I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.26

"I don't care what kind of grievance that sour sod has against you," Davoren had ordered gently but firmly, "You are not to go near Professor Hojo again, even if he tells you to, understood, Valentine?"

Vincent, of course, obeyed his leader's command without question. Since that horrible confrontation, he avoided any contact with the scientists unless absolutely necessary. He never returned to the grim library below, nor did he even near the scientists' chambers.

If he chanced to meet Hojo in the hallway, he respectfully made way for him to pass without a word. The insolent Professor would glare at the Turk top to bottom, then snub past him very arrogantly. Vincent, on the other hand, would resume his way down the corridor, pretending nothing had happened.

He never saw Lucrecia during those tedious, mundane days. He understood how his presence upset her, especially after witnessing that embarrassing scene in the library. Therefore, Vincent avoided her in particular as best to his abilities. A full week dragged by in which neither even dared think of the other: she still slaved below in the library, fumbling among test tubes and tissue samples, while he performed whatever duty required for the day.

Yet her absence only intensified his heartache instead of softening it (even if he always denied it). At times, the agony gnawed at his heart so violently, no amount of wandering or patrolling could hope to soothe its intensity.

Lucrecia, in his eyes, was exempt from all blame: he had promised he would not interfere with her decision, even though a horrible presentiment warned him of some unknown danger. Let her do whatever she pleased..why grieve her more than he had already done?

He became increasingly withdrawn as the days rolled by, preferring to wallow in his own gloomy preoccupations. Vincent would wander hours on end in the empty fields of Nibelheim, or simply lounge under a stout tree until dusk. Nature surrounded him with every splendour it could concoct in hopes of lifting his sunken spirits. Yet his mind found the charm of this rustic land quite distasteful: the majestic mountains ceased to excite his wonder; the once quaint, winsome village now seemed an unbearable prison, especially the Mansion; the endless hills, frilled in patches of lush green grass, only irritated him further.

Indeed, the poor, heartbroken man found no solace anywhere to drown his aching misery. Despite his vow not to interfere with Lucrecia, Vincent always suffered. Nevertheless, he somehow swallowed the pain, and said nothing.

Though Davoren noticed (quite keenly) how forlorn Vincent had become, he never asked the Turk to share his personal troubles. He was either too busy satisfying the scientists' demand, or perhaps he felt it wisest not to poke his nose into Vincent's business.

Davoren, however, defended his friend against Professor Hojo's biting remarks very fiercely. If the insolent man muttered some comment aimed at Vincent, Davoren would answer for the Turk in more sarcastic tone; then he'd dryly order the Professor to "not waste anymore time with his petty disputes". Hojo never dared argue with the beloved leader of the Turks (the President would be *quite* angry if he did); instead, he would retreat quietly away. In short, Davoren made sure Vincent was left alone.

And naturally, Vincent was grateful for this man's kindness.

Yet, in truth, Davoren had grown very preoccupied with his own thoughts since that horrible confrontation. Although he knew of Lucrecia's pregnancy and consent to be a human guinea pig, he never voiced any opinion on her decision, at least not to Vincent's knowledge. His mind seemed engrossed in an entirely different matter.

Davoren would mysteriously disappear for hours during which no one knew where, then emerge again, his face expressing profound solemnity. The man often sat alone in the parlour, engrossed in deep meditation; or maybe linger by the large stained windows, smoking a cigarette very thoughtfully. If Vincent happened to spot his leader in that pensive state, the latter would immediately smile and laugh to disperse any suspicions.

Yet despite Davoren's reassurances and good-humoured denials, an ominous suspicion continually pestered Vincent whenever he met his leader. So much that he'd inquire, very cautiously, whether an illness, or perhaps some trouble, ailed the man. He sensed a dark hidden secret behind that friendly face; something he felt *he* should know of as well. But Davoren only shrugged off Vincent's quizzical look with a warm smile, then a pat on his friend's back.

"Poppy-cock! You're so used to being gloomy, you think EVERYONE is like you," Davoren teased light-heartedly, "I tell you, I'm fine!"

Unfortunately, the nagging suspicion clung to Vincent's mind, insisting this man withheld some secret from him. He could have persisted until he discovered it, only he had no actual proof Davoren harboured some sinister secret. Instinct alone would not suffice.

Maybe he's right, Vincent reflected to himself, maybe I'm just imagining things...

One chilly autumn evening, almost two weeks after that library incident, Vincent left the Mansion for his usual stroll along the village square. A faint orange hue had singed the cloudless sky as the day slowly faded into darkness. The wintry breeze howled over the cobblestone ground, promising of a cold night very soon.

Through every cottage window, a friendly fire glowed to warm the house inside, while a thin trail of grey smoke danced up the chimneys. Vincent passed many ruddy, dirty-faced miners returning home with their picks. Some tipped their hats respectfully as Vincent passed, others simply ignored him, being too exhausted to notice anyone, and quite hungry for food. Many a miner stumbled through his doorway, shouting "Dinner!!" at the same time. The children were immediately called inside before latching the door. Young girls who had been sent to fetch water scurried back home, several of them eyeing the passing Turk then giggling bashfully amongst themselves. Even the dogs were called in for their dinner.

Therefore, in a remarkably short time, the village square emptied completely, save for the occasional miner who wandered into the inn for a drink. Every door was securely locked; every window firmly shut; and all villagers snug inside their warm houses for the night. Not a soul dared stir the stillness of the air, except for the cheers of the merry guests bustling inside the cozy inn.

Vincent, with both hands thrust deep into his pockets, wandered aimlessly about the square for some time until halting at the giant well. Leaning his back against the bulky structure, he heaved a heavy sigh, then closed his eyes in exhaustion. The cold wind caressed his face so soothingly, all sound soon faded into oblivion, even the rowdy laughs of the miners inside the inn.

His torn thoughts scattered in all directions, tripping over small details or petty observations; he simply let them drift in any direction they pleased. Yet no matter what path he perused, or how many twists and turns he followed, his mind always returned to the same thought: Lucrecia. Always..always..and nothing but Lucrecia.

While he was thus preoccupied, Vincent's eyes happened to stray to the far side of the square when he gave a violent start: Lucrecia was standing there, looking very timidly at him. He knew not how long she had been lingering there, yet judging from her nervous face, guessed it to be a long time. She had probably found him brooding by the well, and waited patiently for him to notice her. When he finally caught sight of her, Lucrecia cringed back a step in spite of herself, as if he intended to harm her.

Vincent straightened himself up at once, but dared not advance towards her. Instead, he fixed his quizzical eyes on her distressed face, wondering internally what purpose had she to wander outside at this late hour.

The poor woman hesitated a few minutes before mustering all her courage in a resolute sigh. She walked across the cobblestone square, towards the silent Turk. On reaching him, she glanced around herself to make sure they were out of hearing distance, then looked straight up at Vincent. Though her voice sounded reasonably steady, her eyes shone with incredible anxiety, almost fear.

"Vincent," she whispered cautiously, "Can I please speak to you for a moment? Please..just a moment."

Her pleading tone alarmed him beyond measure. He guessed immediately from her eyes something horrible troubled her mind. So, without a second thought, he nodded his head in consent: he would speak to her.

Lucrecia looked around herself again, suspicious of some invisible eavesdropper lurking in the shadows, then took his hand. Vincent could feel her cold hand tremble in his as she led him away from the well and through the village gate. The two walked hand in hand for a short distance, neither speaking a word, until they finally reached the apple orchard.

Snuggled at the very end edge of Nibelheim behind some abandoned cottage, this apple orchard had been planted by some lonely gardener long ago. Its keeper dead, the unfortunate orchard gradually sunk into its present state of negligence. Greedy rust covered whatever remained of the iron gate. Patches of red ivy crept all over the stony wall, adding to the already ruined atmosphere. A cobblestone path, now hidden by tufts of frozen grass, wound around this haunted orchard until it reached the doorstep of the cottage.

Dead apple trees, utterly barren of any fruit or leaves, ran along both sides of the twisting path. While Time had disfigured some trees beyond redemption, most had been spared such a cruel fate. Yet every tree beheld its own frozen branches and hardened trunk in silent regret, as if mourning the loss of their beauty. Though once every few springs some apples would bloom in this abandoned orchard, it remained completely desolate through all four seasons.

Lucrecia, still leading the Turk by the hand, followed the winding cobblestone path until they reached the heart of the orchard. The dead branches of those woeful trees swayed gently in the cold breeze, as if welcoming the two visitors to their ruined home. Night slowly fingered the orange sky above, adding to the barren trees' destitute appearance. Therefore, by the time the two intruders had stopped, most trees had been devoured by the darkness. It was very quiet; not even the crows dared caw in this ghostly place.

When Lucrecia halted, she released Vincent's hand and took one step away from him. The Turk looked around at the dead garden in unconcealed wonder: he had, of course, passed this apple orchard many times during his lonely strolls along the fields, yet never dared enter it out of some vague suspicion. In fact, Vincent had disliked this place on first site. He scanned the frozen garden for a full minute before returning his attention to Lucrecia. She, on the other hand, fixed her tense eyes on his face, battering her brains to begin the conversation. Vincent said nothing to disrupt her.

"I know you don't want to talk to me, Vincent," she whispered very timidly, "especially after that..that horrible scene in the library with Professor Hojo."

He opened his mouth to protest, but Lucrecia shook her head before he could utter a word, "Sh! No, please. Don't speak, just listen. Ever since that day when I...I told you about my pregnancy..and that I decided to be a human guinea pig..I haven't been able to sleep at night. I always find myself thinking about you..and what you said to me. I try so hard to push you out of my mind by working, but I can't, Vincent. You always manage to torture me, someway or another."

Overwhelmed with this surge of emotions, Lucrecia's voice broke down in apparent agitation. She stepped away from him, trying her best to avoid his quizzical eyes, then stood perfectly still. Vincent, unsure how to defend himself against the accusation, fidgeted nervously in his spot. His mind struggled to gather all his scattered thoughts.

"I'm very sorry," he apologized in a low voice, "I'm trying my best to avoid you. I know you don't really want to see me either," he paused a moment to glance at her, then added, "If there were perhaps another way I could spare you this pain, then..."

"You can't, Vincent, you can't," she interrupted passionately, looking him straight in the eye, "Because it's how you feel *inside* that's torturing me so much! I don't know what to do anymore... your words and feelings just hammer me day and night, until I think I'm going crazy! And avoiding me won't stop it either, Vincent..it..it won't.."

Vincent stared blankly back at her, completely taken aback by her misery. He ran his fingers through his hair, fumbling for some comforting word to say, then hung his head in dejection: he did not know how to reply. Lucrecia, however, stepped closer to him, and looked very tenderly into his troubled face.

"Now please, listen," she pleaded softly, discerning his anxiety, "I've told you before, and I'll say it again: this Project means more to me than anything else..even my own life. I have to do this if the Project is to be successful."

The Turk made no reply.

"I know I'm risking my life, Vincent," she continued more softly, "But you must understand how important this whole JENOVA Project is. Yes, it's my life's dedication. So please, I beg you, accept what I've done, not in words, but in your heart too. When..you were arguing with Professor Hojo..I realized that you haven't really accepted what I've done."

He still did not answer her.

"If I should suffer for this Project," she concluded, "then I'll accept the consequences of my actions for the Project's sake.."

"But, Lucrecia, what about yourself? What about your own happiness? "

Although a simple question, Vincent fixed his eyes on her face as if his whole fate depended on her answer. Lucrecia stared back at him a moment before she began chafing her slender arms in obvious confusion. Her tense eyes refused to look at him. She made no reply, except cough softly once or twice.

A strange, unnatural stillness filled the orchard. All of nature, the brittle trees included seemed to await her answer.

Vincent's entire face darkened sternly as he watched the poor woman hesitate. He narrowed his bright eyes on her beloved face, searching for an answer to his burning question. Lucrecia, however, stepped further away from him to escape his hard scrutiny.

"Vincent, I just don't know anymore, but I don't want you torturing me like this," she beseeched wretchedly, "It's like..it's like I want to do something..but then I remember you and get all confused. I..I'm torn, Vincent..I don't know what to do... and it's all your fault. So please..please, Vincent, accept what I've done."

When Lucrecia had finally finished her pitiful supplication, Vincent walked over to her without muttering a word. She dared not retreat from him as before, but stood rooted to her spot, anticipating his reaction. Vincent stopped directly infront of her and waited for her look up at him. His face bore such a hard, stern expression, it startled poor Lucrecia to the point of frightful alarm. She realized she had angered him.

"I assure you, Lucrecia, I never had any intentions of torturing you in my life," he stated in a cool tone, "And I would sooner die than make you miserable. If you've chosen this experiment over..," he nearly choked out "over me", but instead said, "..over your own life, well, who am I to judge you? I promised you I would not interfere, regardless of what I think, just as long as you're *happy* with what you've done. And I will keep my promise."

She made no response. Instead, she cast her eyes down in shame. Vincent turned slightly away from her as he added, almost viciously, "But that will never change my feelings towards you, Lucrecia. I still love you, and always will. You most certainly haven't the right to stop, because I can't."

Another awkward silence followed. The cold wind puffed across the cobblestone path, overturning dead leaves and pebbles along the way. The pearly moon had besieged the sky long ago, scattering all the tiny stars over its black domain. It was quite dark.

Neither breathed a word during this time. Vincent's eyes riveted on her troubled face, bore straight into her very soul. Lucrecia continuously dodged his look as suppressed tears welled up in her eyes. Soon, her cheeks flushed in unmistakable agitation. Therefore, believing the Turk had nothing more to say to her, she turned around to leave.

However, Vincent quickly gripped her trembling hand and pulled it back to him before she could even take a step. He pressed her hand against his chest with both hands so tightly, she could feel his heartbeat. Though a tender look had replaced his previously hard expression, he still retained that same painful gleam in his eyes.

Lucrecia could only stare back at him in wonder. She said nothing.

"Damn it, Lucrecia," he cursed under his breath, studying her face more intently, "I can't stand to see you cry, let alone suffer like this. And I have this nagging, horrible presentiment that you'll come to some harm because of this Project. I want to protect you from whatever this threat is..sacrifice anything I must to keep you safe..even..even if you obviously don't return my affections."

He felt her wriggle her hand in his firm grip, yet continued as softly as before, "You can tell me you're happy, and I'll believe you. Tell me I make you feel miserable, and I'll go away. But you can't erase this bad feeling from my heart, Lucrecia..it won't go away, not as long as you..."

But Vincent stopped short when he noticed Lucrecia give a violent start and stare, absolutely horrified, at something behind him. He slowly turned his head around to see what had frightened the poor woman. Much to his alarm, he found Davoren standing a few yards away, with both his arms folded loose across his chest.

Vincent was dumbstruck.

-End of Chp.26