I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.56

This tense silence only forwarned of a violent storm. It weighed down upon the entire Reactor: the entangled webwork of pipes and supports; the timid pumps dumped far below in the bottomless pit; all viewed events in mute anticipation. The air was too stiff, too unnatural.

From his position high above, Vincent stood bare across one girder beam for all to behold. Darkness enshrouded his whole body, imposing such cool deadliness to his tall figure, especially that sharp claw. Yet his eyes, a hardened barrier of ice, were fixed straight down on the Professor, and none other.

This Professor. The same whose sheer name evoked sinister dread and wretched misery; a phantom of nothingness. At long last, Vincent could meet him.

But most importantly, he could finally retrieve *her* from this nightmare. That one desire, to get Aeris back, has always fuellled his fierce determination onwards, more so now that he had met her notorious tormentor.

Those firey-yellow eyes glared evil back up at him. The Professor remained ever rigid at the metallic balcony, misshapen in black obscurity. Though silent, his malicious aura alone told it all: he did not like this intrusion one bit.

The four surviving mercenaries huddled behind their own shelters on high alert. Their guns were aimed at that brave sniper above, but none dared fire, not with four of their comrades already dead in the open. They simply waited.

The rescued prisoners, on the other hand, gazed at their saviour in wide awe. Reno had finally climed back to his feet. Rude stayed squatted on one knee by the boy's side. Still troubled by a milder headache, Rufus sat hunched over with both elbows as support. He gaped up at this unknown figure.

Indeed, all attention rested on that one intruder perched high overhead; a black demon descended from the darkest nightsky.

But in return, Vincent's ice-cold gaze remained fixed on the Professor alone.

"Well, well!" suddenly greeted a voice from nowhere, "Look who's crawled back through the Gates of Hell!

The voice came clear, dripping in playful malice, but no sign anywhere of the speaker. Nor was there any need. Vincent instantly recognized Davoren's voice.

"But frankly, I'm disappointed in you, Vincent," mocked the gunman, "It took you almost *six* days to find this place. Tsk...too slow!"

The source seemed to emanate from the ceiling metal-joists higher above. Vincent could discern Davoren somewhere up there, almost see that evil grin spread across his face. However, he still could not find him.

"Oh, you want to see your little girl, eh?" chuckled the invisible gunman.

Vincent's muscles stiffened at the mention of Aeris.

"Tell you what then," bargained Davoren, "Hop down from there, and I'll show her to you."

The proposal went by unanswered.

"You DO want to see her, don't you?"

His crimson eyes, bright as two fiery rubies, glared so narrowly at the unseen gunman. As much as he hated to admit, he *did* want to see Aeris very much, if only to reassure himself of her safety. On the other hand, he would have to to descend to the danger zone below. It was his own decision.

The final choice was too obvious.

Although everyone could hear this transaction go on, no one ever interrupted; not even the ominous Professor, who patiently awaited the outcome with cruel eyes. Both Reno and Rude were left to wonder at this mysterious new speaker.

But for some reason, Rufus had been a bit startled to hear Davoren's voice here, more so that venomous tone. His confused eyes searched in vain for the man.

After another moment's reflection, Vincent shoved his reluctant weapon into its holster. Soon began his quick descent downwards, him hoping down rusted pipes or leaping across to lower scaffholdings. All eyes followed him.

At last, the man gracefully landed on both feet directly in view of the high balcony. He stood some steps infront of the three prisoners. Vincent's entire countenance bore such frigidity, his eyes hard-set on the haughty Professor above.

The Professor only glowered back. He would not speak.

"Whoa, Vinnie! Talk about excellent timing!" exclaimed the much relieved Reno from behind, "That was...wait a minute. I thought you said you didn't know where this lab was!"

He glared for an immediate explanation. Without looking back at him, Vincent coolly replied, "I didn't. I followed you."

"Wha?....'followed'?" Reno paused until it suddenly dawned on him, "Hey you!! You KNEW we'd come here if ya told us about Rufus!!"

"I thought if I...caught your interest, you'd somehow lead me here."

Indeed, their first encounter had been less than amicable. Yet Vincent had easily seen through Reno's hostile denials that there *was* a secret laboratory somewhere. Nor had he mentioned Rufus ShinRa for no reason either. Therefore, after feigning departure, he had simply waited outside in the shadows. When the two ex-Turks has snuck out to investigate, Vincent had followed them here.

In other words, he had tricked them.

"Fuh! You're a lot sneakier than ya look," mumbled Reno resentfully, "...damn cripple-vampire..."

Vincent ignored that last comment. Instead, he stole one brief glance back at the boy, who of course tensed on meeting those stone-hard eyes. Something in this dark stranger aroused deep confusion.

However, Vincent instantly returned to the invisible gunman high above: he had fulfilled his part of the agreement, now Davoren must keep his.

Where was Aeris?

"Ho ho! Not to worry, Mr. Valentine," reassured the gunman, too amused by that glare, "Your sweet girl...she's right here."

All at once, Davoren dropped from the bleak darkness above onto a lower beam-joist, where he remained squatted down; Aeris was held safe in both arms.

The poor girl was torn to tears between her fear of this great height and this torture. So frightened, she had clung around the gunman's neck, and buried her face against his shoulder. Her frail body trembled non-stop. She never opened her eyes, but kept them squeezed tight.

Davoren's vicious gaze mocked Vincent alone: it clearly amused him too much to have this tearful girl in his strong grip, while Vincent watched on.

Neither the uneasy Reno nor the anxious Rude spoke, even though they were put on full guard against so malicious a presence.

"Is that man...'Davoren'?" Rude asked the boy nervously.

Rufus seemed to grow all the more perplexed by these events. He nodded once, his muddled eyes always fastened on that terrible gunman.

But the scene belonged to those two men alone, one perched high above like a fiend, the other poised in upright determination. Vincent's cold scowl betrayed all his hatred for this monster, his eyes all his concern for Aeris.

He'd probably never forgive Davoren now. Not after that miserable night; not for drawing him into this Hell-hole with the girl at stake.

This time it would end; one man the victor, the other dead.

And from that guileful smile, Vincent knew the gunman shared his sentiment too.

Terror wrangled the poor girl's senses. She clung all the more to Davoren's neck, fearing she may fall any moment. Gentle sobs escaped her bosom.

"Shh, honey," whispered Davoren evilly as he stroked her loose hair, "Go on. Take a look. Your beloved angel's down there."

The mysterious words floated like a dream past her ears. In her confusion, the distraught girl peeked from his shoulder down to the scene below.

She froze on Vincent at once. That one face, so preciously dear to her, stirred too many emotions inside: Intense anxiety, distress, fear; all showed clear on her expression, with tears still fresh on her pallid cheeks.

"Heh heh...told you he'd come," Davoren breathed into her ear, "When that man makes a vow, he never breaks it."

So true. Not only had Vincent somehow survived, but had ventured straight into this peril. There he stood below, tall in his long black overcoat, face marble-cold, crimson eyes fixed back on her.

She wished he hadn't come. In her mind, she still saw him crash to his death, even blood sprout out against a cruel bullet. She could never bear it again. Instead, she silently implored he escape before this hell swallowed him too.

Vincent read her every thought. But then, just as Davoren had predicted, he had pleged his solemn vow, and would *never* break it.

For a moment, Davoren scanned over the other prisoners lingering behind their saviour. Reno tensed; he didn't trust that look.

"..hello? And who might those two be? New friends?" the gunman wondered aloud. He didn't look at Rufus, even though he probably discerned those troubled eyes riveted on him.

"Davoren," called the Professor suddenly.

"Yes Sir," he obeyed.

Davoren acted at once. Gripping the frightened girl more securely, he lept off the beam-joist, far down onto a rigid airduct. As gracefully as a monkey, Davoren hopped another level downwards, where he landed feet first infront of Vincent.

A few meters separated the two enemies. Vincent glared at Davoren, whose grin still retained good-humour. He propped poor Aeris onto her shaky feet. Yet far from releasing her, the callous gunman held her ever close inside his open trenchcoat. One whole arm lay casually dropped over her shoulder and down across her tense bosom.

Though quite relaxed, this loathsome captivity nevertheless terrified Aeris to tearful silence. Her miserable green eyes stared straight at Vincent.

The three remaining mercenaries and their bearded leader scurried out of their shelters. They surrounded these brave intruders immediately. Every gun was aimed in alert readiness.

Vincent's cold glare remained on Davoren alone. From their place behind, both ex-Turks uncomfortably watched events unfold. Rufus still remained slouched on both knees, his troubled gaze fixed on this gunman. He seemed to implore an explanation.

Yet the gunman never returned his look. Nor would he speak anymore. He stood the perfect hound dog, meek prey in his grip, and his master perched high above.

"Mr. Valentine," came a venomous voice.

All attention turned up to that hideous figure at the balcony, the satan of this inferno. The Professor finally shuffled from his spot. He strolled along the ballustrade, never once lifting his glare off Vincent.

"..Mr. Vincent Valentine..," he hissed out as if tasting that name.

Vincent's back stiffened, yet he held himself firm. No one breathed a word.

The Professor soon reached the end of the balcony, where he descended a broken staircase to the scene below. His steady footsteps echoed nearer as he approached the prisoners. Those yellow eyes shone malice at Vincent.

"Yes...it *is* you," confirmed the Professor, "..after all these years...Mr. Valentine."

What emerged from that darkness resembled a nightmare stepping into reality. The Professor stood in plain view for all to behold, with scrawny arms tied behind his back, and chin turned up.

A long, stunned silence followed.

Vincent delved back a moment into his memory: he saw a madman there, cackling wildly as that bio-poison diffused through his blood. An ingenious lunatic in life, a complete demon in battle. That man had persihed long ago.

Yet here stood that same fiend, worse than any foul corpse arisen from the dead. It was him: Professor Hojo.

The beastliness shone through desipte his loathsome human demeanour. Hojo was sickly gaunt; a skeleton wrapped in slimy-green skin that twitched under each breath. His narrow, reptilian eyes gleamed over cracked spectacles. Those wild black forelocks exaggerated his high forehead too much, with a ravaged ponytail behind.

Age certainly showed on Hojo. He was a withered old man now, face all creased by wrinkles, especially around the eyes. Both his dirty whiskers and bristly chin looked as though nibbled by rats.

Putrid fumes of chemicals clung like a disease to his body. He wore an open tattered lab-coat. His collar had been torn open to reaveal a purple vein branching up along his neck, while the tragic remains of a tie hung loose.

Such a grotesque creature. Its presence evoked deep dread, if not ominous disgust. This monstrosity was Professor Hojo.

Aeris gaped in horror at the scientist from behind. The sight sent shivers down her spine. Davoren hadn't reacted to Hojo's appearance. Instead, he maintained his position as Aeris' captor. Similarly, the guards remained fixed on their targets.

Needless to say, both Reno and Rude were dumbstruck by this unexpected revelation. But Rufus had already shrunk back in visible tension.

"..P..Professor...Hojo??!" fumbled Rude in shock.

The scientist cast a cool, almost bored, look towards the three prisoners.

"Ah yes. I seem to recall your faces from somewhere," he acknowledged. His terrible gaze then fell on Rufus, "You've renewed your acquaintance with the boy. Quite a mental mess, eh?"

The two ex-Turks stiffened. Rude automatically crouched further by Rufus' side to protect him from those sinister eyes. However, Hojo soon lost interest in these men. He turned to Vincent again.

Vincent's entire countenance had assumed such frigidity. Even after thirty-one years, there still remained a hostility between these two men; so bitter everyone could feel it.

"I see you have survived, Professor Hojo," greeted Vincent, his calm tone colder than ice.

The Professor's mouth twisted into a smug grin, one that fully revealed his jagged fangs. He adjsusted his broken specs.

"Indeed, Mr. Valentine. That confrontaion had left me in a grievous state for some time afterwards," he conceded, "But JENOVA cells have proven themselves to be far more...resilient."

He grinned all more, obviously pleased with his survival.

"And so, Mr. Valentine. Here we are..thirty-one years later"

Vincent supressed any reply least it might be a curse.

"Heh! I must admit, Sir, you've managed yourself quite well thus far...considering your feeble condition and such. Very impressive."

At those mocking words, Vincent felt an evil force caress his lungs just once; an ominous reminder that despite his determination, Hojo still reigned over his "illness". Nevertheless, Vincent stood his ground.

"I was quite displeased with Davoren's dismal failure to capture you. However, he did assure me you'd eventually come here. He also assured me you'd prove yourself to be rather... unco-operative."

Hojo's mean glare narrowed as he hissed out, "But you will soon discover, Sir, that all your efforts would have been in vain. You cannot fight your destiny."

It was a warning for all to hear: that no one could ever thwart *his* plans. The gunman stood poised some distance behind his master. He held the distraught Aeris against himself without a tinge of emotion. On the opposite side, the prisoners lingered silent spectators.

Vincent's ice-cold visage never wavered. With calm firmness, he stated, "I did not come here to fight you, Professor."

"Ah then! You've come here to surrender?"

"No. I've come to take Aeris back with me."

Those resolute words somehow sounded better than any joke. The Professor exploded at once into cruel cackling, his whole head tossed far back. Even Davoren couldn't help but smirk.

Vincent, however, was silent amidst this uproarous laughter. Aeris shivered to the very core from fear.

"Ha ha ha! You have the audacity to make such foolish declarations, Mr. Valentine, especially to my face!!" exclaimed Hojo outloud.

A stern arrogance replaced his good-humour. He glared hard at this brave man. "This specimen belongs to *me*. I will never relinquish my hold on her. Her place is here...to fulfill her part in the experiment. As is for you, Mr. Valentine. You and Mr. Davoren: both my specimens..my creations. All for my experiment!!"

Vincent had expected such stubborness. But before he could reply, Rufus' tense voice suddenly interrupted, "..experiment??"

All sight turned to the boy, who had hitherto remained slouched on the floor, stone-mute. He now stood up.

"Yes, Mr. Rufus, have you anything to say?" demanded Hojo.

Stark anxiety strained the boy's face as he forced out, "...this experiment... jeh...JENOVA Project: AdM-Genesis Retrial Experiment?"

"Correct. That is its proper title."

The amount of confusion in the two ex-Turks could not be described, nor the keen interest in Vincent's eyes as he beheld this young lunatic.

"Okay! Time out!!" cried Reno, thereby winning everyone's attention. "Would someone like to maybe explain what is going on here?! There are THREE people here who're supposed to be dead, one of them's a friggin' green zombie! And what's this 'Geni-Retro' thingie?!"

"It is an experiment I have designed...my ultimate gift to science advancement," answered Hojo self-importantly, "JENOVA Project: Genesis Retrial."

"What 'experiment', Professor?" Vincent cut short, "JENOVA Project finished long ago."


That brusque snub, spat with such venom, enforced a stiff silence upon all present, especially Vincent.

"But why should I bother explaining?" scoffed the scientist as he folded both arms, "I could talk all night, and none of you would understand a single word..what with your pathetic knowledge of biochemistry, cytology, neruology, genetics, anatomy, and a string of other advanced fields."

No one spoke, except for Reno who mumbled aside, "..I can't even spell half those words..."

"Davoren, explain it to them," commanded Hojo.

"Yes, Professor."

Such absolute obedience. Davoren's whole demeanour dropped at once from pleasant to cool business. His gaze locked on Vincent alone. Never once did the gunman look at Rufus.

Thus began the recital of Professor Hojo's experiment.

-End of Chp.56