I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.80

It was a moment Aeris would never forget. Though out of control, Vincent had kept her hidden deep inside himself, where no one and nothing- not Hojo, not glass- nothing could harm her.

He'd always been there. He the only one she ever wanted, his embrace the only shelter she had when the storms gusted too hard. Everytime, he was there, pushing her above these tempestuous seas. He'd never let her sink to the bottom like the rest of them, even when she resisted him, even when she herself wanted to just drown and end it all.

"YOU are the image!"

"...and what's 'inside' of him that makes him so different from me?"

"...if I put my faith in you, and for once believe I'm not a monster, will you....?"

              ...what's beneath the ...

It was a terrible moment Aeris would never forget. Their legs, bodies, logic itself whirled at top velocity. She felt Vincent huddle her away just before they literally went busting through the column with a resonant crash. Glass shattered. A million daggers flew by. They tore the rim of her dress. They sprayed his backside, shred his muscles and skin. She saw red. Blood. His blood. Falling. To her it seemed they were falling forever...

         ...for once.. just once, I'll...

First glass. Then a gritty stone floor. The spinning Vincent didn't realize they'd slammed into earth until the force of impact rammed flat into his senses. But he always held onto Aeris. He held her even when they suddenly collided against solid ground. Together they tumbled onwards in a messy heap, trailing dust and debris behind.

Over and over and over. The centrifugal violence rolled them like a runaway barrel across rugged terrain. Angry forces jolted them on all sides. Aeris lost herself in the mayhem. Still, this warm shell of heart and muscle covered her from the blows around.

Everything spun wild. Through the madness, Aeris somehow saw Holocaust Hojo make a grand landing just moments after their crash. There he squatted in place as glorious glass and metal scrap rained down. All the while he watched. Watched and yes, enjoyed.

Over and over. By the time friction brought this tumbleweed pair to a halt, they'd already reached the far end of this new arena. At last, they stopped. Aeris opened her eyes to find herself an aching, trembling wreck. She lay sprawled supine upon the dirty floor- crushed, without hope, without escape.

At first, her mind hung in shambles. The dazed girl squirmed to prop herself onto one elbow. Something heavy lay on top of her. It seemed to stir on its own. From the upper platform, through a glass portal onto the lower deck hall, followed all the way by a terrible demon- Aeris almost believed the entire journey had been some awful dream. That she would wake up in bed, amidst the quiet and calm of the bedroom, back home...

But no. Instead her hazy vision bounced off sinister dungeon walls. Worse, Aeris discovered a black, limp bloody sack sprawled across her body. It was breathing, moving. Just then her senses snapped wide open. At once, the panic-stricken girl bolted upright, where she tended to the battered, disorientated, half-dead Vincent thrashed over her.

The sight of him up close, like *that*, petrified her. Especially his intense glare; such a frightening mixture between human and devil. Already he had slid off her. Already he was writhing clumsily to get up and continue.

On the opposite side sat Holocaust Hojo crouched on all fours; that deformed monstrosity, his grace reduced to open wounds and broken armour, his acid-burnt face tied in a deranged knot. He blistered with rage. All he saw was Vincent.

Vincent ignored the insane voices inside and the pain wrangling both lungs. He ignored Death's seductive call. Most importantly, he ignored her- Aeris. No, he wouldn't give up. No, he wouldn't back down. In fact, he tried to stand. His hand groped blindly for his gun- not there. It must have fallen out during the crash. No matter. If this battle was meant to continue, then he'll continue. The fever-plagued wretch rose halfway from the floor, at least to confront Hojo, who now began to advance forward, not too steady himself either.

Vincent's thoughts shone clear through his eyes: thirty-one years ago he abandoned someone very dear to him. Never again. He wouldn't forsake this girl. He wouldn't commit that mistake *twice*!

Touching determination. A shame it didn't impress the ruthless scientist. He merely lashed out a long bundle of tentacles. Though they swacked Vincent clean off balance, it was Aeris who raised a shriek as she witnessed first-hand how physical resistance was shattered. Even before he'd reached his rickety knees, the defenseless man crashed aside in another sprawled mess, this time choking on his own blood.

"Vincent! Vincent!!" she wailed. He couldn't hear her. He was trying to get up again. He still had to continue this war. Aeris scrambled towards him. She protectively embraced this heaving mass, as though she- a sniveling, frightened little child- would keep him down, if not to hold his life together, then keep her own sanity from flying apart.

"You... M-miSeRAbLE...BASTARD!!" rasped Hojo's garbled voice against the hapless pair.

He wobbled closer and closer, followed by an entourage of hungry tentacles. He only saw Vincent- this man. This pest! This stubborn pest! Somehow, everything was his fault: the wars, Davoren's betrayal, the loss of that key materia Merger Grade-1, and most infuriating of all stealing the girl, his precious specimen, amidst the destruction of the laboratory. Somehow, it was all his fault! All his anger, frustrations, and bitter disappointments pinned themselves on this man alone!

If only Hojo could tell how upon realizing the girl had been spirited away, he'd raised such a thunderous cry. If only he could describe how he'd searched and searched, torn down metal walls, grappled through darkness until finally... finally, he'd found them!

"..finally..," the neurotic madman raved his obsession out loud, "..all those years... and when I'd finally... *finally* come so close...so close I c-could actually FEEL it materialize between my fingers... now you..."

Poor Aeris was caught at the very centre of their conflict. Terrified senseless, she cowered further over Vincent to shield him from those delirious blows. Her thoughts fluttered wilder as she watched Hojo's shadow stretch across the floor towards them. She didn't know what to do. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. Still his malice consumed that gasping heap of a man between her arms. Still he approached, slowly but surely, to draw this bloody drama to a close. Hojo craved Vincent's life.

"..you..," he literally growled.

The frantic girl, almost hyperventilating from fear, kept on returning to Vincent in complete desperation. He looked so helpless: disarmed, curled upon his stomach, shaking under pain. Nevertheless, Vincent clung to determination. He hadn't anything else now. He lifted one shoulder, collapsed, but tried again. Each attempt weakened him more. All Hojo had to do was puff to kill him! So why struggle? He was finished. Wasn't it easier to just die?

Yes, but long ago he'd taken the easy way out. He hid in a coffin full of self-loathing and guilt. He buried himself under snow, hoping the cold would freeze this torture like his ageless face.

"M..my experiment... a life's worth of work.. and then you..."

He struggled because he had get up. He refused point-blank to leave her. And because for once, just once, he'd put all his faith in her.

Suddenly, Aeris stopped.

Time ticked on without her. Hojo's evil aura filled the background. Vincent, ever defiant, still writhed to rise. She alone stopped. Only now, as darkness closed in on them, did she suddenly perceive something else within this man which gripped her in place. Past the weakness and desperation, there throbbed an incredible force she'd never felt so strongly before.

Aeris couldn't describe it. Through him shone this splendour only she could see. It arrested the madness within her head for just one brief moment, but forever opened her eyes to the turth- the *real* truth- she'd long striven to find.

Somehow, she understood now.

"YOU!!" barked Hojo into the scene, "D-do you really think I'll just let you burn everything to ash?! This is my experiment! Damn you, I won't allow it to be destroyed like this! I won't! I-"

A cool, crisp voice interrupted, "It must give you such pleasure."

He halted. Rather unexpectedly, Holocaust Hojo found himself- a flustered, vengeful gargantua of grotesqueness- suspended by a pair of green eyes. His addresser was a little girl; the same who'd begged him before not to hurt Vincent, who'd still try to stop him from hurting Vincent, but not quite the same person... not quite the same way. Hitherto, Hojo hadn't even noticed her. Now he scrutinized her fully. Aeris sat slouched upon the ground. She held Vincent in a loose embrace as he lay a confused, gory heap, yet stared right back at the Professor. Splotches of blood bespattered her dress. Her flowing hair hung in disarray, which added a touch of tragedy to her beautiful, solemn face.

The Professor wrinkled his nozzle at that bizarre remark. "What?" he demanded.

Aeris remained undaunted. "It must give you such pleasure," she repeated tepidly, "Destroying things.. people.. using their pain and tears to build yourself a shelter. It must make you feel so happy and safe hiding in there."

Mysterious riddles she spoke. For some reason, Hojo remained fortified in shadow, where his outline almost blurred into the darkness around, rather than advance. His facial features were coarse with mistrust. He seemed wary of the change in Aeris' demeanour, especially her eyes.

"Interesting. A shelter, you say?" he snided.

"Yes. This experiment. It's all just a shelter you to hide inside."

"From what?"

She paused, not in hesitation, but to measure him up. "From your own fears and pain."

He paused also; "Huh!" the odious creature snorted utter contempt. "You ignorant piece of cellular garbage! What would YOU know about me or my experiment anyway?"

She gave no response. Instead, Aeris watched fury roll hot through Hojo's gnashed fangs as he re-lived thirty-one years' worth of bitter memories in this present minute. "This is my dream! It's the only thing that's given PURPOSE to my world... PROOF of my own superiority and genius!!" he harangued, "I've sacrificed everything for 'Genesis Retrial'... more than anyone else here! My body, my time, my entire career for the ultimate scientific achievement: creating God from man!!"

Hojo's delirium frothed overboard. His yellow eyes bulged wider to expose one pupil skewed off centre, the perfect analogy of his diseased mind. "Y-you cannot comprehend how it feels to want something so badly it claws at your chest non-stop. This one thing you'd do *whatever* it takes to obtain! Heh.. ehheheh! We're like monsters covered in crime and filth, clinging to this world by a single thread. Each one of us is holding on... refuses to let go... because the minute we do, we lose our very purpose!" The crazed devil blared out at her, at Vincent, at the whole cosmos "Don't you understand?! Without my experiment, there's no more meaning! No purpose! No dream! NOTHING!!!"

"You are wrong."

Her calm rebuttal struck Hojo off guard. He'd never been one to tolerate defiance. Anyone else and he'd no doubt have killed him on the spot. Yet to hear Aeris particularly refute his views forced him back into stiff silence, wheras it added integrity to her presence. The resolute Aeris stood up. She took firm steps forth to meet the creature halfway. She placed herself between the nightmare she'd dreaded most and the love she treasured above all the rest.

In their desperate hour, when everyone else had been crushed, this girl would confront Hojo alone.

-End of Chp.80