I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.3

The bell in the City Tower tolled eleven times as the train noisily made its way along the endless tracks. The passengers inside began gathering their belongings and getting up as the train halted with a loud whistle and opened its doors at the station. Many people flocked out, leaving the train almost empty. Before the doors shut again, a loud voice announced over the intercom, "Last destination: Sector 3, west of Midgar. Time of arrival: 11:32 P.M". Then, after a slight jolt, the train resumed its journey to the final station.

Vincent dropped into a seat by the window, placing his hand under his chin. He gazed at the dark skyline and the lonely moon that decorated the sky as the train emerged from the tunnel, on its way to Sector 3.

The monotonous rumbling of the train on the tracks beat against his tired head, but he responded by tightening his long, black coat around him, and shutting his eyes firmly. Two other passengers across the car glanced at him apprehensively and whispered between themselves. Vincent knew they were discussing his metal claw and frightful appearance; they probably thought him a criminal or some kind of psychopath. But he could care less what others thought of him. Their opinion never mattered.

Vincent then felt a dull pain slowly forming in his chest. He gripped his chest firmly and tightened his eyes in an attempt to soothe the agony. The pain, however, steadily became sharper, but Vincent continued to clutch his chest, trying to master the attack. Suddenly, he bent over sharply and, with one hand over his mouth, began coughing violently. Although he tried to control the fit, he could feel his chest throbbing with intense pain as the seizure grew unbearable. He sensed some warm liquid sprinkle on his hand that covered his mouth, but the seizure felt as though it were squeezing the very life out of him.

The two passengers gawked at him stupidly, as if they'd never seen a man cough, then quickly retreated to the next car, grumbling about weirdoes and disgusting disease.

After a minute of agonizing struggle, the coughing fit eased, and the pain quickly disappeared. Vincent, gasping for breath, rubbed his forehead and wiped away some beads of sweat from his pale face. He then noticed that the palm of his hand which had covered his mouth during the fit had tiny splashes of blood bespattering it. He examined his hand curiously, then wiped his mouth with the back of it. As he suspected, there was some blood on his mouth. The liquid he had felt was his blood.

"Damn," he whispered to himself, "this is getting bad."

The booming voice announced that the final destination was reached and that all citizens were kindly requested to step off the train. Vincent immediately dismounted. He looked around once, as if suspicious of some invisible enemy, and then wrapped his black coat firmly around himself to avoid the chill air that blew through the empty station.

With quick steps, he made his way out of the train station, and followed a dingy alleyway into another narrow street. the cold air mercilessly stung his face, but he felt slightly feverish because of that last coughing fit. After clearing that street, Vincent reached the main square, which was bustling with people eager to enjoy their weekends. Many bars had their doors wide open to welcome customers. Young people weren't afraid to laugh out loud. Some couples walked hand in hand along the shops as they whispered affectionately.

Vincent, however, felt the fever growing worse as he staggered along the square among all the merry-makers. Lights and colors flashed around his head; strange faces and figures danced in front of his eyes; unfamiliar sounds and voices only threw him into more confusion. He stumbled over a stone, but luckily gripped a low fence before falling to the ground. Feeling the same, familiar ache beginning to form again, he grit his teeth resolutely.

Okay, decided Vincent, I am obviously in no condition to go any further... I must get a hold on myself....

He collapsed with a tired sigh into a bench placed near a tree, and bending over, covered his face with one hand. A young woman seated near him noticed his sharp claw and immediately rose, then ran away in fear. Vincent, however, was oblivious to anything save the dull pain that cruelly gnawed at his chest and the fever that plagued him. He felt another seizure coming up, but struggled vigorously to repress it. Fortunately, the attack wasn't that acute, so the pain soon vanished and Vincent breathed easily again.

He thought it best to get up and go home, but, much to his surprise, fatigue had paralyzed both his legs.

So, after some deliberation, he decided to rest on the bench for a while before moving. He leaned back to stare at the starless sky, ignoring the odd glances people gave him. The big, round moon that hung in the pitch black sky struck him as strangely soothing and relaxing.

It's almost as if a person had placed a single pearl against a black cloth of silk, mused Vincent, feeling his eyelids grow heavy. He shut his eyes slowly, ready to fall asleep any moment.

A sharp cry, however, pierced the air, dispersing all sleep from his eyes. Vincent jumped out of his seat and turned around in alarm. Many people, in fact, turned their heads confusedly to see what caused the commotion.

Vincent saw a young, slender girl rushing among the people in a panic. The girl was wet and miraculously kept on her feet, but she still persisted to run frantically as though possessed by a demon.

People dodged the girl as best as they could, but she savagely knocked down an unsuspecting man and shoved another passer-by to the side.

"OUT OF MY WAY!!!!" she shouted.

Before he knew what happened, Vincent felt something crash into him with a great force. Despite the magnitude of the crash, it barely had an impact on him, as he was only pushed back slightly; but the young girl, who had collided into him, bounced back and fell to the ground. People gathered around the two, and amidst loud murmurs, wondered who the delirious girl was.

Vincent, on realizing that he had knocked the girl down, bent over her and touched her shoulder gently, "Miss? Are you alright?"

Up close, the girl looked about 20 and very pretty, in spite of her disarrayed hair that covered her face and filthy, drenched rags. She looked up at Vincent as if she didn't understand him.

Vincent, however, gaped at her in sudden astonishment. He could have sworn he'd seen her somewhere before. Neither spoke as they stared at each other; one in confusion, the other in surprise.

Vincent cautiously reached for the girl's pale face, and pushing some of her hair away from her face, met her bright, green eyes that he recognized at once.

"Aeris?!!!" Vincent blurted out.

The girl blinked in deeper confusion, "W..what?"

"A..Aeris....how..what are.." stammered Vincent in absolute bewilderment as he narrowed his eyes to confirm his eyesight.

The girl, however, pushed Vincent aggressively away from her with a shriek, "Get away from me!! GET AWAY!!!"

This time, the push knocked Vincent off his feet, and he landed on his bottom. The girl quickly jumped to her feet and pushed her way through the crowd in a frenzy.

I'm sure that was Aeris, thought Vincent. Yes, I'm sure!!

"Hey, Aeris!!" he shouted, springing to his feet and rushing after her, "Aeris! Wait!!"

He caught sight of her dodging into a dark alley around a corner, and ran as hard as he could after her.

There's no mistake, he repeated, that was Aeris!! But how could she be alive?!! She..she died about a year ago!!

The end of the alley was a dead end, as he soon discovered. He slowly looked around as he gasped for air, then glanced back at the alley's sole exit to make sure he didn't miss some hidden side street. No trace of her.

His ears, however, discerned a stifled sob near by. He turned his head to the source. Creeping softly to an overturned car, he peeked behind it to find the girl huddled by the vehicle, knees drawn in and head bent over. The cold had obviously greatly deteriorated her health; she shivered piteously and seemed to be suffering from fever.

"Aeris?" whispered Vincent, coming near her.

The girl looked up in alarm, with tears in her eyes. She immediately sprang to her feet, ready to flee again, but Vincent quickly grabbed her wrist firmly to prevent her from escaping.

"Let me go! Let me go!" screamed the girl, scratching his hand with her nails to loosen his grip.

"Okay..okay..listen to me for a minute," commanded Vincent, muffling her mouth with his iron claw as he pushed her against the wall. The girl, on seeing his claw so near, froze solid and made no sign of resistance. She just stared, petrified, at his bizarre hand then his blood-red eyes. She probably thought Vincent intended to murder her.

When Vincent decided she was calm enough, he resumed his talk with the girl, but didn't remove his claw from her mouth, "Now listen. I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to help you. Do you understand, Aeris?"

"Why do you call me that??" cried the girl, removing Vincent's iron claw from her mouth, "I don't know you! You have me confused with another person! I don't know you!"

Vincent looked at her oddly as he gradually loosened his grip on her. She rubbed her wrist while looking down at the ground. She shivered when she noticed the red mark Vincent left on her wrist.

"You...don't even remember me vaguely?" asked Vincent.

"I..I don't know you..." she whispered harshly, avoiding his eyes, "I don't know anything..."

Vincent studied her haggard face silently. Did she lose her memory? How, when she was supposed to be dead? Damn it, cursed Vincent internally, what's going on here?

"You...you hurt my wrist..." sobbed the girl miserably.

Vincent had no idea how to respond to her complaint, and blinked in embarrassment while she chafed her wrist and sniffled. He placed her injured wrist in the palm of his claw and gently rubbed it with his other hand to mollify her.

"Sorry.." he muttered, "I didn't mean to grab you so hard.."

A sudden echo of rushing footsteps through the alley forced Vincent to turn around. The girl stared at the alley's entrance with a shiver.

A group of tall, dark figures finally appeared, completely blocking the alley's only exit. They were shrouded in darkness, but judging from the slight glitter each figure's hand gave off, Vincent guessed they all carried guns. Automatic pistols, none the less, added Vincent reflectively.

He pushed the girl behind him forcefully.

"Who's there?" he asked in a calm, icy tone.

"We want the girl behind you."

Vincent felt the girl clutch his coat from behind, but she refused to stare at anything but the dark figures up ahead.

"I'm sorry, but she obviously doesn't want your company," retorted Vincent in the same cold, contemptuous tone.

There was another brief silence, then one dark figure came a step closer. Vincent heard the loud click of a gun as the man warned, "Just step aside from that girl, and no one will get hurt."

"Don't believe them," whispered the girl to Vincent viciously, "When they get me...they'll just shoot you.."

"I'm warning you!" boomed the voice of the figure, "One wrong move, and you'll have more holes in you than Swiss Cheese!"

"Please...don't believe them.." pleaded the girl.

"Well?" shouted the figure menacingly.

Vincent looked around at the pitiful girl, then at the group of mysterious figures blocking the alley. They probably have all their guns aimed at my head, thought Vincent. If I say no, they'll definitely blast my head clean off.

"Alright," replied Vincent finally, "Don't shoot me. I'll get out of the way."

The girl looked at him in disbelief, but didn't utter a word. She reluctantly let go of his coat as he made way for her to go to the figures. Vincent could hear their fingers easening on their triggers, but looked sternly at the girl.

"Okay, A-25, come over here nice and easy!" ordered the dark figure authoritatively.

The wretched girl felt her heart pound violently as she began heading towards the dark men. Every limb in her body trembled and she felt that she'd faint any second. Vincent, however, only narrowed his red eyes while concentrating on the dark group, as though waiting for some signal.

"That's a good girl," remarked one voice, quite amused.

"Be an obedient girl, and you won't get hurt," commented another voice, causing the others to burst out laughing.

The girl shut her eyes to suppress a sob, but before she could reopen them, she felt someone suddenly encircle her waist and pull her back. She saw a swift arm extend over her shoulder and fire seven consecutive shots with amazing rapidity.

The surprise move only lasted about ten seconds. When the last shot sounded off, all the figures were lying face down in the gutter, dead.

"Sorry about that," whispered Vincent from behind her, "but I figured they were stupid enough to be distracted by you..I needed to put them off guard somehow."

"You...killed them?" asked the girl meekly.

"Yes. I shot their heads."

"I.." stammered the girl, "I think I'm going to faint.."

With that last feeble remark, the girl lost conscious and her head dropped against Vincent's shoulder. He wondered what he should do now; he had seven dead bodies in the alley and a sick girl who should be dead lying unconscious on his shoulder.

He slowly placed the girl on the ground momentarily to reload his gun. After throwing away the empty gun shells and holstering his weapon, Vincent wrapped the girl in his coat. He picked her up as gently as he could, careful not to hurt her with his sharp claw. He walked over the corpses he had brutally shot, kicking one body out his way contemptuously, and then ducked in a dark, narrow pathway across the street.

The bell in the Tower tolled twelve times, signaling the arrival of midnight. And then all was silent.

-End of Chp.3