I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.28

Vincent thought the coughing fit would never end.

He sprang up in some unknown bed, choking wildly over his hot blood. With one hand pressed over his mouth, the sick man bent double over himself in hopes of perhaps easing the pain. Yet the attack would not spare him: it sunk its sharp claws deeper and deeper into his lungs until he began hacking on his own blood. He could not breathe at all.

His whole trembling body burned with fever. His head, in particular, throbbed in torturous agony. He could not hear or see anything. Nor could he remember where he was now or why he had been brought here. A black mist had completely engulfed his senses, letting him grope through the maddening darkness alone.

The coughing fit grew considerably worse.

Those ghostly voices from his nightmare still taunted his battered ears as the seizure ravaged his fragile body. He coughed until the blood soaked his hand. He squeezed his burning eyes shut, trying desperately to manage just a whiff of air as the fit tore his whole chest apart. The murderous fever raged through his shaking limbs like wild fire. Delirium had torn his mind to shreds.

He thought he should cry out, but the unmerciful fit had even robbed his voice. He could not speak, only cough and splutter over his blood.

Indeed, the torture felt as though it would last forever.

However, the brutal attack eased slightly when Vincent felt something cold and wet caress his burning face. He still sat slouched up in bed, unable to see yet quite aware of the strange touch on his face. It felt so gentle, so soothing on his hot, sweaty face.

The cruel coughing fit, realizing it had lost the battle, resentfully faded into oblivion. Vincent placed his hand over his heaving chest as his torn lungs filled with precious air. He took several gasps at once, afraid the murderous fit might return. He still could not see.

As the pain slowly evaporated, Vincent became increasingly aware of the presence of another person near him. At first, it was nothing but a vague presence around him, shapeless and part of the darkness. Yet as his scattered senses gradually returned, Vincent could hear a soft voice whispering something into his numb ears.

The voice sounded terribly muffled to him at the beginning, but steadily became clearer until he realized it was a girl's voice. Unfortunately, he could not remember whose.

A very gentle hand stroked his hair and feverish face for a moment, while the soft voice repeated a word into his ears. Vincent then felt somebody lay his aching head on the pillow again. A thick blanket was pulled over him with tender care, and that same gentle hand returned to his face, pressing his forehead every so often.

When some of his sight returned at last, Vincent found himself laying flat on his back in some warm bed. Several blankets, including one thick quilt, covered his shaking body. He did not recognize this bed at all. He looked around without moving his head: nothing but stuffy darkness dominated the small room. Everything to his weary eyes lay dismally hidden in the shadows.

Vincent, completely ravaged by delirium, looked up at some black figure lingering over him. He had to fumble with his muddled senses another minute or so before the mysterious figure actually took shape. It appeared to be a very young woman, with bright green eyes intently set on him. Her brown hair was let loose, so that it flowed in noticeably thick curls behind her back and over her shoulders. Vincent noted mostly how frightened and anxious the girl appeared.

He did not recognize her either.

Yet strangely, Vincent could not tear his burning eyes away from her pale face. Indeed, he beheld her as some ghost there to visit him. The girl leaned further down so that only a few inches lay between her face and his. She stared intently at him, scrutinizing every detail her eyes came across, then whispered that same word one more time.

Vincent finally realized she had been calling his name.

Slowly, he lifted his trembling hand to her face with great effort. She did not flinch or move away when his hot hand touched her cold cheek. Instead, she let him caress her cheek as long as he pleased without speaking another word.

"Ah..," Vincent grunted softly, remembering the girl at last, "A..Aeris..."

"So, you finally recognized me," Aeris smiled happily. A very relieved look replaced that previously anxious one.

He looked around himself without removing his trembling hand from her cheek. The room was pitch black.

"Wh..where am I?" he whispered in confusion.

"Sh...sh..you're in bed at home," the girl reassured tenderly, "You were just having a nightmare, Vincent. It was all just a nightmare. Now go back to sleep."

He stared back at her in complete disbelief, caressing her soft cheek with his burning hand to confirm his blurry sight. His wild eyes darted all over the black room: yes, he was definitely in his own bed, back at home.

For one full minute, he was totally silent.

Suddenly, Vincent yanked his hand away from Aeris' face as if struck by lightning. The girl, puzzled by his strange behavior, drew herself away from him. She sat perfectly still on a chair by his bed, and watched him fumble in silence.

Vincent, beside himself with delirium, grabbed a strand of his hair and beheld it in absolute amazement: how long it was now! And how thick! It seemed much shorter just minutes ago.

With amazing effort, the man pulled out his metallic arm from under the covers and held it infront of his sickly face. He studied the long, sharp claws; the curved strips of metal which collectively formed his palm and wrist. Where had this horrible arm been moments ago? Just a short time ago, he had an ordinary arm like any other.

Yet he had forgotten this arm had been there for thirty-one long, miserable years.

After another minute of intense scrutiny, Vincent dropped his metallic claw onto his chest without a word. His memory instantly flowed back to his confused mind: he had merely been re-living.. re-performing his past without even realizing it. The Turks, Davoren, ShinRa and Lucrecia. All that madness finished *thirty-one years* ago. He was trapped in the present time now.

"You still have a very bad fever," Aeris finally said, feeling his burning forehead again, "Would you like a drink of water?"


He managed to sit up on his elbows while the girl filled a tall glass with cool water. Vincent greedily guzzled it down in one gulp, then sank back into his pillow, completely drained of strength.

"At least you've stopped raving now," comforted the girl as she covered him with the blankets, "Maybe now, you can get some sleep. Let me just wash your face one more time, okay?"

Vincent watched her soak a small towel into a basin of water placed by his bedside, then wipe his whole face very carefully. The girl leaned over him so closely, he could scrutinize every detail of her lovely face. She wore a loose sleeping gown with a long cream-coloured shawl over her slender arms. He noticed (very keenly) how careworn and fatigued she seemed, even though her green eyes still retained their same brightness. Whenever her fingertips touched his feverish skin, his entire body shivered involuntarily: she was so cold.

Neither spoke a word during this time. The girl tenderly wiped his face for about fifteen minutes without once looking into his eyes. Too tired to speak, Vincent contented himself by watching her in silence.

When Aeris had finally finished, he immediately turned his back to her, burying most of his face into the soft pillow. Never had exhaustion ever overpowered his body so completely. His weary eyes grew steadily heavy until they shut of their own accord.

Though his back turned and both eyes firmly closed, Vincent could detect every movement of Aeris' body with no difficulty. He heard her shuffle out of her chair, then sit by him on the cozy bed. Aeris ran her fingers through his thick hair once or twice before she touched his cheek lightly to check his temperature. He did not flinch a muscle.

After another silent moment, Aeris snuggled up against his back, but kept her feet off the bed. She nestled her head against his shoulder, trying her best not disturb his precious sleep, then lay perfectly still. She seemed to have fallen asleep.

Vincent made no effort to remove her. On the contrary, her presence so near to him filled his weary heart with strange comfort.

Neither spoke a word for a long time. Darkness enshrouded the bedroom, allowing only the smallest tint of light to smuggle through the curtains. Silence in all its power ruled this room supreme, save for the monotonous tick-tock of the clock by the bedside. Vincent never moved once for fear of disrupting the peaceful stillness. Most of his ashen, wasted face lay hidden in the soft pillow, while his body trembled every so often with sickening fever. Aeris nestled herself further against his back, but still kept her weary head rested on his shoulder.

"Aeris?" Vincent called softly without moving a muscle.

She only lifted her head from his shoulder as an answer.

"How long..have I been sick like this?"

Aeris rested her chin against his shoulder so that she could see part of his face from the side. She replied, very wearily, "About a week."

Vincent slowly re-opened his crimson eyes with a low "hmm", and was silent again.

"You've had this horrible fever for about a week now," the girl whispered without lifting her head, "At first, you were totally unconscious for almost four days. And you..you coughed out a lot of blood too. But during the last three days, you've been raving like crazy...sometimes for six, seven hours non-stop."

Aeris carefully sat up again, yet kept her body snuggled against Vincent's back. He felt her shiver slightly, then tighten her shawl around her shoulders.

"Yesterday was the worse day. You were so delirious, you were practically screaming," she continued, "And..and I..we all got so frightened, we didn't know what to do anymore. You wouldn't stop raving, and clutching your head; and the fever just grew worse no matter what we did. I was so sure you'd die before the night was through...but Cloud swore he wouldn't let you die yet. So he.. he filled the bathtub with water, dragged you all the way to the bathroom, then dunked your whole body into the tub to cool you."

Vincent turned his face slightly around to look at her, but made no comment on the crude method of battling the fever. Aeris glanced at him a minute, then fingered her shawl very uneasily.

"Tifa was pretty angry, and nearly kicked Cloud outside," she recounted more softly than before, "She thought he intended to drown you. The fever went down a short while later, but you still raved on and on, and didn't recognize anyone, even though your eyes were wide open.

Vincent certainly did not remember any of that. Indeed, his whole mind had been so absorbed in that nightmarish flashback, reality.. *this* reality had been completely forgotten behind.

He studied her tired but beautiful face another minute or so, then buried his feverish face in the pillow once more. Aeris stayed nestled against his back, her bare feet and shoulders shivering occasionally from the cold. She fingered her light shawl in silence.

"Aeris?" Vincent called again. He did not look at her.

"Yes?" she immediately replied.

"How long have you watching over me?"

The girl hesitated a moment, then answered, "I can't remember exactly...maybe a day and a half."

"That's a very long time. You could make yourself ill if you go on like this."

"Oh, I don't mind..it..it's okay..really."

"What time is it now?"

"Um..," she mumbled as she checked the clock by the bed, "It's almost two a.m."

Much to her puzzlement, Vincent shifted around, the forced himself to sit up in bed. He sat slightly bent forward, so that their faces were quite close. His black hair, disheveled beyond hope, tumbled around his head and well over his shoulders. His pale face lay hidden in the darkness, yet his ruby-red eyes glowed keenly as they studied the girl's face and slender figure. He said nothing for a long time. All his attention riveted itself on her.

Aeris, alarmed at his strange silence, looked back at him in confusion, but dared not open her mouth. She humbly let his blood-shot eyes wander over her as long as they pleased. Although she could barely make out his face in the darkness, Aeris was quite sure no detail of her face, no movement of her body, could escape Vincent's notice. Therefore, she sat still on the bed, fidgeting slightly under his sharp scrutiny.

"You look very tired," Vincent whispered at last.

"Ah..th..that's because I haven't slept that much," she faltered in a low, nervous voice.

"I thought Cloud and Tifa were here too."

"Yes, they are, but they're sleeping in the living room. They both took care of you..much better than I ever could. Tifa always knew what to do, and which medicine to give you. She didn't panic as much as I did when the fever got too bad like yesterday. Actually, she did most of the work..."

Aeris paused when she noticed Vincent's piercing red eyes still fixed on her, then continued softly, "But Cloud did a lot of work too, you know. He cleaned the bathroom after you..puked in it that other night, the blood and everything else. He always brought clean water and got the medicines you needed. Also don't forget, he's the one who stopped the fever. Only sometimes, he'd get really angry because you weren't getting better."

Vincent silently listened to her, watching her all the while intently. He leaned further to scrutinize her beautiful face more closely, yet said nothing. Though Aeris tensed in her spot on being so keenly studied, she did not edge away.

"To tell the truth," she concluded, casting her green eyes down to the black ground, "Tifa was supposed to be sitting up with you from midnight until five o'clock. She told me to wake her up after my shift was done. But I just couldn't do it. She looked so tired, I thought it plain cruel to wake her: she deserved some decent rest after all her work. So, I took her shift too."

She hesitated a moment, then added, almost inaudibly, "And besides..I..I just wanted to be with you."

Another silence, more noticeable than the first, filled every corner of the dark room. Vincent gazed thoughtfully at the timid girl infront of him, then down at his sharp, metallic claw. Aeris, on the other hand, looked at him from the corner of her eye. She tried her best to see his actual face. Unfortunately, the room was so dark, the girl could barely make out the outline of his face.

The distant chimes of some bell-tower far away signaled the arrival of the second hour after midnight. Both Vincent and Aeris listened attentively to the bell disturb the peaceful night, then fall silent again. Neither spoke a word until Vincent suddenly touched her hand very lightly. Though startled by the unexpected, hot touch, Aeris did not draw her hand away.

"You're very cold," he remarked in a soft undertone.

"It's because you still have a fever. Your hand is very, very hot, so you think I'm cold."

But Vincent, of course, knew she was lying. He had noticed, even felt, her shiver several times, despite the shawl around her slender arms. He frowned disapprovingly.

"I want you to go get some rest now, Aeris," he ordered gently, pulling away his burning hand, "You're too tired to sit up any longer, and could make yourself ill if you don't rest properly."

"Ah, no, I can't do that!" Aeris protested fervently, " You still have that fever, Vincent, and it may get worse if I don't wash your face every hour. No, don't worry about me. Just please, please, go back to sleep."

He beheld her tired, pleading face in silence. She would obviously fight fatigue, sleep, even possible illness just for his sake. She seemed to think her health quite insignificant compared to his own.

Vincent, however, thought otherwise.

Therefore, without another word, he tore off the thick blankets, and made room for another person. Much to Aeris' shock, Vincent slipped his metallic arm around her supple waist, then slowly pulled her into bed with him, discarding her useless shawl onto the floor. Despite her weak protests, he covered her snugly with all the warm blankets before settling down beside her.

An extremely awkward silence followed.

Vincent slowly turned his back to the bashful girl, and was perfectly still in his new place. Aeris, embarrassed by this unexpected intimacy, covered most of her blushing face except for her eyes. Her hands trembled slightly as she glanced askance at the man by her side. Yet Vincent took no heed of her at all. His back faced her completely, with the blankets hiding most of his head. He did not speak to her.

Aeris immediately turned her back to him as well, but voiced no more protests. Exhaustion had overwrought her entire body so completely, and this soft bed warmed her cold limbs so wonderfully; she couldn't have moved a muscle even if she had wanted to. In truth, she was tired far more than she realized.

The girl buried one side of her face into the pillow, snuggling further under the warm blankets. Her weary eyes drifted aimlessly along the black room, stumbling across shapeless shadows, until they closed from exhaustion.

Thus, the two lay together, each facing the other's back, for a long time. Aeris rested on her side, listening to the peaceful silence. Vincent did not move, except perhaps to cough whenever his chest heaved, or when the fever gnawed at his burning body.

"Vincent?" called Aeris hesitantly.

He mumbled a tired "hm" as a reply, but did not turn to her.

"Do you remember any of the things you raved about?"

Vincent, whose eyes had been shut up til then, mechanically re-opened them. He thought a minute before answering, "Not really. What did I rave about?"

"Oh, I don't know; mostly things that didn't make sense. You.. raved about ShinRa, sometimes about Professor Hojo or some 'experiment'. You also raved quite a bit about an apple orchard, and about that..that man..Davoren."

He listened to her in silence.

"But most of the time, you raved about a woman named Lucrecia," Aeris continued in a hushed whisper, "At times, it seemed you were talking to somebody, like you could actually hear voices. Other times, you just raved on and on about strange things I couldn't understand. I wished I could help you..I wanted to *so* badly, it sometimes made me cry. And I tried my best..but..but I.."

Vincent wearily placed one arm under his head as his metallic claw drew itself across his heaving chest. He did not speak for a long while.

"What did you do?" he asked all of a sudden.


"When I was raving...how did you try to help me?"

Aeris hesitated, afraid to answer his simple question, then finally faltered, "You..you wouldn't stop raving..day and night, and coughed out so much blood. You'd tear your hair, and call yourself a monster over and over again. I couldn't do much, even though I would have given anything to help you. So I'd..hold your hand...just hold it..and whisper in your ear. Anything that came to my mind, I said it."

"Like what?"

"Ah..I told you how much we all wanted you to get better, because everyone was worried sick about you. If I was alone with you in the room, I'd hum a song into your ears," Aeris paused before concluding softly, "Or sometimes, I just kept on repeating your name, hoping somehow, somewhere in your nightmares, you'd hear me."

Fatigued beyond measure, Vincent closed his weary eyes again, then nestled his head further into his hot arm. Besides an occasional cough, he lay perfectly still, with his back turned to the girl.

"I don't remember," he stated monotonously.

"That's okay. It was all nonsense anyway."

"No, it wasn't," Vincent defended, his voice softening with every word, "It was your voice calling my name that pulled me out of the nightmare, Aeris."

The girl made no response in recognition of his gratitude, except tighten the cozy blanket around her cold body. Nor did Vincent persue an answer. He lay quietly in his spot, letting his dull senses wallow in the tranquility.

Silence, ruler of the black room once again, hushed all sounds in its domain. Nothing dared challenge its tyrannical authority until Aeris suddenly and noisily shifted around. She lay flat on her back, with both hands firmly clasped on her breast. She stared at the black ceiling above, her heart struggling against some violent, inner emotion.

"As long as..as I can remember, the Professor has been torturing me," Aeris faltered in a low, quivering whisper, "He loved to..do all these 'tests'..that hurt me so much. I never knew what he did exactly. He usually drugged me, or just let me faint if the test became too painful. And I always..always heard his voice hissing in my ears non-stop. I couldn't even cry out because my limbs ached so much..."

Though Vincent did not answer, he opened his red eyes as she faltered in her story. He listened most attentively than before: her strange tone had drawn his full attention.

Aeris glanced at his back, then resumed, keeping her bright eyes fixed on the black ceiling, "One night..the Professor left me in the lab,but..but forgot to lock the door. I stared for maybe five whole minutes at the door. N..next thing I knew, I was running outside. I just wanted to escape."

Vincent made no answer.

"I ran..and ran,: she continued, tightening her hands on her breast, "I knew the guards were after me. I could hear them chasing me from behind. I passed so many buildings...and alleys..and faces on the streets. All that mattered to me was escape. I never wanted to go back there...never."

Aeris heaved a long sigh, overwhelmed with this surge of hatred for her mysterious tormentor. She turned her back to Vincent again, but kept her quivering hands clasped over her bosom. To her annoyance, painful tears welled up in her eyes, despite her every effort to suppress them. She knew not why she was telling this man of her painful past. It seemed the words poured out of her mouth of their own accord.

Vincent, however, kept his back turned to her, as if oblivious to her pitiful struggle.

"I've never felt absolutely safe, even after meeting you and the others," the girl said, trying in vain to control her tears, "There is always this corner in my mind that says I can never, ever escape. The Professor..or..Davoren will eventually catch me again, and just drag me back. It's like I'm trying to run away from a never-ending nightmare."

She scornfully wiped away her tears, then concluded in such a low voice, "But now..at this moment, I feel safe...because I know you'll be safe too, and you'll be there by my side when I need you. Just for this one time, I don't have to worry about the Professor or Davoren," Aeris paused before adding more softly, "I wish this feeling could last forever, Vincent...just to feel absolutely safe from harm.. like I feel now."

But you know as well as I do it's just a wish..poor little girl, Vincent reflected to himself bitterly, there's no escaping *those* kind of nightmares. They may come and go, but never, never leave you alone.

How it pained and angered him to see this young girl...a child compared to him...suffer the same tortures he had. Even more that he could not fully shield her from this unseen Professor, despite all his efforts.

Yes, Vincent scoffed at himself, just the same with Lucrecia.

He trudged through his entangled thoughts another minute or so before finally turning around to the pitiful girl. His hard metallic arm full encircled her slender waist, as if afraid someone may snatch her away any moment. He drew her closer to him from behind. Aeris gave a slight start at the touch of his skin against her back, but offered no resistance to the gesture. He nestled her back and head against his chest, then wrapped blankets around her body.

"Don't think about the Professor or those bad memories," he whispered into her ear, "Go to sleep, Aeris. For now, just go to sleep."

She nodded her head only once. Vincent tenderly kissed her cheek, like a parent coaxing a child to sleep, then lay still. He felt her tense body gradually relax in his grip, but kept his metal arm around her waist.

In a minute, Aeris was fast asleep.

He lay there for a long time, with the poor girl sleeping snugly in his arms. Perhaps he too fell asleep for a while; or just stayed awake, feeling her cold body against his feverish skin. Hundreds of random thoughts, snippets of different memories, and new preoccupations pecked at his battered brain all the time. Soon, he grew weary of his bed.

Careful not to disturb Aeris' badly-needed sleep, Vincent slipped out of the warm bed. He wandered over to the closet in hopes of finding suitable clothing to cover his boxer shorts (indeed, his fever had been so intense, his friends had no choice but to strip off his pants). Vincent noiselessly rummaged through his clothes until at last found a pair of loose black pants. He immediately slipped into the garment, tucked his sleeveless shirt in, then tied the ropy belt around his waist into a knot.

That task completed, Vincent drifted over to the window. After a moment's hesitation, he withdrew one of the curtains, thereby inviting the lovely moonlight into the black room. At first, the light hurt his strained eyes unbearably. However, as he gazed silently through the window, he became quite used to the beautiful, gentle light. It was snowing outside.

With peculiar morbid gloominess, he watched the soft snow playfully descend the black sky, past his window pane. The snow flakes danced before his blood-shot eyes, floating down towards the frozen ground outside. Vincent noticed one particular snow flake tumble against the window, then disappear the instant it touched the glass.

He touched the icy window in silent wonder. His burning fingers twitched uncontrollably at the cold feeling. Slowly, the morose man pressed his hot cheek against the window pane, letting the violent surge of coldness rip through his feverish body. However, he felt no discomfort what so ever. Vincent kept his cheek glued to the freezing glass, wallowing in this strange, soothing sensation.

His tall figure and the window cast a sharp shadow on the bed, which stood just opposite the window. When he had finished, Vincent turned fully around to face the foot of the bed. The shadow of the window frame cast itself on the whole bedcovers; his shadow fell very awkwardly across the whole bed, disrupting the square pattern of the window frame.

He noticed Aeris' face in the lovely moonlight at last. She still slept on her side, with her two hands carelessly lain infront of her soft bosom. Her eyes were lightly closed, making her appear more dead than asleep. The girl's loose hair all lay pushed back behind her head, except for a few long curls that tumbled over her slender shoulders. Her face appeared quite pale.

Vincent found her strangely beautiful in the moonlight. Perhaps the purity of her pale skin struck his fancy; or maybe the way her long hair curled behind her head and tumbled over her white shoulders. Whatever his reason, Vincent gazed very thoughtfully at Aeris while she thus slept.

She's such a innocent little girl, he wondered internally, just like Lucrecia was...she's tortured and suffers day and night from some Professor...just like Lucrecia was too...

Yes Vincent, you seem to find this girl *so* similar to Lucrecia in many different ways...

Yet what did you do when Lucrecia REALLY needed you most? You simply abandoned her; you let her suffer alone. And after all that high-falutin crap about you loving her...hah! What a hypocrite you are! It IS your fault, no matter how you cut it..your fault she died.

Yes...and ever since, you've wished to atone for that one sin. If you could protect someone *just like Lucrecia*..someone who needs you now as much as Lucrecia needed you then...maybe you'll be forgiven.

So, is that all this girl really worth to you? Just a means of winning forgiveness for *your* crime?

Vincent suddenly broke away from his gloomy train of thoughts before an answer could come. He had, in fact, been only semi-conscious of his thoughts until that blunt question had struck him.

Time dragged by. He paced around the dark room until finally, when too exhausted to walk any further, he returned to his bed. He flung himself on top of the bedcovers, then turned his back to Aeris. He heard her sigh softly, then shuffle slightly under the blankets. When he closed his eyes, they did not open again.

He could not remember when he fell asleep that night. Although he tried his best not to think, his stubborn mind persisted to return to that hectic nightmare one last time.

He remembered that day, thirty-one years ago, when he stopped aging. It was the same day Lucrecia died.

-End of Chp.28