I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.88

More than thirty years ago, Vincent gave his heart to Lucrecia. She was a distractingly beautiful young woman, bright and dedicated to her work. It happened such a long time ago, like a dream from a distant era. Vincent however still loved that woman as passionately as before; nor could he forget how much it hurt to love her: to crave her yet never be satisfied, to feel all these heated emotions for her yet always suppress them, and to fear for her yet never act; those conflicts were wounds Time never quite healed.

Yes, he’d loved Lucrecia. Though circumstances had dictated they be apart, he’d always hoped that someday, somehow, things would change and bring them together. But then, that’s all he ever did, right? Just sat there wishing, wallowing in self-pity while darkness slowly engulfed her. Vincent had felt her suffering, but didn’t comfort her. He’d sensed the dangers around her, yet didn’t come for her. He’d simply watched her drown. And by the time he finally decided to help, it was far too late. Lucrecia was dead.

Throughout the years which followed, every minute he lived on without her, the same relentless questions had dogged Vincent’s mind: why hadn’t he acted sooner? He could have stopped it. He could have prevented it. He should have protected her. He should have saved her, or at least console her in her hour of need.

Yes, many "coulds", many "shoulds"; not one followed.

He blamed himself and no one else. Her sadness, his fault. Her misery, his condemnation. Since her death, not a day had passed that he hadn’t cursed that man named "Vincent Valentine". He detested him for abandoning Lucrecia. He despised him for what he really was: a criminal, a hypocrite and a monster. Most of all, he hated himself for still being "Vincent Valentine"; the same who instead of acting had just sat there, dumb and pathetic, watching the tides sweep his beloved away.

Indeed, nothing had changed. Thirty-one years later, he’d found himself in the exact position again: a feeble wretch, paralysed with horror as the cycle repeated itself before his very eyes. Once more, he’d failed to protect her. This time though, it was Aeris.

…how does it feel to lose her all over again?…


Vincent staggered through the tumultuous halls in a visible state of agitation. He carried the injured girl in both arms. Aeris’ dirty face had long since waned to an expressionless, pasty-pale mask, eyes lightly sealed and wavy hair in dishevelment. Her condition deteriorated by the minute. Despite Vincent’s every attempt to support her, that gory gash streaked across her bosom continued to seep copious red life. He even feared to check her pulse again least he may not find one.

Instead, he chose to believe she was alive. Even more adamantly, he insisted he could still save her. So the man stumbled along as an invisible orchestra played its symphony of havoc throughout the Reactor. The cacophony rose in destructive crescendos then receded for a while, only to return twice the power. Vincent’s two heavy feet led him across unknown territory. To be frank, he’d no clue where he was going. All the corridors looked the same. Somehow though, he kept moving, heaving harsh breaths with every step.

His mind raced thousands of miles ahead of him. Vincent had entered this madhouse with one objective: to retrieve Aeris. He’d waged a long, hard and gritty war, only to lose everything in the end. Holocaust Hojo had smashed both he and any hopes of victory right through a giant glass column. Vincent couldn’t recall a time he’d felt closer to Death than at that moment, as that gargantuan beast approached him. However, that was the same moment Aeris stood up to defend him from Hojo’s ravenous claws. Indeed this girl, who’d always been terrified mad of the Professor, finally confronted him, if only to protect the man she loved.

Love. She said she loved him. How strange it felt: for her to exclaim she loved him, and that she’d built her world around him, whereas he could never love himself, or feel that he’d any place in this world to call his own. Her passionate confession still left Vincent torn between several emotions, including anger. Not at her per se, but at this predicament she’d entangled him in.

Vincent recalled once scolding her, quite severely too, about not wanting her sacrifices. But regardless of what he’d thought or said, Aeris had dared step forth to face the Professor when nothing else would. Though smaller and frail looking, she’d emanated such strong presence. Hojo himself had seemed powerless against her. With "truth" her sole weapon, the girl’s bold words had wrenched everything away from him. In the end, she left with nothing except nothingness itself and her pity. And rather than concede an inch to her damning truth, the crazed beast tried to save himself by destroying her.

Vincent would never forget how his entire being froze solid when the monster slashed Aeris across the chest; the sick "crack" of that tentacle against her bones, or the way she’d rolled across the floor on a long, bloody streak. The scene must have flashed a zillion times across his mind by now. And yet, everytime he rewound the tape, Vincent found himself doing the same thing: just sitting there watching the cycle had repeated itself without any interference. Once again, he’d failed to protect the person who mattered most to him. Once again, it was all his fault. Once again, he’d lost her because of his indecisiveness, his weakness, his….

The devastation, anguish and trama had been so blindingly intense that Vincent quite honestly couldn’t recall what happened next. He still made the correct guess, though: before either he or Hojo could anticipate it, Chaos had exploded out of Vincent like a volcano of hot emotions. The ensuing battle had been short- the Professor had actually managed to defeat this new enemy too- but the consequences were great. When Vincent came to, he found the Reactor in upheaval and Holocaust Hojo mutilated to madness. As the grand hall began to collapse, both sides had bid a hasty retreat. Now here he was, human again, alone to deal with the disastrous aftermath.

At present, the man hurried along. He could barely maintain coordination; how then could he contend with this apocalypse his "alter-ego" had created? To make matters worse, he’d lost his gun in battle. Should Hojo chance upon them, they’d no means of fighting back. Then again, Vincent hadn’t an ounce of strength to endure another battle. Just staying on both feet required all his focus. Besides, the scientist had sustained such brutal injuries, he’d probably be more concerned with tending to his wounds than seeking them out. One thing for sure though: he had to escape this place. More importantly, he had to get the girl some help. He wouldn’t give up now. He could still save her! He had to save her!!

…you know you cannot…
…that is your punishment…
…watch her die again…
…and again…
…and again…

No! Vincent gnashed his teeth: no, he wouldn’t allow the same cycle to repeat itself. He couldn’t bear to lose her again. The sweaty man pressed onwards through the hail of debris and inner voices pelting him from behind. He shielded his precious parcel from both enemies; he’d let neither harm her. The path stretched down another hallway. Vincent kept going, avoiding falling garbage and pipes as invisible forces tore the place apart. He couldn’t stop. To do so seemed like a concession to defeat, and he couldn’t lose Aeris too. Everything was rattling. Nothing made sense. Vincent realized he’d long since plunged into a feverish fit. He fought to suppress the coughs. Pain drilled non-stop into his skull while cruel hallucinations teased his logic. He was running yet going nowhere. Shadows surrounded him. They tried to hamper his progress. They wanted to take the girl away from him-no! He wouldn’t let them! Voices swirled in with the mayhem. They accused him. They ridiculed him. They reproached and laughed at him.

…it’s all your fault…

Aeris. All he saw was Aeris. He had to get her to safety.

…but you won’t…
…you’ll watch her die again…
…that is your punishment…

A sudden tremor seized the area. Vincent didn’t realize he’d lost balance until he clumsily crashed to the floor, Aeris still clasped against him. At once he swept her underneath him and kept his own head covered as trash showered them from above. The hall up ahead caved-in completely. Another soon followed, spewing forth more rubble and smoke into the stuffy atmosphere. Meanwhile, Vincent was already struggling to get up. They couldn’t stay here. They had to continue! He managed by some feeble attempt to stand up halfway, only for a fresh earthquake to destabilise him again. This time, Vincent landed bottom-first upon the floor; the injured girl flopped out onto his lap but remained secure in his grasp.

He didn’t opt for a third attempt. Vincent slumped, or rather collapsed aside against the wall for support, hacking and gasping for air as the hellish pain shredded his lungs to bloody ribbons. Overwhelmed, the despondent lunatic searched around for hope. Not a speck to be found. The world around them wailed and groaned. Everywhere he looked, destruction greeted him; corridors clogged with madness, cracked walls, and crumbly ceilings shedding chunks of debris. No way out. No place to hide. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t go on but they couldn’t sit here either, not with these halls threatening to become their tomb. So what then? What should he do?!

…you let her die…
…watch her die again…
…this is your punishment, Vincent…

"..Vin..c..c..ent..," he heard a faint voice call out.

The man broke free of his demented monologue and scanned his immediate surroundings. Who had called his name? At first, Vincent thought he’d imagined it. He peered downwards, where Aeris lay like a tattered rag doll in his lap. However, her eyes were now half-open, rolling in a fog of bemusement. She seemed to be searching for something. Or someone.

"Vinc..en..t," she moaned again. A pitiful expression of distress clouded her face; she couldn’t see him anywhere.

But she was still alive. Alive! A surge of excitement reinvigorated Vincent. He quickly shifted onto his knees and gathered her up closer.

"I am here," he reassured her in a raspy yet tender undertone.

The clangour and rumbling din in the background muddled poor Aeris’ mind. She understood nothing around her; how she’d moved from the wide battle arena, where she was now or who’d brought her to this place. Despite these overwhelming adversities, however, Vincent’s familiar voice guided her lost eyes up towards him. He hunched over further to prove that, indeed, he was right here with her.

It took the girl a moment to focus on that blood-spattered, wan face staring fixedly back down at her. Vincent wondered if she would recognize him; he looked such a ghastly waste the angels themselves might have mistook him for a devil. But Aeris did recognize that face. Yes, he was here. He was alright. That alone melted all the anxiety away, leaving her with a small yet very happy smile.

"Ah, t-thank God," she croaked, "You cou..ldn’t fight him anymore…the Professor, he-UAGH!!"

Vincent reacted in alarm when Aeris tried to sit herself up, only for a sharp pain to cut her off mid-sentence. The girl keeled back into his arms at once, breathing fast and clutching her wound as blood spurted out. Still she struggled to say something.

"Sh! Aeris, please don’t speak!" begged Vincent in desperation. He tended to her closely, though Heaven help him- he knew not what to do!

"I w-was afraid," she wheezed through the agony, "he was going to kill you-AH!! I… I couldn’t le-"

"Aeris! For the love of God, don’t say anything!!"

She needed to conserve her strength until they’d escaped this place. He didn’t want to hear what she had to say. He dreaded it more than a death sentence. He just didn’t want to listen!

For the first time in his life, Vincent began to feel panic. Real panic. He couldn’t hold his thoughts long enough to make any sense of them. He wanted to believe they could still make it together, that he could still rescue her despite the odds. He wanted to believe it so badly he grit his teeth in frustration. Damn! He couldn’t stand to see the girl’s face crumpled up with pain or feel her writhe and tremble in his arms. She could barely draw breath. And blood. She was bleeding so much! Why couldn’t he make it stop?! He couldn’t just watch idly as she-

But Vincent stopped short when something light touched his feverish chest. He looked down to discover Aeris’ hand placed upon his pounding heart. Her eyes, a green ocean of tranquillity, held him in a steady gaze.

"It’s okay, Vincent. It’s alright," she comforted him with such compassion he wondered whether she’d actually heard the tribulations inside his head. Aeris’ kindly demeanour softened further at his evident bewilderment. "You’re safe," she whispered, "You’re here, safe and alive… nothing else matters to me right now."

All the panic seemed to subside at these simple words. Uncanny how her serenity soothed his overheated mind to a state of silent consternation. He sat slouched there studying this girl, who made no more attempts to move but languished quietly in pain. By now, the entire front of Vincent’s exposed undershirt was soaked wet with her blood. The girl closed her eyes a moment to rest; even those few words to calm him had cost a great effort. But she wasn’t afraid anymore. In fact, Aeris never appeared more content. She’d vanquished her fears. She’d protected Vincent and he was here with her. The rest didn’t matter.

They lingered thus a long minute. The earthquakes had subdued, though it would only be a short while before they returned. In the meantime, Aeris lay peacefully under Vincent’s guard. Nor did the man disturb her. Instead he dwelt inwards again, on these many feelings tearing him apart like hot knives. His expression strained to that of anguish, sharpened further by bitter self-hatred. It was his fault. If only he’d acted sooner. If only he’d tried harder. How could anything be "alright" when he was here, safe and alive, whereas she was…? Dammit! He’d already lost Lucrecia. Now to lose Aeris as well, this punishment weighed far too heavy for him to carry! Even for Vincent, who’d usually borne matters with certain stoicism, this torture proved too intense to mask.

A stinging sensation began to flood his eyes. The brooding man scornfully cast his glare askance. Right now he despised himself so much he couldn’t even look at this girl anymore. His failures, his monstrosity- he hated it all!

Ironic how he’d always been the calm one to mollify her in times of distress. Now he’d become the pathetic little child in need of solace. But then, he’d known the facts from the outset. He’d just been too frightened to admit them until this moment. Vincent knew that most probably every exit out of the Reactor had been destroyed by now. Not that it made much difference. They were lost beyond hope anyway. He knew he could never escape this hellhole, not in his miserable state, not with the whole place in such uproar.

Worse of all, he finally admitted to himself he could never save Aeris. They’d both known it from the very start. She had bravely embraced her fate the instant she’d stood up against Professor Hojo. But he… God, how could he ever accept this?! She was dying in his arms and there was nothing- not one bloody thing- he could do except watch!

…yes. Like you watched Lucrecia die before her…
…this is your punishment…
…you’ll just go on repeating the same cycle…

…everytime, you won’t protect her…
…everytime, you let her die…
…everytime, you’ll watch her die…

…and again…
…and again…

…this is your punishment…

"’Sno..w Fie…..’," murmured Aeris suddenly.

The strange interjection rather startled the delirium-drenched Vincent, who at once returned to the girl. Her eyes had re-opened. He wondered how long they’d been lingering on him. Not that she needed sight to discern all the angst and harsh rebuke broiling inside him. He forgot she still had her hand on his heart.

"B-back there at the ‘Snow Fields’," she reminded him, "..you called yourself a mons…’monster’…"

Vincent knew not how to reply. But yes, he did remember.

"Tell me. You, with all your hatred, and guilt, and sadness… why do you go on calling yourself that?" she asked him rather nettled, "W-why… do you believe you’re still the same man as before?"

The same man who murdered, threatened adults and small children alike, spied, sabotaged and tortured in the name of Orders. Like Davoren once said, Turks were demons dressed in suits. They sullied themselves in sin so that their superiors remained clean.

True, he’d served ShinRa Inc. Part of the blame fell upon the company as much as his own. But who else could he blame for abandoning his beloved Lucrecia except himself? What justification could he give for that heinous crime except that he was and always will be a monster?

In response to Aeris’ question, Vincent almost blurted ‘because I AM a monster! Look what I’ve done! I’ve allowed the same cycle that took her to steal you from me as well!’ But before the words got passed his clogged-up throat, the girl argued softly "..ah, you’re wrong. You too…you’re wrong…"

Her mind seemed to drift further and further into that memory they shared long ago, leaving him behind to listen under suppressed emotion. He doubted she’d hear him even were he to speak. Nevertheless, Aeris’ fading eyes obstinately clung to his face. Through them glowed compassion, understanding, and above all else solid conviction that every word she told him was true.

"You’re not the same ‘Vincent’ you were before," the girl revealed between gasps. Her voice became so weak he had to stoop closer to hear, ".. that man… his fields were empty. J-just snow and ice. But Lucrecia, she planted a tiny seed in those fields. Your love for her… and… and your suffering after losing her," Aeris coughed on some blood, then barely squeezed out, "..they helped that seed grow into a flower…"

Again, she broke off to cough. All the while she trembled like mad. It tore his heart to listen as much as it racked her body to talk.

"..c-cold…it was cold. So much… snow..," Aeris struggled. The ever attentive Vincent followed her ramblings with eyes shining bright and jaw locked shut. "You didn’t believe ah.. anything could grow there. But I told you: something new… a beautiful, kind soul… had grown inside you. And… and even if you can still transform into a monster, you have to know, Vincent, that the real monster… the one who did those… all those horrible things in the past- he’s dead. You’ve already killed him."

By the time she’d finished, Aeris’ tired eyes had closed by themselves. She nestled her head against his chest. Dawdling her last minutes away, warm and well protected in these arms, the girl whispered breathily to him "If only possible, I’d give my own life up for you to have Lucrecia here instead of me," to which Vincent, as if stabbed clean through, choked out, "Aeris, don’t-"

"I know she’d tell you the same things I’ve said now," she persisted uninterrupted, "She’d say that she’s forgiven you…. she forgave you a long time ago… and n-now that you’ve found your soul at last…. It’s time you… finally…for..g..ave …yourse..lf…"

Her words faded as soon as they’d left her pale lips. Aeris spoke no more. Those lovely green eyes which hitherto had carried him through this ordeal did not open again. Gradually, her blood-soaked body sagged and her face relaxed. It was over.

In fact, the girl had slipped into a deep coma. Another hour, two at most, she would be dead. And Vincent could do nothing about it.

The man slowly sat upright again. He languished there in limbo, holding her lifeless body, staring dully at her with scarcely a blink. For one surreal moment, he thought, felt and understood nothing. He just sat there as still as a statue. Perhaps she’d reawaken, or he’d discover this was another bad dream. But Aeris remained the same. He still loitered there, vacant, cold and so frighteningly alone.

It was over.

He seemed to gaze at her longer than an eternity when, quite suddenly, Vincent noticed something: tears. Tears in his eyes, streaming down his face.

He’d been crying without even realizing it.

The man blinked. He wiped one cheek then viewed his wet hand, completely stumped. Yes, they were tears, flowing hot and salty. Yes, he was actually crying.

No sooner had he acknowledged this fact than all his feelings- grief, sorrow, pain; awful, excruciating emotional pain- burst forth out of his throat as a terrible wail. The distraught Vincent doubled over to embrace Aeris, whose head lolled aside to accommodate him against her neck. Eyes squeezed tight couldn’t stop the flood. Pitiful, heart-wrenching sounds emanated from the depths of his chest into the open air. His shoulders quivered violently. Vincent gnashed his teeth least he screamed. All the while, he cradled her back and forth in his arms. From a distance, shadows silently watched him hugging something no better than a corpse. They listened to him weep, and weep, and weep over the girl until they believed he’d never stop.

Vincent remembered only one other time he’d cried like this: the first night he exiled himself into that coffin at Nibelheim, so many years ago. Inside there, he’d mourned Lucrecia’s death, and all the things he could have done to prevent it. In a way, he’d never really stopped crying since then. But now with this second loss, tears seemed to come out double force: the girl was dying, and he could do nothing about it.

Several painful minutes passed before the outpour began to subdue. By then, his anguish had sunk to a level no amount of tears could relieve anymore. Having cried himself to exhaustion, the despondent man mechanically sat upright again. He kept Aeris secure in his protective embrace. Vincent rested his weary head over hers and remained thus, a lonesome wretch languishing in these cavernous corridors. He seemed terribly aged now. Shell-shocked, his hair in disarray and blood-shot eyes gazing dully into space, he didn’t look too sane either.

Strange though. Inside he felt quite calm. Or was it emptiness? Vincent wasn’t sure. He loitered here in the thick of doom, but his mind, like his woeful eyes, had drifted miles away from this scene, where no sound reached him save the echoes of his thoughts. He registered each one as it came: what to do? Vincent didn’t care. Should he not try to save himself? Or at least find shelter? No. There was no point. Then what? He didn’t care. He just wanted to stay here. He wanted to stay with Aeris until the-

Suddenly, Vincent stopped. By pure chance, his gaze had happened to fall upon an electricity box fitted in the wall just opposite him. Its façade had been smashed open by falling rubble; the damaged interior revealed flashing buttons and severed cable lines, some which sputtered electric spittle into the air.

Not that Vincent had never encountered such a box before. However, hitherto he’d been so engrossed tending to Aeris, he’d simply failed to notice that electricity- vibrant, raw electricity- had been fully restored to the place.

He must have gawked at the box a full minute before this startling fact sunk in. His confounded sight turned up towards the ceiling. The light fixtures blinked affirmative back at him. No, this was not another hallucination. Somehow, the Reactor had resumed operation.

Vincent looked around the empty, lit hall in apprehension: Where did all this energy come from? Who? How was this even possible? And why now of all times?!

Questions, questions, but no answers. The bamboozled man went back to brooding over that box. In his heart, vague ideas began to form. He had to do something, what exactly he’d no clue. He just had to do this one final "thing"; to ensure Aeris’ sacrifice would not be in vain, to justify her faith in him, and to set this newfound "soul" of his at peace.

The longer he viewed that electricity box, the farther back his mind retreated. For some reason, Vincent fixed his focus on Professor Hojo, as if a secret lay hidden there waiting to be discovered. He replayed their messy battle in the laboratory, in particular the moment that demented beast had pinned him over the computer console with one claw. Vincent recalled struggling to break free to no avail. A generator had stood close-by. So in his desperation, he’d…

Suddenly, it clicked. He knew exactly what he had to do.

Never did a goal appear more clear or right in Vincent’s mind. Whether he’d reached a genuine insight or just cracked into a lunatic, he’d made his decision. Thus, he hustled to work.

He acted with unnatural composure. He carefully laid the unconscious girl down upon the shaky floor. He placed her on her side close against the wall, where hazards were less likely to crash. The man then ambled a short distance away. Vincent exposed his metallic arm in full. With his bare hand, he literally ripped off the cover and tossed it aside. Next his solemn eyes surveyed the mini-metropolis of neuro-circuits and connections inside this artificial limb.

War had certainly dealt enormous damage to his arm. Besides several nasty dents, bullet punctures and ruined knuckles, the traumatized interior fizzed in pain and crackled angry sparks at his negligence. Indeed, Vincent had thus far ignored the grievous condition of his arm.

Now he took an active interest. Hunching over, the man began tinkering with the circuits. His face radiated rigid determination. Vincent uprooted a tangle of wires. He lost all sensation of that limb at once. Step one complete; he then groped around for the sharpest piece of rubble available. His hand found a flint-like stone. Perfect.

He’d no gun to do the job. So he bared his elbow, where flesh met metal, and stabbed this junction at full force. Thankfully, he felt nothing. He attacked his elbow again and again. Every jab hit the exact same spot. The brutal self-mutilation continued until control of his arm had been reduced to the barest minimum, after which he flung the murder weapon away.

By then, Vincent could just barely move his claw. He took great care not to let it contact anything, including his body. He was ready to go now. However, he stole one last look at Aeris.

The man couldn’t resist edging close to her again. Vincent studied every detail of her face until he could’ve drawn it blind-folded. He beheld her like a convict regards a loved one before his execution. The man tenderly stroked her cheek a moment, then stooped over to plant a kiss upon the spot. But the comatose girl did not filch. And Vincent, much as he hated to, decided it was time he left. So with a silent farewell, the man quietly departed. He did not look back.

Vincent never knew how he managed to climb back onto his feet, what with a heart so heavy and his balance racked between pain and fever. Of course, the tumultuous grounds did not help either. Using the wall for support, he limped off towards another corridor. His mauled arm dangled a dead weight by his side, still spitting indignant protests. Vincent took no notice. Onwards they journeyed.

He’d no intension of saving himself or seeking shelter. No. Right now, only one purpose shone bright infront of him: find Hojo. He had to find Professor Hojo.

-End of Chp.88