I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.6

A whole week flew by since Aeris had first agreed to stay with Vincent. Tifa, as promised, dutifully visited her as often as possible, always bringing Cloud with her. Cloud's eyes gleamed with genuine delight whenever he saw Aeris, and the two would talk for an hour or so, laughing all the time. However, Tifa discerned some restrained emotion, some hasty glance, some discomfort, in Aeris' movements. Though Aeris quickly reassured her that she "was perfectly well", Tifa internally doubted the sincerity of Aeris. She felt Aeris was hiding something behind her laughter, stubbornly refusing to release it.

"Don't you think Aeris seems kind of...uncomfortable?" Tifa asked Cloud one cold afternoon in late February. They were slowly making their way to Vincent's apartment.

"Hm? No, I think she's quite happy," Cloud replied, "Why? Did Vincent bother her?"

"What are you saying, Cloud?!" cried Tifa, "Vincent's a perfect gentleman! He'd never do something like that!"

Which was absolutely correct, according to Aeris. She herself testified that Vincent was "anything but rude". He never entered the bedroom without her permission, even though it was *his* room to begin with. He bluntly insisted sleeping on the couch so that Aeris could have the bed. He even emptied parts of his closet for Aeris' clothes and belongings, which Tifa generously provided. At exactly six o'clock in the morning, he'd leave Aeris alone in the apartment, and return around five o'clock in the evening; ten o'clock if he had a nightshift.

Despite his chivalrous conduct, he rarely spoke to Aeris. Whenever she chanced upon him, he was either engrossed in some book or repairing a gun. His face expressed such coldness and thoughtfulness, Aeris failed to muster enough courage to even sit with him in the same room. In short, she tried her hardest to avoid him out of some ambiguous fear; and he ignored her out of cold-heartedness, or so Aeris guessed.

Therefore, by the end of the week, Aeris had learned a great deal about Tifa and Cloud; they loved to talk to her about anything. Often times, Cloud would speak of past adventures, strange creatures, and distant lands. Tifa would describe the Avalanche members with lively animation. All three would burst out laughing whenever she imitated Cait Sith's voice, or Cid's "unique" expressions.

Not surprisingly, Aeris grew extremely close to her two new friends. Sometimes, she'd forget that she had "amnesia" or "had been dead", and acted as though she had known them for a long time.

On the other hand, Aeris did not know much about Vincent. Cloud had once whispered to her that "he was a Turk", expecting her to in instantly grasp the significance.She did not understand what he meant, so she turned to Tifa. However, Tifa merely shrugged her shoulders, as if to say "who knew?". Aeris thought it strange how both Cloud and Tifa claimed to be Vincent's friends, when neither knew one definite fact about his past.

She wanted to ask Vincent directly, but, of course, apprehension gripped her heart, and she promptly abandoned her idea. Eventually, Aeris lost interest, and simply forgot.

However, Aeris could not help but wonder at him whenever Cloud and Tifa came to visit. He would retreat to some inconspicuous corner and read a book, showing no interest in Cloud's anecdotes or Tifa's amusing impressions. The two guests seemed quite used to his attitude; they talked and laughed freely in his presence, as if he weren't there at all.

But Aeris glanced at him uneasily from time to time. The contrast between him and her vivacious friends stung her heart to the core.

I wonder why he's always so gloomy..so preoccupied! Aeris wondered.

"What's wrong, Aeris?" laughed Cloud, "Didn't you like the joke?"

"Huh? Oh no!" she immediately answered, though she didn't listen when the joke was said. She had been too busy with her reflections.

"Oh, Cloud!" scolded Tifa amusedly, "you're jokes are all so lame! No wonder she didn't laugh!"

At around three o'clock, one week since Aeris had agreed to live with Vincent, the merry threesome were comfortably seated around a coffee table in the living room. Vincent, as usual, occupied his corner by the window, and read indifferently. A tray with four mugs and a plate of pastries were neatly placed on the coffee table. Tifa had bought the cakes from a nearby bakery as "a little treat for everyone".

Actually, she had bought them for Vincent in particular; she wanted to pay him back somehow for taking care of Aeris. Much to her dismay, Vincent didn't express much delight with the pastries.

"Hey, Vincent man!" called Cloud, stuffing his mouth with another cake, "You sure you don't want one? They're really good!"

Vincent silently flipped the page of his book without even raising his eyes.

"Okay, suit yourself," answered Cloud, as if Vincent had replied. He greedily ate another cake with good humour.

"Cloud, you're such a glutton!" giggled Aeris.

"Hey, Cloud!" frowned Tifa, snatching the plate of pastries away, "You'll spoil your dinner! Save some for later".

"Oh, sorry...," apologized Cloud as he scratched the back of his head, "I forgot you were cooking dinner tonight, Tifa".

Indeed, Tifa, after many entreaties, had persuaded Vincent into allowing her to make dinner that night for everyone. As mentioned before, Tifa had harshly accepted the full responsibility of Vincent's "situation". Forgetting that it was *he* who had indirectly suggested the idea in the first place, Tifa felt she had forced Vincent to care for Aeris, and was determined to repay his kindness somehow, whether he liked it or not. 

Therefore, she had insisted on cooking the dinner, and still more forcefully, insisted Vincent eat with them.

"As you wish," he had sighed.

"Speaking of dinner, we should get going," commented Cloud, getting up lazily from his seat, "We still have to buy all the ingredients."

"Right," agreed Tifa, rising as well, "Aeris, go get your coat."

"Okay, don't leave without me," she beamed delightedly. She sprang out of her seat and ran to fetch her coat.

"Um...Tifa," whispered Cloud after she left, "are you sure we should take her with us?"

"Why not?" she asked in puzzlement, almost in alarm.

"Well, what if those men find her?"

Tifa was thoughtful for a couple of moments. She glanced suspiciously at Vincent, but he seemed oblivious to their conversation.

"It'll be all right," reassured Tifa, "I'll watch her closely. Besides, those goons have probably given up by now. And poor Aeris could use some fresh air."

"Heh, and if they do show up, you'll probably whoop their butts before they have a chance to attack."

"Huh!" she snorted, delighted with the remark, "You know how I feel about people who push me around..especially men!"

Cloud smiled lovingly at her, then both began sniggering like little children.

Their amusement was abruptly cut short when Vincent slammed his book shut and stood up. Both turned to him, expecting him to speak. As he silently placed the book on the shelf, he happened to catch Tifa's eyes. She immediately detected a flash in his eyes; he had obviously been pondering something.

Does he think Aeris' shopping with us a bad idea? wondered Tifa.

Instead of speaking, Vincent sullenly walked towards the door. He nearly knocked Aeris down as she came rushing through excitedly, but he grabbed her firmly before she could fall.

"Oh..thank you, Vincent," Aeris mumbled in embarrassment.

After he left the living room, the three stood for a moment, lost in though.

"What's wrong with him?" inquired Cloud.

"I don't know..he seems irritated," answered Tifa.

Aeris silently tied her scarf around her neck. She wondered if Vincent had this feeling..this presentiment about her going out. Aeris had felt similarly too at first, but had shrugged it off, assuming she was just nervous about leaving the apartment.

"He's thinking about something," Tifa scowled, "but he's not telling us."

"I'm sure it's nothing your delicious dinner can't fix," laughed Cloud, trying to restore the liveliness of the girls, "You know him! He's always moody like this. Nothing to worry about. Right Aeris?"

"Uh..yes!" she instantly agreed, attempting to conceal her anxiety.

"There, see?" said Cloud, looking at Tifa.

"I guess so," she faintly muttered.

"So, let's go already!" cried Cloud, playfully pulling Tifa to the door.

"Ah! Careful!" she giggled.

Aeris, however, plunged into deep thoughtfulness. She remained standing in the room, lost in an ocean of meditation, but could not formulate one thought.

"Aeris!" called Cloud, "C'mon! we're leaving!"

"Oh, I'm coming!" she answered, and ran after them.

Though the air was crisp that afternoon, Midgar apparently braced itself for rain. The grey clouds gradually blanketed the sky, barring the sunlight from entry. Nevertheless, the streets brimmed with people hurrying to and fro. The shops and boutiques eagerly flung their doors wide open to welcome any customer. The cafes were teaming with people enjoying their coffee break.

All sorts of sounds filled the air: from the hushed murmur of passing businessmen to the delightful squeal of children; the incoherent mumbles of a senile beggar, and the shouts of teenagers calling each other. The city throbbed with life.

Aeris, quite fascinated with the city, constantly turned her head from side to side so as to catch every detail. Tifa and Cloud looked at her amusedly and answered whatever questions she had about Midgar.

"Cloud, what's that building?" she asked.

"Oh, that's a branch of the new government. The Department of Foreign Affairs, I think."

"It's so big!" she marveled.

"She's like a little kid," winked Cloud as he nudged Tifa.

When they turned around a corner, an old, wan-faced woman with a beaten flower basket staggered up to them.

"Would the pretty lass like a flower?" she asked, holding a bright pink flower to Aeris.

"Oh! How beautiful!" cried Aeris, taking the flower instantly. Her entire face beamed with delight as she studied the flower. She looked at Cloud imploringly.

"Yeah, sure," mumbled Cloud, fumbling for his wallet,"Give the other girl a flower too."

"Heh heh, Cloud, you're so sweet," snickered Tifa at his embarrassment.

"Y'know it's funny," exclaimed Cloud as they resumed their way.

"What's funny?" asked Aeris, looking up at him.

"Before..um..before you had amnesia, you used to adore flowers. In fact, you were a flower girl yourself."

"Was I?" she smiled in wonder.

"Yup. And it's funny how you don't remember anything about your past, but remember that you love flowers."

"Flowers carry so many meanings," she answered mysteriously, "They symbolize life, and love, and beauty."

"Hard things to find in the dead of winter," commented Tifa.

"Oh, you can find them in the winter, if you look hard enough."

"Yeah, whatever," mumbled Cloud, completely baffled by Aeris' meaning. Tifa smiled faintly as she took his strong arm and leaned her head on his shoulder as they strolled along.

"Well, this is where I bid you girls a temporary adieu," Cloud said after a few steps.

"Where are you going?" asked Aeris curiously.

"Cloud has to go to Sector 4 and buy us some special spices for tonight's dinner," Tifa explained, "It'll save us time if we split up. We girls will shop here, and Cloud will go get the spices."

"Heh heh..can he be trusted?" snickered Aeris.

"Oh ho! So, little Miss Aeris doubts Cloud Strife's abilities, eh?" he retorted with a laugh, "You forget, I run a restaurant."

"No, Cloud," corrected Tifa, "You clean it. I run it."

The two girls burst out laughing while Cloud flushed crimson with anger. Bur after a moment, he joined them in good humour, as if nothing had happened.

"Okay, Cloud," interrupted Tifa,"You'd better go now, before it starts to rain."

"Sure thing. Meet you two back at Vincent's place."

They quickly exchanged a kiss, and Cloud rushed across the street before the traffic light turned green again. Soon, he disappeared.

"C'mon," said Tifa to Aeris, "Let's go."

The two girls quietly walked along the boulevard. A strange silence sprung up between them. Tifa, it was true, had sent Cloud away to fetch the spices, but more importantly, she wanted to speak to Aeris alone; woman to woman. She knew some problem oppressed Aeris' heart, and was determined to discover it.

They finally reached a gigantic building which languidly stretched itself along the entire street. Aeris read the large sign "Midgar Supermarket" erected neatly on top of the automatic doors.

"Big place!" exclaimed Aeris, completely in awe.

"Hm.." muttered Tifa, half-listening.

As she grabbed a shopping cart, Tifa glanced uneasily at Aeris, unsure how to start the conversation. She pushed the cart along the orderly isles. When she made sure nobody was within hearing distance, she stopped short.

"Aeris," she began, "Are you..okay?"

"Yes, Tifa, I'm fine," Aeris looked at her oddly.

"No, I mean...do you feel..uncomfortable?"

Aeris shook her head, but obviously did not understand Tifa's meaning.

"Aeris," whispered Tifa for some reason, " Do you feel...uncomfortable with Vincent around you?"

Aeris looked away to avoid Tifa's searching eyes.

"C'mon, you can tell me," persisted Tifa gently, "I can tell some problem is weighing you down. I don't want to intrude on you like this, but I'm just so worried about you. Is Vincent..."

She broke off with a vague gesture of her hand, not knowing how to finish her sentence. Aeris still looked away, but Tifa could tell she was on the brink of revealing something.

"Tifa," she blurted out quietly, "I think Vincent..really..hates me."

"Aeris, we've been through this before, and I told you.."

"No, no, you don't understand," Aeris cut her short as she turned around suddenly, "He's very polite, and probably the best mannered man I'll ever meet. I won't deny that. But..but.."

"But?" Tifa asked, extremely alarmed.

"I don't think he looks after me out of kindness..It doesn't come from his heart. It's like, he feels it's his *duty* to care for me."

"But..how does he hate you?"

"I don't know..I don't know. But I just feel as if he sees something through me..and hates me for it...like I'm inferior somehow.."

Tifa studied Aeris' pitiful face. This had obviously been causing her a great deal of stress.

"Aeris," she finally replied with some sternness, "I think you're just paranoid!"

Aeris blinked at her in astonishment.

"If Vincent 'hated' you, then why did he shoot those men to save you? Isn't that what he did when he first met you?"

"Tifa..you don't understand me.."

"Then explain, for God's sake!"

"He..he's not like Cloud..," Aeris muttered dreamily.

This time, Tifa was astonished.

"What do you mean 'not like Cloud'?" she demanded. A strange yet familiar feeling pricked her heart again.

"Cloud..well..," Aeris faltered, "Cloud is simple to see through. You can tell when he's happy, or angry; and it's easy to guess what he's thinking."

"And Vincent?"

"Vincent is cold-hearted..stoic..and unresponsive. I feel very awkward..and frightened when he comes near me. He sees something in me that he hates...and it's the way he hates me that scares me so much, Tifa."

As Aeris finished, Tifa softened her look and was silent for some minutes. She understood, at least partially, Aeris' fear: She believed Vincent discerned something horrible in her, and deplored her for it.

Tifa gently patted her friend's shoulder and, smiling reassuredly, said "We'd better finish quickly before it rains."

The tower bell tolled four times when both girls emerged from the supermarket, each carrying a brown grocery bag. The streets had emptied slightly, but still retained a great deal of liveliness. By the time they had reached the city square, the lamp posts along the pathway had already lighted up; it was getting dark quickly. Occasionally, a faint rumble of thunder echoed across the city, warning everyone of heavy rain. Tifa, however, seemed unconcerned with the weather. She wanted to tell Aeris something.

"Aeris," she started, grabbing her shoulder to stop her, "I think you misunderstand Vincent."

Aeris turned to face Tifa, expecting her to say more.

"Vincent..well..," Tifa faltered, "Vincent has been through a lot. He never mentioned this, but I think he feels guilty about something, and it tends to weigh him down at times."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know..Vincent's a master when it comes to hiding his emotions..but when we first met him about a year ago, he was obsessed with this woman called 'Lucrecia'"


"And you could just feel the bitterness and guilt gnaw at his heart, even though he never mentioned her again. I..I'm telling you this, Aeris, so you can see that Vincent carries a lot of sorrow in his heart.."

Aeris was silent.

"And..," continued Tifa nervously, "I don't think he hates you. I just think he sees something in you that...that he sees in himself too..like you both share the same burden somehow. Aw, Geez! I can't explain this very well!"

Tifa stamped her foot in irritation; even she wasn't sure she understood Vincent. Aeris silently stared at the cobblestones on the ground, completely oblivious to the people around her.

"Tifa," she suddenly asked, "Is Vincent sick because of his claw?"

"What? Is he sick of his claw?" Tifa looked at her oddly.

"No..does the claw make him sick?"

"Um..it shouldn't. At least, not when I met him. Why? What's the matter?!"

"I..," stammered Aeris, "I think Vincent is very sick. At first I thought his claw perhaps made him sick. But now, perhaps this 'guilt'.."

"What do you mean by 'sick'?" interrupted Tifa in alarm, "Sick as in ill?"

Aeris wanted to tell her about his coughing fits that constantly plagued him. During the past week, she had caught him fighting at least five seizures, and that was just at home!

She wanted to describe how violently his whole body shook with pain; how much blood trickled through his hand when he struggled to cover his mouth. All that and so much more!

But she had read in his cold eyes that he *knew* she had seen him in a coughing fit. And though he never talked to her, Aeris understood he did not want the others to know of his seizures. But now it felt as if the words poured out of her mouth involuntarily.

"He's..he's..." Aeris finally faltered.

But a foreboding feeling suddenly pierced her heart so violently, she actually sprang away from Tifa in alarm. All sound around her disintegrated into oblivion; she could not even hear Tifa calling her name; but the loud pounding of her heart mercilessly beat against her ears.

Her grocery bag fell out of her numb hands, crashing onto the pavement and scattering all its contents about. However, Aeris seemed totally unaware of her surroundings. She detected some evil presence near her..some "thing" that reeked with malice.

"Aeris! Aeris!" called Tifa anxiously. She shook the girl's shoulders.

Aeris turned aggressively to Tifa, as if she had never seen her before. Tifa started on seeing the wild, frenzied flash in Aeris' eyes. Her gasps became quite loud and perspiration broke out on her pale face. Some passers-by glanced at her oddly, then hurried away, thinking she was mad.

"Aeris! what's wrong?!" cried Tifa.

"T..Tifa...," she struggled confusedly, "..the..they're here..they've found me!"

"What? What are you saying?!"

Faceless people rushed past Aeris. So many incoherent sounds drummed against her ears. Bright colors and irregular shapes swirled about her like a whirlpool. She felt faint and nauseated, as if someone were wringing her soul. But her eyes suddenly caught sight of someone, and everything froze in its place.

She stared at a tall man with pure snow-white hair and gleaming pink eyes. He gazed mockingly at her from across the street. He held a lighted cigarette to his mouth in such a way that only his eyes peered over his hand. Aeris felt his cold eyes drill straight into her heart.

When he finally removed his cigarette form his mouth, he blew out a puff of smoke, then smiled affably at Aeris, as though he were a close friend of hers.

Aeris' feet turned cold and heavy at the smile. Her thoughts chased each other around in her brain, refusing to settle down, until something inside her screamed: escape!

Before she realized it, Aeris found herself frantically tearing through the crowds of people, desperately trying to run away.

"AERIS!! AERIS!!" screamed Tifa. She ran after her as fast as she could, but Aeris vanished in the crowd without a trace.

Completely thunderstruck, Tifa stood in the middle of the street. Her muddled thoughts overwhelmed her and clouded her mind. She had, literally, no idea what to do.

Then, as if possessed by a demon, Tifa suddenly dashed across the busy street. Several cars screeched to a halt and rudely honked at her.

"Hey! Watch it!" shouted one man from his car.

But she only doubled her speed as she rushed down the pavement, savagely yelling "excuse me!" or "make way!". She raced past shops, people, streets with one thought: she must reach Vincent's apartment! She did not understand why Aeris ran off so suddenly, as if she had seen a ghost, but she must have run back to Vincent's place! Where else could she possibly go?

Thus argued Tifa, until she realized she was flying up the stairs of the apartment.

On reaching Vincent's door, she tried to open it, but the knob only gave a stiff rattle. It was locked.

"Vincent!!" she shouted, pounding the door furiously with her fist,"VINCENT!"

No reply.

"Aw, shit!" she swore. She retreated two steps then rammed the door down with her shoulder. The door instantly broke open and she staggered in, breathless with irritation.

"VINCENT!!!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.

But only an echo answered her cry. Apparently, no one was home. The silence suffocated Tifa beyond endurance. Not only was Aeris not there, but Vincent was missing as well!

"Damn it!!" she cursed aloud.

She heard a faint scuffle of boots behind her, so she turned around sharply. Much to her relief, Vincent stood in the doorway with a package in one hand. He blinked incredulously at Tifa, then at the broken door that hung piteously by one hinge in the hall.

"Where the Hell were you?!" Tifa cried in anger.

"I..I went to the post office to get the book I ordered," he faltered, taken aback by her viciousness, "Tifa..what's wrong?"

"Vincent," she gasped, "A..Aeris ran off!!"

He narrowed his keen eyes, but said nothing.

"I don't know what happened!" she continued, "We were walking along, and she was fine! Cloud even bought her a flower! And then..then.."

"Easy, take it easy," he said calmly.

"Then she goes ballistic!! She looks around like someone's gonna kill her..and she mutters something, then runs off!"

"What did she say?"

"I dunno!!" she snapped back, irritated with his coolness, "She said something like 'they've found me'. She looked around, then lost her mind!"

"Where did this happen?"

"At the City Square."

"Which direction did she run in?"

"Ah? I think she ran to the North side of the sector."

Vincent plunged into gloomy silence for some moments, knitting his brows in deep contemplation. He seemed to be debating something in his brain.

"I ran after her," Tifa went on, "but she disappeared! I thought perhaps she came back.."

But Vincent suddenly flung his package away and rushed out of the door, not waiting a moment longer.

"Vincent!" Tifa cried after him, "Where are you going?!!"

She ran after him anxiously, but he had already cleared the stairs and left the building.

Tifa was silent for some minutes before she returned to the apartment. She examined her "handiwork" on the wretched door, then blushed slightly.

"Great," she grumbled, "I get excited, and Vincent's door gets the heat!"

Tifa rubbed her temples to soothe her aching head, but the last few events had left her in complete shock. A sudden clap of thunder outside startled her. She dragged her tired feet to the window in the living room, and gazed dejectedly at the rain patter against the glass panes.

"It's really coming down now," she mumbled softly.

-End of Chp.6