I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.35

Time had long passed midnight, instilling an even deadlier silence into the chilly air. At such a late hour, where endless darkness and grim shadows ran amuck, night had spread its vast wings clear across the sky.

In return, the frozen, deserted park down below had grown more still and ghostly than before. For any passerby looking up, the barren tree branches extended like thin, black arms overhead. Many pathways and corners disappeared into obscurity. Indeed, the meek, winter-ridden garden had humbly succumbed to the night's terrible decree.

The two companions slowly strolled up the gravel pathway in absolute silence. Their lonely footsteps re-echoed loudly in the still air, adding a feeling of haunted desolation to the place. Vincent led the way through several narrow side roads and dark arbors, followed close behind by Aeris. Often times, he chose pathways which extended through an eerie forest of dark, shapeless shadows; he hardly persued the broad, lighted ones. Perhaps he simply felt more comfortable in the dark.

The air stung with such bitter coldness, Vincent had muffled his mouth again under his woolly scarf. His keen eyes gleamed brightly in the dark, as if engrossed in deep, profound contemplation. Both arms had been stiffly folded across his chest to bar out the chilly air.

Yet in spite of the cold, the bleak darkness, and ghostly silence, Vincent seemed to find such a morbid atmosphere quite pleasing to his gloomy thoughts. He strolled with a steady, easy step through the deserted forest-park, heedless of the strange shadows that surrounded him from every direction. He never looked at the girl behind him, not even a quick glance to check on her; nor had he spoken another word since leaving the "Snow Fields". He was completely aloof.

Aeris quietly followed the man, her eyes timidly lowered down to the ground. She made no objections to any grim path Vincent picked (although she would have much preferred the brighter ones). Nor would she dream of even speaking for fear of disturbing his train of thought. In truth, his mood had grown so morose, Aeris preferred to be silent rather than arouse his annoyance with talk.

They walked thus for a long time through the park, passing so many leafless trees and following endless stone paths. The winding road extended into the black distance, often times merging into other side paths.

Though Vincent walked at a reasonably slow pace, Aeris found it increasingly difficult to keep up with him. Her feet ached miserably; her legs felt slightly sluggish. Vincent marched silently on, while poor Aeris lagged a step or two behind, occasionally rubbing her temples in exhaustion. Indeed, such a long stroll, across virtually the entire sector, had drained the girl.

"Are you feeling sleepy?" Vincent asked all of a sudden, stopping in his spot. He turned his head around to look at the startled girl.

"Eh?! Oh no," Aeris faltered confusedly, halting right behind him, "..I..I'm just a bit..tired, that's all."

She fidgeted in her spot, very uncomfortable with his thoughtful eyes lingering on her face. Vincent turned fully around to face the girl.

"If you're too tired to walk anymore, Aeris, I don't mind carrying you," he suggested softly.

"Of course not, Vincent!" she immediately refused, a light blush colouring her cheeks, "I'm fine...r-really!"

Though Aeris smiled to disperse his worries, Vincent still gazed thoughtfully down at her. He had easily detected the heavy fatigue playing on her voice, as well as a tired nervousness in the way she fumbled before him.

In his own mind, Vincent sorely berated himself for extending his night stroll to such a late hour, knowing the girl would eventually tire; more so for neglecting her while engrossing himself in private contemplation.

Without a word, Vincent extended his metallic arm out for Aeris to take, keeping his eyes fixed on her lovely face. In her surprise at the gesture, Aeris stared at the shiny, sharp object, then up at his expressionless face. After some hesitation, she slowly slipped her arms around his metal arm.

They soon resumed their path up the stony road, passing through a dark forest of stout, snow-laden trees and barren shrubberies. Out of kind consideration for the tired girl, Vincent purposely walked with an even slower pace to make sure she never lagged behind again.

Aeris walked very closely by his side, feeling nervously apprehensive of his cold, metallic arm snuggled between her two slender arms. Yet at the same time, she eyed it with cautious curiosity; she had never willingly touched his claw before.

"Y'know, I remember how much your claw used to frighten me," Aeris remarked softly. She tapped the claw once, then added under her breath, "..sometimes, it still does."

Vincent marched on without a reply.

"That night we first met, you muffled my mouth with it, and ever since, I get so nervous just looking at it, let alone touching it," Aeris smiled weakly to herself, "..it's so sharp..and feels so hard and cold.."

"It was quite heavy at first too," Vincent interjected coolly without looking at her, "and very awkward for me to handle. I couldn't move my arm at all, not even a finger, because I had no idea how...or maybe, I was simply too scared to try."

Aeris hesitantly peeked up at him, then lowered her eyes again.

"But eventually, I got used to it," he concluded simply, "I just pretended it was a normal arm, not a claw."

"Still..," the tender girl whispered compassionately, "..it must have been painful all the same."

With that kind comfort, Aeris gently tightened her grip around his hard arm, even though she knew he could not feel the touch.

Suddenly, Vincent froze still in his spot.

Puzzled by his abrupt behavior, Aeris stared up at him without releasing his metallic arm. Vincent, however, seemed to have utterly forgotten her presence. His keen, ruby-red eyes glared suspiciously at the road up ahead. His ears, pricked up in suspicious alertness, listened attentively to the air. He did not speak a word.

Aeris looked in the same direction which had so completely absorbed his attention: nothing. The trees were perfectly still; the air cold and quiet; the pathway empty. She let go of his arm.

"What's the matter?" she asked in fearful concern.

He made no reply, except narrow his bright eyes on the road. He seemed to see something...or someone only visible to him.

"V..Vincent?" she faltered out nervously, "What's wrong with.."

"Sh!" he ordered firmly, yanking her whole body closer to himself. His senses grew sharper by the second.

He had distinctly heard footsteps...many footsteps.

Much to Aeris' astonishment, Vincent quickly encircled her waist with his metallic arm, then immediately dashed for a dark thicket of trees on the side of the road. He easily hopped across the snow, landing safely behind some frozen hedges. With the girl securely tucked under his armpit and her mouth muffled, Vincent stooped cautiously as he crept his way along the bushes. He headed straight up to a large, stout tree.

This knotted tree, its barky roots gripped firmly into the snowy ground, stood with other such venerable trees in complete darkness. Its clumsy branches stretched out in all directions, intertwining around other braches so convolutedly, even the bright moonlight could not penetrate through. Pitch black shadows infested this thicket of trees. Absolute darkness ruled supreme.

No sooner had Vincent reached the stout tree, than he huddled against its rough bark. He instantly embraced the confused Aeris all to himself, pressing his metallic claw against her back to secure her body.

The darkness obscured the two completely. Vincent appeared as a very tall, black shadow, with deep crimson eyes glaring ever so suspiciously. He never once peeked around the tree or flinched a muscle, but kept his arm securely wrapped around the girl. He was perfectly silent.

Aeris had been swept away by Vincent with scarcely understanding the reason. From his tense, mistrustful behavior, she gathered the man had somehow detected something "bad" in the air. And he pressed her so tightly against himself, as if fearing this evil force might snatch her away any moment. The loathsome image of Davoren immediately flashed across her mind.

Against such a sinister face as that brutal gunman's, poor Aeris could not help but tremble. At the possible prospect of experiencing another bloody battle, or worse, of being forcefully returned to her hateful tormentor the "Professor", her trembling turned to violent shivering.

Sensing her obvious fright, Vincent nestled Aeris as deeply as possible into his open, long black coat. He gently pressed her head against his chest.

"I don't think he's with them," he assured in a barely audible whisper, "Just be quiet and hide your face."

Aeris nodded once. She buried her full face further into his coat, and did not move. Vincent, keeping his hand against her head, huddled himself deeper into the thick darkness. He was perfectly still.

The heavy silence in the park was unnatural. For a seemingly long time, everything was dead.

At long last, faint, very distant footsteps broke the stuffy stillness. They grew steadily louder and louder as their mysterious owners cautiously approached this path. Vincent still avoided peeking for fear of betraying his dark hideout. He kept his bright eyes fixed down on the girl snuggled in his arms, but focused all his attention on the movements of this unidentified enemy.

From the scuffling of their heavy boots, Vincent guessed three, maybe four men had reached this road. He automatically assumed they carried loaded guns ready to fire on the least suspicion. When he heard a very faint "bleep", Vincent realized these men had fitted transmitter radios into their ears. If so, then they wanted to stay in contact with each other, which ultimately meant that there were more men on the prowl in this park; and more men meant more guns.

But was Davoren with them?

Vincent sensed the men shuffle about here and there in search of something. They spread out in all directions off the gravel road, trudging as quietly as possible through the heavy snow. He heard the thick hedges across the pathway being roughly examined. Another man crept suspiciously along the trees by the roadside. One man in particular, rather large and muscular, wandered very closely to the dense thicket of stout trees. Luckily, Vincent had concealed himself so well in the bleak darkness, and the brawny man did not search that attentively, so he passed on by without noticing anything unusual.

These armed men spent almost a quarter of an hour in their intensive search. They scoured the entire road, checking the narrow sidetracks and scanning the territory.

During this painfully long time, Vincent neither flinched a muscle nor lifted his eyes off the girl, even when he came so close to discovery. Whenever poor Aeris trembled (undoubtedly remembering Davoren), Vincent gently stroked her hair to soothe her distress. His hard metal arm remained protectively pressed against her back.

Finally, assuming all was in its normal order, the men returned to the deserted stone path. They met again at the very beginning of the road.

"Nothing here," confirmed one gruff voice, obviously into his transmitter radio.

Vincent heard a "bleep", then another voice answer through the device, "Roger that. We'll take the north part, the other team will take the section further down. You search the area again."

"I just told you, there's noth.."

"..and Mr. Davoren's orders are we search each area twice, second time more closely. Now go!"

That argument thus settled, Vincent heard the transmitter rudely closed. One of the men began to hurl out a string of violent oaths.

"Goddamn bastard!" the gruff voice cursed, stamping his foot in anger, "Just because Davoren gave him the orders, he acts like some big time hot-shot!!"

"Sh! Keep your voice down," begged a gentle voice, "Mr. Davoren said this guy we're supposed to catch is really, really dangerous. He could be hiding anywhere, even here."

"Oh, gimme a break!! Like that freak with the claw is *really* hiding from us in the park. How would Davoren know where this guy is, anyway?"

"Well, y'know," coughed a deep voice importantly, almost with a superior air, "Mr. Davoren has his own 'special' ways. I personally think he used to be a professional assassin, or maybe a spy.."

"Like shit you'd know!!" the gruff voice retorted rudely, "He could be the friggin' devil, with those weird eyes of his.... gives me the creeps! Damn man! If he wasn't paying us so much, I wouldn't give a...."

"Sh! Sh! Keep it down!" the same gentle voice pleaded nervously.

"Anyway, orders are orders," commanded a husky voice which hadn't spoken before, "...and the money he's paying is damn worth it too. Search the area again."

"Okay," grumbled the gruff voice, "but I never been wrong before, and I tell ya: no freak with a claw or a little girl is here in this park."

Vincent cautiously peeked around the ancient tree, then instantly hid his face again: There were four mercenaries, all armed. One wore a bright blue kerchief and a heavy, open coat; his rugged face looked very dirty in the feeble lamp light. Another man, of a lean appearance, carried two guns and an army knife. The muscular mercenary who had previously passed by wore a red scarf around his thick neck and three bandoleers across his brawny chest; he peevishly held a huge assault rifle between his paws. The last man, short with curly red hair, darted his nervous eyes from one corner to another in paranoid suspicion.

Soon, The armed men silently resumed their search along this empty road. They scattered off the gravel path again, and began slowly and meticulously inspecting every inch of the territory. The brittle bushes were savagely kicked; each tree along and beyond the roadside was searched; the dark sidetracks were re-checked, this time with greater care.

Vincent frowned in apprehension: if these men had, indeed, intensified their search, then it would be a mere matter of minutes before they uncovered this hideout.

Immediately but with forced calmness, Vincent bent forward until his mouth lay right by Aeris' ear. He did not loosen his grip around her, or even lift his hand off her head.

"Aeris, listen to me," Vincent whispered very, very softly through his woolly muffler, "I want you to stay right here in this spot, okay? I'll only be gone for a short while."

When she had somehow brought all her fears and chaotic thoughts under control, Aeris nodded her head in consent. Vincent gently tore her away from his body, then leaned her back against the knotted tree. Her anxious eyes fixed themselves right on Vincent's face, even though the stuffy darkness completely obscured his features. In return, he gazed down at her for a moment, then abruptly turned away.

Without another look behind, Vincent noiselessly slipped out of the thicket of trees. He crept as stealthily as a cat along the frozen hedges, keeping his back sharply bent and head very low. His hand mechanically reached for his gun. It felt so cold between his hot fingers.

Based on those men's conversation, Vincent was now *almost* sure Davoren had not accompanied them on this mission. Most likely, the ruthless gunman had simply hired these mercenaries on condition they follow his orders to the letter: find the little girl and retrieve her unharmed; find "the freak with the claw" and retrieve him...dead or alive (probably better dead).

But a deep suspicion played on Vincent's mind: how, as one of the men had plainly pointed out, had Davoren known where to find Vincent? The man certainly possessed a wise and evilly cunning nature, but he was definitely not psychic. Vincent suspected no spy or informer either; both Cloud and Tifa had proven themselves loyal friends many times, and they were the only two who knew for sure of Vincent's whereabouts. If so, then how could Davoren possibly know?

However, the instant he neared one of the armed men, Vincent automatically stopped thinking.

-End of Chp.35