I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.33

Though night had seized the sky long ago, Midgar, proud as always, would not completely submit to darkness just yet. The stubborn city clung to whatever little life still throbbed in its corners at so late an hour.

The grim office buildings towered high above, lighting up Midgar in dazzling brilliance. An occasional car zoomed down the streets towards home. Lonely passersby scurried across the pavement, carrying things from grocery bags to brief cases. Most shops had locked their doors a long while ago, but kept the neon signs lighted outside to attract some attention. The bars and nightclubs, on the other hand, rejoiced in this darkness. Often when passing such places, rowdy cheers or lively music could be heard flowing through the closed doors. Indeed, life in Midgar fought to stay vibrant as long as possible.

Aeris and her gloomy companion Vincent strolled along the deserted boulevard, neither speaking a word to the other. Their loud footsteps re-echoed across the pavement as they journeyed down the black road and turned into a narrow side-street. Grey slush, once beautiful white snow, lay heaped on both sides of this abandoned street. Tall, sooty tenement houses had squeezed themselves along the dismal alley, each with shutters closed and doors double locked. An eerie silence clung to the cold, still air.

Aeris tightened her scarf around her neck, then edged closer to Vincent. In truth, she felt great mistrust, even a strange dread, as they strolled through this bleak alleyway.

The two companions finally emerged into the main square of the sector. Black shops and empty, closed cafés completely surrounded this place, while a broad cobblestone pathway cut straight through it. It was unnaturally dark. Yet despite the blackness, the tall lamp posts outlining the stony path fought fiercely for their own territory. Their brilliant light fell sharply against the black cobblestone road below.

The whole square was a dark land, lighted only by circles of bright light, which extended like an endless road to oblivion.

Aeris marched silently by the man's side, glancing around uncomfortably at the black surroundings and shapeless shadows. At times, she nearly begged Vincent to change their path, but checked herself before she could open her mouth. The haunting calmness of the empty square certainly discouraged any disruption, more so the pensive silence of her gloomy friend. So, she suppressed her own fears, and bore them quietly.

Vincent, on the other hand, seemed to find these ghostly surroundings quite normal, if not pleasing to his senses. He walked beside Aeris, with his hand thrust deep into the pocket of his long, black coat. His sharp metallic claw hung idly by his side, glinting whenever a lamp post passed overhead.

He wore a woolly muffler over his mouth and nose, so that his gentle breaths appeared as a white smoke dancing through his thick scarf. His whole appearance showed deep moroseness. Whenever Aeris chanced to glance up at him, she found his bright, red eyes engrossed in dreary contemplation.

The two walked on for a long time, following the endless path through the dark, lonely square. Aeris stole a timid glance at her cheerless friend, then instantly darted her eyes away; she assumed Vincent preferred this heavy silence to any kind of conversation. Indeed, the morose man never looked at her, not even a quick glance to reassure himself of her presence. Nor had he spoken another word after inviting the girl to join his night stroll. His mind had lost itself in a winding labyrinth of gloomy preoccupations. In fact, Aeris believed Vincent had simply forgotten her.

Much to Aeris' surprise, Vincent suddenly halted under a bright lamp post and turned slightly around to look at her. He stood in his place, letting his keen, piercing eyes search Aeris' confused face for some particular indication. Alarmed by his odd behavior but too nervous to speak, the girl gazed back at him with scarcely any movement. She did not understand the meaning of his look, or his strange silence.

When another minute had passed without either speaking a word, Vincent gently pulled down the woolly scarf from over his mouth. His keen eyes remained riveted on the girl.

"This is the spot," he remarked coolly at long last, "this is where you crashed into me, the first day I met you. It was right here."

Aeris stared at him in disbelief, as if she hadn't understood his words. Her eyes, quite eager to recognize the place, darted all around the desolate square.

Yet how greatly this dark, quiet place differed from the one in her muddled memory. To her mind, confusion, chaos, and unbelievable fear marred that horrible night she came crashing into Vincent.

She glanced around herself one last time, but the shapeless shadows and grim surroundings did not look familiar. They did not match the blurry colours and wild voices in her memory.

"I'm sorry, I..I really can't remember that night very clearly," Aeris apologized meekly, peeking up at Vincent with her head bowed, "..I remember running... then all of a sudden, I'm sitting on the ground with someone crouching infront of me..it must have been you, only I couldn't hear your voice, because I was so scared."

Vincent said nothing. They both stood still in their place under the lamp post, one struggling with turbulent memories, the other listening in silence.

She gave a slight shiver as she continued softly, "..I remember you muffled my mouth with your claw..it felt so hard and cold against my skin. And... I kind of remember how you killed those men...but.."

Wrestling some painful emotion, Aeris placed one hand over her heart and cast her eyes downwards. A very sad expression spread across her beautiful face. Her green eyes, in particular, shone with a deep, melancholy glow. Though unable to see him, Aeris could sense Vincent's crimson eyes fixed straight on her, contemplating something only he knew of.

"..but I still can't remember knowing you or anyone else from before," Aeris sighed regretfully, "..you were a perfect stranger to me, even though you told me you somehow knew me. But I still can't remember, Vincent. when you called me 'Aeris' the first night we met, that name didn't sound familiar at all."

She hesitated a moment, thinking perhaps Vincent might comment or ask a question. However, the gloomy man contented himself by watching her in thoughtful silence.

"..and I literally can't remember a thing of my past either," Aeris muttered under her breath, almost as though she didn't want Vincent to hear her. She fidgeted uneasily in her spot, turning slightly away to avoid his scrutiny, then faltered out in a whisper, "It seems to me, I've always lived in the laboratory...with the Professor hanging over me."

A very awkward pause followed the instant Aeris finished her sentence. She could think of nothing more to add, nor did Vincent appear inclined to reply. The still air around them grew heavier in face of such stiff silence.

Aeris dared not lift her head for fear of meeting Vincent's red eyes riveted on her. A strange shame overcame her because of her pitiful inability to recall anything save the brutal tortures of the "laboratory". She dropped her clasped hand to her side, awaiting some external reaction from her dispassionate companion.

However, Vincent merely turned away and resumed his walk down the lighted cobblestone path, more briskly than before. He did not speak or even glance behind him.

Aeris blinked in amazement at his silent abruptness, then immediately scurried after him.

After clearing the empty square at last, they emerged into a completely deserted street. Vincent silently trotted straight across the black road, then dodged around a dark corner, followed close behind by Aeris. For some reason, his pace quickened as they entered a maze of dismal alleyways and dirty back streets. Vincent marched on, heedless of whichever path his feet chose to persue.

Heavy contemplation, mostly scraps of vague thoughts, weighed him down. His whole face had gradually darkened with a deeply pensive expression. His keen eyes remained fixed on the passing pavement beneath him, completely engrossed in private meditation.

Yet if someone had asked him at that moment what occupied his mind...what absorbed his attention so intently, Vincent would have undoubtedly fumbled out a soft "I don't know". For in truth, he himself hardly understood the meaning of all the busy thoughts churning around his brain.

Vincent halted on hearing someone panting softly a short distance behind him. He turned around as Aeris, with one hand over her bosom, trudged up to him. She stopped right infront of the silent man, then bent over so that her hands pushed against her knees. Her chest and back heaved with breathless gasps. Her cheeks were flushed pink.

"..I..I'm glad you finally slowed down," Aeris wheezed out when she found her voice at last, "..I could barely...keep up with you..the way you were rushing on.."

Indeed, so absorbed in his own thoughts, Vincent had simply forgotten Aeris behind. He hadn't even noticed how fast his pace had grown during his gloomy contemplation. Aeris had to run most of the time just to keep up with him.

"Can I..can I please sit down for just a minute?" Aeris begged through her gasps. She looked beseechingly up at Vincent.

Most ashamed of his unchivalrous conduct, Vincent immediately nodded his head in consent.

They soon discovered a low, stony wall hidden near some dead bushes. After sweeping off the snow, Aeris collapsed onto the grey parapet. She leaned backwards, supporting herself with both arms outstretched behind her. Her weary feet dangled numbly above the pavement. She shut her eyes in exhaustion as a tired sigh escaped her. They had been walking for a long time; nearly an hour and a half.

Vincent lingered a few steps away from her, with his hand shoved deep into his pocket. He eyed the worn-out girl indifferently, then turned his sight elsewhere.

Neither spoke a word.

When her breath had steadied once more, Aeris scanned the unfamiliar street before her. Incredibly long, this winding road extended from one far end to the next. The tall, ornate lamp posts along the path flickered a yellowish light across the pavement. Dark boutiques, with neon signs still brightly illuminant, and locked offices crowded this street. Scarcely a sound dared stir the calmness of the cold air. Silence lay unchallenged in this quiet place.

They had, in fact, wandered very far from the heart of the sector. Vincent had brought them to the lonely outskirts of Midgar, unintentionally in all likelihood.

For a long time, Aeris remained silently seated on the low wall. She glanced timidly over at Vincent, who stood with his back turned to her, then she stared down at her two dangling feet.

"If I ask you a question, Vincent, will you...please answer me honestly?" Aeris forced out in a low, hesitant tone.

Though her anxious eyes remained fixed on the ground, Aeris knew Vincent had turned his head towards her.

He thought a moment before replying monotonously, "Yes."

"What did you think of me?... I mean, when you knew me from before?"

On hearing the blunt question put so simply before him, Vincent turned his head away from the girl. He sunk into a long, grudging silence.

In her anticipation of an answer, Aeris began twiddling her thumbs in her lap. Her eyes remained bashfully cast downwards. Already, she half-regretted bothering him with such an awkward, ridiculous question.

"I had no real opinion of you," Vincent replied coolly at long last. He kept his back to her as he continued, his voice devoid of any emotion, "...I knew a bit about you, but I had absolutely no personal involvement with you. Tifa was much closer to you. She cried a great deal over you when you were stabbed."

Once Aeris had managed to look up at him, she could not tear her eyes away. She quietly hopped off the stony wall, but made no motion towards him.

Vincent paused a moment before adding with peculiar softness, "..and Cloud...he was also very close to you...probably the closest out of everyone. You two spent a lot of your time together, and he always tried his best to protect you. When you were stabbed, he was mad with rage, but the tears were streaming down his cheeks at the same time."

She did not interrupt him.

"But it wouldn't be fair of me to express any opinion about you, Aeris. I hardly knew you, and you never came near me. Our acquaintance never exceeded a polite exchange of names."

The girl hesitated a long time, her eyes still riveted on him. Vincent's back remained turned to her.

"...what about you?" Aeris asked him gently, "When I was stabbed... and everyone thought I had died...what did *you* do?"

Vincent plunged into another deep, thoughtful silence.

Aeris stood in her spot, facing this gloomy man's back without a word. Although the question had blurted out of her mouth by accident, she stared intently at him in wait of the answer.

"I didn't do anything," Vincent stated dispassionately, turning his head around all of a sudden, "When you were stabbed, I looked down at you once, then walked away. I never looked back again."

Aeris gazed at his cold, stoic face. Somehow, she wasn't too surprised with the blunt reply.

However, his callous answer had invited a very awkward silence to sprout between them. Vincent stood tall and erect before Aeris, his crimson eyes shining brightly at her in perfect coolness. Yet at the same time, those eyes gleamed with a peculiar glow Aeris found quite puzzling. An entirely different matter, far more important, seemed to weigh down on his mind.

But if any burdensome thoughts troubled Vincent, he refused to share even a glimpse of them with anyone save himself. He immediately tore his eyes away from the girl.

"Let's go," he mumbled as he resumed his path down the deserted street. He did not even glance behind him.

Great concern swelled her heart as Aeris watched Vincent move away. She quickly dashed after him, then on reaching his side, steadied her pace to match his. They walked on as silently as before.

No one spoke a word. They strolled all the way down the winding street, and passed the stone bridge which arched high above the rusty train tracks below. Engrossed once again in glum meditation, Vincent walked absent-mindedly along the path. Aeris marched silently by his side, yet avoided looking up at him for fear of annoying him.

The two companions walked a long time through the dark, cold streets. They passed houses enshrouded in darkness, their inhabitants blissfully sound asleep. They marched through the unfamiliar, bleak alleyways hidden in shadows. A bitter coldness hung about the still air.

While Aeris wondered where their long-winded path would eventually end, Vincent walked these black roads with perfect indifference. Perhaps he had already walked theses streets before; or maybe, being so absorbed in his private thoughts, he cared not which way he followed. Either case, he plodded on with scarcely lifting his pensive eyes up to note his path.

"Vincent, what's that?" Aeris asked suddenly. She touched his arm lightly to make him stop.

They found themselves standing before the grand entrance of some dark, frozen park. A high stone wall languidly stretched itself from one end of the street to the next. Hard, barren tree branches reached out over this stony structure, as if beseeching any kind passerby to free them of this wretched prison. Pink glass lanterns had been fitted into the grey wall, thus lighting this lonely street against the cold night. White snow lay everywhere: it burdened the stiff branches of the trees, and piled up against the stony wall, sometimes reaching half-way up.

The "park" inside this high wall had enshrouded itself in darkness and grim shadows. The calmness outside its heavy stone walls could not match the deathly silence within.

Aeris, still holding onto Vincent's arm, beheld this mysterious place with an ominous feeling of apprehension. Vincent stood calmly by her side without a word. A profoundly thoughtful expression had darkened his face, adding a touch of sadness to his already gloomy appearance.

"...these are the 'Snow Fields'," Vincent replied unemotionally at last. He peered down at the girl beside him.

"...'Snow...Fields'..??" Aeris re-echoed softly, staring back at him in confusion.

Vincent nodded his head once before suddenly taking the girl's hand in his. He immediately led her straight through the huge entrance, and down the winding pathway. Aeris, scarcely realizing what this man was doing, followed him without a word of protest.

They had entered the "park".

-End of Chp.33