I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.89

Over the course of one night, two men with a thirty-one year old animosity between them had waged an unholy war inside this abandoned Mako Reactor. Neither enemy had yielded an inch to the other. Each had immersed himself deeper and deeper into conflict until little of the original remained. Their dispute had centered on a young woman. As the battle progressed it spread beyond her to involve the importance she bore to each man, her ties to their pasts and present, and the different passions she evoked within them, Vincent determined to retrieve her no matter what the odds, Professor Hojo just as resolved to keep her here, all to himself, even if it ultimately meant killing her.

The night-long war had taken them on a tour throughout this fortress. It reached climax point at the grand hall, when Hojo delivered the coup de grace by sending Vincent smashing through that giant glass column. But instead of sweet victory the scene disintegrated to disaster with the girl's unexpected intervention, her slaying followed by the advent of a third adversary.


The Reactor hitherto had endured hours of their gritty conflict with good grace. To contrast, the demon's resurgence lasted only a few minutes, yet during that short period rocked the entire place into a perpetual state of pandemonium. So much so that both Vincent and Hojo had to abandon their battle in wake of the turbulent aftermath.

Even now, destruction and sister havoc roamed the area free and wild. They tore down stone walls. They cracked floors open, toppled over machinery and danced amidst an ecstasy of earthquakes. Indeed, though Chaos has long since fallen prisoner again, its legacy to this world raged on unabated.

As the Mako Reactor tossed between boisterous cataclysms. Holocaust Hojo hurriedly stomped along on all fours through the collapsing wards. After a short, gruesome encounter for which he paid an eye, the scientist had just barely managed to escape Chaos alive. Whatever befell his enemy he neither knew much less cared. Deep into his precious laboratory he sought refuge.

Not once since fleeing the hall had he paused to rest. Something so disturbing happened to him back there. What precisely he couldn't say. Not defeat. Hojo had in fact won the war against Vincent. The beast he'd swacked out of existence, the man he'd left to drown under turmoil. No, it wasn't Vincent. Not Chaos either. Something else, a force far more powerful. It had pried him wide open, seized his essence and refused even for a second to let go.

The girl.

For some inexplicable reason, Hojo could not shake her off. Nor could he push her words, those plainspoken, detestable words out of his head. Though he'd left her a ragged carcass upon the floor back there in the hall, something she'd instilled in him still chased him around; this sinister, invisible stalker he daren't stop to identify, as if recognition might spell his own ruin. Instead he hobbled on with his mind locked shut, all the while growling unintelligible nonsense. He seemed engaged in a heated conversation with himself.

A serious unsteadiness marked Professor Hojo's gait. He'd a fractured elbow to rely on, although that physical instability compared little to his demented mental status. Behind him dripped a trail of blood. His glare burned upon the path ahead. He'd sustained a range of injuries, from trivial abrasions and cuts to acid burns blistering alongside his gargoyle face. There were gunshot wounds, glass shards embedded within his flesh, and a gory open gash on his flank, courtesy of Chaos' energy saber.

This conflict, its length and uncompromising brutality had eroded him to such an extent that the border between his inner and outer beastliness had blurred beyond distinction. The corridors dithered and whined. Squalls of debris lashed against him. Once or twice a belligerent earthquake tossed him sideways. Hojo trundled forward at a manic pace, a half-blind, armored tank of menace intent on moving despite his lack of any clear direction. To be honest, he had no idea at all where he was headed. He just yearned for a quiet place within this vast madhouse where he could hide far away from everything and everyone, including himself..

And yet...

While he craved peace, Hojo marched in the thick of anarchy unable to extract himself from it, like they'd merged into one large, disconcerted creature, him and the surrounding upheaval. Every corner he turned, harrowing live images of his laboratory crumbling to pieces filled his sight. He did not want to watch. However, the horror-stricken scientist could not help but watch. He felt the agony wrangling his beloved sanctuary, the screams and savage spasms, wrangle him too to desperation. Hojo's remaining eye, a yellow fire of evil, swiveled about in search for anything stable to anchor his erratic mind to. He kept on snarling "no" ...

No to this destruction.
No to these relentless thoughts knocking on his brain for entry.
No to the loss of a dream.

And no- NO- to her.

To the Professor, "Genesis Retrial" meant more than an experiment. It represented a long, hard path, the only path worth pursuing, for which he'd offered everything of value. He'd built his own world around this experiment, cementing its foundations with blood, sweat and constant sacrifice. "Genesis retrial" was his life. It kept him alive. It let him feel alive. Without it, he'd shouted at Aeris, there was no meaning, no purpose, nothing. Without it, everything would cease to exist. He would cease to exist.

No, he would not let that happen.

And yet...

No! No! The path couldn't lead to a dead end. After everything he'd given, after everything he'd committed, he would not let it collapse like this. The laboratory. The experiment. The girl. They all belonged to him. Him alone! He'd let no one take them away from him. Not Vincent or Chaos. Not her or her so-called "truth"- damn them both! All this belonged to him. He'd let NO ONE take it away!

And yet...

And yet Aeris' calm voice still echoed inside his head: "You're too afraid to admit: all you've ever had were empty fields with nothing beneath."

No matter how far he plodded, Hojo could not shove the ghost of that Cetra-clone out of his mind. Back there in the hall, she'd unceremoniously stood up to confront him. A small weepy chit like her, transformed by an incredible conviction into a fearless force which had aroused in him a paradox of emotions: fascination and infatuation by her demeanor, foreboding and hatred of her words. Those words, straight and simple, had mercilessly peeled him layer by layer against his will until at last, the incensed demon slaked her. One swipe across the chest and she was finished.

Then why did she still torment him?

"What a sad creature you are, professor. All that time I wasted fearing you, I should have been pitying you."

His overheated brain would not stop obsessing about her. She consumed him, the manner she'd stood before him, so beautiful, her bold speech, the easiness of killing her but the impossibility of silencing her. Holocaust Hojo pounded onwards harder and harder, whether towards her in defiance or away from her in fear he wasn't sure. He wanted her to shut up! He wanted to banish that girl clear out of his mind! Just for her to leave him alo-

His physical state could no longer keep pace with the berserk speed of the mental. The flustered demon gave a sharp yelp when his broken elbow suddenly buckled under strain. He almost crashed to the floor but managed by instinct to steady himself in time. Shaking, bristling, he leaned against the wall for support. Hojo needed to catch his breath. Languishing here alone, this huge, gargantuan monster, hitherto so fierce and focused, doubled upon himself in a moment of visible agony. He'd been trying to outrun his own thoughts. Now that his body finally failed him, thousands descended upon him to rip his reason apart.

"You're too afraid to admit..."

Hojo choked on anger. Again, that girl. That damn piece of cellular trash! He'd sooner kill her all over again than endure her babbling! No! She could not be right. He refused to believe her!

Injuries and a grave weariness afflicted the irate creature. But his worst ordeal emanated from an invisible wound within his chest, from which this hot, intense feeling had been steadily pouring into his aching heart. He knew no word to describe it. Just this troublesome feeling that would not subside.

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

So where was he supposed to take them, all these thoughts and emotions swarming around him? The loss of the girl, the wrecking of his experiment, the laboratory and everything else, his reduction to this sorry state, cowering thus in some hallway- where was he to place the blame for all this?

Random questions inside his head. Heaviness upon his heart. Holocaust Hojo felt ready to explode. Still her voice teased his ears: "All you've ever had were empty fields with nothing beneath."

Just then in the thick of such mental tumult, something new alerted Hojo's senses. The monster lifted his head at once. He'd detected a presence closeby. Behind him in fact. Like a thief caught red-handed, Holocaust Hojo shot his attention around to the far end of this bleak corridor. There, through the commotion and junk, he perceived a tall, dark figure of man silhouetted at the entrance. The unexpected sight transfixed Hojo in place. Even his twittering tentacles seized up with apprehension. He did not know how long that intruder had been spying on him. Yet for all this tension, the figure neither advanced nor spoke. He merely observed his target from afar, face obscured by shadow save those two eyes gleaming bright red.

The stupefied scientist and the somber figure observed each other across the distance when, just as suddenly, another belligerent earthquake rocked the scene. A deluge of pipes and bricks crashed between them, throwing Hojo off balance. He huddled closer to the wall for shelter. In the bedlam his sight whirled back towards that grim specter, only to discover, much to his bemusement, that it had vanished into the dusty mist. Gone without a trace.

Holocaust Hojo however remained dumbfounded by the brief encounter. He couldn't make anything of it. Did he really see someone or just imagine it? For a whole minute, the nettled monster simply gawked at a complete loss into empty space where the lone ghost once occupied. As he lingered there, still lost within the depths of those red eyes now gone, discord began brewing inside- too great, too hot for the stiff confines of his chest to bear. A harsh, animal glower contorted his visage. His heart pounded louder and faster; one could almost hear it over the surrounding din.

Yes, he recognized that figure. He'd recognized him the instant he saw him.


It made no difference whether their encounter had been fact or fantasy. There and then, he knew. By this intense enmity which linked them together, he just KNEW Vincent lurked about somewhere, alive and waiting. Fury prevailed over injury. Even his fractured elbow lost its significance. Holocaust Hojo immediately tore after his foe. Through these labyrinthine halls he pursued a specific path, as if some wild, vivid instinct was telling him exactly where to go.

Logic would have argued against him. There seemed no point to this chase right now. With Rufus ShinRa having blown up his experiment, the girl cast away as a bloody corpse and the Reactor seized by civil strife, what would hunting down this one, apparently insignificant man whom he'd already defeated possible achieve?

To Hojo, everything. He hadn't really given his enemy much thought after fleeing Chaos; too persecuted by Aeris, the grievous wounds she'd inflicted upon him, and his tornado of emotions regarding her. He'd been roaming around in search of relief from the calamity tearing at his conscience, and these endless questions about where to take this conflict, who to take it to, and how to hide from it. All this time he'd been wandering blindly unable to respond. But with that ghost's appearance, so punctual it seemed deliberate, Hojo suddenly latched onto the only possible answer: Vincent.

Seeing him hadn't sparked any new fires; rather it had poked at the coal to remind Hojo of that hateful flame still burning hot underneath. It had always been Vincent. No logic to it. He just knew, like he knew his senses were guiding him to that man right now. He blamed him for this- the losses, the destruction, his destruction, as he'd blamed him for everything else before.

He'd spent thirty-one years nurturing his experiment to maturity. In one night- one, single, infernal night- Vincent comes and lays all he'd ever built to ruins. Somehow, he wrecked everything! How then could he achieve any peace knowing that bastard still walked free and alive. In finding him, he could do something yet... something that would change matters, make them better, or maybe just numb these raw feelings stabbing his heart.

Indeed, desperate minds cling to desperate hopes.

Faster and faster Hojo galloped towards the ultimate climax. Enticed by his own insanity, the beast exited the last corridor, only to emerge onto a semi-circular balcony which overlooked an enormous round atrium. He stopped short. Ten meters away directly opposite him, the same tall, grim figure stood at the parapet, this time his back completely facing the scientist. It was none other than Vincent.

Reunited at last.

Not a joyful occasion though. The Holocaust monster expressed no surprise to meet his enemy here. But he did not advance any further either, as if a magical barrier held him back. Instead the bedraggled demon, quite breathless after that "chase", crouched down in place and waited behind a mixed fašade of caution and hostility. He glowered at Vincent. The latter however remained an aloof statue, standing erect whilst his long black hair swayed gently in the breeze of surrounding mayhem. By his side hung his claw, ripped open and mutilated.

He was aware of that gargantuan menace lurking behind him. In fact, all this time he'd been expecting Hojo; his own instincts had assured him the scientist would arrive. Still Vincent did not turn to confront him. He knew Hojo, despite his coiled up stance, wouldn't attack yet. Even if he did, the man seemed not to care.

Their paths had crossed several times over the stretch of one long, surreal night. Each encounter uncovered another ugly skeleton from the past; each battle pushed the stakes higher, spread the violence further until at last it engulfed the Reactor whole, with them trapped together deep underground. In the final chapter of this sordid drama, here they stood, two war-torn enemies, at the last intersection of roads before Death claimed them both for his kingdom.

The pair loitered upon the fifth, top most balcony. The location offered a panoramic view of this huge atrium below. Huge indeed, enough to fit several giants inside. The balcony system, five semi-circular decks shelved neatly over each other, occupied this half of the hall. It was connected to the opposite wall by a hanging jungle of bridges, beams and buttresses, with rigid steel stairwells scattered throughout to link its many branches together. Looking down from such a great height, one appreciated how this network stretched across open space to reach those doors and rooms stranded on the other side. So complex yet so precise, each highway going somewhere specific, whereas here they lingered, no place to go, no hope in sight.

Vincent had actually passed through here before. It was the laboratory data center, where ShinRa Inc. used to store and process its science information. But gone all the glory this hall once possessed. The angry earth had reduced it to a derelict death trap. Down came rubble and anarchy crashing around. The walls were cracking. The land was breaking to pieces. Still, Vincent did not filch. He gaped meditatively into the massive display screen which sat embedded in the wall on the opposite side of the atrium, directly across from this balcony. Every machine and console here sent an input to feed that hungry cyclops. Thousands of wires and cables snaked up along the walls to insert themselves into the computer network framing its single, glass eye. Vincent must've stared at that unblinking screen forever. The distance between them seemed so far away. So very far away...

"You've come back then," Holocaust Hojo greeted at last when the silence stretched too long.

"Yes," confirmed Vincent mechanically.

"And the girl?"

Vincent closed his eyes for a brief moment of introspection. Again rolled that terrible scene through his mind. He'd re-lived it a million times by now but it still stiffened his chest. Again he found himself the useless prop in the background, watching Aeris, defiant, unconquerable, get slashed then swept aside like a wad of rubbish. Again he was cradling her body in some filthy corridor, listening to her soft ramblings as she slowly faded away. She never complained about her fate. Her sole concern had been protecting him, then at the peak of his desperation, comforting him.

Back to the present. Vincent's eyes reopened. "She is dying," he replied. Though he addressed her killer, his voice carried not a twang of emotion. Not Chaos' unruly rage, or the panic which infected him in the scramble to rescue Aeris, or the crushing sorrow when he reluctantly acknowledged that he could not. After all the man spent, he simply had nothing more to give, as if he'd left his own heart behind to die alongside the girl.

Whatever the case, the scornful scientist snorted, "Huh! Rufus ShinRa is dead, so are his two idiot friends. And that sentimental halfwit Davoren is long gone. I guess you and I are the only ones left, eh?"

"Yes," Vincent confirmed. Still gazing distantly across the atrium into that great screen, he added, "Funny how those who least deserve life survive it the longest."

However, neither side laughed. After another pause, the man inquired, "Tell me, Professor Hojo, why are you still here?"

For a moment, Hojo faltered in a spasm of silent fury, as one who'd so much to say but knew not where or how to begin. Vincent's calm tone made it impossible to decide whether he's asked in earnest or jest, whether he truly wished to know or just feigned innocence of the catastrophe he'd brought upon this place. From that simple question others far more complex arose; no need to be spoken outloud for they both understood already: why hadn't he tried to escape this failing Reactor? Why follow Vincent? What did he think he might find here? Deep down, he knew his experiment could never be salvaged, so why still cling to it, the same way he clung to this enemy and their war?

He could not elucidate any clear reason for chasing the man, much less thread out his own senses from the anarchy surrounding him. Impulse alone guided his actions. In placing tonight's entire fiasco on Vincent's head, it had convinced the tormented Professor beyond a shadow of a doubt that whatever he yearned for, he'd find it with Vincent, be that peace and resolution or war and retribution. No matter what the girl said, no matter how many battles ravaged him, he would not let go of his experiment. He never could. Again because without it, there was nothing. He was nothing!

But why? Why without this experiment was he nothing?

The Holocaust monster edged a step back. He heard Vincent's voice inside his head, seeding these questions, though in actuality the man had neither opened his mouth nor turned around, but still loitered by in patient wait. He seemed changed. Indeed, one discerned a peculiar difference to his aura from before, darker now and more imposing, intruding into forbidden terrain where no body, not even Hojo himself, dared tread.

The scientist eyed Vincent more warily: he wanted to murder him. He wanted to crush his skull and hew his scraggly body to pieces. The man had no means of defending himself. No gun, no strength, no motivation. One lunge forward would eliminate him. Vincent undoubtedly appreciated his own precarious situation. His foe could strike him down any time he pleased. But this danger strangely failed to daunt him. He remained a paragon of stoicism. Nor did Holocaust, for all the emotional stew boiling within, advance forth. Something inexplicable held him back. He could not attack yet. He just could not.

Meanwhile the original question hung in the air unanswered: Why was Professor Hojo still here? In response, Hojo bowed his head slightly. A miserable expression contorted acid-burnt face to an ugly knot. Black thoughts and vehement feelings circled inside, from which the disquieted demon struggled to articulate sense. "..t-thirty-one years," he pronounced, his glare burning into the back of Vincent's head, "It's easy to say, but...but to actually spend them, constantly giving...I gave everything to my experiment... everything to turn it from dream to reality. I could feel it materializing in my own hands," yes, he could. Even now, languishing thus in his own bitter soliloquy, Hojo could feel it. Repressed, he seemed to double in size. He choked, "It was beautiful... complete. The rest just had no relevance as long as I... then you- YOU- came and... and..."

Destroyed everything! Wrecked the Reactor, wrecked this dream, wrecked everything! So intense his rancor he couldn't finish the sentence. He appeared ready to burst. His broken armor of bones and shears splayed their malevolence further. Those talons, ten knives of pure evil, contracted full length into the open. His tentacles twitched madly around him; every one yearned for a taste of Vincent's blood.

The slightest upset- a comment, a look, a sneeze, might've tipped that fuming gargoyle into a frenzy. But far from intimidated, Vincent casually hummed, "That's your reason for seeking me out? Revenge?"

"Isn't it the same as yours?"

To that, the sangfroid man made no remark.

Which only infuriated Hojo more: all because of this one man. Yes, Vincent was to blame. It didn't matter, Davoren's defection, Rufus ShinRa's shrewd trickery, that wretched Cetra-clone trash or her gibberish about "truth". His mind, like the lock of loaded canon, fixed solely on this detestable man named Vincent Valentine. By some twisted logic only comprehensible to him, every mishap, every disaster, this entire fiasco, he placed it on his head alone. Somehow it all HIS fault!! HIS fault!

Over on the opposite end of the balcony, the unruffled Vincent let those fanatical accusations whip his backside sore whilst pondering their meanings upclose. "His fault"? For thirty-one years he'd wandered a barren desert of guilt, telling himself that too. Horrible crimes littered his past... spying, terrorizing, threatening and murdering. He'd obeyed his superiors without question, without judgement, all in the name of duty and orders. The blood of many bespattered these two hands, stains no amount of water could ever wash out. Blood of strangers he did not know. Blood of a friend he cared about, respected and admired as the better man. Blood of a woman, a beautiful woman inside and out, whom he'd loved with every fiber of his being.

Vincent remembered Lucrecia. He should have protected her. He could have saved her. Instead he abandoned her. She'd needed him. Her voice could not but her heart had screamed for him to at least come comfort her. Still he neglected her, too immersed in himself till time ran out for them both.

Because of him. She'd died because of him. For thirty-one years he'd searched, punishing and hurting himself, yet never finding either forgiveness or a shred of peace. Only more self-loathing, more regret, more pain and isolation.

That had been his sin.
That had been his punishment.
"Monster" he'd called himself constantly.

Perhaps Hojo was right. This world collapsing around them, the devastation and disorder, perhaps this too was his fault, just like everything else.

But then, Aeris had forgiven him. Despite the atrocities he'd committed, the hatred, shame and disgust he harboured towards himself, she said she loved him. A young, lovely white dove such as her loved an old, hideous base monster like him. But no. While Chaos may live within him, she said the real monster had died. Something new, something beautiful which never existed before had grown inside him.

She'd called it... a "soul".

Vincent pulled his wayward thoughts back to this scene. At long last, he turned to confront his stalwart opponent.

Their eyes met each other dead on; Hojo's shining hostility brighter than the sun, Vincent's devoid of emotion, his ashen face as frigid as stone. He cut a paradoxical figure, pathetic with his empty hands loose by his sides, yet at the same time emitting such fortitude through his battle-weary appearance. They'd reached the finale. Hojo braced himself. He expected the man would immediately attack him, or at least plunge into a rage as Chaos before him.

Vincent did neither. None of Hojo's defenses buffered him from acute shock when the man instead slowly curled his lips into a cruel, most unnatural sneer. The flummoxed scientist gaped wide at him. During their entire war, Vincent never appeared more sinister or least sane than that instant, as he ginned back at his enemy, surrounded by the disaster he -sure, why not?- had wrought upon this Reactor.

The Holocaust beast could hardly contain himself. "What the Hell do you find so amusing?!" he cried in a passion.

"Why you, Professor," countered Vincent. His derision slapped the former clear across the face. Come what may, he then tilted his chin slightly up and, while his mirthless eyes scrubbed Hojo down to dirt, smilingly declared aloud, "You fight so hard for this experiment. You transform into that huge monster to defend it. You and your genius, greatness, yada yada yada. Heheh! Still! You couldn't prevent a 'meddling piece of cow dung' like me from wrecking your whole dream. In just one night, no less. And now? Thirty-one years of your life, wasted! All you've got left is nothingness itself and pity."

Hojo hissed outloud "Shut up!"

But Vincent taunted him mor. "The pity of-"


"A little GIRL!"


Fury exploded out of the scientist hotter than a volcano. Such acrid mockery far exceeded his endurance, nor could he remain thus stationary and suppress any more. If his enemy wouldn't attack first then he certainly would! Still roaring at the top of his lungs, the incensed Professor broke free of all restraints holding him back, including his own injuries, and charged straight for Vincent at full speed. His mighty aura tore the floor asunder. In he flew, a dark monstrosity encased in armor, racing forth with his serrated wings spread out, jaws clenched and that single, wrathful eye branding a brutal death upon its target.

Vincent waited for him to come. A stark contrast marked the two enemies; one emotionality turned lethal, the other composure personified. He didn't lift a finger. He made no more to defend himself. He didn't run away. The cool man just waited, no longer smiling but now calmly dignified, expression hardened by an inner resolve. Vincent stood his ground in the same tired, neutral stance, as though he neither cared nor feared what Hojo brought him, even death. Strange, but during these few seconds while he watched that crazed beast galloping fast towards him, his mind abruptly flashed back to something he'd heard long ago: "Ye shalt find thy wandering soul at the end of thine pain, and may the Kingdom of Heaven embrace thee for eternity. Amen."

It was prayer. He forgot where he'd learnt it, though. Actually, he wondered why he'd remembered it now...

Suddenly, Vincent anticipated danger close in on him. Without even attempting to decelerate, Holocaust Hojo hurtled one gnarly claw, further wrapped up in tentacles, right at him. Then and only then did the man snap into action: his mutilated metallic arm, hitherto inconspicuous, was thrown up between them. Not a microsecond later, the beast ploughed into him; thus his talons effectively ripped into this sacrificial "shield" instead of Vincent's skull. Vincent worked fast. Hojo had no time to react. To better secure their link, the artful enemy had already grabbed some tentacles and wound them around his artificial limb, just one heartbeat before a wild surge of electricity erupted out of the forsaken to seize its attacker whole.

Therefore in a mere blink, Vincent had entangled Hojo into an inescapable, electrifying trap: his arm. Sparks flew, unbridled and furious. Meanwhile the astounded scientist, now a blind ball of flaming charge, couldn't stop his own momentum, nor did Vincent resist; he let it sweep him along for the ride. The connected pair literally burst through the parapet like a runaway train and went sailing high across the atrium towards the opposite side, nothing beneath them save meters of air. They traveled together, the stern-faced Vincent gliding backwards, Holocaust Hojo blankly tumbling forward.

Time slowed down. The hall's diameter seemed to stretch to infinity. They cruised through raining chaos and garbage, propelled by their own inertia towards their common destination. The stern-faced Vincent glided backwards. Linked to him, Holocaust Hojo tumbled forward, gagging, frothing at the mouth, jerking uncontrollably all the way as shockwave after shockwave mangled his insides to ribbons. This torment continued throughout their daredevil flight without pause, without mercy. Whirling together in this surreal existence, Vincent happened to look up at his travel companion. Hojo's eye had bulged out to the circumference of a saucer. He fixedly gaped back, not at the man, rather beyond him into a frightening abyss he could never fathom nor ever pull himself out of again.

Then came impact. The airborne pair, sailing forth at an insane velocity, reached the big computer screen on the opposite side of the atrium. They crashed together right into its center, Holocaust Hojo just three inches above Vincent's bowed head. From therein, Vincent let events run their course. He'd merely guided the manner they hit their destination. Indeed, a moment before the collision, the quick-witted man had intentionally thrust his weight down to slide beneath his hapless enemy. Thus on arrival, he'd slammed back-first against the screen whilst driving his own arm, along with Hojo's, through this fašade behind him - into the electronic metropolis it protected. Busted glass scattered into atmosphere. Vincent grunted ferociously as his limb rotated backwards a near full circle to follow Hojo, who'd already smashed fist-first through the screen harder than a blazing comet.

All this time, the vengeance-driven Professor had failed to notice one, vital fact: electricity had mysteriously returned to the Reactor. Vincent, on the other hand, had realized this long ago. How this miracle came to pass or who had performed it bamboozled his senses. However, while he'd dawdled in this discovery, he recalled that once during the course of their battle, he'd electrocuted Hojo to free himself of his grip. It had only been a short jolt. Yet the monster, he remembered, had reacted in extreme pain. Perhaps electricity was the "chink in his armor"? Vincent certainly knew his claw's weakness: if severely damaged at the joint, the limb ceases to function; but it may also become overcharged due to short-circuiting, enough to electrocute someone. Davoren in fact had used that same weakness against him the night they first fought.

Still mentally wandering, Vincent had by chance conjured up the image of that huge computer screen he'd come across in some atrium within the laboratory. And in a flash of inspiration, a plan had formed; daring, dangerous close to suicidal, yet if successful, a guaranteed victory. Vincent decided to take the risk. He'd injured his own claw then in provoking the volatile demon to attack him, managed to connect his foe to it. Instant electrocution. That had been part one of his scheme.

Next, part two. With Vincent's metallic arm lodged deep within the computer circuits, it conducted both his own and the energy of the entire data banks straight into Hojo; a powerful surge as fierce as a thunderstorm which ripped through his overwrought nervous system head to toe. This concluded the second part of Vincent's plan: to deliver his victim into the activated computer network. He'd remembered passing by this computer screen. It magnified the effects of the electrocution manifold, in voltage as well as brutality.

The description "brutal" hardly did this spectacle justice. Their assault on the screen would not go unpunished. However, since Vincent's elbow joint also acted as an insulator, he escaped harm. The Professor therefore suffered the consequences alone. They hung suspended from the smashed fašade just a few seconds, but during this intense bout of torture Vincent dangled precariously against the glass, eyes squeezed shut while his enemy above him convulsed and thrashed wilder than an epileptic maniac. Whips of charge cracked around them. The pungent stench of burnt flesh filled Vincent's nostrils. Even with insulation, he felt a tingling sensation stream across his body, harshest in his left arm. He didn't know which sickened him more: listening to the din around him, of collapsing walls and zinging electricity, or Hojo's long-drawn, wrangled scream overhead. It was something gut wrenching and inhuman; such a terrible roar that rattled the listener to the very core. And to think, all that separated him from this horrible fate was his elbow.

The screen behind them began flashing bright jargon. A red alert went off. Lights blinked. An acute sense of doom permeated the hall. With so much energy flowing fast and unrestrained, the electrocution rapidly overwhelmed the troubled system. Fuses blew. Wires overheated. Soon every computer and console on the ground floor burst into flames. From there, the swathe of destruction shot up the smoking cables to the screen high above. Another catastrophe followed. The atrium suddenly rocked in sharp agony when its magnificent glass eye exploded to a million shards. The force of the explosion spewed everything meters out into open space. This included both assailants, who were swept into different vortices as the violence ripped their link apart.

Each enemy spiraled separately on a mad, free-falling trip towards earth. Down, down they plummeted amidst a shower of debris, no longer connected but still sharing the same destination. They lunged through the hanging garden of bridges, struts and staircases below, Hojo trailing charge, Vincent spinning in senselessness some distance behind. However, he refused to surrender to it. Vincent spotted a gantry coming up. By some herculean effort, he mustered enough coordination to reach out and grab hold on his way down. His journey ended abruptly with him hanging loose by one arm from the gantry. He was safe. Hojo didn't fare so well. His smoldering, heavy carcass traveled several levels farther down until he collided hard onto the main bridge, which rattled as such a resonant impact reverberated loudly throughout the hall. This final battle, from initiation to conclusion, had lasted about one minute. One minute and all the tables had turned. One minute and the deed was done.

Around Vincent the world continued to disintegrate. Far beneath his two dangling feet raged an inferno of havoc and carnage. Vincent decided he wouldn't hang here forever. His left arm felt dead. So using his right one only, the dazed man clumsily pulled himself up the gantry which, he discovered, supported a long catwalk. He tumbled over the protective railing then crashed onto the floor in a heap. His ears wouldn't stop ringing. He felt sick to the pit of his stomach. Vincent climbed onto all fours. Head bowed low, he took many deep breaths, if only to ease this illness wracking his chest.

God, how it burned! He'd managed to ignore it so far. Yet after that crazy stunt across the hall, the pain just kept twisting his lungs tighter and tighter, until nothing save sheer tenacity prevented him from descending into an outright fit. Indeed, the effects of Vincent's escapade had finally started to gain hold of him. His bones hurt. His muscles ached. He trembled non-stop, so weary, so dizzy. The buzz persisted in his ears. No word better described the man's state than wretched. His torn rags with his blood-soaked black undershirt exposed, his double-bent frame, his benumbed mind; everything about him exuded dismal, destitute wretchedness.

The electrocution had short-circuited this whole section of the Reactor. Already a veil of darkness had enshrouded the place. Only the emergency lighting remained operational, with the alarm still whining in the background. It took Vincent another minute before he stood up again. He needed to grip the railing to maintain this upright position; both feet wobbled like jelly beneath his weight. The tired man looked aside at his claw, now nothing more than charred scrap. He couldn't feel or move it an inch. It hung there lifeless by his side. Some tentacles remained wrapped around this limb, faithful to the cause though their master had long since departed. They resembled shriveled strings of rotten meat (sure smelled like it too). No problem. Vincent dully peeled them off. The devastated arm spat and hissed at him, but every reproach passed by unnoticed. He'd already taken a decision. He'd follow it through and endure the consequences, so should his claw.

Once his head had cleared more, Vincent turned his sight skyward. He traced their journey from the topmost balcony over there, across the air smash into that screen, where he beheld black, thick smoke billowing out of its busted fašade, then down a great distance to here. Vincent had survived. In fact, he'd won. This outcome however filled him with neither joy nor regret. He'd merely scored an empty victory against Professor Hojo. It didn't mean change. It just meant he had to drag himself along a bit longer.

While brooding upon these morbid thoughts, Vincent next searched for his enemy. From his location, he spotted him down below on the main bridge, where he lay sprawled flat upon his back, jowls stuck wide open, dribbling frothy sputum, and his eye rolled back in its socket. The electrocution had been so vicious, so severe, that the senseless scientist had metamorphosed three-quarters back to his original form by the time he'd hit the floor. The other quarter remained on display: a couple of tentacles played about. Scraps of shears and bony spikes jutted irregularly out of his beaten body, his knuckles, forearms and legs; once such a glorious suit of armor reduced to this depilated waste. Indeed, a certain bestiality still clung to Hojo. It showed most keenly in his coarse facial features. The Professor looked neither fully demon nor quite human, rather a breed between the two, like some misshapen creature born out of a nightmare.

Thus he lay supine in full view. Total stillness surrounded him. But was he dead or alive? Hard to tell from up here. It seemed the former. Vincent however retained his suspicions about the latter. He leaned a bit further over the railing and, observing the prostate monster below, waited for the final answer. Time slowly ticked by. He watched and waited until at last he perceived Hojo's burnt, atrophied claw twitch, after which the dazed scientist groaned a response. He was alive, though his body, battered and broken, could barely sustain any life. He labored hard to breathe; his left lung must have collapsed. Hojo coughed as his head, vault of throbbing aches and nonsense, rolled to one side. Pain. He'd awoken to find himself strangulated by such exquisite pain! It twisted his face, his whole demeanor, into a woeful knot.

Vincent remained stationary at his vantage point above. He pensively observed the Professor shift onto his belly and squirm weakly across the floor, still moaning in desperation. It didn't surprise him to discover the scientist had survived. To be frank, he'd expected it. The electrocution may have defeated him, the crash shattered him, but if anything, hard-core determination kept that madman alive. It was torture in itself how much of this incredible resolve saved his skeletal frame. It wouldn't let him die. All for a spoiled mistress named "Genesis Retrial".

Vincent knit his brows: yes. It was that same determination which drove him to murder Aeris, to experiment on Davoren's younger brother till death, to wreck so many things and so many lives... all for "Genesis Retrial".

And there he was, still struggling, still determined.

Vincent now limped off to overtake his foe below. Slowly and unsteadily, he hobbled forth along the catwalk until he reached a staircase. It led him down onto a minor side-bridge, which stretched through the air to merge with the main one at a perpendicular angle. He perceived Professor Hojo writhing over there at the far end. He walked towards him at the same limp pace, the most solemn expression upon his haggard, blood-spattered face.

By the time Vincent reached Professor Hojo, the beleaguered creature had already managed to drag his undead carcass to the edge of the bridge. A gory trail marked the short distance he'd traveled. Pride induced him to use the railing to sit himself up, but weakness and pain again caused Hojo to heavily slouch sideways, almost collapse, against it. He wheezed for air. His chest rose unevenly in-out, in-out. Meanwhile Vincent stood over him; he studied his agony with cool impassivity.

How the mighty have literally fallen.

Hojo's befuddled senses groped backwards through a haze of amnesia to remember what happened after he'd contacted Vincent's claw. Out of control. Through the parapet then the air. The screen. Glass and electricity. Falling down. Bit by bit, these cut-scenes assembled into a short film he played across his mind. He began to realize the events which brought him to such a state (though the restoration of power remained a mystery). He saw, too late, Vincent's clever ruse. Ironic really, how that metallic claw- his own invention- had bested its maker. Such ingenuity deserved praise.

Professor Hojo however only had anger and frustration to spare; not because he'd been tricked, but because he'd physically surrendered to injury whereas his mental state, frenzied emotions and insanity, still raged strong. This ineffectiveness humiliated him. What accentuated his shame more was the realization that the man responsible hovered over him, watching him struggle. Hojo flashed his good eye up towards Vincent. Despite himself, the miserable scientist pressed further back against the supportive rail. He waited for whatever followed.

Their positions had reversed. Now the enemy dominated this confrontation.

Yet Vincent felt no rush to speak. Instead the statuesque man beheld Professor Hojo a moment longer. It struck him how ancient and mummy-like the scientist appeared. With his mane of unruly black hair, wrinkled green skin and tattered clothes, he cut such a sorry figure, more so as he wallowed there wheezing and bleeding.

And all for what? An experiment.

Vincent spoke at length, "This experiment," he reflected demurely, "was never really about science, was it?"

Hojo was rather taken aback by the question. He croaked, "W..what?"

"Fact of the matter, it's really been about you all along. Now that I see that, I think I've finally come to understand you, Professor."

The statement mystified its listener dumb: About him? Understand? For a whole minute, Hojo stared at this tall, serious man. He just gawked emptily as he churned those words about. Soon, a terrible, soft noise gargled out of his chest along with a froth of blood. Vincent may as well have told him a joke. Indeed, though it hurt like Hell, Hojo could not help laughing.

"Hurh! Hurhuha-haha...if.. if you're going to kill me, Mr. Valentine," he chuckled, "Then please, do so without the sermon. Uh- "understand" me? Haha!" the sheer idea insulted him! Hojo's sneer instantly soured to a harsh glower. He squeezed out through the anguish "Understand me! Those years I've given... ten, twenty, thirty... slaving, s-sacrifice... everything I gave away...dammit! All those things I... t-then in one night, that damn wench, she just...! And you... all the...," a twang of pain cut him short. Hojo choked. But the longer he dwelt upon his fragmented thoughts, the more his bitterness swelled until the overwhelmed scientist spat outloud "What.. how can you or anyone else possibly EVEN BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND?!"

Had he only the strength, he would have murdered this man on the spot. Once more, the disquieted Hojo returned to that dreadful moment Aeris spoke her "truth"... NO! She was wrong! That could never be "the truth", because then... then that would mean...

"All you've had were..."

Again no! He'd accept none of it! He wouldn't let her defeat him, just as he wouldn't let this bastard Vincent patronize him or turn him into a mockery. He understood nothing! They shared nothing except hostility and hatred. They'd each taken something precious from the other. And they'd both come here for the same purpose: to take the other man's life. Either he or the enemy died. Nothing else!

In fact, Hojo's mental turmoil escalated to such levels that, rather than endure it a second longer, he finally ordered Vincent "Kill me."

Vincent's dispassionate demeanor, however, deflected his demand without a reply.

But why the lollygaging? Wasn't this what he'd come for, to kill him? His deference fuelled the scientist's irritation even more. He clutched the lower end of Vincent's torn pants. Looking him straight in the eye, he viciously snarled, "Kill me... before I kill you!"

Whether intended as a threat or a plea for mercy, the man remained unmoved.

Kill him?

Vincent could not help but mull over this option. To kill Professor Hojo, this scrawny corpse clinging to him. He could easily snap his neck. Or bash his skull in. Or rip him apart, like Chaos had, and soak in his blood, like he'd soaked in so many before him. Rectify these wrongs. Compensate the losses. Just end this nightmare once and for all.

Just kill him.

Vincent had watched him slash Aeris then swack her aside. Less than an hour ago, he'd wept a river of grief as he held the dying girl between these two arms. Yet he hadn't stayed to watch Aeris draw her final breath. Instead he'd chosen to act; act while a faint life still beat inside her, act while action still bore meaning. He'd confronted Hojo. He'd sent him to the very doorstep of Death. And now he loitered thus, with this man's fate in his hands. Crush it! Kill him! Isn't that what he wanted? If not for the deceptions, the evil, the shattered lives and misery, wasn't her murder justification enough?

Perhaps. But that's not what he wanted.

"I didn't seek you out for revenge, Professor," Vincent proclaimed over these vengeful thoughts, which all stopped dead at the coolness of his voice.

The announcement incited a similar reaction in Professor Hojo, who froze stiff in place, his expression suddenly contorted from anger to a total blank. His hand unwittingly relinquished Vincent's clothes. The latter however continued to gaze at him. A dark, forbearing tower, as he pondered down upon that anxious face, a certain gentleness relaxed his own; it gave a touch of profound sorrow to his grim demeanor.

"Had I killed you thirty-one years ago, it might have made a difference today," the wistful man mused. Yes, who knew how matters might have been had he obeyed that impulse three decades ago. But then here they were, stuck in this wretched present, "Now though, killing you would be utterly meaningless. It won't return Lucrecia or Aeris. It won't bring Donal back or undo the mess you and President ShinRa have made of his brother and me. It won't erase the ordeal your 'brain scanner' has put Rufus through." His illuminous red eyes probed deeper into their target as he added, rather mystically, "... and it certainly will not end your suffering, Professor."

The scientist made no answer. He blamed this man for everything. He'd sought him out to kill him, expecting he bore him the exact same intentions. They'd battled each other an entire night. They'd robbed and hurt each other. To Hojo, Death seemed the sole way out of it, either his own or Vincent's. Therefore to learn that they didn't share the same desire, to instead be shown mercy without the slightest hint of malice not only astonished Hojo, but also strangely unnerved him. He sidled closer against the rail, barricading himself behind hatred and mistrust. His large, slanted forehead furrowed up. His eyes glowered harshly back at Vincent, as if he'd just ripped out of his chest something so guarded and private then flung it into the open for everyone, himself included, to see. Hojo did not know what exactly Vincent meant. He didn't want to know either. He kept pushing him away with his malicious glare, the same way he'd pushed Aeris.

For some reason though, despite this wall he'd erected to bar them all out of his mind, Hojo couldn't stop trembling. It wasn't electricity still strumming his nerves, rather that statement churning within. In particular that word "suffering". It reminded him of something the girl once told him, about his experiment being a "shelter" to hide from pain and fear. To hear it spoken again stirred up such a flurry of dread and agitation, not even his steel front could quite conceal it from the enemy's crimson gaze.

By this time, what little remained of the atrium had descended into sheer bedlam. The dusty atmosphere reeked danger. Debris and deluges of fire pelted everything below. The suspended complex swayed in tune to the earthquakes. The two loitered amidst this cave-in. Its finality hung over their heads, soon to crush them both under. Yet despite the crashing and destruction, raucous din and trembling structures, an air of total silence separated them from the environment. At that instant, they viewed each other only. The rest receded to the far background.

Vincent regarded Professor Hojo: the scientist had always been a piece of the past he just could not unravel. He'd fought a lifetime for this experiment "Genesis Retrial", so consumed by its completion that logic and conscience no longer bore any significance. Without, he'd shouted, there was nothing.

But why?

Who was Hojo? No, beyond these dogmatic obsessions and animosity, who was he really?

It had occurred to Vincent that he never asked these questions before. From the day they met thirty-one years ago until tonight, he'd simply carried this riddle of a man along without once considering solving him. Not even as they waged terrible war against each other did he try to break the sealed box named "Hojo" open. He differed from Davoren, who'd been another puzzle of the past. Vincent had seen the lock in the gunman for a long time couldn't find any key. With Hojo, he held the key -the experiment- yet found no lock. Vincent guessed that he never asked those questions because until now he did not want to ask. Unlike his concern for Davoren, he did not want to solve or understand Hojo. The task seemed too daunting, the enigma too difficult, and the kind of insight required far, far too elusive for him to grasp.

Aeris however possessed such insight; that uncanny, spiritual ability to reach someone's essence guided by truth's light, no matter what adversities thwarted the way. Even though she'd foreseen the consequences, still she'd stood up, armed with this weapon alone, to confront her own nightmare. And through her actions, words, and bravery, the faith she put in Vincent, the gentle love she bore for him, and her kindness in comforting him, in opening him up to this "truth" of hers too, that young woman had passed her insight onto him. For the first time since they'd clashed, Vincent could look straight through the scientist's perturbed psyche, into a place where he beheld him as he truly was. He watched the three decade old puzzle unfold upon itself into clarity. Vincent finally understood this "truth" Aeris died upholding.

And now, he decided the Professor would understand too.

The man squatted down to Hojo's level. The latter tensed back not knowing what to expect. Yet Vincent posed no threat. None of Chaos' rage touched his heart. Nor did he return any of Hojo's hostility. With solemn eyes anchored upon their disconcerted target, he composedly explained "'Science' to you is more than a passion. It's your identity. It's how you esteem yourself and also where you find security. Basically, 'Science' is what gives your life meaning. To succeed in it means to succeed in life. Looking back, I can see how much it hurt- no, more than that. It must have burned you inside every day for thirty-one years: you, with all your intelligence, talents, dedication and ambitions, always being compared to Professor Gast. Professor Hojo, never quite good enough, always second place, always demeaned and slighted," Vincent's eyes narrowed as he murmured further, "Even after all these years, you still cannot let go of the past or Professor Gast."

His tone contained neither derision nor snubbery. He spoke not as an enemy, but as a kindred spirit; someone who genuinely felt for another's plight. This new insight, without which he never would have succeeded, lead Vincent deep into the scientist's head where at last he discovered the lock that hitherto had kept Hojo bolted off safe from scrutiny. That lock was Professor Gast. In fact, he recalled Hojo mention Gast several times whenever he let his anger roam free. His mind had seemed fixated on this particular man, around whom he'd built layer upon layer of fanatical obsession. Vincent wondered why he never noticed it before. Again, probably because he never wanted to before.

Who had not heard of "the Great Gast"? Vincent remembered him from Nibelheim as a charismatic, pleasant speaking, distinguished man. Professor Gast, the world's finest scientist. In life, a genius renowned for his work, the pride of ShinRa Inc., winner of countless awards, acclaim and admiration. In death, he became a legend, immortalized by his discoveries and achievements.

But as for "that second-rate scientist" Professor Hojo...

The sheer mention of his famous predecessor stirred up a mental whirlpool so intensely violent, it cast a shadow of keen angst across Hojo's already beleaguered face. He stared agog at Vincent, floundering between hatred and confoundment. He wanted him to shut up, to go away. No more of this. Vincent however calmly empathized against the creature's will.

"The kind of pain you're in, I understand. It's the pain of being rooted to the past. People die, things change, but you remain the same. You can't let go. Even if you wanted to, you don't know how, because pain becomes all you have. Soon your whole life becomes about ending that one pain, because after that you know you'll be free. It's like you've buried yourself deep beneath a field of snow. You feel cold, alone. You spend your time- years even, Professor, digging for a way out again. See, all of us here are stuck somewhere in the past. And we're all suffering, seeking redemption from that past, digging and digging with this pain inside. But then, each of us digs differently. For you, this experiment was your own way of reconciling with the pain of the past. In fact as far as you're concerned, it is the only way."

Vincent just kept on extracting secrets out of Hojo, speaking with unfeigned sympathy while he strung them into one necklace for the overwhelmed scientist to appreciate. "And I understand your desperation as well. Believe me, I do. You cling to this experiment because you gave it your everything, and so it has become your everything. It's the means of freeing yourself from the past and all the hurt. Without 'Genesis Retrial', you stay stuck there forever. In fact, without it, you become nothing. And that terrifies you. At first, I didn't want to admit this to myself. Still, truth of the matter, you and I are quite similar. Both of us have spent thirty-one years desperately seeking an end to our own pains. But we're also opposites. You gave into that pain long ago. Me, I...," he hesitated, still a bit bemused by the expression Aeris had used, then continued, "I 'grew' something new out of it. And in the end, it all comes down to her. She leaves me with a... 'soul'. You she leaves to what you've become: with nothing save nothingness itself and her pity."

That sentence again, the "truth", spoken with grim candor instead of mockery as before. The speechless Professor beheld Vincent in a daze, face distraught by fear. The man rose to his feet. Standing tall, he studied that disfigured, troubled face looking back up at him awaiting what he would say next, as if his entire future depended on it. Vincent reflected how simple it had been to think of him as just "the enemy". How easy it was to trust one's eyes only, to remain safe in one's selfish views, to be deceived by the surface of a field of snow without ever searching beneath for the truth, either out of hatred, prejudice, arrogance or fear.

Who was Hojo? Before he probably would have simply answered: a brutal bigot and a megalomaniac. Now though, Vincent could at last see what Aeris had discovered before him, the real answer: Hojo was an embittered, pitiful lonely man; he was hurting like the rest of them for his own peace of mind, a shelter to hide from the painful past, torn to madness between ambitions for greatness and latent feelings of inferiority. Somewhere during the search, he lost his humanity, his "soul", this mysterious force which separated men from true monsters. He really did deserve pity. Indeed, Vincent had learnt more about this man in one night than he'd even known in thirty-one years.

Three words he uttered, three words which comprised his final verdict: "It's over, Hojo."

And with that, the composed man turned to leave. He never looked back.

He'd already said those words once, though Hojo could not recall Vincent ever addressing him by his first name before. It somehow confirmed the finality of that ominous statement. At first, the Professor had refused point-blank to accept it. For an entire night he'd fought against it, its meaning, and most fiercely of all against the person who'd spoken it. But he couldn't contain this fiasco anymore. Too many pieces. The experiment had shattered into too many pieces for him to hold together. He was tired, burnt and broken. Still that fateful decree echoed within his ears: it's over, Hojo.

And this time, Hojo believed it.

He sat slouched there clutching the rail, weary, shaking. Yes, it was over. He felt that admission liberate him from a fantasy he'd long hidden behind out to a cold, devastating reality he'd just realized. The Professor plummeted into catatonic shell-shock, overwhelmed by all that was said, while he blankly watched the crippled Vincent limp out of his life again. With him, he took Hojo's last hope that somehow the experiment might still be salvaged.

But no. No, it was over.

Vincent had left Aeris and traveled here not for revenge. Perhaps slaughtering her murderer would have been easier, even justified. Yet once he'd finally come to understand the Professor, killing him not only seemed pointless, but wrong. He regarded Hojo as the alternate version of himself, what he could have become had he let pain swallow him whole too. To kill him would be like killing part of the truth.

And ultimately, what he wanted was truth. He had returned to honor Aeris. Ever since she'd spoken out, the Professor had been staggering around embroiled in conflict, having slayed her yet not quite silenced her. This "truth" she'd died for, Vincent would not let him fling it aside like he'd done with her corpse. By understanding his enemy, he'd make him see it, grasp it, and above all else accept it. He'd come to engrave that truth deep into Hojo's core, so that no matter what he did, even slayed her a thousand times more, she would still win, and he'd know that she'd defeated him, utterly and completely. To grant her total victory over her murderer seemed the sole way to ensure she did not die in vain.

One knew not whether to consider Vincent's act charitable or cruel. On one hand, he'd spared Professor Hojo's life. On the other hand, he'd abandoned him with a shattering revelation for company. He had not lied though when he said he actually understood him. He understood how painful it felt to still seek redemption from a past long gone. To Vincent, it was Lucrecia. To Hojo, it was Professor Gast. No, not just Gast. All "those fools", always admiring the latter scientist while slighting the former, discrediting him, mocking him. Even when he assumed leadership of the department, he never quite measured up in their eyes. It must have hurt Professor Hojo terribly. For someone like him, science indeed meant more than mere achievement. He equated it with his self-worth, dignity and respect. He wouldn't concede to pain, however. Most likely, he never even allowed himself to feel anything save hard determination: to outshine his detestable predecessor, to exorcise the ghosts jeering at him, and to prove his mettle to "them" all with "JENOVA Project: Genesis Retrial". After all, to create a superior being- a God- would catapult him to the pinnacle of scientific achievement. Not even Professor Gast could best him then.

But underneath, science never really factored into the equation. It had always been about him, his ego and this monstrous, cancer-like pain gnawing non-stop at his subconsciousness. Hojo regarded this experiment as the only means of ending the injuries of the past, the same way Vincent saw punishing himself as the only means of obtaining forgiveness. Yes, he also understood his despair in clinging to "Genesis Retrial", even as it came crashing down. To let go meant to trudge on through perpetual agony. It meant never resolving the hurt, never attaining peace. How well did Vincent know that road.

After his final statement, Vincent had no more to say, nor would he have anything else to do with the scientist. He began his journey back to where he'd placed Aeris. The girl was probably dead by now. Still, Vincent wanted to be with her. He wanted to continue hugging her corpse for what little time remained. He'd long since recognized the impossibility of fleeing this Hellhole. Escape held no meaning without her anyway. He knew if the collapsing reactor didn't crush him first, then his condition- the wounds, the exhaustion, and this wretched fever cooking his interior- surely would. It didn't matter. Right now, he just wanted to rejoin Aeris.

This war was finished.

Maybe for him, but not for Hojo.

In these few seconds, Hojo was left behind to rot in his own devices. He felt as though he'd been turned inside out; like everything- secrets he never realized, the true ugliness within, the misery he'd kept locked away even from himself- everything his being ever contained spilt out onto the floor for an invisible crowd to see. Yes, it was over. All this time he believed he'd been giving to the experiment: his youth, his career, his body, his mind, his very soul, it emerged he'd actually been feeding pain. Over the years, the insatiable demon inside had kept on demanding. And he just kept on giving and sacrificing until at last he realized, too late, that he'd lost everything. Everything.

"You're too afraid to admit: all you've ever had were empty fields with nothing beneath"

Nothing except nothingness itself and her pity. And yes, pain. He still had the pain.

It was over.

All because of him.

As he'd plunged deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of despair, it only took that tiny thought to whip Professor Hojo into acute delirium, in which he clutched fast to the ensuing obsessions like they were his very last hope; a false ray of light a despondent wretch madly grabs that it might yet rescue him from falling. Yes, it was over, but it was STILL Vincent's fault, more so than before! In fact, it was over BECAUSE of him! He'd destroyed him, humiliated and exposed him. Now he leaves him an empty shell, with only her hurtful truth reverberating non-stop inside. None of this would have happened were it not for him. It was still all his fault!

Rage, hatred and the same unforgiving blame flooded the chasm that enemy had ripped across his chest. More obsessions pranced around. Hojo began to bristle. He clenched his trembling fists. He glowered hard at Vincent's backside, struggling in a vortex of raw emotions while "they" loomed about: the girl, the symbol of all the beauty his experiment represented, pitying him; Professor Gast observing him, behind him a rabble of faceless, nameless people of his tortuous past, some jeering, others dismayed, everyone waiting for him to collapse.

No! No! He refused! He wouldn't let them beat him! Right then, all he saw was Vincent walking away. The farther the distance stretched between them, the harsher grew Hojo's discord, and the more anger he transferred upon him; instead of an enemy who'd destroyed the Reactor, he promoted him to the embodiment of everything he'd ever loathed, feared and suffered. No matter what was said, no matter what was understood, no matter what was over, the blame still fell on his head. His head alone!

So that was it? He just lets him saunter in, take everything away, then simply leaves? Was that it?

No! He would not let him! No! No! No!

In this moment of uncontrollable insanity, his mind kept screaming "NO!" over and over, over and over, again and again until denial suddenly converted to action. Faster than an instant, Professor Hojo scrambled onto both feet whereupon he, despite the understanding, the truth, the physical and mental anguish, charged straight after Vincent like a roused beast, roaring murder all the way.

Thus that deranged battlecry announced the unexpected resumption of their war. Vincent was completely caught off guard. No sooner had he whirled around, eyes wide open, than the scientist, powered on pure fury, tackled him full impact. The astonished man grunted out a froth of blood. Together they flew halfway down the length of the bridge and tumbled the remaining distance across the grated floor till the end. Vincent crashed flat against his back. He'd yet to comprehend what had just happened when something hard and hot grabbed him by the throat. Danger buzzed loud in his ears. Gagging, he looked up. He found himself straddled underneath Professor Hojo with that burnt claw clamped around his neck, thus holding him pinned to the ground.

Not three seconds ago he'd been walking along. Now here he lay struggling breathlessly with this psychotic demon on top of him, barking nonsense into his face. Never would Vincent have imagined Hojo still capable of such treachery, especially after that brutal electrocution. Nor had Hojo himself. Yet anger imbued him with overwhelming strength. His scrawny frame seemed unable to contain it. He wanted Vincent dead, dead, dead! Vincent writhed and hacked for freedom, better yet just a whiff of oxygen. He tried to pry those fingers loose. No good. A disturbing haziness started creeping into his vision. Hojo became a blur of green, yellow and black. So grotesque... so incomprehensible...

While his helpless victim thus faded noisily into semi-consciousness, the mad creature continued blubbering in an unsteady fit. "So TheN, thAt's it?! YoU jUST waLK away?! NO! It's ALL beCAusE of You!! YoU've D-DesTroyeD EVERYTHING!!!"

Poor Vincent choked outloud when the merciless maniac leaned over him more, thus both crushing and squeezing his windpipe. Hojo snarled, "You Think I'll jUST leT YOU WALK AWAY?! BASTARD!! MY EXPERIMENT!! IT'S ALL BECAU-"

Suddenly, a small clatter interrupted the scene.

All attention immediately turned around. Even Vincent, strangulated between life and death, rolled one bleary eye sideways, only to witness a grey handgun literally go skittering by. The weapon stopped a few inches away from him. It just lay there upon the floor. For a moment, everything fell dead quiet. Both enemies stared blankly at the inanimate intruder, Hojo flummoxed by this little mystery someone had obviously tossed into their fray.

But who...?

The answer came in the form of a loud gunshot, delivered with cold accuracy straight into Hojo's left shoulder. The bullet shattered bone. The stunned scientist raised a sharp yelp as he violently keeled aside against the impact; in effect he relinquished his victim's neck to grip this new wound.

Vincent gasped: air at last! But he knew the surprise attack would only distract its target for a minute. Thus at once, without thinking, the man groped for that gun flung nearby. He couldn't reach it. Vincent writhed weakly upon his back. Dazed, frantic, he stretched his hand farther out towards the weapon. Closer. Closer. Just a little bit more...

Meanwhile the flabbergasted Professor Hojo had already recovered his position again. He peeked into his bloodstained palm holding his slumped shoulder, then growling, craned his neck around towards the source of such treachery. At present he forgot the enemy sprawled beneath him. He didn't even notice him struggling, so adamant on finding this brazen sniper instead.

His attention darted high up to a bridge that ran parallel to theirs. There he spied a tall, dirty, ragged man, his white hair blowing in dishevelment. The sniper stood at the parapet with a precisely aimed assault rifle in both hands. His pink eyes, one locked behind the scope of the gun, gleamed cool, calculated concentration back at Hojo.

The next five seconds passed as a surreal silence; no sound could be heard save that single gunshot still echoing across the air. Of course Hojo recognized Davoren at once. Vincent too, though he noticed that the man only wore a white sleeveless undershirt now. For some reason he'd discarded his double-shoulder holster, tie, shirt and suit jacket. Still in those tatters, he struck a rather impressive figure, beaming fortitude, like a battle-ravaged soldier determined to persevere despite any adversity.

Neither Vincent nor the Professor knew where Davoren came from. He seemed to have just materialized out of the shadows. In actuality, after delivering Rufus and those two ex-Turks to safety, the gunman, rather than accompany them, had set off again to find Vincent. He did not know how, but some sense had warned him he was still in the Reactor. Thus through the turmoil and earthquakes he'd rushed. The road eventually led him to this crumbling atrium, where he discovered, as feared, Vincent in dire need of assistance.

He had tossed his gun into the skirmish. He'd fired that shot at Professor Hojo. But to Davoren, that bullet meant more than mere help. It was also for Donal: for the torture his beloved brother endured in the name of experimentation; for those thirty-one years spent in ignorance, serving both his murderers. The wrecking of his life, the tears and degradation. It all ended right here and now.

Indeed, Davoren's interference did not shock Hojo as much as the emotional intensity of this piece of lead lodged in his shoulder. He last recalled the gunman collapsing to the floor in tearful anguish. Since then he'd dismissed the whimpering sod from his mind as having either fled the Reactor or been buried under rubble. Yet now he beheld the gunman poised high up there neither sniveling nor dead, but actively challenging him with gritty resolve.

During these tense few seconds of total silence, the whole history between them shone bright through their mutual glares. Davoren had already betrayed his master once; he'd chosen a traitor's path rather than kill Rufus ShinRa as ordered. For Hojo, the realization that he'd been so defiantly betrayed again swept him under a huge tidalwave of fury even he could not withstand. Clutching his bloody shoulder tighter, the scientist tremulously rasped out his venomous wrath, "D-DaVoR-Ren, yoU sON oF a B-"

Davoren however cut him short with another shot. He hit him square in the neck.

A spume of blood and saliva regurgitated up Hojo's throat instead of that curse. He didn't scream. He probably didn't even comprehend what happened. The shocked creature just reeled off side at a loss for balance, bewildered by this sudden and total abolishment of speech. His single, glazed eye clung to the gunman. At the same time Vincent, after squirming an eternity, finally grabbed the weapon Davoren had flung to him. The contact triggered an instant adrenaline rush. All his senses tuned into the present, into this exact moment as he lay here pinned down and straddled by the enemy.

Don't think. Just act!

With one powerful kick, he knocked Hojo completely off position. The disorientated monster crashed to the floor in a tizzy. Meanwhile Vincent had regained his freedom; he seized this opportunity at once. Quickly beating both legs back to put enough distance between them, he then sat up and, gun in one hand, opened full fire upon the beast just a meter away. He saw the first bullet blast Hojo's opposite shoulder, this time sending him tumbling away before the second, third, fourth, and God knows how much more pelted him further back. Vincent kept shooting, crimson eyes harshly set behind this weapon. Davoren, his face hard as if chiseled in stone, provided support from his vantage point. The shots came one after another. Blood spurted into the air. Together these two men, once such bitter enemies, delivered a terrific battery of lead against their common foe, one at close proximity, the other long range.

Indeed, they rapidly overwhelmed Professor Hojo. They gave him no chance to retaliate or even re-orientate himself. Their combined forces savagely beat him back and back until the creature, traumatized to lunacy, retreated in a frenzy rather than be blasted to bits. The long-suffering atrium began to cave in. The walls buckled then collapsed under the weight of the ceiling. Down came the balconies, the screen remains, mangled steel and chunks of stone upon the hapless world below. Hojo maniacally hastened towards an exit on the opposite end of the bridge. Bleeding and seething, amazingly still alive despite all those wounds, he scrambled away through falling debris into a thick curtain of dust and fire, after which Vincent lost sight of him. He could not tell whether the scientist managed to escape, got crushed, or just vanished into the smoke. Unimportant. What mattered was the enemy had dispersed.

Vincent had somehow held himself together so far. Yet scarcely had the messy affair ended when a terrible weakness seized him again. He'd long since passed the threshold into a realm well, well beyond his own limits. After this grand shoot-out, Vincent felt his whole interior finally implode. No more resilience, No more strength. No more anything. His eyes lost their focus. The gun dropped out of his trembling hand. Soon the devastated man collapsed to the floor, where once more he languished flat upon his back, gasping outloud. Fever and hallucinations, injuries, pain, exhaustion- they'd all become too heavy for this battered, numb carcass of his to bear.

A strange detachment separated him from these tumultuous surroundings. Hazards crashed around him without sound. He retained an awareness of the danger, but could not squeeze the smallest ounce of energy to move himself away. In fact, he couldn't even muster the willpower required. He just lay there in the warzone apathetically gazing upwards at nothing.

He wondered if this was dying.

Davoren had also lost Professor Hojo in the commotion, which suited him fine since he had more pressing matters to attend to, namely Vincent. Already he'd descended some staircase that connected the higher bridge to its sister below. He rushed over to his fallen ally amidst the raining rubble. As his consciousness receded further and further into darkness, Vincent saw the anxious gunman run up to him then crouch down in close attendance. He held his face in both hands. He was saying something. Vincent felt so groggy. He didn't understand.

However that prayer, about the "wandering soul" and an end to pain, he suddenly remembered where he'd heard it: it was years ago, after they'd stormed the Mako Reactor and slaughtered those terrorists. Of course. He'd stood quietly in the background listening to Davoren chant that simple prayer over one of the corpses...

Vincent let his mind sink into this sea of blackness, lost in triviality, until the hungry waves swallowed him under. The atrium faded away. Davoren, by now shouting at him, faded away too. All of tonight dispersed into the far distance.

His last thoughts turned to Aeris. She said he'd served his punishment. This new soul he'd grown had bought him Lucrecia's forgiveness. Now, she'd told him, it was time he forgave himself....

She said she knew what's beneath the snow fields....

Vincent's eyes gently closed. He remembered no more.

-End of Chp.89