I Know What's Beneath
the Snow Fields -Chp.39
Vincent thought his back had slammed against a thick concrete wall. Instead, the violent explosion had merely hurled him at full force into a tough, knotted tree across the road.
He immediately lost all sensation in his body.
Surprisingly, Vincent had managed to hold onto Aeris, even as they spun wildly through the air. He had embraced the screaming girl tightly against his chest, so that on impact (and what impact!), only Vincent's back took the brutal blow. He never let go of her.
At the same instant Vincent slammed into the sturdy tree, Davoren came skidding clear across the gravel road, having himself just barely escaped the woods unharmed. Crouched down with bent legs set wide apart, the gunman at last came to a halt. He stood only a few yards away from the distraught two.
The earth-shaking explosion had also sent all sorts of debris flying out of the woodlands: burning tree branches, clumps of dirt and snow, even blasted bush tops. A huge fire roared some distance in the woods, lighting up the entire area in orange brilliance. That was the bombsite.
When he had thus been so ruthlessly slammed and all sensation lost, Vincent slumped weakly down to the ground. Still clinging onto Aeris as if to dear life, he lay wearily against the knotted tree. Aeris lay slouched in his lap, much shaken by the violent blast, but otherwise unharmed. Vincent's hand held the gun in a rigid, tight grip. His head bent sharply down, so that much of his lustrous black hair dangled before his face. He gasped loudly for air.
"Vincent!! Vincent!!" cried Aeris in horrified alarm. She frantically pushed back his long hair, then held his haggard face between her trembling hands, "Vincent!! VINCENT!!!!"
The man simply lacked the strength to respond.
He found himself struggling against unconsciousness, with his head swimming around in a sea of confused chaos. The loud explosion still rang in his numb ears; he could barely hear Aeris' tearful voice. He could not move his aching limbs, not even flinch his finger. His head felt as heavy as lead, his eyesight far too blurry.
A splitting headache trampled all over his already battered brains. His lungs howled in pain.
Frantic beyond reason, Aeris immediately slipped out of his lap, then crouched down infront of him. She sobbed out his name repeatedly, patted his hot cheeks, anything to win a reply from him. Indeed, he looked like he would pass out any moment.
Vincent slumped to the side in exhaustion, but Aeris instantly grabbed him by the shoulders. The girl pulled him towards herself to steady his balance again. Vincent sat slouched forward, with Aeris' cold hands pressed against his cheeks.
"..V..Vincent..oh God, Vincent! Please, wake up!" she pleaded, completely at her wits' end.
"I'm all right..I'm..all right..," he whispered hoarsely to calm the tearful girl. With that lie, he pressed his burning fingers against his eyes. He needed to dispel this horrible dizziness somehow.
He wondered why Davoren hadn't attacked yet. He could feel those pink eyes laughing at his ordeal.
It took Vincent perhaps a minute just to gather his scattered senses again. He sat hunched over, his heavy head supported by Aeris' hands. Most of his hearing had finally cleared up. He finally realized the stinging pain tearing every inch of his battered body.
At long last, after many tearful entreaties, Vincent forced his blood-shot eyes open. Despite hazy eyesight, grievous injuries, and clinging weariness, he would not abandon this crazy battle; not with Aeris at stake.
Aeris' anxious eyes told him how haggard, sickly, and ghostly pale his face looked. It seemed Davoren would beat him within an inch of his life, then let the cruel illness finish off whatever remained.
"..ah..I..I'm all right, Aeris..I'm fine..," he reassured before the girl could burst out crying, "..you... were you hurt at all?"
"..I..uh..n-no..I'm..," Aeris faltered out confusedly. In her anxiety, she had simply forgotten about herself, "..I..I'm okay...but you, Vincent! y-you're.."
But Vincent abruptly turned his eyes to the side, at the same time touching the girl's arm to silence her. He glared hatefully at Davoren, who stood a short distance down the road. The gunman gazed back at him so mockingly, with one hand impertinently propped on his hip. His other hand held the semi-automatic gun by his side. He had been patiently waiting all this time for Vincent to recover.
The brilliant fire raging in the woods lit up one half of Davoren's face, while the other half remained obscured by darkness. His strange pink eyes blazed with an evil fire, even more intense than the one in the woods.
He looked like a demon just crawled out of Hell. The stray white hair strands dangling before his face only added to his sinister appearance.
Nobody spoke a word.
Vincent wasted no more time wallowing in his own ordeal. With a sharp grunt, he struggled to one knee, then up to his feet. He nearly staggered back down, but somehow steadied himself in time. He protectively shoved Aeris behind him, letting her hold onto his claw while his hand gripped his gun. He breathed hard. His eyes shone in crimson brilliance.
The two men stood face to face.
"Still able to move, huh?" Davoren marveled with malicious mockery, "My, what incredible endurance you have! I was hoping that blow would at least shatter your spine, if not knock you out cold for another thirty years."
Vincent made no response except scoff under his breath. He felt the tearful Aeris clutch his shirt from behind, then bury her face into his back. She seemed desperate for shelter from this horrific nightmare.
"But of course, I should have known you'd be tougher than to let a mere tree kill you," the ruthless gunman smiled amusedly, "Still, I've never seen anyone look so sick and beat-up. You look like a bloody pulp, Mr.Valentine."
Davoren told no lie. Vincent looked three times more battered than when this crazy shoot-out started. His black overcoat lay in filth and tatters; his pants and sleeves torn with bullet wounds. His whole chest, ravaged by the repressed coughing fit, heaved in agony; so much so that he still gasped for air. Sweat poured down his feverish, blood-spattered face. His feet felt so wobbly, he himself wondered how he could stand at all.
"I'm surprised..you didn't kill me just now," Vincent remarked composedly but with deep resentfulness, "I was such an easy target...dizzy, stunned, and wide open for any attack."
"Oh now! We have the whole night ahead of us, so what's the rush? What fun would it be if I just killed you without watching you suffer a bit? Even blood-thirsty gunmen like me need some entertainment once in a while."
Vincent made no answer, completely disgusted with this man's sense of "fun". So, Davoren had only spared his life out of good-humour.
"But now that you mention it, I suppose I should end this and just kill you," the callous man playfully mused aloud, "The Professor's been getting on my case all this month, yearning for the girl again, screaming for your head, and how much he needs to finish his wonderful experiment. 'It's all for the experiment! The experiment!' he says. Geez, what a miserable old grouch!"
At the mention of the "experiment", Vincent narrowed his red eyes on Davoren's face very keenly, but said nothing.
In return, Davoren smiled at the piercing look. He carelessly ejected an empty cartridge of bullets from his gun, then shoved a new one into the hollow chamber.
"I'm impressed you've survived this long, Vincent. I know it's not easy fighting me all-out and having a little cry-baby weighing you down. But unfortunately, I fear your condition has deteriorated so much, you can barely defend yourself, let alone protect the girl. In case you didn't notice, you can't even stand straight."
The gunman slowly began advancing towards the two. Vincent tensed in his spot, expecting an attack any moment. Poor Aeris edged closer against his back.
Vincent internally agreed with the gunman. That last explosion had really knocked out what precious little energy he had. His senses dizzied by exhaustion, his agility reduced, his health plagued by the fit...he had no chance of surviving this fight with Aeris involved.
But nevertheless, he pushed the girl further behind him, while at the same time gripping his gun very tightly.
"I can't stand straight, you're right," Vincent replied, glaring straight back at the approaching Davoren, "..but there's still breath in my body. And as long as I have that, not you, your mercenaries, or even your mighty 'Professor' will have her."
"Defend to the death, eh?" Davoren pronounced viciously, a cold expression replacing the smile, "My, my! How chivalrous of you!"
He stopped. The two stood facing each other, with Aeris nervously tucked behind Vincent's back. The raging fire blazed on in the forest; the short crackles of burning wood and twigs filled the air.
"..chivalrous, yes," the gunman remarked before suddenly lunging forward at an incredible speed, "...chivalrous, but not very smart!!!!"
Vincent had anticipated this attack. Grabbing Aeris very roughly around the waist, he flipped to the side, just before a fresh surge of bullets attacked them. He tumbled over a few times amidst the wild gunfire, but soon scuffled back to one knee. He dumped Aeris by his side, then returned full fire at Davoren, who easily dodged behind one of the trees.
Vincent knew better than to fight on an open road, with no shelter, and a frantic girl huddled by his side. Therefore, he furiously shot a round to push Davoren back, then immediately picked up the girl again. He darted away as fast as his feet could carry him, down the road, then straight into the woods.
He could hear Davoren's quick footsteps rapidly closing in from behind. Vincent flew past the trees along the roadside, perused by the ruthless gunman, who never hesitated to fire away. He avoided the deadly shots only by wrangling his hearing senses to the very extreme. Vincent dodged behind trees, skipped over bushes, and tumbled to the side as he ran to escape.
Aeris had embraced his neck and buried her whole face against his shoulder. Her trembling fit doubled with every shot that whizzed by her. Whenever Vincent returned a few shots, she gave a faint cry but immediately suppressed it.
Vincent's brain raced to form a plan, no matter how ludicrous or difficult. Escape was impossible: his leg injuries had significantly reduced his speed. He couldn't just turn around and fight all-out: first, he lacked the strength for a counter-offensive; second, he could never carry Aeris around and fight. Then what should he do? Abandon the girl? Never! Leave her someplace safe while he fought? She could be discovered, and if Davoren happened to be her discoverer, she would be killed.
He grit his teeth to restrain a violent curse: Davoren had him cornered in every direction. He couldn't go on running like this forever. There must be SOME way out of this wretched trap.
He narrowly escaped a crazy shower of bullets by dashing to the side. Vincent dodged behind a tree just as the savage gunfire tore the bark off the unlucky barrier. He tightened his grip around the girl (who was futilely battling hysterics), then dashed at full speed amongst the throng of trees, regardless of mad gunfire.
Davoren showed no mercy in his pursuit: either he killed Vincent, or died in the process.
The chase raged on through the woods. The two men raced along the trees, one perusing with such evil doggedness, the other struggling to stay on his feet. Vincent had no time to notice his new injuries. His mind fought for a solution to this dilemma.
Finally, Vincent reached the very end of the woods. He tumbled out onto the gravel road, dumping Aeris behind him again. At the same time, Vincent opened full fire back into the woods. He shot straight at Davoren with such fierceness, the gunman could only huddle behind a tree, and return a few shots.
Vincent wondered how long he could hold back the gunman; he was down to his last cartridge of bullets. He wondered more how long he could hold down the coughing fit. It raged inside his hot, tight chest, screaming for release.
Suddenly, Vincent detected heavy footsteps rushing towards him. Much to his alarm (and annoyance), three heavily-armed men emerged onto the road, then raced straight for him. They called to each other, shouting angrily "THERE!! HE'S THERE!!" and "SHOOT!! NOW!!!!"
The last three mercenaries had finally arrived to aid their leader.
"Yes, just what I need right now...more company!" Vincent muttered as he scuffled back to both feet.
He yanked Aeris off the cold ground with his claw, then bolted down the road. The mercenaries automatically opened fire on their target, hurtling curses and shouts as well as deadly bullets. Vincent only returned a few shots as he dashed away. Otherwise, he darted at top speed without glancing behind.
An insane torrent of bullets ripped through the air, straight at the running target. Vincent miraculously escaped by tumbling into a huge, thick forest along the roadside. He struggled back up to his feet immediately. Without hesitation, he ran further into the black labyrinth of knotted trees, brushing past bushes and frozen twigs.
The cries of the three mercenaries grew fainter until he could no longer hear them. They probably wanted to consult their leader before making any attack.
After perhaps five minutes of running and scuffling, Vincent slowed down. Gasping loudly for air, he made his way to one tree, then collapsed to his knees. He released Aeris.
His hard gasping nearly changed into an outright fight for air. His limbs twitched in pain. The fever burned him all over, from his forehead to his fingertips. Vincent's eyesight had blurred again; fuzzy grey objects and shapeless shadows surrounded him. He could hear his hot blood gurgling inside his aching lungs.
Just like their situation, the illness couldn't possibly get any worst.
Aeris forcefully repressed her fears again, and somehow withheld the urge to break down into tears. She immediately crawled over to Vincent's side to ease his ordeal. The girl rubbed his shaking back, whispering hurried words of encouragement into his ears. She steadied his balance again, then patted his cheeks and burning hand to restore his senses.
A whole minute dragged by.
When Vincent had recovered whatever remained of his strength, he looked around himself in silent curiosity. Thick trees and entangled bushes clustered around the two intruders, their barren branches and twigs stretched out overhead. Indeed, Vincent had stumbled into a very, very heavily-forested area.
It wouldn't be long before those men discovered this hideout. And with him in such a battered state, he'd never last long against their guns. In his anxious frustration, Vincent could only think of one plan.
"Aeris, I want you to run away from here," he ordered gently.
The girl gaped at him in astonishment.
"I'll distract those men, and hold them back for a while, you run away.... get out of this park," Vincent explained as he checked his ammo: only ten bullets left, "Now, I'm going to go back there, you run.."
"V-Vincent..how...w-w-what are..," Aeris faltered, horrified by his idea, "..I..I can't just leave you here! You're hurt, and sick! You don't stand a chance against Davoren and his men!! What if they..."
"Don't worry about me. I'm fine."
"I said I'm fine," he repeated sternly. He peered very intently at her frightened face as he instructed, "Now you go on further down these woods until you.."
"No! No, I won't go!!" the girl tearfully refused, shaking her head.
"Aeris, I can't handle this! It's too much for me," Vincent reasoned vexedly, "I can't protect you AND fight Davoren at the same time. He's not holding back anymore, so I have to focus all my concentration on him. But I can't, Aeris; you're a distraction. I have to watch your back as well as mine; and every time you cry and scream, I slip off my guard, like just now. Do as I say. Go to..."
"No! No! No!" she insisted stubbornly, "You either come with me, or I stay! but I won't leave you!!"
"You know I can't go. Somebody has to push these men back..."
"But you're hurt! Look! Look, you're bleeding!!!"
"Forget me. It's..."
"..and Davoren swore he'd kill you...slowly and painfully!! Didn't you hear him?!! You..you'll die if you face him again! You can't fight him in your condition! He'll kill you on the spot!!!"
"I'll be all right. Aeris, you..."
"No, I won't leave you!! because if I leave now, I know I'll never see you again!! He'll murder you in cold-blood!! I don't..."
"JUST SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO ME!!!!" Vincent shouted in anger, glaring furiously at the poor, frantic girl.
Dumbstruck by his angry words, Aeris stared back at him in mute shock. She had never heard him raise his voice like that, not even against his worst enemies.
Vincent paused a moment to soothe his enraged temper, then resumed with forced calmness, "If you stay here, you'll either die or get captured. I'm too battered...and the explosion knocked a lot out of me...I can't even see that clearly anymore. That's why I want you to leave. Because I can't protect you from the bullets and fight back at the same time. It's too much for me to handle. Now Aeris, do as I say, and don't argue back; I haven't the time to hear it."
The girl said nothing.
"Go through the woods, until you reach a little road. Run down the road, take the first turn, and you'll find the exit. Run as fast as you can away from here."
Poor Aeris covered her mouth to suppress her anguished tears. Her shoulders couldn't stop shaking. She bowed her head in pained submission. Cocking his gun, Vincent staggered up to his feet again. Both legs ached miserably.
"The minute you leave this place, go get help," Vincent instructed in a business-like tone, "find a policeman, a police station, a phone, anything. Call Tifa and Cloud. They'll help you right away."
Aeris only nodded her head, but did not stand or look up at him. Many bitter sobs escaped her. She only restrained them out of fear Vincent might lose his temper again.
"No matter what happens to me...no matter what you hear, do NOT come back for me. Do you understand?"
She feebly nodded her head again.
"Aeris, do you understand?"
A very awkward moment of silence followed. The tearful girl sat trembling on the ground, overcome by wretched misery. Vincent gazed down at her very thoughtfully.
What he intended to do probably came very close to suicide. Against Davoren's ruthless brutality, he had little chance of survival, especially in his desperate condition. But he had to buy Aeris some time to escape, even at the risk of his own life. And at least with her safely out of the way, he could focus his attention on the fight better (and maybe actually survive).
Vincent helped the poor girl up to her feet, then turned around to leave. He avoided her eyes.
"Go now," he dismissed gently. His tone sounded much softer than before.
Immediately, Vincent dashed away back towards the enemy. He didn't look back at Aeris.