I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.7

I must get away, Aeris screamed internally, I must!

The rain poured down like a waterfall, beating pitilessly on the ground, but she only rushed through the wet streets to escape. Escape...to where? She had no clear idea; she only wanted to run away from that "evil man".

The streets twisted and wound around like an endless maze. What was just moments ago a fascinating city to the poor girl became an insufferable cage, and she longed to hide somewhere.

Somewhere away, she gasped, far away from the Professor.

People scurried about the streets, hoping to dodge the torrential rain. With every crack of thunder, the sky lit up brilliantly to display the chaos it had so cruelly created on the ground.

Aeris, however, raced past those people, heedless of thunder or rain. She did not notice that her hair and face were drenched with water. But her soaked clothes greatly annoyed her. They seemed to hinder her speed with their heavy weight.

Several passers-by actually sprang out of the way as she zoomed past them in a frenzy. She accidentally knocked down an old woman, but did not even look back to apologize. Indeed, she seemed oblivious to her surroundings.

"Hey! Watch it, brat!!" shouted one pedestrian as he helped the poor, distraught lady to her feet.

But Aeris did not, could not, hear anything. her muddled senses wrapped her in utter confusion: sounds had no meaning to her; objects failed to take a familiar shape. And the faster she ran past them, the more they cluttered her brain.

She did not know how long she had been running. So many alleys and unfamiliar streets rushed past her, that by then, she did not care where she went. Her feet ran of their own accord, turning in any direction they pleased.

She raced down some narrow street in a dingy, unfamiliar neighborhood. Gasping for breath, she wanted to stop and rest her feet. But the terrible thought of being caught by that man not only discouraged her, but caused her to increase her speed to a mad rush.

She didn't stop until she suddenly felt herself stumble against someone and crash into the ground. her whole body skidded forward on the pavement. When finally stopping, she lay on the ground lifelessly, as though unconscious.

"Oh, shit!" cursed a voice in alarm, "Hey! Missy! Are you okay?!"

"Alex, what the Hell's going on?" boomed another voice.

"This crazy girl just ran into me, Mr. Darcy! And then tripped! I swear!" replied the voice defensively.

"My God! She's absolutely drenched! Hey, Sweetheart! Are you hurt?"

Aeris, lying with her back to the two men, finally came around. She struggled to get up, but her shoulder throbbed with such unbearable pain, tears welled up in her eyes. Apparently, she had crashed on her side, and now her shoulder was paying the full price of the fall.

With a faint cry, she finally managed to sit up from the ground. Much to her surprise, she found herself by some obscure café in a totally strange street. She blinked confusedly at the two men who looked over her with a mixture of curiosity and concern.

She also noticed that the thunder had ceased, and the heavy rain had turned into a dull drizzle.

"Thank God! She's all right!" sighed Alex in relief.

He was young fresh-faced man. Judging from his attire, Aeris guessed him to be a waiter in the café. Indeed, he had been stacking some chairs outside the café for closing time when Aeris had crashed into him.

"That was a nasty fall you took there, Honey. Are you sure you're not hurt?" asked Mr. Darcy, a fat, short man of fifty. he was obviously the café's manager and the waiter's boss.

Aeris strained every nerve to understand the two men, yet could not grasp a word of what they said, as if they spoke a foreign language.

Mr. Darcy noticed her puzzlement. Stepping closer to her, her studied her haggard face. Aeris stared at him hallow-eyed.

"I think she's mad," he muttered to the young waiter, who immediately felt pity for the hapless girl.

"Are you lost, Miss?" Alex, the waiter, asked compassionately.

"Where do you live, darling?" inquired Mr. Darcy with a gentle, fatherly smile, "Do you have someone who looks after you?

The words "after you" echoed in Aeris' distressed mind, until she finally remembered why she was running :yes! That man is after me! I must escape!!

She scuffled to her feet as though Mr. Darcy had just threatened her life. Before either man could react, Aeris suddenly darted away from them and ducked into a dismal alley.

A car nearly hit Vincent as rushed across the busy street, but he dodged it indifferently and continued to run. This was the third time he had searched the main street, but could not find one trace of Aeris. He had spent the last hour and a half searching for her in the pouring rain, so his long, thick hair dripped with water. His heavy, unbuttoned overcoat flapped with every gust of cold wind. It was drenched as well.

Some people thought him a sort of criminal or fugitive, judging from the way he ran about, turning his head from side to side in search of something.

He thought perhaps he should examine the northern boulevard again, but realized he had already searched that part at least twice in the last half hour. So, he decided to take any random alley instead.

He trotted aimlessly through the filthy streets, hoping to perhaps find the girl hiding in some corner. He soon emerged into the northern slums of Sector 3, notorious for its crime and poverty.

Though some ragged beggars glared at Vincent suspiciously because he was an "outsider", no one dared confront him. They too guessed him to be some criminal on the run.

Vincent suddenly felt his chest heave slightly as perspiration broke out on his face, but he angrily refused to have a coughing fit; he gritted his teeth determinately to suppress it.

Not here, he growled, not now!

He wandered around the slums, scrutinizing every face he met. Though he managed to somehow soothe his chest, a dull ache pinched his lungs with every breath he took.

The drizzle from the sky quickly changed to icy-cold sleet which eagerly washed the pavement of its impurities. Vincent, stopping short, looked up at the grey sky, as if it would tell him where to find Aeris.

He sighed tiredly. Confident that the girl wasn't there, Vincent cleared the slums and drifted dejectedly into a less dirty alley.

Two and a half hours of searching, and not one single trace of that girl! Where did she go? he wondered.

As if answering his question, Vincent felt a soft object under his boot. On lifting his foot, he noticed a pink flower horribly crushed on the wet ground.

Strange to say, the flower greatly interested Vincent. He cautiously picked it up and examined it: the petals were dirty and torn, thanks to his boot; its slender stem was cruelly broken as well.

As he twisted the delicate flower with his fingers, he suddenly recalled something Tifa had told him before he left:

"Cloud even bought her a *flower*," she had said.

Vincent looked around once, then spotted a small café humbly standing a few yards away. It was the same café Aeris had passed an hour ago.

Alex, the young waiter, whistled as he emerged from the café and began dutifully locking the door behind him.

"You!" called Vincent, startling the waiter.

"Ah!!!! Y..yes?" stammered Alex fearfully. Vincent's tall, menacing appearance and glaring eyes greatly frightened the poor waiter. He thought he might be a killer of some sort.

"Did a young girl pass by here? She had long, brown hair...and was wearing a blue coat with a scarf."

"Um...yeah..she did, Sir," replied Alex nervously but quite respectfully. He had a feeling that Vincent wasn't the type of person he'd want to irritate.

"Which way did she go?"

"Th..that way, Sir," he answered, pointing down the street, "She dodged into that alley over there. We tried talking to her, but she seemed a bit nuts, and ran off."

"I see. Thank you."

Vincent quickly ran in that direction and turned in the specified alley, leaving Alex completely bewildered and confused.

Aeris collapsed onto the muddy ground, totally breathless. She had grown so weary with running, her lungs felt as if they would burst any minute. Her body shuddered as the sleet mercilessly pierced her face like sharp daggers. Though she wanted to continue running, her whole body would not budge an inch more. Her injured shoulder ached horribly, and her eyes burned with fatigue.

When she finally caught her breath, she slowly stood up and looked around herself, wondering where she was.

Despite the darkness, Aeris could see she had reached some abandoned site. A colossal building proudly stood towering against the sky, ruined and in utter desolation. Its windows were all ruthlessly shattered; scraps of rusty metal stubbornly clung to the remains of the framework. It was a miracle this corroded building stood at all.

The building itself seemed to have been brutally torn out of its foundations and hurled against the ground. Debris and rubble littered the entire site; some even formed mountains of metal, stone, and other pieces of garbage.

Aeris discerned, besides all the obscene graffiti, a giant red sign painted impressively on the facade of this pathetic building. However, it was so worn and weather beaten, she only managed to make out the word "Shin.." before giving up.

Aeris trudged over to this building, staring with peculiar interest at the huge pipes that were emitted out of it and sunk into the muddy ground. She touched the crumbling wall gently, then suddenly burst into bitter tears.

She cried because she knew she could never escape. No matter where she ran or hid, the Professor would always find her and capture her. Yes, she knew that man with white hair worked for him; she understood that from his dreadful smile. He'd hunt her down, like some animal, and return her to the Professor.

She pressed her forehead against the cold wall, biting her lower lip to stop crying, but the hot tears streamed down her cheeks, and her shoulders shook with agitation.

Aeris felt a hand gently touch her arm.

With a scream, she instantly smacked it away and turned around in alarm.

"Whoa! Whoa! It's me!" said Vincent, trying to calm her.

She stared at him wild-eyed for a full minute. It occurred to Vincent that maybe Aeris had really lost her mind. She did not appear to remember him at all.

"V...Vincent..," she whispered, finally recognizing him.

There was another awkward silence in which Aeris gazed at him amazedly, as if he had dropped out of the sky. The truth was, Vincent had simply followed the path of the alley, down the main avenue, and reached the old ShinRa Headquarters, or the "ShinRa Haunt" as everyone called it. He had found Aeris sobbing against the wall of the building, and had approached her from behind.

"W..what are you doing here?!" she cried with inexplicable anger. His very presence vexed her beyond endurance.

"I've been looking everywhere for you," he replied softly, "Where do you think you're going?"

She started at the question, but avoided his eyes by turning her head away. She was obstinately silent.

"Aeris," he repeated insistently, "where are you going?"

"Vincent, please...leave me alone," she begged piteously, "Just go away."

"I'm not leaving unless you come with me."

"I don't want to go with you!! I have to keep on running!!"

"'Run' Aeris?" he asked sarcastically, "Run where?"

"I don't know!" she sobbed distressfully, "I don't know! But I must escape! Don't you understand?! He's found me! If he catches me now, he'll torture me again! I'd rather die than go back to that damn Professor!! Can't you see that?!!"

She glared at him contemptuously. Some strange hatred swelled in her heart.

"I understand," he answered gently, "but I don't see how running away will help you."

Aeris did not utter a word.

"Aeris, I know you're scared," he continued, "but you can't just run away and expect this Professor to disappear. You know that if you run away, he'll only catch you."

Aeris felt her heart pound frantically as he took one step closer to her. His eyes were fixed on her face, but she dared not look at him.

"Now, Aeris, please. Give me your hand."

He extended his hand out to her and stared at her solemnly.

"Just trust me," he added imploringly.

She gazed at his gloved hand as if it were a poisonous snake. She suddenly sprang away from him, wringing her hands in anguish.

"You don't..you can't understand me!" she shouted angrily, "You're just a cold-hearted bastard!! You're no better than that Professor!!"

Vincent gazed at her thoughtfully, not at all ruffled by the insults, but his eyes seemed to grow sterner with every word she uttered.

"You know damn well," she raved, "that if I stay, he'll catch me! You know it! But you don't care, do you?! No, of course not Vincent! How could you care? How could you understand?!"

She covered her face with both her hands and tried desperately to control her agitated nerves. Vincent made no movement towards her and said nothing. For a full minute, only the patter of rain against the deserted ShinRa building filled the air. Neither spoke a word.

"Do you know..," she began with a quivering voice, "do you know how it feels like to be in pain? Not that petty pain you feel for an hour..not a day..no. It's this horrible agony that tugs at your body non-stop."

She clasped both her hands over her breast and shut her eyes tight. She seemed to be addressing herself more than Vincent.

"Everyday, every hour, to have to lie on a cold dissection table..with wires and needles pricking at you. And all these bleeping machines watching over you like some security guards."

She suddenly opened her eyes and looked at Vincent, but she didn't seem to see really see him. Her sorrowful eyes fixed their gaze on some invisible object beyond him.

"And the pain you feel in your body!" Aeris exclaimed fervently, "It seems to tear your whole body to shreds from inside. So much that you'd gladly sell your soul to the devil just to stop it."

Aeris hung her head shamefully, but kept her hands clasped. Vincent was silent for some minutes before he took a step near her. She instantly became aware of him, and glared at him mockingly.

"You don't know that pain, Vincent," she scoffed as she slowly edged away from him, "You don't know what it feels like to be treated like that..like some pathetic laboratory animal. Don't pretend you understand what I'm saying, liar!"

She turned to run away, but Vincent suddenly pounced on her and gripped both her arms so forcefully, Aeris cried out in pain. He swung her around to face him, then roughly slammed her back against the wall, still holding her firmly.

Aeris thought he intended to strike or shout at her, but he only peered at her face with a stern look.

"Now you listen to me, little girl," he muttered in a surprisingly calm voice, "Don't you *dare* claim to know what I understand and what I don't."

Aeris struggled to break out of his iron grip, but to no avail. his metal claw felt like it would crush her bones any second; and he held her so closely against the wall, she could not hope to escape.

"Aeris," he continued coolly, "I know how you feel. Believe me, I understand. probably even better than you do."

Aeris stubbornly turned her face away from him, refusing to even listen.

"Look me in the eye when I'm talking to you!" he demanded sternly. He gripped her chin with his hand and forced her to look up at him.

She stared at his glowing ruby-red eyes. Several strands of his black, wet hair dangled infront of his pale face, but failed to obscure the brilliance of his eyes. Though he kept his hand under her chin, he loosened his hold on her arm slightly.

"I *know* how it feels like to be an experiment. When you say you feel tormented and in pain, believe me, I know what kind of pain you're talking about. I've been on a dissection table too; I've had needles and wires hooked onto me. Aeris, I've even had a professor torment me in my nightmares."

She made no response.

"How do you suppose I got this claw?" he asked, flashing his claw infront of her face, "How do you suppose I have red eyes and look like this?"

Aeris held her breath as he brought his face closer to hers and gazed solemnly into her eyes.

"You may not accept this," he said in a low voice, "but I understand you better than Tifa and Cloud. I understand why you want to escape from that Professor, because once I tried the same thing too. I understand why you hate that Professor, Aeris, and why you feel so frustrated and frightened. I felt those same emotions too, and even worse ones. Do you hear me?"

She could feel her breath quicken. her heart pounded so loudly, it numbed her ears.

"And I know that running away won't save you," he concluded, "I know because I tried it once. He'll haunt your days and nights, until you'll become obsessed with him, or even worse: you'll become obsessed with the pain and bitterness he caused you."

Aeris looked up at him. His eyes seemed strangely feverish as he stared at her. Though the rain came pouring down, she could see he was struggling internally with something.

"Why should you care for me, Vincent?" she scowled finally, "I'm not even worth a finger nail in your eyes. You hate me."

"I don't hate you, Aeris."

"Yes, you do! You see something inside of me, and despise me! You think I'm blind? You think I can't see all that hate in your eyes?"

"That's not hate," he answered with restraint, "That's concern. I see that you'll end up as mentally shattered as I am if you don't face your fears instead of running away. I was very much like you, but I ran away and hid in a coffin. A coffin, Aeris, a coffin for thirty long, torturous years! I don't want to see you end up like I did."

"Liar! Liar! Liar!" she cried in anger, "Let me go!!"

Breaking away from him, Aeris rushed to escape. He called her name, but suddenly felt that repressed seizure savagely dig its claws into his lungs.

Vincent fell against the wall and covered his mouth with both hand and claw, breaking into a most intense bout of coughing. His chest heaved violently as blood streamed through his fingers. The coughing turned into an outright struggle for breath. At times, Vincent thought he may choke out his lungs with the amount of coughing and gasping he was doing.

His chest did not calm down until five minutes had past. He breathed deeply and tiredly until five minutes had past. Though the cold rain washed his face, he felt very feverish.

Much to his surprise, he noticed Aeris walk up to him and stand infront of him. He had thought she had ran off while he was coughing.

Aeris, indeed, would have ran away, but when she heard Vincent choking on his blood, stopped short and turned to look at him. Although her mind had vigorously urged her to take advantage of Vincent's coughing and escape, her heart had begged her to look at the suffering man.

She had silently gazed at him as he struggled with the deplorable seizure. His words had slowly echoed in her ears, and her heart had beseeched her to "go to him". Therefore, before she realized it, Aeris stood infront of Vincent, looking very guilty and ashamed.

"I..I'm sorry, Vincent," she faltered, on the verge of tears, "I..didn't mean to call you all those awful names. You must think me the most spiteful, ungrateful wretch on Earth, especially after all the trouble you went through just to find me. It's just that I'm so..so tired of living like some animal on the run."

Vincent stood upright, looking at the poor girl wipe away her tears with her wet sleeve.

"I wish..I could be like Tifa," she said dreamily, "She has Cloud, and her own restaurant, and her own life. She..she doesn't have to look over her shoulder and wonder if some monster will grab her from behind."

She stared straight up at Vincent, and smiled. But it was a sad, bitter smile of inconsolable grief.

"Me? Look at what I'm doing. I'm running around Midgar in the rain, with you on my tail."

She fixed her sorrowful eyes on the muddy ground, waiting for Vincent to reply. An oppressive silence fell on them for a few minutes. She wished he would say something, even if it were rebuke.

Vincent, however, slowly lifted his hand and gently touched her cheek.

She looked up at him in astonishment as he caressed her cheek with his warm hand. His eyes weren't stern, but gleamed softly and kindly at her. For some reason, Aeris felt her entire face grow unbearably hot.

Suddenly, Vincent's eyes darted to the side in alarm.

"LOOK OUT!!!" he shouted, thrusting his whole metallic arm forward to protect Aeris.

An ear-splitting gunshot rang out of the darkness and blasted against Vincent's arm so violently, it sent him sprawling onto his side against the sludgy ground.

"VINCENT!!!" Aeris shrieked, flying to his side at once.

Vincent struggled to rise from the ground, but the pain tore at his arm so savagely, he only managed to writhe on his back with a grunt. The bullet had so accurately hit the very base of his arm, where the metal connected to the flesh. That was the only weak point of his entire arm.

And whoever shot me, Vincent thought painfully, *knew* damn well I'd take the shot. Whoever did this, aimed for her head so he could shoot my arm...he *knew* exactly where to shoot!

"Vincent!! Vincent, get up!!" begged Aeris hysterically. He gnashed his teeth as she helped him sit up. Holding his dirty, distraught face between her trembling hands, she stared frantically at him in anguish.

"Are you okay?! Are you okay?!" she cried.

Before he could answer, Vincent heard the distinct click of a gun being cocked.

He instantly sprang to his feet and grabbed Aeris, just as a wild spray of bullets broke out from the darkness.

The bullets showered the two incessantly, but Vincent miraculously dodged them with abnormal speed. He dashed towards the corner of the demolished building, carrying Aeris udder his armpit as though she were a precious parcel.

He ducked around the corner just as a mad bullet whizzed through the hem of his coat.

The bullets blasted angrily against the corner Vincent hid behind. They bombarded the whole barrier so furiously, several chips and scraps of loose metal flew off the building and crashed loudly around the two.

Vincent immediately embraced Aeris and huddled against the wall, completely shielding the girl with his body. Some wild pieces of falling metal lashed his back as the bullets pelted the wall, but he only tightened his grip on Aeris and held her closer to himself.

Aeris, scarcely understanding what was happening, buried her full face into his chest and clung to his sleeve frantically. Her shoulders trembled. She shut her eyes, trying to stop the cruel shower of gunfire from battering her weary ears. It felt as though they would never stop.

Suddenly, the bullets ceased their attack. All was quiet.

Vincent, after a few moments, raised his head cautiously, but still kept a tight grasp around the girl. The whole building looked more wretched now that the rain had stopped. Numerous fragments of shattered iron scraps and dirty rubble lay piteously in the mud around the two.

The haunting silence seemed surprisingly out of place. Vincent felt sure it was only a forced stillness.

"Well, Mr. Valentine," laughed a voice from the depths of the darkness, "I'm glad to see you've improved your hearing senses like I advised you."

Vincent gave a little start on hearing the voice. It sounded very familiar to his ear.

"Come out," ordered the voice authoritatively, "I know you're hiding around that corner."

There was another silence for a few moments before Vincent decided to face the gunman. He slowly made a movement to get up, but Aeris clung to him firmly and would not let him go, as though letting go meant death.

Vincent did not struggle to loosen her grip. Instead, he gently stroked her hair and whispered hurriedly into her ear. Aeris only shook her head vigorously as an answer and dug her face into his coat, refusing to release him.

Vincent then tenderly cradled her as he murmured inaudibly into her ear again. He whispered patiently and coaxingly to her, without showing the least bit of annoyance with her persistence.

When she finally nodded her head meekly, he kissed her hair and slowly tore himself away from her to get up.

Aeris leaned against the wall with both hands covering her mouth. She could not even find enough strength to speak. Her heart pounded terribly; her shoulders would not stop shaking.

Vincent calmly pulled out his gun from its holster as he left Aeris and turned around the corner. Although his damaged arm ached horribly and grew burdensome, he seemed utterly oblivious to the pain. He gazed sternly at the darkness infront of him, knowing the assailant, whoever he was, stood there facing him.

"Ah, Mr. Valentine," greeted the composed voice, "Or should I call you Vincent?"

Vincent knitted his brows in contempt, but made no reply.

"I bet you're just dying to know who I am, eh, my friend?"

Vincent silently cocked his gun with a sharp click.

"Oh ho," chuckled the voice, "actions speak louder that words, huh?"

Vincent suddenly pointed his gun at the source of the voice, glaring furiously at the dark void infront of him, even though he could not see the gunman.

"Are you the bastard who's been hounding this girl down?" he asked, feeling anger bubble in his heart.

"Why call me a bastard, Vincent?" reproached the voice, "I'm only doing my job. Didn't you use to do the same thing I'm doing now?"

Vincent blinked at the strangeness of the question, but quickly recovered himself and pointed the gun with even more firmness.

"I don't know what kind of bullshit you're trying to pull off, Sir," he replied quietly, "but you can rest assured: this girl is *not* going anywhere with you."

"Don't tell me, Vincent, that you've forgotten you were a blood-thirsty Turk thirty-one years ago?"

Saying this, the voice emerged from the darkness in the form of a tall shadow. He stood directly infront of Vincent, but Vincent still could not distinguish his facial features. The darkness shrouded the man's entire face except for his bright pink eyes, which gleamed straight at him, daring him to shoot.

"Huh!" scoffed the figure venomously, "I'm not surprised. After all, thirty-one years is a pretty long time."

The figure slowly advanced one more step, just as the moonlight broke through the clouds and fell on his face. The light made his hair appear whiter than before, but added a menacing glitter to his eyes. It was, indeed, the same man who had scared poor Aeris at the city square.

He pushed a strand of stray white hair out of his face as he twisted his lips into a wry smile.

Vincent was thunderstruck.

"..Davoren..," he whispered, immediately lowering his gun.

-End of Chp.7