I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.24

The path to the basement consisted of a long winding staircase leading down, down to the caves below. On entering this twisting passage, Vincent paused to look around, then ventured down the wooden steps very cautiously. A chilly wind howled through this dim passage, making the echoes of his footsteps sound louder. The flimsy steps creaked as he descended down, yet Vincent refused to be deterred. He would find an answer today.

After clearing the footing, Vincent marched through the underground cavern, ignoring the sickly skulls which cluttered the corners. He passed the crypt chamber, until he finally reached the doorway to the ominous library.

As he neared the door, Vincent heard the two voices of the Professors discussing some subject very gravely. Hojo apparently wanted to finish some "tests", while Gast insisted they wait before continuing. Their dissentient voices grew increasingly louder as Vincent opened the door to a tiny crack. He peeked inside.

His eyes tensed as he spotted Lucrecia perched on a bulky operation table, fingering her lab coat very silently. Her pale face betrayed extreme sadness, if not utter despair, mixed with fatigue. Indeed, her mind seemed unaware of the two men's presence, so engrossed in her private thoughts.

Professor Hojo marched over to her, his brash voice still arguing with Gast, and handed her a glass of water. The spiteful man then began to gesticulate as he left the woman and returned to the other chamber, where Gast supposedly was.

Lucrecia rubbed her forehead as their dissentient voices filled the library. With a trembling hand, she lifted the glass to her lips, but stopped short on spotting Vincent at the doorway. He made some silent signal for her to follow him, then retreated back to the hall outside. Lucrecia glanced nervously towards the other chamber, where the two Professors were still arguing, then hopped off the table top.

After sneaking out the library, she gently shut the door behind her. Lucrecia coughed softly as Vincent stood directly infront of her, until she finally managed to look up at him. This was the first time they were alone since that night. The two fixed their eyes on each other for a full minute.

"Lucrecia," he whispered at last, "I need to speak to you."

She fidgeted in her spot, then protested in an even lower voice, "I can't, Vincent. they have to finish those analysis tests, and I must..."

"Please, Lucrecia," he begged, "If you don't want to see me again, I'll respect your wishes. But I only ask ten minutes of your time..please."

Her restless eyes darted all over the hall, suspicious someone may have overheard them. Lucrecia glanced at Vincent's pleading face, then feebly nodded her head in consent.

So, after excusing herself from the two Professors (Hojo needed some persuasion to release her), Lucrecia left the library with Vincent. Neither breathed a single word until they finally exited the mansion and were strolling towards the village square.

The sun had just begun to set between the mountain peaks as the two walked very slowly down the stony path. Its golden rays shone over the quaint village, so sorry to abandon it to the greedy night. Most of the simple villagers had retreated long ago into their cozy homes, tired and hungry. A warm fire glowed through their smoggy windows, while a thin trail of smoke escaped their brick chimneys. The faint smell of food permeated the air as dinner time crept closer.

The two strolled across the deserted square, letting silence enjoy their company. Vincent wrangled his brains to begin the conversation, yet failed dismally to pin his exact thoughts, let alone express them. Lucrecia walked timidly by his side. She dared not open her mouth.

"Listen, Lucrecia," he began at length, "I can't figure out why you've been trying so hard to avoid me this past month and a half. If..if it's about *that*, then I.."

"N..no..Vincent," she interrupted very softly, covering her mouth for some reason, "It's not that at all..."

"Well, whatever be your reason, I won't discuss it with you. I wanted to talk to you about something else."

She glanced significantly at him, then cast her eyes down again. They paused by the battered well at the centre of the square.

Vincent cleared his throat, then resumed, "Lucrecia, I've known you for about half a year now, so I think I have some right to speak to you freely, and hope I won't offend you."

She tried to protest, but he silenced her with a wave of his hand, "No, no. Please, let me finish. Lucrecia, I know there's something troubling your mind, and I also know you don't want ME in particular to know it. You avoid me at all costs; you scarcely speak to me. But you cannot conceal it from me, Lucrecia, because I can *feel* it weighing you down."

She kept her eyes fixed on the ground as she replied in a faltering tone, "I..I appreciate your concern, Vincent..I really do...but there's nothing wrong or 'weighing' me down..I just.."

"Lucrecia," he interrupted firmly, "Please, do not lie to me."

The poor woman bit her lower lip to stop the tears from flooding her eyes. She even turned around to leave him, but Vincent immediately reached for her hand to stop her. He pressed it against his heart in hopes of mollifying the pitiful woman. Nothing hurt him more than to see her so miserable.

"Tell me what's making you so sad, Lucrecia," he pleaded very tenderly, "And I promise, I won't bother you ever again."

"Why are you doing this to me, Vincent?!" she scolded frantically, looking around herself in anguish. Her beautiful face bore a curious mixture of despair and frustration, "Can't you see how painful it is for me to see you? I tell you nothing is wrong! You..you're just imagining things, that's what!!"

Unable to say anymore, Lucrecia yanked her hand out of his and stormed away. Vincent followed her until she finally halted at the wooden gateway of the village. Though she refused to face Vincent again, he could see her shoulders tremble with great agitation; she even tried to desperately stifle her sobs. Vincent lingered a few steps behind her, then walked up to her.

"Lucrecia," he whispered lovingly, forcing to her to face him, "If there is anything I can do to stop your pain, then tell me, and I will do it. But please, don't torture yourself like this just to lie to me...because of all people, I can't stand to see you suffer."

"It doesn't matter anymore what I say, Vincent," she argued as she stepped away from him, "You wouldn't understand, even if I told you...and there's nothing you CAN do..it..it's too late."

"What do you mean 'too late'?"

Lucrecia hesitated for a long time, the same painful tears welling up in her eyes. She tried in vain to avoid looking at him.

"Lucrecia, what do you mean 'too late'?! Answer me!!"

"V..Vincent," she whispered at last, "I...I'm pregnant with Hojo's child."


He gaped at her beautiful, tearful face, absolutely thunderstruck with the news. His senses swirled around his numb mind to comprehend her meaning. He tried several times to speak, but every time crumbled back to confusion. He could think of nothing to say, nor did she seem to expect him to. He stared blankly at her face for a full minute until his voice returned at last.

"Does...does he know?" he asked softly.

"Of course he does," Lucrecia answered, her eyes tensing in further anguish, "That was why I..told you not to kiss me...I was so afraid I would..forget myself, or you would..oh, see..I was pregnant then too. I've been so for the last three months..."

"I'm..sorry..," Vincent apologized feebly, "If I..I didn't know you and Professor Hojo were.."

"No! We're not!!" she denied, clenching her fists, "It's you I..I...see?! I told you you wouldn't understand any of this!!"

He studied her wretched face, yet made no reply.

"It's for an experiment," she explained, her voice dropping suddenly, "...for the Project.. Professor Hojo had designed this new experiment with Professor's Gast's help...and had asked me to..to.."

"What 'experiment'?" Vincent asked in alarm, "L..Lucrecia..are you some kind of guinea pig in this Project?! Is that what you mean?!"

Though she did not speak a word, Vincent immediately saw the answer as clear as day. His eyes widened in horror. Hot anger suddenly boiled in his heart.

"Lucrecia, don't you place any value on your life?!!" he cried passionately, "And what about your child?? Doesn't any of that mean anything to you??!"

"Listen," she answered, trying to sound as composed as possible, "I don't expect you to really understand this, but I have never dedicated myself to anything like I've done to this Project. I am prepared to sacrifice my time, energy..yes, even my life, if need be, for this Project. I have placed everything and everyone else after it, because to me, Vincent, this Project is the single most important factor in my life!"

She looked sternly at his face to make sure he heard every word. Yet despite the steadiness of her voice, her eyes retained a most painful gleam. Vincent stared meaningfully at her, then hung his head in shame. Neither spoke a word for a long time.

"I..I can't understand your actions, Lucrecia," he replied with great difficulty, "Nor do I have the right or capability to question them. If you..have chosen to do this, then I won't interfere in any way with you."

Vincent expelled a deep sigh, then looked straight at the woman as he continued, "But, Lucrecia, I can't help it if I love you so much..it pains me when you say you'd throw away your life...when you think it so cheap..while I'd gladly sacrifice mine a hundred times just for you. That's how much you mean to *me*."

Lucrecia turned her head away, clasping both her hands over her breast. She seemed to struggle violently to repress her emotions. Indeed, at times, she seemed on the verge of saying something, but checked herself in time.

"And even if my love is unrequited," he resumed calmly, "I..I won't complain or let you see my bleeding heart..just as long as I know you're absolutely *happy* with what you've done."

When Lucrecia made no response, but fidgeted in confusion instead, he took both her trembling hands in his. She dared not even lift her head to see that pleading expression on his face. Her shoulders shook as he bended slightly to peer into her suffering face.

"Lucrecia," he begged again very tenderly, "Can you look me in the eye, and please say you're happy with what you've done?"

He felt her hands grow alarmingly cold. Bitter, unchecked tears streamed down her cheeks as she tried to control her agitated emotion: perhaps she thought the request too much. Suddenly, her angry eyes darted straight up to him in unfeigned anger.

"Vincent," she sobbed out miserably, "just..JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!!!!"

Lucrecia immediately broke out of his grip and dashed out the gateway towards the fields just outside the village. Though Vincent called her name several times to stop her, she rushed away from him as quickly as possible. Vincent watched her until she finally disappeared behind some hills.

The cruel silence laughed at him.

He thought it best not to persue her anymore. After all, what more could he do or say? Hadn't he already caused her enough grief? He began to wander aimlessly around the village in hopes of clearing his mind again. The news of her pregnancy still shocked him beyond belief: no wonder she had repulsed him so vigorously that night! No wonder she had avoided him all this time! She wanted to spare herself all this pain...she had thought he might stand in her way.

Vincent recalled every word of their last conversation, yet stopped midway since it only redoubled his pain. Strange he bore her no malice, nor could he scold her for spurning his love. He only felt this cold, black void gnaw at his heart from inside out.

He drifted absent-mindedly around the quiet village, listening to his footsteps echo on the stone pavement. He passed the same houses at least a dozen times until his mind simply lost track of time. His tired feet wandered over the village square, the mountain pathway, even the fields beyond the village, yet could not soothe his aching emotions. In fact, his ordeal worsened with every passing hour.

When Vincent had finally grown too weary of wandering, he headed back towards the village again. The bold sunset had streaked the sky with a brilliant hue of orange, fringed by a darker shade along the rolling hills. The distant howls of some lonely animal re-echoed across the valley, as if morning the departure of day. Indeed, a faint moon had already appeared at the far end of the sky, accompanied by a wintry breeze.

Vincent strolled along the beaten track up to the gateway, hanging his head in deep contemplation. His brows knit themselves so tightly; his face, his whole appearance expressed such solemnity. He struggled to unite all his feelings, ideas, and emotions, yet all in vain. His tumultuous thoughts scurried around his mind, slipping out of his fingers like water.

A strange, persistent feeling tugged at his anguished heart; some emotion which ravaged his mind, but failed to formulate into words. It wasn't bitterness...not reproach..not pity..then what was it?

Vincent finally reached the wooden gateway of the village. Yet his feet froze solid on spotting two lovers embracing each other just a few yards away. Vincent hid behind one of the gateway's posts, and let his stoic eyes linger a moment on the tender pair.

The young woman, with a long ponytail dangling behind her back, nestled her entire body in the man's arms. She stood with her back facing Vincent, so that he could only see her trembling shoulders. Her head had buried itself completely against the man's shoulder as she sobbed in silence. She wore a long lab coat over her slender body.

Her lover, an extremely thin man, continuously stroked her back while whispering into her ear. He fixed his narrow eyes on the stony ground, so that he did not notice the Turk either. His whole attention, in fact, seemed absorbed in soothing the woman's agitated emotions. He even kissed her hair several times in hopes of calming her. Similarly, the man wore a lab coat like hers.

Vincent had immediately recognized Professor Hojo and Lucrecia.

He gazed silently at the couple another minute or so before turning away in despair. Yet he only managed to take a few steps when he stopped again. His forlorn eyes stole another glance at the two.

Lucrecia had decided her own path, and obviously did not want Vincent to accompany her on the journey. If she had chosen the Project, then he would not interfere in any way. If she had chosen Hojo over him, then he would not complain or cry. Vincent thought himself far too loving, or probably just too stupid, to find any fault with Lucrecia.

What right had he to intervene now? How could he dream of questioning any of her actions, even her preference to Hojo?

He finally discovered what that strange emotion had been. It was bitter, hopeless defeat.

He watched the two dawdle in each other's arms another moment, then tore himself away before being noticed. He did not look back again.

What mattered his misery..if there was a smile to brighten her beautiful face? What mattered his pathetic pain...if Lucrecia was *happy*? Did it matter to him?

"As long as she's happy..," he repeated to himself in a whisper, "As long as she's happy... I don't mind."

-End of Chp.24