I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.8


At first, Vincent thought he was perhaps hallucinating, but a second look dispersed that hope: Davoren *was* standing infront of him, smiling mockingly at his confusion. 

"Davoren," muttered Vincent audibly this time. 

"Why, you remember my name! I'm flattered, Vincent," laughed Davoren good-humourously, "Do you usually remember the names of the people you kill?" 

Vincent's eyes gave an involuntary twitch at the strange remark. His muscles stiffened as he gazed at Davoren's face, hoping to find some answers to all the burning questions that crowded his brain. 

Although Davoren's countenance had dramatically shifted from jeering to affable, Vincent discerned an unmistakable gleam of immense hatred in that man's eyes. It was so spiteful and bitter, Vincent felt it sting his heart to the core. 

What's wrong, Vincent?" Davoren smiled, "You'd think I was a ghost the way you're staring at me" 

Vincent's face darkened with contempt and unfeigned hatred. A cold sensation rapidly engulfed his heart as his eyes scanned this man. He tightened his grip on his gun, but did not raise it. 

I don't care what my eyes are seeing, he argued inside his stunned brain, I don't care! This cannot be Davoren! 

And yet, answered another voice within him, he's standing right there infront of you. 

Both men stared at each other, as though measuring their strengths. Neither said a word. 

Aeris, who had finally managed to compose her shattered nerves, struggled to her feet with great difficulty. She leaned against the wall, gasping for breath and shaking pitifully. 

"V..Vincent!" she started, "Ah! Where is he?!" 

Intense anxiety over him suddenly gripped her heart. She looked around confusedly, wondering how he had disappeared, then remembered he had left her safely behind the corner and went to face the gunman. 

Though obviously still in shock after escaping the previous gunfire, she managed to stagger around the battered corner. Much to her relief, Aeris found Vincent a few steps ahead of her, with his back facing her. 

She also noticed Davoren standing a few yards away, grinning coldly at Vincent. She immediately recognized him, and recoiled with fear in spite of herself. 

Vincent apparently discerned her presence behind him; he turned his head around slightly to glance at her. Davoren perceived her as well. His mocking smile instantly disappeared. replaced by a frightening, stoic expression. 

Both fixed their eyes on her, yet remained grudgingly silent, each waiting for the other to speak. 

Poor Aeris was overwhelmed by the strange looks in the two men: Vincent's eyes shone with such malice and unmasked hostility; totally contrary to the warm, gentle gleam when he had touched her cheek just minutes ago. 

As for Davoren, that dreadful gunman, he gazed at her with such frigidity, his face might have been chiseled of marble. 

"Hm..," sneered Davoren suddenly, breaking the oppressive silence, "She's very pretty, Mr. Valentine. I don't blame you for sacrificing your arm to protect her." 

Vincent gave him a most cutting, dirty look. He felt his muscles stiffen with an intense desire to kill Davoren, to tear his hateful smile off his face. His wrathful eyes shone with such fire, as though they would reduce that man to ashes. 

Davoren, on the other hand, seemed delighted to have enraged Vincent. He grinned as innocently as a child. 

"V..Vincent," faltered Aeris, walking up to him uneasily, "Do you.. know this man?" 

Vincent narrowed his eyes contemptuously at Davoren. He seemed to be debating some issue in his brain before granting the girl an answer. 

"Yes," he replied without looking at her, "I know him." 

Aeris stopped exactly one step from him, still facing his back. She had one hand clasped over her heart as she looked concernedly at Vincent, wondering why he used such a dispassionate, icy tone. 

His whole countenance, in fact, seemed to have grown alarmingly cold and emotionless. So much, that Aeris dared not ask him any further questions. 

"We were 'friends' 31 years ago, my dear. That's why he's so cross," added Davoren with evident humour. 

Vincent knitted his brows at the word "friend". His fingers twitched on the trigger of his gun, and yet he refused to use it, and still more stubbornly, refused to comment aloud. 

Aeris, however, did not understand the gunman's strange meaning at all. She turned her head to Davoren, and found his eyes lingering thoughtfully on her; he obviously yearned to tell her something. 

As if obeying his command, Aeris took a few steps past Vincent, and stood between the two men. Her hands trembled slightly, but her heart felt strongly determined. For a few minutes, only the continuous creeks of the crumbling ShinRa building filled the air, as though complaining of all the brutal damage inflicted on it. Nevertheless, none of the three would consent to talk first. 

"The Professor tells me," began Davoren, "that you've been a very naughty girl by running away from the Laboratory." 

Despite the involuntary shiver she felt at the mention of the despised Professor, Aeris looked straight at his calm face. Vincent remained rooted to his spot, a few steps behind her. He was resentfully silent. 

"He's been in a perfect state of hysterics," Davoren continued, "Just blubbering about you, and wondering where you were hiding." 

"You work for him, don't you?" Aeris asked apprehensively, "He sent you to capture me." Her head grew dizzy. she found the air unbearably suffocating. 

"I didn't even need to speak, girl. You knew that the minute you saw me. That's why you ran off, correct?" 

Aeris nodded her head slowly, as if guilty of some heinous crime. Davoren glanced at Vincent, then smirked amusedly at the girl in a totally self-satisfied way. 

"But I must say, girl," he commented slyly, "you look exceptionally well. Looks like Vincent has been taking *good* care of you. You must mean a great deal to him, eh? Heh heh." 

Aeris blinked in surprise at Davoren. a hectic flush quickly colored her whole face. But Vincent did not even flinch from his position. 

"I'm sure the Professor will be very pleased to know you're safe and well-protected," he added as he slowly walked towards her with a mocking expression on his face. 

Aeris jumped back two steps in alarm. Suddenly, she felt Vincent firmly grip her arm and yank her behind him. He immediately pointed his gun straight at Davoren, his eyes glaring fiercely. 

Davoren stopped indifferently, and returned Vincent's gaze with a cool smile, obviously happy to have won a response out of his "friend". 

"I don't know how the Hell you could be standing there, Davoren," he growled in a low voice, "You may as well be a ghost, for all I know." 

Vincent pushed Aeris as far behind him as possible while still pointing his gun at Davoren. She wanted to protest; but before she could open her mouth, Vincent took one firm step forward to confront the gunman, ignoring her completely. 

"And I don't understand how you managed to survive," Vincent continued maliciously, "but that doesn't change a thing: Aeris will not be going back to that Professor. Not while there's breath in my body." 

Davoren looked at Vincent defiantly, who had his gun rigidly fixed on him, then burst out into a fit of maniacal laughter. 

Aeris leaned against the wall but absolutely refused to hide. Her heart grew uneasy as Davoren's hysterical outburst filled the gloomy air. Vincent, however, did not waver, and kept his weapon aimed on its mark. 

"That was very kind of you to take the bullet for the girl, Vincent," said Davoren, digressing onto a completely new topic, "I must admit, I was quite surprised to see you sacrifice your arm for her. Very chivalrous indeed." 

Vincent's arm twitched slightly, reminding him of his injury. He finally noticed the gnawing pain in his arm and the uncomfortable heat which burned its base. He could hear tiny, barely audible sparks fizzling inside his metallic arm. 

Damn, he cursed, my arm's in even worse shape than I thought. That was no random shot, the cunning bastard. 

"You knew I'd take the shot for her," Vincent muttered vehemently, "In fact, you made sure I'd hear you load your gun so I could protect her. That shot was for *me*, not her." 

"Heh heh," chuckled the happy gunman, "You don't miss a thing, Mr. Valentine. Sharp and shrewd, as always." 

The sarcastic smile on Davoren's face instantly disintegrated. He quickly pulled out a cold machine-gun from the depths of his trench coat, and jammed a full cartridge of bullets into its hallow chamber. 

Aeris gave a violent start on seeing the gun. Her voice immediately failed her as the pounding of her heart drowned her ears, and sickening nausea chocked her. 

However, Davoren didn't even use his gun. He did not even raise it, and seemed to regard his weapon as a mere toy. Vincent would lower his gun, instead gazed hatefully at Davoren. 

"I admire your youthful courage, Vincent," he muttered monotonously, "even though you're..what..55 years old?" 

"58." 

"Fair enough. An old man, all the same." 

Aeris turned her eyes rapidly from one man to the other as she listened to their bizarre, nonsensical conversation. She thought her senses were leaving her. 

"You didn't even hesitate to sacrifice your arm for the girl. Only the young possess such unselfish courage." 

Vincent was morosely silent, but felt a bitter anger raging in his heart. Davoren hung his gun by his side, tapping it carelessly with one finger. 

"Why," continued Davoren calmly, "Surely you knew I'd hit your weak point, Vincent. But that didn't seem to stop you either." 

A totally new thought occurred to Vincent so suddenly, he lowered his gun in alarm. 

"How'd you know the weak point in the first place?" asked Vincent suspiciously. 

Davoren gazed stoically at him, expecting him to grasp the answer from his eyes. Aeris cautiously stepped near Vincent, but did not know what to say. Her mind was completely baffled. 

"ANSWER ME!" he demanded, "HOW?" 

"Guess." 

There's no way he could've known my weak point, frowned Vincent thoughtfully, the only person who could possibly know it, besides me, would be... 

He was literally struck dumb with the sudden conclusion. 

Davoren smiled faintly, glad to see that his "friend" had finally understood. 

"D..Davoren," he whispered hoarsely, "is Hojo behind this? Is *he* the same Professor you work for?" 

Aeris, discerning his anxiety, crept up to Vincent from behind and gently touched his arm. She looked up at him concernedly, but he seemed oblivious to her existence. He focused his burning eyes on Davoren's face, waiting for an immediate answer. 

"You're in luck, Vincent," replied Davoren with a mocking glitter in his eyes, "the Professor has ordered me to catch *you* as well as the little girl. You'll find out when you see him..that is, if you live to see him." 

The two men glared at each other viciously. Aeris felt the stillness weigh her down like a rock, yet she kept her hand on Vincent's arm. She simply did not know what else to do. 

Vincent suddenly shoved her away from him, just as Davoren shot up his arm and opened fire on the two. 

The push sent Aeris flying onto her side behind the safe corner. The mad bullets tore savagely at anything that opposed them: the wall, the ground, even the air. Aeris hugged the wall, covering her head with both hands, as the gunfire blasted away. She shut her eyes to suppress crying out, but could not stop shaking. 

Davoren, however, seemed more interested in shooting Vincent. Vincent bolted across the desolate Haunt, vaulting over heaps of rubble or ducking under contorted scraps of metal, as Davoren sent a torrent of bullets after him. 

The bullets chased him relentlessly, overturning stones and pieces of rotting wood in their hot pursuit, but Vincent only tripled his speed to dodge them. Perceiving a rusty car some distance away, he made a frenzied dash towards it. It was his only hope for shelter. 

The gunman abruptly altered the course of the bullets, blasting a massive pile of debris instead. The violent gunshot sent the whole mountain of rubble tumbling down like an avalanche onto the muddy ground, which effectively blocked Vincent's path to the car. 

Vincent skidded to a halt in alarm, but immediately backtracked his steps, just as some wild bullets whizzed past his face. On spotting the ShinRa pumping pipes a few yards away, he shot forward as fast as his feet would carry him. That was his last hope. 

Vincent leapt over one of the giant pipes, and tumbled onto his back, but Davoren obstinately refused to halt the deadly shower of bullets. Vincent scuffled on all four to huddle by the corroded, sturdy, metallic pipe. The whole structure vibrated with every "ping" and "pang" of the gunfire. Though he squeezed his eyes to shut out the deafening gunshots, Vincent managed to pull out his gun and hold it near his feverish face. 

His thoughts drifted back...back into the depths of his memories, some of which he had forgotten, or at least believed he had. Yes..he found Davoren buried there..31 long years ago... 

The bombardment suddenly halted, awakening Vincent from his reverie. 

"Ha ha!" laughed Davoren delightedly, "Well, my aiming is certainly not as good as yours, Vincent. I just wasted an entire cartridge without even scratching you." 

"Don't insult my intelligence, Davoren!" retorted Vincent from behind the pipe, "You know as well as I do you didn't aim to kill. You're just playing with me." 

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "What fun would the hunt be without a little struggle?" 

Vincent gritted his teeth to restrain a curse. 

In a flash, he sprang on top of the thick pipe and opened fire on Davoren, aiming directly at his head. But the ruthless gunman instantly flew behind a miserable heap of garbage, barely avoiding the bullets. 

Vincent, using this opportunity, darted away from the pipe to a nearby shattered wall which slumped against another pipe. 

On reaching this flimsy barrier, Vincent quickly crouched behind it, cautiously keeping his head low and his back double bent. He gasped for air as he strained every nerve to sense Davoren's' movements, but failed to discern any sound. 

"I always knew you were a sharp-shooter, Vincent," commented Davoren from behind his own shelter, "unfortunately, open-air tactics just isn't your specialty." 

Vincent heard the unmistakable chink of another cartridge being stuffed into the machine-gun. He gripped his own gun tightly, wrangling his brains to find a way out of this dilemma. 

He admitted to himself that Davoren spoke the truth: out of the two, Vincent was the better marksman. But when it came to battle tactics with firearms, Davoren was the better schemer by far. He definitely had the experience to back him up. 

Suddenly, a thick shower of gunshots ruthlessly battered the weak wall, heedless to its silent entreaties. Vincent, with his metallic arm protecting his head, thrust out his other arm and fired randomly at Davoren's direction. 

They exchanged several shots, but the groaning barrier, evidently unable to withstand the brutal cross-fire, swayed heavily to the side, much to Vincent's alarm. He instantly rolled out into the open, barely escaping the collapsing wall. 

Davoren embraced his chance, and doubled the amount of bullets. The unprotected Vincent buried his face into the wet ground as he implanted his metallic arm infront of his face. Using this arm as a shield, he continued to fire at his enemy without seeing him. 

Bits of dirt and rubble flew up around Vincent as the battle raged on. Four bullets had already grazed his both of his shoulders, and one nearly pierced his thigh, but he stubbornly refused to yield to his enemy. 

Davoren promptly abandoned his shelter, because it obstructed his view of Vincent, and began shooting at him in the open. He cursed incessantly. 

Catching sight of him, Vincent scurried to his feet as he fired one shot at Davoren's arm; but the gunman narrowly escaped it with a grazed shoulder instead. 

However, that shot was only a distraction. Before Davoren could blink, Vincent darted straight at him in full speed with his gun flashing infront of his pale face. The gunman raised his weapon to shoot. 

All was still. 

Aeris, noticing the unnatural silence, lifted her head in wonder. As she looked around herself, she staggered up to her feet. She limped to the corner, and peered around it cautiously. 

To her speechless horror, she saw Davoren and Vincent standing face to face some distance away; the former with his machine-gun pointed at Vincent's throat; the latter with his gun aimed at Davoren's forehead. 

Each man seemed to read the other's thoughts. but would not speak. 

"Vincent!!" cried Aeris, finding her voice at last. She immediately deserted her corner and ran towards them. 

"Stay back!" warned Vincent sternly, without flinching a muscle or taking his eyes off Davoren. 

"But.." 

"I said STAY BACK!!" 

Something in his icy tone advised Aeris not to advance any further, but she obstinately refused to go back. Her terror left a lump in her throat as she anticipated a double carnage: *both* men have their guns straight at each other!! Neither can escape!! Can't he see that?! 

But Vincent saw it only too well. He felt the clod muzzle of the machine-gun near his throat. His finger twitched ceaselessly on the trigger, yet he knew the instant he's pull it, Davoren would shoot his throat. 

Davoren gazed stoically at Vincent, not at all disturbed by Vincent's gun. In fact, he seemed totally oblivious to the weapon pointed at his forehead. 

"Well?" asked Davoren affably, "Pull the trigger already." 

Vincent's eyes narrowed in violent disgust. His hands trembled slightly as sweat streamed down his face. 

"You've killed me once, Vincent," he sneered, "Go on. Kill me again." 

Different thoughts and sensations raged inside his head, but Vincent kept his eyes keenly fixed on Davoren's face, expecting some trick. 

"Don't tell me you're going soft on me, Mr. Valentine!" shouted Davoren impatiently, "PULL THE TRIGGER !!!" 

Vincent shut his eyes, and pulled the trigger. 

The gun gave a stiff "click"; it was empty, or rather, Vincent had completely forgotten to reload it. 

Aeris, dumbfounded with horror, pressed her hands over her mouth. Vincent blinked incredulously at Davoren, his mind stunned beyond measure. Though he did not lower his empty gun, he felt bitter defeat laugh and jeer at his face.

Davoren, with a sympathetic look, chuckled quietly, as a parent may laugh lovingly at his inexperienced child. 

"Didn't I always tell you 'reload your gun every time you find a shelter'?" he scolded gently. 

The minute he uttered that reproof, Davoren shot up his leg and gave Vincent a powerful kick directly under his chin, sending him flying a few yards away. Vincent crashed into a hill of iron scraps and other useless debris, his head ramming against a jagged, rusty old pole that lay in the rubbish. 

He tumbled three or four times down the heap of debris, until finally coming to rest at the bottom. 

He lay face down in the mud, with one arm pitifully stretched out infront of him. Filth and muddy water dirtied his tattered overcoat. His metallic arm, dented with bullets, sparked occasionally with various injuries. 

Vincent did not move. 

Davoren, after a few silent minutes, trotted towards Vincent triumphantly. On reaching the unconscious man, he let his eyes skim "the prey" and gloat evilly over his success. 

He slowly aimed his cold-hearted gun straight at Vincent's head, getting ready to finish him off. 

"STOP IT!!" shrieked Aeris, suddenly grabbing his gun to divert its direction. 

The poor girl, who had been in shock up that point, had lunged forward at Davoren to save Vincent. She herself scarcely understood what she was doing. 

"Out of my way!!" roared Davoren as he ruthlessly flung her to the side. Aeris stumbled to the ground, but immediately jumped back to her feet again. She glared maliciously at the gunman, not at all afraid of him. 

"Bastard!!" she shouted, "Only a bastard like *YOU* would shoot an unconscious man in the head!!" 

Davoren narrowed his evil, pink eyes as he studied her furious face. He slowly took a step away from Vincent, turning his whole body to face her. He frowned disapprovingly at her. 

"You surprise me, girl," he said dryly, "I would have expected you to run off while your 'guardian' was distracting me." 

Aeris clenched her fists. wishing she had enough strength to hurt him. 

"Now, if you're smart," he continued, "you'd run away while I blast his head off." 

"I may be a weakling compared to you, you white-haired puppet!" she snapped at him, "But I will not abandon my friends! Especially NOT him!!" 

Davoren smirked at the feeble insult, then coolly pushed a strand of his white hair out of his face with obvious amusement. 

"Not like it would've mattered," he replied, "I would have found you eventually. If not now, then later" 

Aeris' heart pounded loudly in her chest and perspiration broke out on her face. She looked upon this hateful man as some horrible monster. 

"You must think me some brutal monster, my dear," commented Davoren, breaking into her thoughts, "or some ruthless devil from Hell, eh?" 

Aeris was silent. 

"And you must think Vincent is some divine saint from Heaven, all pure and innocent." 

Vincent twitched his shoulder and slowly lifted his heavy head out of the mud, much to Aeris' relief. He could not distinguish any clear thoughts until a sharp pain ripped through his skull. He instantly covered the back of his head with a faint moan, then felt a warm liquid quickly soak his hand. His head was bleeding. 

Davoren, who had noticed him unsteadily regain conscious, suddenly kicked the man's side savagely. Vincent unresistingly rolled onto his back, gasping loudly for breath. Davoren firmly implanted his foot on Vincent's heaving chest, and laughed scornfully at the horrified Aeris. 

"He's the angel, I'm the devil, right?" he sneered, "but the truth is he has as much blood on his hands as I do, if not more." 

"You lie!!" she cried in anguish, "Vincent isn't ANYTHING like you!!" 

"He's a Turk, my dear," he grinned, turning to his injured victim slowly, "We're both blood-thirsty Turks." 

Her eyes flooded with tears as Davoren aimed his gun at Vincent's head again. Vincent, still dazed from his painful injuries, stared blankly at the muzzle of the weapon. He could not even find enough strength to raise his bleeding head from the mud. 

"You don't know what a Turk is, do you?" Davoren asked her, but still gazed directly at Vincent, "It's a person who openly gives up his humanity to become a cold-hearted, killing-machine. He kills, lies, destroys, anything to please the Devil. A Turk is a monster in human form." 

Vincent squeezed his eyes shut, trying to concentrate on something, then slowly reopened them. the confused, hazy look had disappeared, replaced by a cold, steady glare. 

"That's a Turk, girl," Davoren concluded, "And your precious angel here was one of the *best* Turks I've ever seen. To him, the job came naturally." 

A heavy silence lingered for a few minutes, in which each man stared daringly at the other. Finally, Davoren decided to break the stillness. 

"I warned you, Mr. Valentine, that open-air tactics wasn't your strong point. I could've beaten a whole army of you with all the mistakes you were making." 

Vincent did not reply. 

"Oh well," sighed Davoren in dismay, "The Professor only wants the girl alive. He doesn't care if you die or live, just as long as he gets you." 

Vincent turned his head away sullenly, but his shoulders shook. as though he were desperately trying to suppress some emotion. Davoren thought he was crying; Aeris thought he was in pain. 

Much to their astonishment, Vincent burst out laughing. Aeris was certainly stunned: She had never, *ever* seen Vincent smile, let alone laugh. 

But his laughter, far from normal, sounded as if a demon had possessed his body and squeezed it out by force. It rang out of him violently. Tears formed in his eyes as his aching chest heaved up and down, despite Davoren's foot. He seemed out of control. 

Aeris clasped both her hands in anxiety. 

"Oh God!" she muttered to herself, "He's delirious!" 

Davoren reluctantly removed his foot from Vincent's chest, allowing his to sit up on his elbows. Studying his dirty, contorted face with its blood-shot and tearful eyes, Davoren believed Vincent had somehow lost his mind. 

A thin stream of blood trickled down Vincent's forehead as he gradually calmed down. He then looked straight up at Davoren with a contemptuous, scornful smile. 

"I'm not as skilled as you in battle tactics, Davoren, but I've learned a strategy or two in 30 years!" 

Saying that, Vincent suddenly jerked up his bloody hand, producing a small revolver concealed in his sleeve. 

The astonished Davoren instantly opened fire on him, but Vincent miraculously rolled out of the way. In a flash, Vincent shot up his arm and fired three times. 

But he didn't shoot the gunman. Instead, he had shot straight up at the ShinRa building directly behind him. 

This sudden movement had obviously exhausted Vincent; he dropped the revolver and fell back upon the ground as he gasped loudly for air. Davoren stared at him blankly, completely baffled by his action: he had another gun, why didn't he shoot me then? What kind of "strategy" is that? 

But a thunderous creek from above effectively interrupted his reflections. Davoren looked up at the groaning building in alarm, not understanding why it creaked so loudly. Vincent opened one eye tiredly, but was too weak to lift his head. 

Suddenly, the whole upper wall of this majestic building collapsed and plunged towards the two men, its crumbling stones and iron bars aiming straight for them. 

When Vincent had shot upwards, he had intentionally shattered a weak pipe, which happened to be the only support the upper wall possessed. With this pipe eliminated, the entire wall burst forward, dropping its whole weight towards the two men. 

Vincent instantly aroused himself and scurried to his feet with a grunt. In a last effort, he sprang forward, just as the destructive wall crashed into the muddy ground with all its might. 

The crash sent dust and all types of rubble flying around the desolate Haunt. Vincent, who had tumbled onto his side, coughed as his chest throbbed painfully. He knew his metallic arm had long ceased to function, and the terrible ache in his head reminded him he was bleeding. He felt himself losing conscious again. 

Someone grabbed his two arms and pulled him away with great difficulty from the crash site. At first, he thought Davoren had somehow managed to escape the falling wall, but Aeris' voice proved him wrong: the gunman had definitely perished under all the wreckage. 

"Vincent!!" she cried, "C'mon! Say something!" 

His whole head spun around. The girl stretched him fully on the ground and looked over him in anguish. She wiped his dirty face with her wet sleeve, patting his cheeks every so often to awaken him. 

"You can't die on me now, Vincent!! Wake up! Please!!" 

Her pleading voice sounded terribly muffled to his ears. His eyes grew cloudy as his senses failed him. His conscious slowly faded..faded into oblivion.. 

But he suddenly sat up in alarm, as though Aeris had just splashed cold water in his face. But it wasn't her cries that had aroused him, it was a distinct smell that permeated the dank air: gas. 

Without a moment's hesitation, Vincent jumped to his feet and grabbed Aeris around the waist. 

"Ah!! W..what are you doing?!!" she cried in astonishment. 

He immediately bolted straight out of the devastated Haunt, leaping over the iron pipes and skipping over the rubble. He flew over the rusty fence in one leap, and doubled his speed to reach the alley down the street. 

Aeris squirmed uncomfortably in his tight grip, but held onto his tattered coat as he ducked into the alley in a frenzy. 

The instant they turned in that alley, an earth-shaking explosion ripped through the air. Vincent nearly stumbled as the violent vibrations rocked the ground, but he refused to slow down. 

He skidded out of the alley and dashed down the main street, still carrying Aeris around the waist. 

Several people, with exclamations of wonder, pointed in the direction of the ShinRa Haunt. 

"Look!" shouted a man. 

"My God!" gasped another. 

"Heavens mercy!" a woman exclaimed, "It's the ShinRa Haunt!!" 

Passers-by began flocking about, calling to each other in confusion. Several shop owners peered out of their shops quizzically, while the customers crowded behind them to see as well. Many cars actually pulled over and their drivers pushed their heads out of the windows in disbelief. 

Vincent rushed down the street heedlessly, but Aeris glanced in the direction everyone marveled at. A brilliant orange light illuminated the sky as a huge trail of black smoke danced its way up from the ShinRa Haunt. The place was on fire. 

She finally understood why Vincent was so eager to escape. He had foreseen the explosion. 

Vincent ruthlessly tore his way through the confused crowds of spectators with such unnatural strength, as though he derived his power from some external force. He managed to quickly evade several people and darted forward, not even paying attention to his surroundings. Indeed, escape seemed to be his only thought. 

Much to the girl's alarm, he dashed across a busy street, unconcerned with an approaching van that sped towards them. 

"AH!! LOOK OUT!!!" screamed Aeris, tugging his coat madly. The vehicle blared angrily at them, but could not stop in time. 

Vincent, however, hopped onto the top of the speedy van and leapt over it effortlessly. He flipped to the sidewalk, to the astonishment of all who saw him, then dodged into another street. 

The van skidded to a halt. Its driver shot out his head with a most and petrified look on his face. 

"Mother of God!!! I nearly ran over a demon!!!!" he blurted out, crossing himself several times. 

Aeris felt her eyelids grow heavy as they flew past streets and buildings. All the previous running; all the different emotions she had experienced in the last hour slowly caught up with her. She nestled her head against Vincent's body, and fell unconscious. 

Aeris woke up when Vincent suddenly slowed down. She did not know how long he had been running, but guessed it to be a long time. His breaths came in short, coarse gasps as he dragged his feet across the frozen ground of some deserted park. 

He dropped the girl, and collapsed on all four, trying to cough and breath at the same time. Aeris immediately rubbed his back soothingly and encouraged him to hold on. 

Aeris looked around herself, until she recognized the place: it was the park near Vincent's apartment. In fact, she spotted his home some distance away. He had ran all the way from the Haunt to the apartment. 

She instantly turned her attentions to Vincent, who meekly begged her to help him lean against the tree behind him. 

"Here, just take a deep breath," she whispered, reclining his back on the dead, frozen tree. Unbearable pain tore at his head and chest with every agonizing breath. He squeezed his eyes, trying to ease his suffering. 

Aeris eagerly tried to relieve. She chafed his frozen hand, oblivious to the moist blood that smeared it. When she noticed his battered claw twisted uncomfortably by his side, she reached out to lift it. 

"DON'T TOUCH IT!!" he warned, startling her, "You'll get electrocuted!!" 

Aeris stared at his angry face, then cast her eyes down at the ground, feeling her cheeks flush with shame. He sullenly turned his head away as he bit his lower lip to control his ordeal. Neither spoke a word until Vincent's breathing grew steady again. 

"V..Vincent?" she asked timidly. 

"What?" he answered in a weary tone. He was still leaning against the tree, eyes shut tight. 

"Vincent..I'm so sorry. This is all my fault." 

Vincent slowly turned his head to her. She was looking distressfully at his face, her beautiful green eyes welling up with guilty tears. 

"If..I hadn't run away..I wouldn't have endangered your life..I'm so..sorry.." 

He gazed thoughtfully at her, then suddenly became aware of something. He fumbled inside his tattered coat, much to Aeris' puzzlement, then pulled out the broken flower he had found on the street. 

"I think..this belongs to you," he muttered, holding the pink flower out to her. His eyes showed unmistakable fatigue, but they gleamed kindly, almost tenderly, at Aeris. 

Aeris stared blankly at the crushed flower, as if she had never seen such an object before. 

So many emotions and sensations swelled inside her heart: she could not believe that this man whom she had hated, feared, and openly insulted; this *same* man had rushed out in the rain to find her, help her, and when danger threatened, protected her with his life. 

She looked tearfully at Vincent, who blinked in surprise on seeing her troubled face. Aeris suddenly flung her arms around his neck, bursting into bitter tears. 

Vincent scarcely understood why she cried, but let her sob to her heart's content on his shoulder. He rested his head against hers, and tiredly shut his eyes again. 

They sat that way for a long time.


-End of Chp.8