I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.76

Aeris flew down the staircase two steps at a time, then a long corridor fraught with shadows. From the corners, small ghosts watched this frightened soul rush by, alone and so lost. She on the other hand hardly noticed the surroundings.

The battlegrounds. All she could think of was reaching the battlegrounds... reaching *him* in time. For every moment passed, worse grew her fears to the point of madness.

It seemed she'd been running forever! Through black halls, down endless stairwells, into haunted torture chambers. Were there no end to them?! And if her heart pounded any harder, surely it would burst!

Her thoughts attacked her from different directions. Nor could she outrun them. There was the Professor's hands upon her, blaring his vile claims... crushing her beneath the horrid truth until she succumbed.

There was intense self-disgust... for her helplessness... for her disgracing another person's life by simply existing. Everything happening now.. all her fault. All this her fault.

Most disconcerting of all were the vivid images of a blood-spattered, ruined Vincent torn apart, with her unable to stop it. Over and over the words mercilessly tumbled: he shouldn't have come! There is nothing for him here! He shouldn't have come!! Aeris yearned to scream them outloud, as if that would somehow end everything.

Still she pressed onwards. She'd last seen both enemies take their war down to the depths of the Reactor. Without a second's hesitation, the frenzied girl had dashed over to catch up with them.

She knew not what she *could* do there. She didn't know her way around either. But to Aeris' distressed mind, whichever path led downwards sufficed. And as for what she she'd "do", she never thought that far ahead. All she wanted now was to reach Vincent... prevent the horrific images in her head from becoming a reality, even if she had to intervene between him and Death itself.

Halls intertwined together. Overhead, the pipework and joists arched into a hideous arbour. Aeris let her feet chose the path through this dank, dreary forest. Into the entrance there, down these grey steps onto a lower labyrinth.

At first, there'd been nothing except the echoes of her quick footsteps racing down the corridors. However, it wasn't too long before she discerned a fierce war rage nearby. That of course only spurred her on double-speed.

The raucous clamour emanated somewhere above. Every so often, Aeris glanced up towards the ceiling in concern, especially whenever shockwaves rattled the pipework. There resounded gunshots, fast but irregular. There were several crashes and blasts; gallops and the groans of machinery thrashed about. No imagination wild enough could picture the level of brutality those two demons had sunk to.

No, but Aeris could guess. Faster she ran. She followed the echoes, around some obscure corner until she emerged onto a wide balcony which overlooked the refinery far below. As the distraught girl came rushing in, she heard several rounds of bullets high above. After about a five second silence, there suddenly followed a massive explosion. Like a full-scale earthquake, it easily flung Aeris to the ground in more confusion.

At once, her stark green eyes, scarcely understanding anything, turned far up towards the source: the explosion had blasted computer consoles, metal garbage, stone shrapnel, and God knows what else through the entire upper wall. Amidst the debris, Aeris also spotted a battered lump of a body twirl downwards in complete free fall. Much to her horror, it was Vincent.

In the end, Fickle Fate had favoured Hojo. Vincent couldn't quite recall how it happened. His mind spiralled like the rest of the world beneath. There'd been a skirmish. Many tentacles slashed at him, then came a searing-hot light... an energy blast. He must have got swept along the hurricane, and clean through the wall with the rest of the debris. It didn't matter now anyway.

He had lost the war.

The man whirled across the yawning pit. Behind him trailed fiery smoke which singed the edges of his ragged clothes. Meanwhile, the battle-weary Hojo emerged from the brink of the blast hole just to savour the scene. His black, jagged silhouette contrasted sharply against his brilliant eyes.

Whether from Aeris' terrified view below or the Professor's above, the sight was the same. Vincent flew high across towards some renovation scaffoldings on the other side, probably left abandoned since a year ago. At a total loss for control, he came crashing straight through two decks of wood. A hailstorm of debris followed suit. Be it survival instincts or fluke luck, however, Vincent somehow managed to catch hold of one of the support girders in time. The rest plummeted to obscurity far, far below.

He'd escaped one fate. Yet the devastated scaffolding system had sustained too much damage to uphold itself anymore, nevermind his weight. Nor needed Vincent much wits to anticipate the next fiasco. In desperation, he clung tight onto the girder as the support system agonisingly lurched over, wrenching a whole mangled mess of pipes along the way.

Soon gravity broke it free of all restraints, and down rumbled the system. Fortunately, the length of this shambolic chaos far exceeded the pit's diameter. It had only plunged a few meters, past the balcony, when it twisted round to become wedged between opposite walls. Vincent was almost jolted off as the entangled mess skid downwards. Its loud sparks deafened his ears. They screeched, screeched all the way until finally everything stumbled to an unsteady halt.

The explosion still reverberated across Vincent's dizzy head. It took him another minute to realize they'd stopped. There he dangled, more than half his body free in the open, both arms literally clinging to dear life (or what little remained).

First thing Vincent did was check his heart- yes, still beating. There were more injuries; something felt broken along his side. He noticed himself shaking. Whether from fear or pain, he couldn't decide.

Vincent daren't look down. Instead, he feebly struggled to clamber up to safety. But at the slightest movement, the unstable structure heaved a languid moan, then tipped aside. Vincent fell back to dangling in the open. Again, the entanglement groaned. Some scraps of metal chipped off. In fact, the whole mess seemed ready to collapse any minute.

...are you afraid?...

...of the answer?...

...of the darkness?...

...you never came...


Consciousness began to slip. His body sagged under this swarm of nonsense... round... round it buzzed...

"Vincent!!!" he heard a tearful voice cry out.

Vincent was startled into sudden alarm. His bloodshot eyes whirled over to the far side. They strained further to a harsh crimson on spotting Aeris. From her place, she leaned far across the balustrade, almost falling over, as turmoil wrangled her inside out. He had never seen her look so terrified as that instant; her face pallid, green eyes wide amidst thick, loose hair.

Indeed, she had seen him wrecked by illness. She'd seen him get scorched through hell and fury. But just now, as she'd witnessed him spiral high overhead, poor Aeris had felt her whole soul freeze still with horror. It shattered when he crashed, releasing a flurry of emotions she could no longer contain.

He dangled there by a girder, no better than a corpse on a thread. Vincent was all the more alarmed when he saw Aeris, at a total disregard for sense, vault over the balcony railing, and hopped onto dangerous grounds.

The girl made her way down the mangled steel and broken pipelines, arms stretched out for steadiness. Between them the distance seemed infinite. Beneath her the path creaked and groaned. Bits of scrap shed off, and plunged down, down to the ogling pit below.

One slip-up would cost her life. Yet if Aeris did not reach him now, it would cost her sanity and her heart.

"H-hang on!" she faltered, "I'm coming!"

Exactly what Vincent did NOT want. He had just managed to lumber halfway up, awash with agitation, when his attention shot high upwards: he beheld Professor Hojo leap from the blast hole, down a thirty foot height onto the scene below.

"Shit! AERIS!! GET BACK!!" he blared at the confused girl.

His warning came one second too late. The gargantuan monster dropped full-weight onto the system, right infront of Aeris. Both Vincent and the shrieking girl were thrown off balance as the already frail structure buckled under impact with a violent protest, then suddenly collapsed altogether.

Vincent lost hold, fell, but managed to grapple another girder piece in time. Down skid the system again. More garbage was wrenched out. Sparks flew so hot they carved a black trail in stone. On the other end, Aeris cowered upon herself, eyes squeezed tight just to block out the racket. The girl had been flung onto her side, where she'd immediately clung to the nearest piece of wreckage within reach. Even now, she felt her body begin to slide away as the entire structure teetered around its own axis.

If felt longer than eternity. But only a few moments had passed when everything jolted to a rough standstill. Once again, the shambolic mess had wedged itself between opposite walls. This time though, it lay tilted at a sharp angle. In effect, Vincent found himself dangling loose from the lowest end, by a lifeline which wouldn't sustain him for long.

No, certainly not the best of situations.

The silence sounded so unnatural. Shaken and twice bewildered, Aeris finally overcame enough fear to lift her head. A vicious pair of eyes, one a bit deformed, pierced hers dead-on. Their intensity frightened her to such magnitude, the girl scuffled back a few inches, when she became too aware of her grim position: events had left her stranded atop this steep slope of metal rubbish. Worse, Professor Hojo sat crouched in plain view, neck twisted around to study this trembling little girl. In return, Aeris gaped at him: his imposing frame, bony shears, and long tentacles splayed about, one or two even twitching against her boot.

This was the Professor. Her creator. The embodiment of nightmares, stripped from a human guise so she could behold him at his most terrible.

He didn't seem surprised to find her here, nor the least bit touched. Rather, Hojo disdainfully snorted, "I honestly cannot decide which is more ludicrous: this man's stubbornness, or your persistent clinging to him."

That said, he turned away to finish the job. Confused, Aeris looked beyond Hojo down towards the opposite end of the slope. She gasped on spotting Vincent there, who all this time had been clumsily trying to pull himself up.

"P-Professor!!" she begged outloud.

"Don't interfere," Hojo ordered dryly.

"Professor! Please don't-AAH!!"

The instant she'd tried to scramble up, the structure beneath cradled sideways in agony, and she crashed back in place. Hojo ignored her; she wasn't worth a second glance.

It took Aeris a moment or so to gather herself together. By now, terror left her speechless; alone to witness his murder all over again, like with Davoren only a hundred times worse. All around, the demon crowd roared for blood. They pounded that horrible memory over and over into her mind: watch his blood get splattered... you the helpless spectator, always weak, always pathetic... watch...

Watch him die.

Every step rattled the system into further instability. Still, that never deterred Professor Hojo. Already the predator-creature had skid down the rugged slope towards his defenceless enemy. The metamorphosis happened as smoothly as donning a cloak: as he strode forth upon all fours, closer and closer, Hojo's monstrous body devolved to its scraggly human form. From there, he erected himself up, and stopped right in view of Vincent below.

Holocaust or human, whichever appeared more grotesque remained a personal choice. Either one did not detract an ounce from Hojo's malicious aura. The war had left ample scars, gory wounds, and dirt all over his grace. Under deeply furrowed brows, acid burns marred his gaunt face like a throbbing spider's web, all way down. But despite his own battered condition, the Professor maintained more poise than Vincent; even with an elbow twice broken and one limp leg. Such were the powers of JENOVA cells.

Not like Vincent could climb back up. Just to make sure, Hojo swacked a tentacle hard against the girder. It snapped upon its hinge, flinging the alarmed Vincent further out into danger, and Aeris into more distress.

He fumbled with both hand and claw to hold on. The flimsy girder creaked louder. Suspended thus between two hells, Vincent's anxious eyes whirled downwards, only to find a hungry pit awaiting him. From wall to wall he made one desperate search for a way out: nothing!

At least to the sane-minded. However,*he* noticed something...

"Well, Mr. Valentine. You've been nothing but a nuisance and a pest," relished Hojo upon his verdict, "For all the trouble you've caused me, your death will be sweet compensation."

Spoken with such a firm tone, Vincent replied, "No."

Aeris blinked through her tears in evident muddlement. Professor Hojo raised an eyebrow: what did he mean 'no'?

"It may not seem obvious to you," he addressed the scientist, "But not only have I already escaped, I've also taken Aeris with me."

Confident words. Perhaps he'd been bludgeoned over the head one time too many. Vincent's mysterious answer, his suddenly stern expression, certainly contrasted against his bleak situation: the ruthless enemy hovered above him. At the slightest whim, he could cut his lifeline short. The girl was trapped in Hojo's corner, well out of reach or range.

But as he hung there, Vincent's eyes glowered crimson defiance up at his enemy. He seemed ready to act, or to die.

Either way, Hojo was amused. "Huh! Stubborn to the very last, eh Mr. Valentine?" his grin distorted into a sneer. Instantly he belted out a fatal whip of tentacles. "A lot of good it may serve you! NOW GO TO HELL!!"

"You first!"

In one unbelievable act of madness, Vincent purposely swung both legs up, then thrust all his weight downwards, thereby pulling upon the girder too. No longer able to maintain its integrity, the system collapsed to utter ruin. The astounded Professor and Aeris, whose alarm choked her wild, both lurched aside at a total loss for coordination. Suddenly, everything was falling. Metal debris, crackled stone, all plummeted in a thunderous rumble, amidst them Vincent, Hojo, and Aeris.

Vincent had pulled off many stunts, but none compared to this one. Between a ledge on one wall and a ventilation grate right opposite, his ingenuity had devised a plan... a plan maybe just crazy enough to work.

One chance; everything gambled on precise calculations and perfect timing against free fall. Unconstrained, Vincent flipped over several times until he touched feet-first down onto the ledge. Momentum cocked his heels. With this propulsive force, he dived straight across the pit's diameter, tackling Aeris en route as she fell in time to catch her.

Vincent braced for impact. On the opposite wall, a rusted grate greeted them. Together they came bursting through, where they skid sideways down the ventilation duct. Vincent always kept Aeris' head pressed against his chest; at last, the rough ride crumbled to a halt.

His muscles ached. He had wagered a lot more than he could afford on that acrobatic stunt; the strain, the sheer concentration and effort! But the gains outweighed the losses: he had escaped, and taken the girl with him.

His first concern fell upon Aeris. Vincent quickly checked her for any injuries, but thankfully found none; he'd made extra sure of that.

The girl, on the other hand, lay sprawled in numb perplexity: just ten seconds ago, she'd been spinning free through pandemonium, nothing beneath her except nothingness itself. She remembered screaming. She recalled seeing Professor Hojo plunge fast like a heavy rock. But how she ended up here, that simply bewildered her mind.

Aeris faltered to speak. Vincent however hastily mollified her. "Sh.Sh. It's okay. Don't say anything."

Retreat seemed the best strategy. So without further deliberation, his claw encircled her waist. Vincent then dragged the traumatised girl along. She clutched one side of his torn shirt, dazed by the surroundings. Indeed, the sooner he got her out of here, the better.

Yet they hadn't reached five inches when something suddenly yanked Aeris back; so violent she shrieked and clung tighter onto Vincent as it tugged harder at her. Vincent, clasping her whole in alarm, instantly whirled his eyes behind.

The shocking sight struck him dumb.

Sure enough, they beheld a deranged Professor Hojo clambering through the busted vent. His outstretched hand was clamped around Aeris' ankle, not only to hold her back, but also to pull himself up. Aeris felt her heart jump up her throat. No matter what the barrier, nothing could unshackle the Professor's grip on her!

Most probably, Hojo had utilised his tentacles to gain footing, then clawed his way up the wall to the same vent. As he now scuffled to enter, bristling fury, teeth gnashed until they almost cracked under pressure, he resembled a rabid animal. His hair hung in dishevellment. Through those dangling fringes, two fierce eyes glared straight at the petrified Aeris alone

"It's useless. D-don't you understand?!" rasped the madman, "You're just an image to everyone else! There is no place for you outside the laboratory! Or do you s-suppose... *he* could somehow change the truth?"

Neither Vincent nor the horror-stricken girl could speak. Yellow against turbulent green, Hojo's glare drilled into Aeris' very core. It grabbed something inside, leaving her cold with his curse upon her mind.

But that did not satisfy the Professor. He wanted all of her. So bad that his obsession soon seethed into roaring fanaticism. "Stupid little chit! He can't change a thing! He can't hide you! You belong to me! YOU BELONG TO MY EXPERIMENT!!!!!!"

If Vincent had the determination to rescue Aeris, then Professor Hojo possessed equal infatuation to keep her under his claws. The girl raised a frightened cry when the incensed demon suddenly reeled her back towards himself; with such force it almost ripped out her leg from its socket. Aeris frantically clung around Vincent's neck. She wailed "NO! NO!!" as she struggled to beat Hojo away. All in vain.

For all his own attempts, Vincent could not wrench her free, even as he held onto her with every bit of strength. Inch by inch, both were dragged back. She began to slip away, still crying, still pleading...

No good. At his wits end, Vincent twirled out his gun, and jabbed its butt hard against Hojo's exposed wrist. The bone-cracking blow stunned the monster with a snarl, enough to loosen his iron grip on Aeris. To break the hold completely, Vincent next delivered one sharp kick straight out into Hojo's chin. This time, it knocked him away from the vent altogether.

The brutal double-whammy keeled Hojo over. But far from vanquished, he managed to grab firm hold again before falling. By the time he'd vaulted back into the vent, Vincent had already slung Aeris onto his back and made a hurried getaway.

He needn't look behind to realize the enraged Professor had given pursuit. He discerned mad scuffles, inhuman growls close upon their tail. Faster hustled Vincent on all fours. Aeris not only clung to his neck, but kept her face buried deep against his shoulder. He knew she tried her utmost not to weep. It made her shivering all the more intense.

Into the bowels of darkness they fled. Haunted ducts and long, corroded tunnels radiated into an endless network. Grates alongway barred goblins and ghouls, whose sickly arms reached out to grapple these fugitives. Vincent felt impeded, laden down. Not by the girl's weight (she weighed nothing) but exhaustion, injuries, and the fever boiling his organs inside.

Still he pressed onwards. He hadn't the foggiest clue where to go, much less cared. He just wanted to shake off their pursuer. Not an easy task. Hojo's speed, though reduced, still exceeded his own. Furthermore, the sly scientist could track them down, thanks to that cerebral microchip implanted within Aeris' brain.

Bastard, cursed Vincent, it's like he's thought of everything!

And speaking of the devil, he suddenly discerned a menace spear in fast upon them: tentacles. Each one zinged out from a different vent. Vincent automatically swung aside to blast the first one clean through. Next one managed to graze his arm, but didn't enjoy victory long before Vincent shot it point-blank in the nodule. A twin pair whipped down at an angle. He dodged the two into another airduct nearby, just as they lashed metal instead. From there, he sniped them both dead. Defeated, the headless appendages dispersed in different directions.

A suspicious tranquillity befell the cold, stale air.

Very clever of Professor Hojo; he was trying to throw Vincent off concentration. So far, he'd succeeded. The tentacles had attacked from so many places, he couldn't determine where their *source* originated. Down that ominous duct? Over there, around that corner and beyond? Hojo lurked nearby. Where remained yet to be found.

A lot closer than anticipated, from the place least expected. Danger instincts warned Vincent to look upwards *pronto*, just when a diabolical barrage of tentacles ripped havoc through the duct's ceiling. Aeris wailed outloud. She hugged his neck so tight, he could barely breathe. They invaded by the dozens; slimy, sensuous ropes of flesh, wreaking destruction in search for prey.

Vincent thought fast. Rather than fight, he scrambled head-low through the warzone, onwards into some small side-pipe.

Too many noises hammered him at once: metal crunched and tore open as Professor Hojo smashed his way down to give chase. His own coarse gasps. Strange voices... laughter.. murmurs... rants...

Amidst this chaos, Vincent somehow had to instill a clear head, even though his pulse raced mad to keep pace. All the while, he detected the infuriated scientist catch up to them. Vincent kept going. Gallops grew louder. The entourage of appendages shred through walls like cardboard. Still, he persevered.

Events ticked faster than the clock, in which Vincent's attention now darted around. A storm blew their way, at its centre a black phantom, eyes blustered to a frenzy. Vincent saw it. Aeris saw it. Next blink, and Professor Hojo lunged in for the kill.

By luck, Vincent remembered one useful tactic he'd learnt from Davoren. So before the storm swallowed them whole, he took aim of the nearest steam gasket, then blasted it wide open. Choking whiffs of white gas instantly swooshed out, right into Hojo's irritated eye. The astounded enemy swerved off course in painful confusion. In mere microseconds, the miasma fog consumed everyone to leave them in total blindness.

The smoke screen offered a perfect opportunity to sneak away. Vincent groped his way through this steam-saturated maze, quickly least Hojo overtook them again. Coughing, sweaty and tired, he finally discovered an emergency hatch overhead; A Godsend, to be sure!

First, he secured Aeris. Then he climbed up the ladder rungs, not forgetting to manually double-lock the hatch behind. It wouldn't stop Professor Hojo. But it should thwart him for a while. By then, Vincent hoped they'd be long gone.

Up, up the shaft he ascended. The girl hung latched onto his back, petrified mute, her face nestled against his shoulder. Not a word was exchanged between them. For now, the focus remained on escape; or if not then retreat far enough to consider themselves "safe".

They soon reached the end of this claustrophobic tube. Vincent clambered into the right vent. He crawled down the path, around one corner, when they met a forking of routes. Again, he chose the right.

And so they journeyed through rat-infested, dark terrain. Vincent fought fatigue to keep moving. Every meter transversed, he pushed himself harder for the next. He wanted to maximise the distance between them and the Professor.

Time dragged on. They wandered deeper across unfamiliar tunnelways, through thick forests of shadows and ice-logged crevices. Way led onto way. By perseverance and a lot of guesswork, they happened to discover a blind-ended duct. It seemed a bit cleaner than the rest. Better yet, Vincent spied a humble grate over there, which admitted some light inside; a mere trickle, but any light was welcome. This shelter would do, especially since he too needed a rest.

He placed Aeris safe by the grate, then backtracked to the vent's entrance. Gun in hand, the man pricked up his ears to a fine-point. He listened for a movement, a noise, anything suspicious. Be it precaution or paranoia, one part of him still expected Professor Hojo to attack. Even a hundred miles didn't seem far enough to escape that maniac.

He spent an entire minute listening. Nothing ever emerged. For once, Vincent took relief in this disappointment. He holstered his gun, then returned to Aeris. He found the girl huddled forlorn, hugging herself to stop shaking, and eyes tensed upon empty space. She never stirred. Never spoke. However, the instant Vincent touched her, just a light hand to check her, she struck it away with a shrill, "NO!!"

Her violent reaction certainly baffled Vincent, more so as she scrambled away from him to the opposite corner. Nor did Aeris seem able to explain her own irrationality. But she cringed far back, frightened, shaking amidst tempestuous emotion. One could dare say, insane.

"..h..his hand!" she blurted.

Vincent didn't understand. "...what?"

"HIS HAND!!" she shrieked deliriously, "It's still there! He's still pulling me back!!"

There was no hand upon her ankle. No one here save Vincent, whose expression soon softened to thoughtful concern. He remembered that night she crashed into him, a pitiful little dove on the run from a nightmare. Once it had recaptured that dove, the nightmare broke both her wings and sanity to fragments. No pity for her.

Vincent assumed the most non-threatening demeanour. He deliberately crawled towards Aeris. Yet whatever her deranged mind saw approach instead made her skitter back even more until he had her cornered, screaming louder "NO! NO! I don't want to bear this child! He created me... he has every right to me! But I..I.."

Vincent overcame these raves to cup her distraught face, and forced her to look straight at him. He called firmly "Aeris."

"I don't want him c-crawling all over my body! No! I don't want to bear this child! His hand... IT'S STILL THERE!!"




Whether by repetition of her name or the strength of both Vincent's voice and grip, Aeris suddenly snapped back to reason with a start. She blinked. She found herself breathless, cold, her own pale face supported at close range to his. Between his claw and hand, Aeris gaped wide into those intense ruby-red eyes. They radiated kind warmth upon her.

Sense slowly pieced the last events together: the chase, this shelter, that fitful scene just now. As their gazes interlocked longer, a keen double pang of sorrow and shame stabbed Aeris. Bitter tears of self-hate welled up, though she struggled hard to repress them: How foolish she must appear to him now!

So painful that without knowing why, Aeris whimpered softly to him, "..oh Vincent, I..I'm sorry...I am s-so..sorry.."

Perhaps she did appear foolish. A dozen emotions tumbled inside. She knew not how to bear them, especially with him holding her thus under meditative scrutiny, almost as if he fuelled them on. She felt so stupid, raving just now, apologizing for nothing. She wished she could just...

Yet Vincent wouldn't let her finish that thought. Before Aeris realized it, he unexpectedly bent over to kiss her full upon the mouth, if only to soothe her silent.

The moment lingered a blissful eternity. No one here save these two refugees, hidden in this black corner from the world around. He felt her tremble as he tilted up her head back a bit. Indeed, he'd more than caught her off guard. Maybe unconsciously, both Aeris' shaky hands slid halfway up Vincent's chest, where just his ragged undershirt separated her fingertips from his skin. Everything was quiet. Everything so still.

Aeris could not conceal her wonderment when he withdrew his lips from hers. Nor could she speak anymore; he'd cruelly stolen her voice too. Instead, she stared at him as if lost in a daze, their faces near enough to feel his gentle breath upon her cheek. Through these long hair locks, she beheld cuts and blood, his own and others, spattered across his solemn face.

This face.

The same she'd ached to touch. Ever since God cast her back in this Hellhole, his face never left her for one minute. In fact, she ran her fingers along one side for fear it might disappear. No, he was here. Somehow, he was here.

Still the mute girl stared at him until she finally noticed something about herself: all this time, tears have been streaming free down her own face.

She couldn't suppress them anymore. Vincent, anticipating them before her, immediately engulfed Aeris to press her dear against himself. No sooner inside, than she dissolved into the most heated crying bout ever experienced. Her sobs filled the air, each one wrangling another bit of her anguished heart. Vincent never tried to hush her. He merely kissed her hair twice, tender reassurances of his presence, and let her pour it all out.

He didn't want to talk. He didn't want to think. Vincent just held this frightened, tearful child safe. Upon his life, he'd vowed no one would take her away. Some would have scoffed. But to him, every blow received, every pain suffered had been worth it.

Just to embrace her like this again. Yes. It was worth it.

-End of Chp.76