I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.79

"I want you to leave me," she'd said.

Leave her?

Vincent's spine froze solid. His breath stopped short. Had Aeris pronounced his own death sentence it wouldn't have hit him nearly as hard. Her words had plucked a very, very sensitive string.

Leave her?

While he stood here, gaping wide at Aeris, his stunned mind flashed back years down a road until there appeared a sleepy village in the horizon. From a distance, Vincent spied a lonely figure loitering by the main gate; a young woman actually, slim and of such haunting beauty. An aura of sorrow surrounded her. Vincent wanted to reach her. He wanted to embrace her. He tried, but his entire body was paralyzed. Nor seemed this wraith of a woman remotely aware of him.

Long time she waited for him. Long time, but he never came.

    ...you knew she needed you...
    ...you should have protected her...
    ...but you never came...

Caught amidst a flurry of vicious voices and condemnations, just then Vincent felt that three-decade old wound burst anew with double passion: leave her?

    *Abandon* her?!

Aeris insisted sternly, "I want you to turn around and walk away. Right now."

"No," he rasped even more sternly.

"Leave me here. Leave this whole place and never, ever look behind!"


No, no and a thousand no's! In an uncanny surge of strength, the agitated man had already stepped across to grab her tight by both arms, overwhelming her, his voice seething hot upon her. "Listen to me! I committed the exact same mistake thirty-one years ago: I turned my back on the one person I held dearest," Vincent yanked her closer as he snarled, "Ever since then, there has not been one-miserable-DAY I haven't regretted my actions. I did it once. I will NOT do it again!!"

He held her a lot stronger than he imagined. It certainly was rare to see emotion written raw over his face. Vincent's menacing height, his demonic demeanor and fiery glower all threatened to engulf Aeris. One almost thought he'd strike her. Amazingly however, Aeris neither resisted nor quarreled, but at the peak of his outburst simply lifted her gaze towards him. Something in those eyes rendered Vincent suddenly mute, like a balmy breeze abates roaring red flames.

If she'd argued, he'd have argued back ten times fiercer. If she'd struggled, he'd have overpowered her. Yet this plain, weak child had merely looked up at him, and Vincent was completely helpless.

It wasn't the contact itself that mystified him as much as the strangeness of her expression. Vincent had never beheld such serenity in any eyes as hers. In fact, with her loose hair, Aeris' face made a fascinating study of detachment and despair swirled together, their tone softened by a peculiar wistfulness.

And hurt. Deep mental anguish. Vincent couldn't understand the meaning behind that look. She seemed to beg him: don't be angry with me. Don't defy what was meant to be. Most of all, don't hurt me anymore than you already have.

The eerie peace, brought on by a single pair of green eyes, filled the grand hall to the brim. The stoic machinery, the arbours of pipes and glass, all observed the scene below in dread. Heaviest weighed this silence upon Vincent's shoulders. Again, he waited for her to speak.

Aeris regarded him thoughtfully for a long minute. Soon, she hung her head, defeated, unsure what good telling him would do. Still, the confession slipped out, soft-spoken words from the core. She recounted "While I was locked up, Davoren came to visit me once. He talked to me. He asked me.... if..if I hated Lucrecia..."

Vincent didn't comment. His solemn visage masked his reaction perfectly.

"At first, I screamed at him. I said that was terrible. To hate some poor dead woman who'd suffered so much... who never did me any harm... to actually *hate* her...that..," Aeris murmured woefully to herself, "That's just terrible..."

Imprisoned thus in his grip, Aeris could discern his keen eyes fixated on her. He followed her every word, every hesitation, every subtle movement down to her meek trembling. God how she wished he'd let go! How she wished to run away and bury herself a hundred miles underground!

"But now I see things more clearly. The Professor has been right all along: I am just an image behind the mirror. I reflect whoever stands on the opposite side, " the girl visibly tensed as she felt him draw his face nearer. Tears welled up. His kiss still burned like fire on her lips, and it hurt. It hurt. It hurt. She admitted "..fighting won't change the truth. Running away and playing pretend won't either. T-the truth is there's no place for *me* in the world outside. To Cloud and Tifa, I'm their dead friend 'Aeris'. To Davoren, I'm just 'girl' or 'A-25'- a lab specimen he's responsible for."

She'd struggled to maintain a dispassionate tone, keep her eyes lowered, maybe prevent a few secrets from emerging. In vain. The longer Aeris stayed under Vincent's scrutiny, the hotter her emotions boiled. And his face was so close to hers. Plus with *her* watching them from the netherworld. The loneliness. The pain. She couldn't bear it!

Aeris declared straight up at him, quickly losing her control to this wrangled desperation "Inside, Vincent, there're so many things ripping me apart! Everybody pretends I'm whoever they want me to be... and it's YOU who hurts me the most! See, I'm in love with you: I've built my whole world around you! But to you, I'm no better than trash! I'm just there to be Lucrecia's reflection!! And I..I don't w-want to hate her either..," she paused to catch a sob, only to pound her bitterest frustration with two fists against his chest, "..BUT LUCRECIA'S TAKEN ALL YOUR HEART FOR HERSELF AND LEFT NOTHING- ABSOLUTELY NOTHING- FOR ME!!!!"

Loud and furious. The confession quaked Aeris to the deepest depths of defeat. She could tolerate no more. Roused to a fit, she managed to wrench herself free, at least put enough distance between them to collect her senses. Nor tried Vincent to detain her. He released her with forbearance, watching her, around him an aura of brooding darker than shadow.

To contrast, Aeris appeared on the verge of emotional collapse. Dazed, she'd barely wobbled two steps backwards before staggering to a halt, in which she turned aside just to avoid his sight. She clasped one hand over her mouth, swallowed her sobs, anything to contain this grief. Still the tears streamed down, and she despised herself double for her inability to control them.

Nothing for her. It all belonged to a woman named "Lucrecia". In life or death, she held him enthralled under an unbreakable spell. Vincent still thought about Lucrecia, still loved her, still wanted her. Even after thirty-one years, her memory consumed him blind. Her ghost haunted his heart. Passionate, devoted love. The kind no length of time could wane, just like Davoren had described...

"Do you hate Lucrecia for having all his love, while you have none?"

Lucrecia. Lucrecia. It's always been Lucrecia. Never her. In a race between them to reach Vincent, Aeris always emerged the loser, always emerged having less than what she started out with.

No actually, she never had anything to begin with. And there never was any race. She could never compete against Lucrecia. Putting herself on equal terms with that woman was like comparing common dirt to pure diamonds.

She'd just have to accept it: Lucrecia owned his heart. Accept it she had long ago, but that didn't dull the pain! She loved him- how much he'll never really know; he probably didn't care. In that wonderful world, she served nothing more than a tool to him. Somehow Aeris found that quite alright. She was created for that purpose...to be used.

But she still loved him! Aeris bit her lower lip: fool! What a fool she was! Why did she escape from the Professor in the first place?! Was this Hell here any worse than that outside? Many things have happened. In the end, was she really any better off, knowing what she knew now, feeling what she felt now?

She shouldn't have escaped! She shouldn't have met Vincent that night! She should have just surrendered to truth, not dawdle in some ludicrous dream. And he should not have come here. No, he should not have come!

The silence oppressed Aeris. This mad cycle of thoughts, reproaches and obsessions pulsed a thousand beats across her brain. They felt like mental bullets riddling her conscience with holes. She had to steady herself.

She gathered her voice one last time. It rolled out a dry, tired monotony, "..please, I.. want you to leave now," she ordered Vincent without looking at him. In fact, she flicked her eyes to the far corner. "Let the Professor have me for his experiment. It doesn't matter anymore. I just don't want to stand behind the mirror, watching you throw your life away for an image... or make me Lucrecia's replacement," Aeris hugged herself loosely as she felt a chilly vacuum grow inside. Drained, she sighed out the finale "...I may be garbage to you... but you're still the most important thing to me, Vincent.."

She'd laid all her cards out on the table. Aeris fell into a lamentable hush, still holding herself in both arms. She shuffled away half a step, just enough to conceal her face behind dangling curls of hair. She didn't expect him to speak. No need. Truth spoke for itself: this is how it was meant to end, with nothing. She belonged to the experiment. He belonged to Lucrecia.

Still it hurt. It hurt. Aeris barricaded herself from her own bleeding heart. She barricaded herself far, far away from him. Maybe the cold would freeze this sorrow ice-solid. Then she'd feel no more pain. Then she'd feel nothing anymore.

Stranded and shunned outside this barrier stood a war-torn Vincent, alone to study the despondent girl in profound contemplation. He'd listened to her. He'd witnessed the turmoil through her eyes. Now he was left here to watch misery crush her flat; this innocent little dove, both wings broken like her spirit, caged within a huge horror house called the laboratory.

He didn't say anything for a long time. During this numbing silence, Vincent mentally juggled her harsh accusations, those angry "shoulds" against her tender laments; all the emotions she'd thrown at him, some so intense they almost shattered her fragile body; his own thoughts... about her... about himself... everything boiled mad over a pensive fire.

Whatever revolved within his head, Vincent concealed it marvelously behind marble-hard stoicism. It seemed as though he wanted no one to see the mental entanglement inside, not the darkness, not Aeris or Lucrecia, but most of all himself.

He must have known of these strong feelings she harboured towards him long before she realized them herself. Perhaps he actually spurned them. Perhaps he'd just ignored them; shoved them into that subconscious closet with many other things. It was easier that way. Just leave them and don't think about them. Still, it must have sounded strange to hear those words declared loud into his face. After all this time of roaming an outcast and a monster, detesting himself until it made him hollow... how strange, how bewildering it must have felt to hear her say she loved him.

How could she, her purity whiter than white, possibly love someone as black and base as *him*?! Didnít she know of those atrocities he'd committed in the past? Didn't she see the ugly, murderous creature behind this human guise?

And yet, she said she loved him.

When this frightened girl crashed into his life, he took her in without really knowing why. Maybe it gave him a purpose again. A part of him felt responsible for her. In a way, she reminded him of himself. He could connect to her plight. He could understand her anxieties and despair better than anyone else.

And also, he could..."use" her. She was terrified with no one to turn to. A little more than subconsciously came the idea: if he protected her like he should have protected Lucrecia... pretend the image he saw was Lucrecia... maybe then this one sin would be washed clean off his two soiled hands.

Yet now, as they stood at the crossroads, there seemed to be more Vincent withheld from himself; a lot more than he cared to search. There had to be. Otherwise, why did he remain silent for so long? Why did he appear so perturbed, hurt?

But it didn't matter anymore. To her, all of that didn't matter. It shouldn't to him either. Tonight had irrevocably wrecked everything for everyone. New facts uncovered, unexpected revelations, hearts broken beyond redemption, tears, and "the truth". Whether Aeris surrendered to the crazed Professor or returned with Vincent, she'd be a replacement: the mother of a glorious god engineered by science, or the filler of an old, aching void. To her, the second option hurt a lot more.

Aeris said all she had to say. She wanted him to leave now. The person she treasured most, she wanted him to be safe from Hojo's razor-sharp claws, from the experiment, far, far away from her.

Their roads should never have crossed. Now she would set things as they should end: with nothing.

"...that's not very fair of you, Aeris," chided Vincent gently.

Surprised, she looked around to find him gazing directly back at her: what did he mean by that?

Vincent stood ragged and upright for her to behold; a battle-weary, ashen-faced man with disheveled long hair, neither angry nor embittered, just reproachful; even wistful one might add. He continued on the same soft tone "I cannot quite explain myself. Right now... there're many things tearing me inside too. For some reason, I've always wanted you, specifically you, Aeris, to condemn me. I just wanted to hear you shout: 'Vincent, you are a monster!'," something troublesome began to cloud his mind.

He knit his brows slightly as he forced the words out warily "I attacked you. I tried to convince you that I'm not the 'good guardian angel' you think me to be. I'm actually a criminal... worst still, a monster. But you.. you never gave in to me. At times, it angered me that you-a mere child- wouldn't believe me. Instead you told me... 'I know what's beneath the snow fields'."

The recollection stirred within Aeris to lock her stiff in place. Her apprehension fixed on him as though shell-shocked. Between them stretched but a small distance, each in view of the other, Vincent somehow maintaining balance despite wretched illness, she held prisoner of those ruby eyes. Yes, she remembered that peaceful night they sat together in those vast fields of snow. She remembered telling him that.

"If you surrender to the Professor, he'll chain you by the neck to his experiment," prophesied Vincent, his voice gaining an edge until it cut straight through her. "He'll go on defiling you while you lie there frozen. You'll bury yourself under snow... with all that pain and fear, cursed to live that moment over and over again!"

Aeris was a bit startled when he suddenly stepped across to grab her by the arms; not violently this time, but with strength stemming from an inner passion, some strong energy that pleaded anxiously. "Can't you see, Aeris? That's what's happened to the rest of us! Not only myself, but Davoren, that boy Rufus, even Professor Hojo: we've each buried ourselves deep in our own fields of snow...... and Aeris, I don't want that to happen to you too," he brought his face nearer to hiss softly, "I simply cannot *bear* the thought."

Aeris found herself lost in him. Upclose, his expression was grave, yet strained by an intense earnestness she'd never witnessed in anyone before. And this time when he spoke, she knew he addressed her and no one else. "...I don't care about Hojo's 'truth' or the rest of the world for that matter. I have no place there either. But when you were taken away from me... it.. it felt like the life was ripped out of my chest... and I've come here to get it back. That life is you, Aeris. I came here to take *you* back with me," the words weren't coming out right. Too mawkish, though God knows he spoke straight from an open heart like he'd never done in thirty-one years. Vincent hesitated, uncertain of himself. At last, he tenderly asked her "... but if... I put my faith in you... if I believe I'm not a monster like you say, will you for once throw this 'truth' away, the Professor, everything... just throw them aside and put your faith in me?"

Aeris blinked. She felt so confused. Part of her wanted to run. That's what her life had been about: always running. Always crying. Another part wanted to fling both arms around this man and give him her all. Aeris made no response except cast her anguished gaze downwards. She wavered between emotion and doubt, what she should say and what she really yearned to say.

"Aeris.. please..," Vincent whispered.

His desperate supplication tugged at her entire being. Regardless of "the truth", what should be and how it should end, what Heaven or Hell decreed, he'd battled his way up to reach her. Now as he held her, Vincent's warm eyes beseeched Aeris she let him take her back home.

Home, a place where nothing and no one could ever harm her. All she had to do was let him.

Aeris turned up to him, about to speak, when Vincent noticed her attention suddenly shoot up past him with an alarmed "AH!!" just as his own danger senses flared wild. The quick-witted man automatically swung aside, snatching the confounded Aeris along one millisecond before a barrage of tentacles showered chaos upon them from above.

Vincent lost balance, but only for a moment. With the girl clamped tight against him, he somehow flipped himself back up then instantly dived forth, thus escaping the next assault by a hair's breadth. Another followed. And another and another until it seemed like the sky was raining spears of death.

Vincent's most dreaded expectation had come true: Professor Hojo has found them. He didn't know how the artful bastard had managed to catch them unawares or exactly where he'd taken position; probably on one of the upper pipelines, where he had a good view of the field below. Nor had Vincent the time to retaliate or even think. All he understood was Hojo had found them, and they needed to take cover.... fast!

The platform was blitzed, the girders shred to shrapnel and the unfortunate machinery torn apart. All this destruction just to get this one man. Amidst such erratic bombardment, Vincent rushed across no-man's land with amazing nimbleness. Amazing in that he protectively carried the terror-crazed Aeris, who clung close to him, whilst he, frazzled to a crisp, kept up the pace full speed. He dashed towards the only exit on the opposite side. If they could make it across in one piece, he could probably shake the enemy off their tail again.

Or not. Vincent suddenly skid to an abrupt halt as a swarm of treacherous appendages descended straight upon them. Each trailed an aura of vengeful malice. Trapped, he immediately squatted then sprung high up into the air. Beneath them the angry ropes cracked the ground to rubble.

Events slowed to an agony and sped to a blur at the same time. The airborne pair were tossed off coordination amidst this upward gust of debris and mayhem. Something pierced Vincent's conscience out of nowhere... a bleak warning that worst yet was to follow. He happened to look up. Across the distance he met two brilliant yellow eyes; the colour of insanity set on fire.

From darkness above swooped the glorious Holocaust demon at terminal velocity, having dropped from some inconspicuous pipeline to ambush them in open space. Just a split-second to comprehend, but Vincent's mind blanked out, petrified in face of a midair assault which spelt catastrophe.

Next thing he knew, Vincent felt this gruesome whip-like force crack against his exposed side. A froth of blood jumped up his throat. His entire body snapped in to absorb the impact. Strange. It didn't hurt as much as he thought it would. Or maybe the blow had been so brutal it shocked his nervous system into complete numbness. Either way, Vincent was sent topsy-turvy on a wild trajectory path. They went high over the balustrade and plunged into the ominous void below.

Indeed, upon catching his helpless enemy wide open, the crafty Professor had whiffed a thick bundle of thorny tentacles for the coup de grace. Vincent was spiked at a sharp angle as Hojo descended upon them. With the stunned man to lead and the demented monster close behind, all three followed a collision course. They went diagonally straight through the tall glass colonnades, towards the ground which now seemed miles away.

For any spectator, no description could ever convey such a savage sight. First Vincent went shattering through back-first, still tumbling head-over with Aeris pressed against him. The maniacal scientist pursued the same path after them. He smashed through the glass column in one side-out the opposite, undaunted by the shards which lacerated him or as gravity reeled them in faster. Murder. His thirst for murder blinded him to everything else. In fact, he'd chosen this route on purpose, if only to watch their last hope of escape destroyed along with the colonnade.

Hojo had won the war.

-End of Chp.79