you felt 'concern' for me..I *knew* then you weren't a monster at all."

He gave a slight twitch at the word "monster".

"And Vincent, when you hugged me after all of that," she cried in anguish, "it wasn't a monster that did it! It was a human being! A kind, gentle human being!"

"What kind of bullshit is that?!" he growled through grit teeth, "You make me sound like a saint!! I've killed and destroyed so many lives..trampled all over everything..I can't even remember when I.."

"I don't care what you say!!" Aeris interrupted, shaking her head vigorously, "I don't care if you think you're I monster! Maybe you were one in the past, but I will not believe you're one now!!!"

Her bright green eyes flashed straight up at him as she finished, "And if you won't listen to me, then pretend I'm Lucrecia for one moment and open your ears: You are not a monster!!"

Aeris squeezed her eyes shut, breathless with agitation. A strange, bitter feeling stung her pounding heart. Vincent stared coolly at the distressed girl he held pinned down on the floor. His hand grasped her wrist so tightly, he could feel her pulse throbbing in pain.

His head suddenly felt cold, even though the rest of his body burned with fever. He automatically withdrew from Aeris, obviously ashamed he had harmed her. Vincent crawled away as she sat up, but grew tired after a few inches. He huddled dejectedly by the wall.

"F..forgive..I didn't mean to hurt you..," he muttered, looking at his claw in dismay, "..and I didn't mean to vent my hatred on you like that.."

Aeris watched him edge further away from her, as if the darkness could perhaps shelter him its black arms. She did not say anything.

"When I said I was concerned about you, I really meant it," he whispered bitterly, "..but your pain is only physical..it goes away after a while...you wouldn't understand why I'm like this..'mentally shattered' is the expression I think I used.."

His confused eyes wandered all around the black hallway until he could see no more. His senses were fading into oblivion.

"What would I give to satisfy her, Aeris?" Vincent whimpered, addressing solely himself, "I stayed out of her way..I punished myself and let others punish me...I joined Avalanche, but it wasn't for the Planet..I never cared about the Planet...it was all for her.."

Aeris crawled over to him in silence, and touched his bare arm softly. He did not notice her at all: he seemed to look straight down a bottomless pit of chaos; his mind drew closer and closer to the brink of insanity.

"But I know there is nothing..," he mumbled tiredly to the darkness, "literally nothing I can do to win her forgiveness for what I've done.. I don't deserve it, anyway...ugh! What a hideous creature I am.. a..mon..s..te..r..."

The fever drowned him at last. Vincent's whole body suddenly slumped to the side, but Aeris caught him in her arms before he could crash into the ground. He had lost conscious again.

Strange that she did not cry, nor did she sob out his name, or even quiver in fear. Instead, she embraced his lifeless body all to herself. She nestled his head against her shoulder, stroking his black hair tenderly. She began to cradle him gently from side to side, like a mother lulling her child to sleep. She said nothing to wake him.

Vincent had finally slipped into the bleak abyss of delirium. The ugly pit eagerly yawned open its mouth to admit him into the darkness, then sealed him away from reality.

He felt very cold, especially in his fingertips.

And his mind strayed back...back..thirty-one years ago.....

-End of Chp.14