Aeris, slightly embarrassed with his intimate posture, cautiously edged away from him. Vincent opened his weary eyes at the movement, and lifted his head. He instantly fell back against the tree again, heaving a deep sigh of exhaustion.
Aeris studiedhis haggard, dirty face. A thin stream of blood trickled through his bandanna and down his soiled cheek. Several strands of his wet hair dangled loosely infront of his face. His eyes were gently sealed, as though they would never reopen again.
But she found his deathly calmness most alarming. Indeed, Vincent's whole appearance, with his slightly tilted head and careworn face, expressed such unnatural peacefulness, any passer-by may have thought him dead.
"Vincent?" called Aeris hesitantly.
"Not so loud..," he whispered feebly, "I can still hear you."
Aeris was reduced to a nervous silence. He kept his eyes closed, evidently trying to gather his strength. Except for the occasional bark of some stray dog, nothing dared break the haunting tranquillity of the park.
"Aeris?" he asked in a low voice, but did not open his eyes.
"Could you please help me up? I can't move my shoulders."
Aeris gave a start as he slowly forced his eyes open. His bloodshot eyes blazed feverishly with a deep crimson glow. Every word, every breath, was an obvious agony to him.
She instantly sprang up and began helping, or rather pulling, Vincent off the ground. After many failed attempts, Aeris finally managed to haul him to his feet. He staggered uneasily against her with a sharp grunt, but grittede his teeth to stiffle any further cries.
The girl could feel his heartbeat thumping loudly, and saw the sweat drip down his distraught face.
God, she thought anxiously, if I don't get him home soon, he'll faint out here in the cold!
She gently drew his arm around her neck and leaned his whole body against hers to support him.
"Okay, Vincent, you're on your feet," she encouraged kindly, "Let's try taking a step forward."
"You can't support me, Aeris," Vincent gasped out, "I'm too heavy for you. I can manage..by..myself.."
"But you can't even stand up!"
"Ah!" he moaned suddenly, "Ah..I think.. I can walk somehow..just..let me.."
But he immediately crumbled to his knees in pain. Aeris pulled him back to his feet before he could fall, and tried desperately to support his unsteady body. He was right: his weught was far greater than she could bear, but Aeris would not give up.
"We're almost home, Vincent. Look!" she said eagerly, "The apartment's just a few steps away! Don't quit yet!"
She tightened her grip on his cold hand, as if that could give him new strength. He leaned with his full weight on her, unable to even balance his shoulders properly.
"Please, Vincent," she begged, "let me help you."
Though the pain tore at his entire body, especially his arms, he managed to nod his head submissively. he knew that if Aeris stopped supporting him, he'd lose conscious on the spot.
they plodded slowly out of the frozen park, emerging into the empty, brightly-lit street. Their awkward footsteps broke the suffocating silence of the air. Aeris felt Vincent grow increasingly heavy as he dragged his weary feet behind him. He bit his lower lip with each step, and squeezed his eyes in pain.
She continuously whispered some gentle words of encouragement into his ear, pressed his lifeless hand, anything to keep his conscious. At times, he completely lost balance, nearly crushing the poor girl under his weight, but instantly steadied himself again with an effort.
"Aeris..," he muutered weakly, "Please..l..lean me against that wall.."
"But we're nearly.."
"Please," he begged with restraint, "I..I think I'm going to have another seizure.."
She looked at his face in alarm, then cautiously rested his body against the brick wall, still keeping his arm around her neck. Aeris dared not utter a word for fear of upsetting him, yet could not take her eyes off him. The anxiety sickened her heart beyond endurance.
Vincent shut his eyes in profound concentration, as if engaged in some gruelling mental battle with the fit. Sweat broke out on his ghastly face. The seizure angirly rattled his chest, demanding its release. Vincent knitted his brows and gnashed his teeth to repress it. He would not surrender without a fight.
Occasionally his resistance would falter, and he'd splutter out some blood with a sudden cough. But his persistence finally prevailed: the seizure reluctantly retreated into the depths of his chest, and he breathed easy again.
Aeris steadied his anguished face; she felt his chest heave up and down with each gasp. Sometimes he uttered a faint moan and slumped to one side in exhaustion, but Aeris steadied him every time. Whatever remainded of his strength was rapidly dwindling.
"You're very sick, Vincent," she whirpered compassionately, wiping away the sweat from his feverish face.
"Y..yes," he agreed mechanically, "These fits have been ravaging my chest for the past five months.."
He swallowed a deep breath of air, but suddenly burst out coughing, his throat gurgling with blood. Aeris frantically rubbed his chest, begging him to relax his muscles and breathe slowly.
"Ah..," Vincent continued when he finally recovered himself, "At first, the fits were very small and infrequent. But lately..lately they've been attacking me quite often..and some of them are so violent..I..I.."
He broke off his sentence with a pitiful sigh. Aeris nodded her head solemnly; she understood his meaning.
When Vincent had gathered enough strength to move again, the two continued their agonising journey to the apartment. Aeris felt her back might snap any moment with Vincent's weight, but immediately scoffed at her weakness: Vincent had just risked his life to save her, the very *least* she could do was help him home!
"You should see a doctor, Vincent." she commented as they staggered into the reception hall of the building. Pressing the elevator button, she glanced up at Vincent in concern.
"If I see a doctor," he mused dreamily, "he'd probably be more interested in my claw or my genetic makeup. I don't want a bunch of scientists examining me..once was enough."
A loud chime interrupted the conversation, signalling the arrival of the long-awaited elevator. Aeris pulled Vincent inside, then pressed the appropriate botton. When the doors closed, the elevator gave a slight jolt, and began its journey upwards.
During this time, a heavy silence fell on the two, on Vincent in particular. He seemed to be brooding about some serious matter. Aeris occasionally glanced at his haggard, morose face, and decided it best not to pester him with meaningless questions.
The elevator finally halted. Its doors quickly admitted them into the familiar corridor of apartment doors. Aeris' heart sweeled with joy on spotting Vincent's door. It was only a few steps away.
"Just hang on, Vincent," she encouraged cheerfully, "See? There's your door!"
She turned excitedly to Vincent, but his serious face greatly disturbed her. He stared thoughtfully at the door, as though it hid some mysterious secret behind it.
"Vincent?" asked Aeris apprehenisvely, "What's wrong?"
He shifted his eyes to her, studying every feature of her anxious face. His arm, which Aeris still held around her neck, tensed with discomfort. He slowly brought his face near her ear, and began whispering in a most alarmingly low voice. His icy, dispassionate tone chilled her heart to the core; she felt his very breath tickle her ear.
"Listen," he began gently, "when Tifa and Cloud ask what happened, let me do the talking."
Aeris started on hearing the strange request. After some hesitation, she reluctantly nodded her head.
"And..," he murmurred more softly, "whatever I say, just agree with me. I know it sounds strange, Aeris, but please, do it for me."
She looked at him in concern. Vincent wearily hung his head near her face, anticipating a reply.
"Alright, Vincent," she whispered deliberately.
"Thank you," he sighed, pressing her hand warmly.
Aeris was silent, but felt her cheeks flush slightly at the pressure of his hand.
Taking a deep breath, she knocked the door three times. there was an awkward pause. Suddenly, cloud flung the door open, and stared at the two with a large gaping mouth.
"SHIT!!!" he exclaimed finally, "Vincent!! What the Hell happened to YOU?!!"
Aeris handed the weary man over to Cloud, who immediately wrapped Vincent's arm around his neck and dragged him inside. The girl, relieved of the heavy load, followed them into the hallway.
Cloud slammed the door behind her, then leaned Vincent against the door, shouting at the top of his lungs, "TIFA!! TIFA, C'MERE QUICK!!!"
Tifa, with an empty plate in her hand, rushed out of the kitchen, as if a demon had been chasing her.
"GOOD GRIEF!!" she screamed, dropping the plate in unmistakable horror, "VINCENT!!! ARE YOU ALRIGHT??!!"
They all crowded around him, loudly demanding an immediate explanation. Vincent could not distinguish their faces, hear their words, or even understand their anxiety. Indeed, he felt his whole mind slipping away like water between his fingers.
He clumsily slumped to one side, but both Aeris and Cloud grabbed him before he could collapse.
"Vincent! Please, wake up!" sobbed Aeris. She supported him against her body, frantically squeezing his lifeless hand and pushing his hair out of his face.
"Vincent! Hey!!" called Cloud, patting the man's cheeks repetedly, "C'mon man! Snap out of it!!"
"Oh God!" exclaimed Tifa, "We need to get him a doctor!"
"Ah..no..," Vincent muttered as he finally steadied himself. Aeris still clung to him, afraid he may lose conscious again if she let go.
"Whadd'ya mean 'no'?! have you lost your senses?!!" cried Tifa in anguish.
"'Alright'?!" retorted Cloud amazedly, "Have you looked in the mirror lately?!"
"It's not..as bad as it looks," Vincent forced out weakly.
Leaning his head back against the door, he shut his tired eyes, as if gathering all his remaining strength in one last effort. All attention was riveted on him.
"I just got into a street fight, that's all."
Tifa gasped out loud, but covered her mouth to ease the shock. Cloud gripped Vincent's shoulders firmly and studied his haggard face, thinking he had perhaps misheard him. Aeris stared timidly at the ground. She was very quiet.
"Excuse me," faltered Cloud, "did you just say you got into a street fight?"
"Yes, I did."
Cloud turned his head incredulously to Tifa; her face showed utter horror and distress at the news.
"So..what happened?" asked Cloud after a brief silence.
"Well," began Vincent calmly, "I went to search for Aeris, and eventually, I found her..in the Northern Slums."
"When I found her there, I saw some thugs trying to mug her, and..other atrocities I won't mention."
Cloud and Tifa nodded their heads solemnly, understanding his full meaning. Aeris fidgetted uncomfortably, her face growing hot with the fictitious story.
"And, that's all really. I got into a fight with them."
Cloud still held onto him, afraid he may somehow escape his grasp. Tifa looked from Vincent to Aeris, then back to Vincent, completely dumbfounded.
"But, Vincent," asked Cloud in surprise, "I've seen you fight before, and I know no common thug from the streets could do *this* to you."
Vincent turned his head away with a frown. Heaving a deep sigh, he mumbled, "Well of course, Cloud. But even I can't handle a whole gang of thugs without getting thrashed a bit. Besides, they had guns..and knives.."
"Oh God!" whispered the horror-stricken Tifa.
A heavy silence followed, in which no one dared break it. Vincent looked at everyone wearily, then shut his eyes again; the talking had totally drained him.
"Aeris..is..is this true?" inquired Cloud softly. Both he and Tifa fixed their searching eyes on her, as if her answer alone would settle everything. Aeris felt her heart pound nervously, but slowly nodded her head.
"I'm sorry," she apologized shamefully, "I..I wanted to run back here, but I got lost and..accidently wandered into those slums.."
Cloud stared blankly at her; her simple excuse for running into that dangerous area astounded him. He exchanged a meaningful glance with Tifa, who quickly nodded her head in reply.
"And, you're absolutely sure you're okay, Vincent?" insisted Cloud.
"Yes..," he muttered, "but..my arm is slightly damaged. I can't move it."
"Shit man!!" exclaimed Cloud on seeing the horribly disfigured claw, "It's in even worse shape than you!"
With that remark, Cloud placed the man's arm around his neck again. Both girls helped Vincent steady himself on his wobbly feet, begging him to move slowly.
"Careful. Don't touch my arm," warned Vincent, "A couple of wires short circuited inside. You could get an electric shock."
"Easy! Easy!" replied Cloud as the man staggered against him, "Okay, I got you. Sheesh, you're really heavy, you know that?"
"Th..there's a metal tool box in one of the kitchen cupboards," Vincent instructed patiently, "Could you please get it for me, Cloud?"
"Sure, sure! you just take it nice and slow!"
Cloud dragged Vincent away from the anxious girls, grunting under the burdensome weight but trying to appear unconcerned. Aeris wanted beyond anything to go after them, but guessed she'd only get in the way. She remained behind.
Her distressed eyes followed the two men until they disappeared into the living room. heaving a sigh, she rubbed her weary temples; all her strength had finally evaporated.
Suddenly, Tifa gripped her arm and swung the girl around. She peered into Aeris' frightened face, feeling immense rage boiling in her heart. She compressed her lips tightly; her eyes flashed fire. Indeed, Aeris could foresee an imminent rebuke.
"Aeris!! You silly, silly girl!!" Tifa burst out, "Why'd you run away like that, huh?!"
"I nearly got a heart attack!! Do you know how WORRIED I was?! how worried we all were?!!"
aeris, overwhelmed with guilt, hung her head and could not answer. Tifa stared intently at her, her eyes welling up with angry tears.
"Do you know that Vincent spent THREE hours in the rain looking for you?! And Cloud went berserk when I told him what happened!!"
Aeris dared not breathe a word of protest. An awkward silence fell on the two girls. Tifa still glared accusingly at Aeris, who felt her heart flood with shame. She could not bear her friend's anger.
Aeris opened her mouth to reply, but Tifa suddenly threw her arms around her and embraced her with all her might, as if she could shield her from all danger. She burried her face into the girl's neck, trembling whenever a sob escaped her. Aeris, at a complete loss, stood perfectly still.
"Damn it, Aeris!" cursed Tifa with a quivering voice, "What if those thugs killed you? What if Vincent hadn't found you in time? What then?!"
Aeris cringed in fear as the image of that horrible gunman floated into her mind: yes, what if Vincent hadn't found her in time? What *then*?
"I's sorry, Tifa," faltered Aeris pitifully, "I..I guess.. I just got so scared..I could only think about running away.."
Tifa lifted her head and looked searchingly at Aeris' sad face. though her eyes glittered with tears, she had somehow managed to check her emotions.
"You thought that professor had found you?" she asked gently.
"Y..yes..I thought..that he would catch me again..and he'd.."
"Sh! Sh! You little scardey-cat," whispered tifa compassionately as she hugged the girl again, "no one's gonna get you. You're safe now. You're safe."
Aeris rested her head on Tifa's shoulder, feeling all her previous fears melt away with a new sense of security. the Professor, the gunman, the danger, they all faded away into oblivion; only her safety, her friends remained behind, and they warmed her heart to the very core.
"Heh heh," chuckled Tifa after a moment. She held Aeris at arm's length, smiling delightedly at her.
"Wh..what's so funny?" asked Aeris nervously.
"Oh, I remebered what you were telling me just hours ago. Y'know, about how much you thought Vincent hated you."
Aeris blinked in confusuion; that conversation seemed years ago. She recalled shouting at Vincent all those nasty insults; that he couldn't understand anything; and that he hated her beyond anything.
But he wasn't angry when she insulted him. He said he understood her better than anyone else.
And he didn't hate her at all. Far from it, he said he felt "concern" for her.
"i told you he didn't hate you," sad Tifa, interrupting her thoughts, "When I told what happened, he rushed out in the freezing rain to find you. He didn't even hesitate!"
Yes, continued Aeris internally, and saved my life too. He didn't hesitate that time either.
"I'm curious," remarked Tifa, "Was he angry when he found you? What did he say?"
All of Vincent's words instantly cluttered Aeris' brain: from the moment he touched her arm at the Haunt, to the minute the staggered into the apartment.
-end of chapter 9
But Aeris held his words firmly to her bosom, refusing to share them. She felt they were meant for her ears alone. They provided a strange comfort that only Vincent and she could understand.
"Nothing," muttered Aeris in a low voice, "He said nothing."
Tifa looked strangely at the girl. Perhaps she detected a tone of slight irritation in her voice; or maybe because Aeris hed turned her head away uncomfortably.
"Well, anyway," Tifa replied at length, "What matters now is you're here and safe."
Aeris nodded her head slowly.
"You go take a shower, and change your wet clothes. We don't want you catching a cold.Go on."
Tifa, with a warm smile, escorted her to the bathroom. She promised to fetch Aeris her towel and dry clothes when she would finish; Aeris thanked her for her kindess.
"Dinner should be ready in an hour," said Tifa as she closed the door, "It'll make us all feel much better"
Back to I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields.