I Know What’s Beneath the Snow Fields- Chp.94


The next few days following her friends’ return from their “adventure” proved hectic for Elena. Alone, under constant pressure, it was up to her to fend off agony and illness from their feeble carcasses. Not an easy task, given the sorry state they’d staggered home in. Indeed, remarkable how much a man could achieve with adrenaline pumping through his veins. He can rush across a warzone intact, leap across the widest gorge, fight the devil himself before doubt or fear even gripped him. And in this case, Elena reckoned both ex-Turks and Rufus had been riding high on this natural drug almost all night. It sure had helped them escape that catastrophe alive. But by the time the trio had at last reached home, just after dawn, their adrenaline supply had been exhausted dry.

Thus defenseless, the full gravity of their conditions, hitherto ignored, finally caught up with them.

The two ex-Turks had sustained a variety of injuries. The worst had been treated first, on the very hour of their arrival. She’d stitched Rude’s side. She’d patched up that nasty gash along Reno’s temple. Still, many more abound. They needed lots of attention and further treatment.

Elena embraced the task without a second’s deliberation. It meant sacrificing a week of work. But to her that meant little compared to nursing her “boys” back to health. In fact, she’d called the office that same morning to request an extended leave from her boss; “family emergency”, she’d cited- not entirely an untruth. Happily her employer, an affable old man, accepted her reason as valid enough. He granted her ten days with only a quarter pay deduction.

So for the rest of that week, Elena devoted herself whole to her patients. She managed their wounds and medicines. She checked their progress and looked after practical matters, such as feeding them and changing their bed linen.

Amongst the three, Rude consumed the greatest share of Elena’s energy; his injuries ranked more serious. Indeed, he’d taxed his strength well beyond its limits. He’d bled a fair amount too. Everything hurt. To talk, to move, to breathe. Elena found it near impossible to watch over her friend, his face so grey and limbs shivering, without herself suffering a pang of anguish. His plight simply tore her to pieces.

It got worse. Later that evening, on the same day they’d returned, Rude spiked a temperature, which persisted for days; an infection had probably infiltrated his body through one of his open wounds. With this new complication, Elena’s worry level hit the ceiling. She spent countless hours by his side as he languished in bed, a flaccid, sweaty wreck. During these times, Rude received regular doses of pain killers to alleviate his agony, a remedy for the infection, and loads of TLC (tender love & care).

Elena inspected his flank everyday. It delighted her to find the wound healing nicely, although her poor suturing technique meant he would probably have a permanent scar. The other injuries however healed better under her diligence.

Elena fretted a lot about Rude. But she knew her friend possessed a robust constitution. With her constant attention, the man’s fever abated by the weekend and his precarious state stabilized again.

A generous reception of hugs and relieved exclamations awaited him when he finally awoke, much improved and quite famished. Elena just had to celebrate. She ordered take-away from his favorite restaurant and spoon-fed it to him herself. Afterwards, she insisted on giving him a nice, slow massage to soothe his stiff muscles. Such exquisite care secretly made Rude almost happy for his own terrible affliction. Almost.

As for Reno, the minute Elena had finished treating his wounds, he’d retreated to bed for one long sleep. Nobody disturbed him during his slumber, though no doubt the vigilant Elena checked on him from time to time. Seventeen hours elapsed before Reno’s eyes opened again. Another three passed before he even considered venturing out from under these cozy blankets.

In fact, the man half-regretted waking at all: no sooner had he shifted in bed than he realized for the first time how much it hurt to move. God almighty! Every joint must have rusted stiff during his sleep. An awful, pervasive ache plagued his bones. And his head- holy mother of all migraines! Add to that, hunger kept pinching his empty stomach. Reno moaned outloud. He lazed around a few more minutes until the combined forces of pain and starvation at last coerced him out of bed.

Elena received this rumpled, famished mess in the kitchen. No words necessary. She knew exactly what he needed. She sat him down upon the high stool by the counter. Reno automatically swallowed the pain killers she offered him. Next Elena served him a big, steaming-hot meal she’d prepared earlier. It made quite a sight to behold Reno, normally so averse to her cooking, devour the food within minutes. He made no fuss, not even one snide remark.

Once his hunger had receded, they talked a bit. It worried him greatly to learn of Rude’s fever. He would have visited the latter at once had not Elena insisted he get more rest. He was not to fret; she’d look after everything.

Reno, like his friend in the other room, received constant care throughout his ordeal. Elena really did look after everything. She followed up his wounds as they healed. Each night, her delicate fingertips rubbed a cool, medicinal ointment into his bruises and cuts before replacing the old bandages. Bit by bit, he regained his vigor. Of course, Elena kept him updated about Rude’s progress. As for Rufus, Reno seemed particularly wary when inquiring about him. Nor did Rufus, she noted, ever seek his company or even ask about him. She sensed something grave had happened between the two. Still, Elena reckoned it best not to pry.

Besides these two, Elena also had the new “guest” to consider. Their miraculous return home after such an eventful night had whipped this household into a frenzy. She had put Rufus in the living room while tending to Rude and Reno. That consumed most of her morning. When the first ex-Turk had settled and the second retired to bed, only then did Elena return to the living room, with medicine box in hand ready for the last patient.

Elena would always recall her first encounter with the former president of ShinRa Inc: she stopped at the entrance a minute to behold that disheveled, catatonic wreck sitting on the couch, still wrapped in the blanket she’d draped around him. Rufus had not moved since she’d left him here hours ago. He just kept gazing down into an imaginary pit, unaware of anything else save the gloom insulating his mind from these unfamiliar surroundings.

Indeed, Rufus didn’t notice Elena until she’d crept up and gingerly sat next to him. Roused out of his reverie, the boy turned to discover this stranger looking back at him.

“Crazy day, huh?” she greeted nervously, “A-all this running around and… stuff. But you don’t have to worry about any of that now, Sir. You’re safe here,” after a pause, she blurted, “Oh, I’m Elena, by the way. I used to be a Turk as well. Not that you’d remember me. But, uh, that’s okay. I mean, I’d only served you a short while before you…um…”

Elena, upon realizing how stupid her chatter must sound to Rufus, trailed off into a long, embarrassed hush. She didn’t want to say “before you died”; she feared it might upset him. But then, how the heck was she supposed to approach him? What could she possibly say to him?

The woman fidgeted, red-faced, staring hard down at the medicine box as though it might contain some solution. Honestly, Elena couldn’t decide which discomforted her more: the stiff silence between them or this acute sense of awkwardness pecking at her non-stop. Here she sat in her nightshirt next to Rufus ShinRa, her former boss, who until yesterday had been considered a dead body buried beneath tons of rubble.

Yes it was him, she’d been assured, Rufus ShinRa but not the same person as before; “shattered”, Reno had described him.

Elena decided to try again, this time with more caution, “Mr. President,” she began, “I know all of this may be confu-“

“Rufus,” he corrected gently.

It was the first time she’d heard him speak. The surprised Elena blinked, “What?”

“You don’t have to call ‘Mr. President’. I’m not your boss anymore. ‘Rufus’ will do.”

One year ago, Elena would never have dreamed she’d be asked to address the president- THE ShinRa president- by his first name. Somehow though, this dropping of formalities helped ease her tension a bit. She realized Rufus, despite his own bemusement, actually appreciated how daunting this felt for her. They were complete strangers, but he’d wanted to show her they stood on equal ground. No superiority and certainly no titles.

Elena felt her heart warm up to him. “Alright… Rufus,” she smiled, “You’ve got a couple of wounds there. Would you mind if I had a look at them?”

He did not. So she proceeded. Elena unwrapped the blanket then, with his permission of course, helped remove his ragged sweater too. She sat on the coffee table, directly infront of him. Medicine box open, she thus began tending to her patient.

Rufus resigned himself to her care. Mute, pre-occupied, he stared downwards while the assiduous Elena cleaned and dressed his injuries. They did not speak during this period, though all the time Elena gathered various observations about him.

She noted the emaciated state of his body, the array of old scars carved into his flesh- each one a silent testimony against the brutality he’d suffered during his year-long imprisonment. Reno had already described to her the amount of physical and mental damage his captors had inflicted upon him. It disconcerted her to imagine a slight, lamentable waste like this boy under such torture. That plus these new wounds he’d acquired over the course of one night. Elena discovered a lot more than she’d first anticipated: small cuts down his face and neck, gashes, dirt and oozing blood, lacerations across his arms, sides, and to her horror, his lower legs too. She mapped out the extensive bruising along his left shoulder- he must have sustained this after his fall into that garbage-clogged pit.

Yet what truly amazed Elena was Rufus’ utter indifference to his own condition. Old injuries, recent injuries, neither affected his solemn countenance. He hardly flinched when she rubbed disinfectant against his raw flesh. The pain killer she injected into his muscles roused no response. Rufus just loitered there unaware of everything, himself included, once more lost within his own mind.

As Elena studied him, she wondered what thoughts so black could obliterate one’s perception of pain altogether. Indeed, that too struck her: the impenetrable aura of sorrow around this boy.

A good hour passed before Elena could be certain she’d treated all his injuries. That done, she asked Rufus to please wait here while she dashed off a moment. She wanted to rustle up some decent clothes for him; he certainly could not continue wearing those pitiful rags. Rufus agreed. The tireless woman scuttled away down the hall.

The hunt invariably lead Elena to Reno’s and Rude’s closets. She rummaged through each wardrobe until she managed to extract some garments for their destitute guest. Within minutes, she returned to Rufus, only to pull him onto his feet and escort him by the arm to the bathroom. There, she instructed him to wash himself then change into these, whereupon she handed him his new clothes. Again, Rufus automatically complied. He limped into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. Elena waited for him outside; she lingered closeby just in case he needed any extra assistance.

A short time later, Rufus emerged again. He looked notably cleaner, though rather awkward in this plain jumper and faded black jeans.

Elena apologized, “I won’t be able to go to the shops today. I have to look after the guys. Plus the entire city is in chaos, what with the Reactor’s collapse ‘n all. I’m afraid we can only give you cast-offs,” Rufus looked at her. Elena, fearing that word might have offended him, hastily added, “B-but you won’t have to wear them for long. I promise I’ll get you completely brand new clothes first thing tomorrow.”

Next she offered to cut his hair; if not then perhaps just a small trim. Rufus consented to the latter. So back to the living room they marched. There he was seated at the round dining table, upright and towel around his shoulders. Rufus never interfered; his vacant eyes hung down upon the floor. The attentive woman meanwhile hovered around him. Her fingers flitted through his untame hair with a pair of scissors, snipping and combing this mess back into order. Only when trimming the fringes did Elena, with a good view of his now clean face, appreciate how handsome Rufus actually was. He also seemed a bit younger than she recalled. It made his despondency all the more poignant for her to behold.

“There we go. Finished,” Elena declared upon cutting the last hair strand. She stepped back to admire her work, then joked, “Heh! I’m no professional hair-dresser, but even I think I did a pretty good job.”

To prove it, Elena flashed a square hand-mirror infront of his face. Rufus, at best apathetic until now, gave a small start at the sight of the stranger staring back at him. He gazed long at the reflection. He deliberately ran his fingers down along his face to confirm his vision. Still he didn’t recognize himself.

After a moment, Rufus abruptly tore his eyes away from the mirror. A sharp bitterness constrained his throat. He couldn’t bear to see that face any longer.

“You… don’t like it?” asked the concerned Elena, thinking he’d looked away because the cut displeased him.

“No,” replied Rufus curtly, “No. It’s fine.”

Elena regarded him. She proposed to fix him some food. He declined.

“Not even a sandwich?” she persisted.

Again no; he wasn’t hungry.

She could sense the exhaustion growing ever burdensome upon his shoulders. Indeed, Rufus hadn’t slept for almost an entire day, nor did he seem completely rooted in the present, his mind no doubt still roaming back there at the now deceased Reactor.

“Why don’t I show you your bed then?” suggested Elena at length, “You can’t tell me you’re not tired.”

Rufus glanced up at her. He nodded in consent.

By “bed,”, Elena had meant the living room sofa. They could offer nothing better, she explained apologetically. However, the hospitable woman endeavored to make it as comfortable as possible. She procured some pillows and a second blanket, which she arranged into a cozy nest.

“You just kick off your shoes and lie down here. C’mon,” she invited her silent guest, who obeyed.

Elena meanwhile took another minute to tidy up the place. She drew the curtains then flicked on the heater. She even fetched a pitcher of water with a glass and left them on the table nearby, in case he got thirsty during the night. Once the boy had settled under the covers, Elena, now at the doorway, extinguished the lights. Darkness at once engulfed the room.

“If you need anything, Mr. Pr- I mean, Rufus, I’ll be down the hall,” Elena assured him, “I gotta go check on Rude again, okay?”

“Okay.”

With that, she retreated.

“Thank you,” said Rufus after her. He meant it.

She paused to peek behind at him, a bit surprised, for she’d never heard the ShinRa president express any gratitude before. His earnestness however brought a benevolent smile to her lips. She nodded in acknowledgement then resumed course. Rufus listened to her footsteps echo down the corridor until they died altogether.

He was alone.

******************************

The first night in this new life did not pass well. Though fatigue had eroded his mind to numbness, Rufus remained awake for a long, long time afterwards. He lay there motionless, wrapped within these blankets. How odd it felt to rest on coushins instead of the usual stone floor. His eyes slowly explored the room in quiet contemplation.

It wasn’t his old cell, with its thick, cold walls and that lantern lynched from the ceiling- his sole source of light. Totally new sounds prickled his ears: the monotonous tick-tocks of the clock, a single dog barking in the distance, the occasional car whooshing along the street below. No guards muttering outside the door. No creaks of metal or the ceaseless hum of machinery.

No, that world had perished. Everything buried beneath a smoldering mountain of rubble. Rufus realized, to his great shock, that a day- a whole day- had already passed.

Only yesterday he’d been languishing underground in captivity. Between then and now, an onslaught of changes had occurred- meeting the two ex-Turks, witnessing the dark side of Davoren, learning of his own sordid past, watching the gunman collapse before him in inconsolable grief, destroying Hojo’s experiment beyond repair, his apology to Davoren before the latter suddenly…

Did all that really happen in one day?

And where did it leave him? How could so much have changed within such a short time? The troubled boy still could not understand how yesterday had lead him to the present.

His thoughts ran at random. It felt… strange, shedding his old clothes for these new ones. The texture, the smell, the sheer sensation of it against his skill was so foreign.

Then he remembered Elena propping that mirror infront of him. Rufus realized that had been the first time he’d seen his reflection in a year. He had sat there scrutinizing that ashen boy on the opposite side, with his sallow skin and tense ocean-blue eyes hiding behind free hair strands.

No, he hadn’t recognized himself. But it was him. The face he loathed most. The face of a monster named Rufus ShinRa.

Strange, yet at that moment of self-to-self eye contact, a sudden premonition had shot out of no where straight across Rufus’ conscience- an image, frozen, so quick but so vivid he couldn’t tell whether he’d actually lived it or just recalled a dream he’d had long ago: he’d seen a mirror. Bigger than the one Elena held out to him. He’d stood infront of it, glaring at his stoic reflection, inside burning anger yet repressed- always repressed- under an unbearable silence.

A sink had waited beneath that mirror.

&White.
     Clean.
         It was waiting for him to decide.
              ;And then… then he’d…

Then he’d looked away, from both the mirror and that intense vision.

Nothing made sense. His lying here on this couch, this place, these clothes, these bandages, these thoughts, nothing!

Yet he was alive. The Reactor had collapsed. Fire had destroyed the remains. And Davoren-

But Rufus instantly shut his eyes. He did not want to think about the gunman..


-End of Chp. 94