I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.25

"Well, well, Mr. Valentine," Professor Hojo greeted mockingly, "I'm so glad you could spare a minute from your busy schedule."

Several days had passed since Vincent had last spoken to Lucrecia. After that miserable day, Vincent never neared Lucrecia for fear of upsetting her with his unpleasant presence. In fact, he avoided any kind of contact with her unless absolutely necessary.

He expected no apology from her; not even a kind word to ease his pain: why should she? *He* had wrought this suffering on himself. How could he even dream of blaming her? Indeed, for every argument, he found some plausible excuse for her. He refused to find any fault with Lucrecia.

She spent her days imprisoned downstairs in the library, succumbing to all analysis tests both Professors thought essential. Every minute of her time or ounce of energy were immediately sacrificed to the greedy Project. Though Professor Gast warned her not to overwork herself on account of her child's health, Lucrecia refused to stop working. It was, literally, the only solace to her torn mind.

However, at some rare moments, Lucrecia would stop working and let her mind stray into her gloomy thoughts. Nobody could guess what or *who* occupied her mind during those few minutes.

Yet while poor Lucrecia slaved in the Mansion, Vincent scarcely stayed inside. The grand, beautiful house had aroused such a passionate disgust in his heart, he preferred to accompany soldiers on patrol duty rather than lounge inside. If not, then he would practice with his gun in the deserted fields beyond the village; perhaps just drift aimlessly along the hills, even though Davoren warned him many times of wild animals. Anything but sit in that loathsome mansion.

Despite his distraught, broken heart, Vincent concealed his feelings so artfully, especially from Davoren, nobody would have guessed anything troubled his mind. His impeccable obedience impressed everyone around him, as well as his business-like, courteous manners. Yet his face had grown exceptionally cold in such a short time. A hard, unnaturally frigid glow had appeared in his eyes. He hardly spoke unless spoken to, and shunned any form of company, preferring to wallow in his private thoughts by himself.

On one particular autumn afternoon, Vincent had been aimlessly strolling along the fields as usual, when a soldier came rushing to him from the village. Through several gasps, he informed the Turk that Professor Hojo wished to see him immediately, concerning "some very, very important matter".

Vincent resentfully consented to obey the hateful request (he did not find the thought of meeting Hojo particularly appealing). So, without further delay, he returned to the quiet village, the breathless soldier lagging behind him. Vincent marched wearily into the Mansion, through the endless corridors, and down the twisting passage. He stopped momentarily at the dreaded library door to knock, then obeyed on hearing Hojo's brash voice cry "enter".

Vincent took three steps into the dim library before halting near the first bookshelf. His eyes scanned the new surroundings: several gigantic bookcases, stuffed beyond the limit with books, ran uniformly along the stone walls. An awkward generator had miraculously squeezed itself at the opposite wall, filling the library with a very low hum. The huge, rectangular operation table Lucrecia had been perched on still dominated the far corner of the room. Yet now numerous dissection instruments cluttered the top, accompanied by two yellow manuscripts and a glass of water.

Vincent also noted the stacks of books huddling along the grim walls, some wide open, others rudely overturned. Several scraps of crumpled papers scattered around the book stacks, as if paying homage to their vast knowledge. Finally, a flickering lamp, cruelly pushed into a corner, filled the great library with a dim, feeble light. The three scientists had obviously been quite busy with their Project.

Professor Hojo emerged from the other chamber of the library, wearing his thick glasses and carrying an enormous book between his bony hands. He welcomed the new guest with that previous remark before slamming the book shut and turning his face to the Turk. Vincent, however, merely stiffened his back as a response. His calm eyes fixed themselves on the malicious Professor with an abnormally stoic expression. He did not show the slightest trace of annoyance at the sarcastic remark.

Professor Hojo dumped the burdensome book on the disorderly table top, then adjusted his glasses very arrogantly. With a most haughty motion of his hand, he beckoned the Turk to step forward, as if saying "I am your superior, Sir, what will you do about *that*?" Vincent obeyed the command in silence.

"Now then, Mr. Valentine," Hojo said, eyeing the morose Turk top to bottom, "I asked for you because I want to discuss some matter of particular interest to me. To be specific: Ms. Lucrecia."

Vincent made no answer, except a slight twitch of his hands at the mention of the name. The Professor coughed importantly, studying the Turk's tall figure with peculiar interest.

"Let us be honest, Sir," Hojo declared as he tied both arms behind his back, "I never liked you the minute I saw you. I think you a pathetic lackey to the company, despite all your over-praised merits. And you do not particularly hold me in high regard, correct?"

Vincent still refused to answer. He remained rooted to his spot, returning Hojo's glare with a perfectly unruffled look.

"Well, you're a man of few words, I see," the Professor frowned contemptuously, "No point stating the obvious. But I did not wish to waste my precious time on such frivolities, Mr. Valentine."

He began pacing around the untidy room, re-adjusting his glasses whenever they slipped down his nose. His long shadow danced with the flickering light as he glared maliciously at the unresponsive Turk. Vincent never flinched from his spot. Instead, his cool eyes followed the Professor; he masked all his emotions behind a most serene visage.

"Mr. Valentine," the spiteful man pronounced firmly, "regardless of our mutual dislikes, I would like to remind you of your proper position. The ShinRa President grants us scientists full authority provided our work benefits the company in return. YOUR duty, Sir, in case you had somehow forgotten, is to merely oversee our safety, and any interference in our work means a breach of your duty. Is that clear?"

When Vincent made no reply, Hojo stamped his foot with incensed impatience.

"DAMN YOU!!!" he roared at the top of his voice, "ANSWER ME!! IS THAT CLEAR?!!"

Vincent reluctantly replied, "Yes, Sir."

"Furthermore, Mr. Valentine, might I also remind you that as a Turk in ShinRa Inc., you are obliged to obey our commands to the letter. And not, under any circumstances, question or judge our actions with your poor, narrow judgment. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir."

Professor Hojo pursed his thin lips as he halted directly infront of Vincent. His rat-like eyes narrowed keenly on the Turk, ready to murder him if only possible. Vincent still retained the stoic expression on his hard face; he refused to answer the impudent man beyond that required.

After an awkward silence, Hojo resumed his pacing around the room. He occasionally kicked a hapless book out of his way, yet never took his scornful eyes off the Turk.

"I am pleased you understand," Hojo smirked, that same mocking tone returning to his voice, "Apparently, you forgot your duties a few days ago. I happened to find Ms. Lucrecia quite upset with your..how do I put it...'difference of opinion' as regards to.."

But Professor Hojo stopped short on noticing Lucrecia standing in the doorway, her pale face betraying great distress. She had, in fact, been listening behind the door to Hojo's harangue until she finally decided to discover who the addressee was. At the sight of Vincent, intense alarm had seized her so violently, she almost collapsed in her spot had she not gripped one of the bookcases. Vincent, on the other hand, merely glanced back at her, then returned his calm eyes to the spiteful Professor. He made no acknowledgement, not even a polite nod of the head, to poor Lucrecia.

"Ah, my dear, we were just talking about you," Hojo greeted amicably, yet keeping his narrow eyes fixed on the Turk. The Professor then made some gesture to invite her forward, and resumed, "As I was saying, Mr. Valentine, I happened to find Lucrecia crying by the village well, quite upset with your opinion concerning a particular aspect of the Project. Indeed, she was so distraught, it took me well over an hour just to calm her down to a reasonable level and find out what upset her.

Vincent did not wince a muscle at Hojo's accusing tone. Lucrecia, who had walked up to the Professor during his speech, now fidgeted very anxiously a few steps behind him. Her tearful eyes dared not look up for fear of meeting Vincent's; instead, she cast them down to the stony ground in shame. Nor could Vincent induce himself to look at her suffering face. In truth, it took him great effort to maintain his stoic expression, knowing at the same time how badly this embarrassing spectacle pained her. He wished Hojo had at least the decency to spare her this confrontation.

"And obviously, Mr. Valentine," Professor Hojo sneered through grit teeth, "your opinion, the very recollection of it, still distresses Ms. Lucrecia. Therefore, Sir, I ask you to restrict any further personal opinions to yourself, without conveying them to Ms. Lucrecia. To be honest, you lack the proper judgment, capability, and intellect to debate our actions or express any valid opinion about them."

Lucrecia turned to the professor, much alarmed at his brazen behavior. She opened her mouth to protest, but immediately turned away in disgust. She could not say anything to stop this humiliating scene.

When he had finally finished his pompous lecture, Hojo folded both arms across his chest and glared arrogantly at the Turk. However, Vincent would not answer. He had merely stared calmly back at the insolent man, letting him hurl insult after insult at him as much as he pleased.

A heavy stillness filled the room for a moment. Professor Hojo tapped his foot impatiently, while Vincent persisted to linger in his obstinate silence. Lucrecia did not speak a word either.

"Do feel free to speak, Mr. Valentine," invited the Professor mockingly, breaking the silence at last, "It takes at least two people to make a conversation, you know."

Vincent said nothing.

"P..Professor Hojo..please don't do this..," Lucrecia beseeched meekly. But Hojo only dismissed her with a rude wave of the hand: he *would* have an answer!

"From what I gather, Sir," Hojo sneered as he tied both arms behind his back again, "You think yourself a very...*close* friend to Ms. Lucrecia, yes? I would think you'd have much to say to me, especially regarding..."

"With all due respect, Professor," Vincent interrupted dryly, "I would prefer you refrained from discussing my personal life, as it is, and forgive my impertinence, none of your business."

"Ah!" exclaimed Hojo, eager to argue, "But you certainly took the full liberty of discussing *her* personal life, even though it was, to use your own words, none of your business."

"You misunderstand my intentions, Professor," Vincent answered with a cool, restrained tone. He glanced at Lucrecia, who had turned away in disgrace, but immediately returned to the malicious Professor, "I assure you, I had no desire to upset her or offend her feelings. I had merely expressed a heartfelt concern for Ms. Lucrecia's safety and her child, on account of her involvement in the JENOVA Project."

At the mention of 'the child', Hojo gave the Turk a very suspicious, hostile look. His piercing eyes darted back to the trembling Lucrecia, silently berating her for having revealed too much. However, he soon faced Vincent again, quite agitated but under control. An ugly grimace distorted Professor Hojo's thin lips as he resumed to pace around the chaotic room; he tied both arms behind his back as usual. Both Lucrecia and Vincent watched him, one with apprehension, the latter with well-concealed yet genuine hatred.

In truth, Vincent could not recall when Professor Hojo had struck him as more revolting, despicable, and spiteful than he did at that particular moment.

"'A heartfelt concern for Ms. Lucrecia's safety and her child', hey?" repeated Hojo in a mumbling voice full of malice, "Hm..hm..and pray tell me, Mr. Valentine, what aspect of the JENOVA Project do you reckon to be a threat to Ms. Lucrecia's safety? On what facts, with your obvious lack of information, do you base your 'heartfelt concern' on? Enlighten me, do!"

Hojo's increasingly aggressive tone startled the poor woman. Vincent narrowed his keen eyes at the Professor's biting sarcasm, yet replied as coldly as before, "I realize your knowledge of this Project surpasses mine greatly, Professor. However, I found Ms. Lucrecia's consent to become..pardon my bluntness..a human guinea pig quite alarming."

"There! Now we're going around in meaningless circles again!" thundered Hojo, losing all patience in a flash, "Need I constantly remind you of your duties as a Turk?! I say you..."

"I am quite aware of my duties as a Turk, Professor," Vincent interrupted composedly, "You need not remind me of my obligations to ShinRa Inc., or to you, thank you."

"Yes..so you claim! If you were, indeed, aware of your duties, you would not pester Ms. Lucrecia with your unfounded fears or 'heartfelt concern', Mr. Valentine! You do NOT argue or question our decisions..your sole duty is to ensure our safety! Nothing more, nothing less."

"But you can't just experiment on human life, Professor!" stated Vincent very firmly, feeling the suppressed rage rise to the surface. His eyes involuntarily glanced again at Lucrecia, who too struggled against some violent emotion.

Hojo suddenly halted infront of Vincent, his eyebrows knitted in intense fury; this challenge to his authority obviously enraged him beyond measure. Vincent stiffened his back on meeting the Professor's fiery eyes, yet refrained from speaking.

"We are scientists," Hojo hissed as he pushed his glasses up his nose very haughtily, "And we can do *whatever* we want! As a Turk, you will obey MY authority and MY command!! If I tell you we can do whatever we please, then you will accept it without question!! That's is your sole duty: to obey your superiors!! Do you understand, you meddling piece of COW DUNG??!!!!!"

Hojo's brash voice roared all over the library by the time he had finished those words. His lean face fumed with wild rage as he poked Vincent's shoulder to emphasize his point. Lucrecia was thunderstruck with horror.

"And if you dare...even DARE interfere with us again," Hojo spluttered uncontrollably into Vincent's calm face, "I swear you will suffer the consequences!! MARK MY WORDS, TURK, YOU WILL!!!!"

Vincent coolly wiped the Professor's spit of his own face, then stood as rigidly as before. He made no reply.

Hojo opened his mouth to continue, but stopped short when he noticed Davoren suddenly enter the library. The Professor glared breathlessly at the intruder for a moment before turning away in annoyance. The leader of the Turks paused a minute before venturing further into the dim room. He nodded his head respectfully to Lucrecia, whose cheeks were flushed in unconcealed embarrassment.

Hojo guzzled down the full glass of water, yet said nothing.

"Is there a problem, Professor?" Davoren asked finally.

Vincent and Lucrecia remained rooted to their spots, while Hojo yanked off his glasses on hearing the innocent question. His mocking eyes continuously darted back to Vincent's calm face, growing more insolent with every word.

"Why, yes, Mr. Davoren," the spiteful man sneered loudly, "Evidently, I'm trying to do *your* job. Namely, teaching one of your men his proper place as a Turk in ShinRa Inc."

Davoren glanced back at Vincent, then replied coolly, "I see. Has Mr. Valentine offended you somehow?"

Hojo scoffed again at the question, but answered with forced politeness, "To be sure! Kindly, Mr. Davoren, remind your man over there that any interference in *my* business constitutes an interference in my company's business. If he has...a problem with the Project...then he is to restrict his thoughts to himself! I will not tolerate any sort of disobedience or disrespect from anyone!!!"

Davoren happened to glance at Lucrecia for a split second. Yet from his face alone, she realized at once Davoren had guessed the exact "problem". He had, indeed, overheard enough of the speech to understand that she was pregnant, and had accepted to be a guinea pig for some mysterious experiment. The poor woman, mortified beyond measure, decided to flee this horrid spectacle. So without even a polite farewell, she rushed out of the room, as if escaping a dreadful nightmare.

Vincent stepped aside to let her pass, then resumed his formal spot after she had left. Davoren coughed to ease the tension he had caused while Hojo only turned his back away from the two men; he found their presence an unbearable nuisance.

A very awkward silence followed.

Though Vincent's face still retained the same dispassionate composure, his blood boiled with violent rage. He had clearly seen Lucrecia's embarrassed tears as she left through the door. Despite her every effort to avoid his eyes, he had seen them streaming down her cheeks.

Davoren cleared his throat, then answered very deliberately, "Of course, Professor, nor will I tolerate such behavior. If Mr. Valentine has...disobeyed or disrespected you in any way, I will, most assuredly, speak to him," he looked askance at Vincent as he added, "..and he will apologize if necessary."

Hojo twisted his lips into a wry smile, only too delighted at the thought of an apology. He tied both arms behind his back as he faced Vincent, his mean eyes gleaming with triumph. Instead of defending himself, Vincent stood rooted to his spot; he would not speak.

"However, Professor Hojo," Davoren continued in a surprisingly firm voice, "I'll also remind *you* that you must..and will..show Mr. Valentine the proper civility required, since he is an employee under the direct command of President ShinRa."

Hojo glared maliciously at the man, yet said nothing this time. Davoren's hard face and cold tone certainly discouraged any interruption.

Davoren folded both arms before adding with more coolness, "I would also strongly advise you to refrain from comparing Mr. Valentine to..animal excrement..in future times. It is quite indecorous, not to mention very unwise, if you understand me."

Professor Hojo acknowledged the meaning with a dismissive nod of the head. He gave Vincent one last haughty look before turning away from the two. He began rummaging through the manuscripts cluttered on the table, and said no more.

Davoren, believing his point had been understood, decided to retreat out of the library. Therefore, with a tap on Vincent's shoulder, he signaled for them to leave the insolent man alone. The Turk immediately obeyed.

Professor Gast bumped into them as they exited through the doorway, his face showing great puzzlement mixed with compassion. After a sincere apology to the two gentlemen, he entered the library, then closed the door behind himself.

"I say, Hojo," Professor Gast asked piteously, "What's wrong with Lucrecia? I happened to see her running to her room, crying her eyes out! Poor girl! You're always so rough with her."

"Bah! You know how sentimental woman are!" Hojo scoffed in a loud, contemptuous voice, "Only fit to cry at the slightest upset..especially when pregnant!!"

Vincent happened to hear that last remark as he left the loathsome library. Though he followed his leader as obediently as any soldier, his heart swelled with such unbelievable rage. So much so that his whole face, unable to resist the passion any longer, darkened with unforgiving hatred.

He wished he had shot Hojo..yes..one clean shot through the head would have sufficed...

-End of Chp.25