I Know What’s Beneath the Snow Fields- Chp.95


Weeks passed.

The two ex-Turks improved greatly over this period. Every few days, another bandage would be discarded to reveal the healed flesh beneath. They required less and less treatment, though Rude still needed the occasional pain killer for his recovering flank. Nevertheless, it gladdened Elena’s heart to see her friends on the mend.

Soon they could limp, then walk about unaided. Their temperaments, before docile from sickness, also returned. The household at last seemed on its way back to normal (or as “normal” as it had been previously). Elena had even once found the duo seated in the living room, playing that silly soccer video game of theirs while arguing whose team could kick whose ass- same old quarrel they always had whenever they competed against each other.

She granted them more and more time out of bed but under strict instructions not to strain themselves. They remained housebound another few days. Not until Elena removed Rude’s stitches did she declare them officially restored.

The two men had taken a journey into the depths of a nightmarish forest fraught with peril and insanity. Many times they’d feared it would engulf them. Many times it almost did. Weeks had passed. Still, neither could believe they’d emerged from that Reactor alive. In hindsight, Reno and Rude concurred the only way to celebrate their survival would be…. a good night out on the razzle!

“You’re gonna get drunk?” Elena had cried.

“Hell yeah! We earned it!” grinned Reno.

Indeed, the two ex-Turks thoroughly enjoyed themselves down at the bar that evening. Amidst the music and joviality, they drank to their own miraculous escape. They raised their glasses to the gunman, wherever he was, for rescuing them. They raised another to Elena, bless her kind soul, for nursing them throughout their ordeal.

But a mere toast would not suffice. The duo agreed she deserved a real token of their appreciation. In fact, the very next day, the pair had managed to scrape together enough money to buy her a small, silver bracelet from that posh jewelry shop uptown. Elena’s face had flushed with rapture when they presented this beauty to her late that afternoon. She absolutely loved it.

Each man won a big hug- “But you’re still doing the bathroom and kitchen chores for a month,” she warned them least they’d hoped they could bribe her out of their initial agreement.

During this period, Elena had also made a genuine effort to befriend Rufus. She had to admit she found the boy rather eccentric, though in an endearing sort of way. For one, he’d changed dramatically from the self-satisfied snob she last remembered. Rufus often forgot to switch on the lights when entering a room; he told her he felt more comfortable in the dark as his old prison cell had never really enjoyed much light. He disliked beds. They were too soft. He preferred to sleep on the hard floor, like he always had during his imprisonment. The television he thought made too much noise. Silence appealed more to him. Simple matters enthralled him: the sensation of cool, clean water running between his fingers, the colors of the sky during dusk…

Elena accepted all these idiosyncrasies with good grace. She soon came to include Rufus as part of the “family”, so did Simon, her spoilt tabby cat.

The mistrustful creature had spent many hours observing this stranger from the shadows. When its curiosity finally prevailed, Simon had crept up for a closer inspection. At the time, Rufus had been sitting unaware on a chair. Upon feeling something soft brush by his leg, he peeked down only to find this fury animal sniffing about him. He’d remained still for a moment. Then slowly, cautiously so as not to frighten it, Rufus bent over to scratch its ear. He massaged it just right; so perfectly in fact Simon forgot all his previous suspicions and melted into one long purr of pleasure. From thereon, the cat adored Rufus.

“You’re a good ear-scratched, probably ‘cause you used to own a pet jaguar,” giggled Elena when he mentioned it to her later, “That’s why Simon likes you so much. That cat is a sucker for a nice scratch behind the ear.”

Elena herself had rapidly come to like Rufus. But between them stood this invisible wall she just didn’t know how to climb over. Nor did he welcome any attempts to get closer to him. On the contrary, Elena noticed how he shunned human contact. Even a friendly small touch on the shoulder tensed him away. She collected other observations about Rufus too: his appetite, or lack of, alarmed her. At best, he ate a frugal meal of bread and some boiled vegetables. *If* she got lucky, Elena could also coax him to swallow a few spoonfuls of dessert. Vanity mattered little to Rufus. He let his hair return to dishevelment. She’d spent an entire morning shopping for him, from clothes and shoes to a brand new toothbrush. All her gifts received gratitude but no delight.

He seldom spoke. Often while sitting together at the table, Elena found herself carrying most of the conversation along. He simply loitered there, brooding over his tea. Thinking. Rufus always seemed to be thinking about something.

Rude fared a bit better. Indeed, his unassuming nature instilled a sort of gentle solace within Rufus. The ex-Turk often persuaded the boy to come keep him company in his room. Rude himself had tons of paperwork to catch up with after his two week absence. So he’d type his reports or practice boxing against his old punching bag. Rufus meanwhile loitered somewhere, reading or meditating. Sometimes they watched television or played video games together. Rude didn’t mind; he just didn’t like leaving the boy on his own for too long.

It actually surprised Rude that Rufus never inquired about Davoren. That whole scene in the storage ward remained a taboo. Nor did the ex-Turk ever dare venture into this topic. He noticed, like Elena, how little the boy spoke. If they did talk, their discussion adhered to the strictly superficial: how he was doing, what he thought of the apartment, if he needed anything, etc. Rufus gave short answers- “no”, “yes”, “Thank you”, “I’m fine”. Otherwise, he preferred silence.

In contrast to Rude and Elena, whose companionships he accepted, Rufus steered clear of Reno. Whenever their paths met, the former barricaded himself behind a cold façade. The air itself practically turned to frost. Rufus would then either retreat or sit reserved in place until the ex-Turk left again. In fact, another reason he hid here in Rude’s room for so long was because Reno seldom entered it. They never spoke. Rufus never asked about Reno as he often had with Rude during their illness. He never visited him or welcomed his company. He wouldn’t even sit at the same table with him.

Rufus simply wanted nothing to do with that man.

In return, Reno pretended not to notice. He played it cool and easy. Even Rude had to admire how well he maintained his nonchalant front. But the man knew his friend much better than to allow such a veneer to fool him: Reno cared about the kid, no doubts there. Unbeknownst to Rufus, Reno had labored several hours on the computer gathering false documents for him, from a new ID card and birth certificate to health and financial records. He’d said it would ease his transition into his new life once all the “legal bureaucratic crap” had been removed. Besides, for a former Turk, such tasks came easy.

It was also Reno who’d proposed, when Elena told him how Rufus disliked beds, that they buy him a futon. Thus he could both sleep on the floor while in a bed- a suggestion which worked very well indeed. And though Reno himself avoided the boy, he still kept close tabs on him through his two friends.

Yes, beneath that casual attitude, Rude discerned an earnest concern for the boy. But deeper, he also sensed this mute tension affected Reno a lot more than the latter cared to reveal. To Rude, it almost seemed he feared to approach Rufus, like one step in the wrong direction, a word, anything might detonate this bomb ticking between them.

Rude knew why. Again, it all came back to the Reactor- the moment Davoren, in cahoots with Reno, jabbed that pre-charged nightstaff into his stomach, thereby ending everything.

Rufus spent most of his time in Rude’s room until everyone came to consider it his too. Again, Rude didn’t mind. He emptied part of his closet for his new roommate. The futon was rolled out upon the floor each night and packed away in the morning.

Yet for Rufus, this place also seemed the only refuge which could conceal him from his surroundings. Often he’d be found sitting huddled in a corner as if he wished to retreat to into the shadows themselves. Just disappear. Rufus would stay thus catatonic and mute, sometimes for hours. Other occasions, a bizarre demon possessed him. The boy would become uncomfortable in his own skin. Once or twice, Rude caught him in the grips of this strange trance, pacing about restlessly while rubbing his temples.

Rude never intruded. However, as he beheld Rufus from afar, the miasma of despair around that boy seemed so vast, so poisonous, he almost believed it would at last suffocate him.

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

One incident Rude recalled with particular clarity had occurred a few days ago in the dead of the night.

The entire household had long since retired to bed. A peaceful hush hung like a stagnant mist throughout the apartment. Every light had been extinguished, doors locked and curtains drawn.

Sealed thus within the sanctuary of his bedroom, Rude had been sleeping soundly under the blankets. Not a sound, not a movement had reached his ears. Just soothing silence. And then he’d felt it: an odd premonition prickling his conscience. It kept warning him not to trust this tranquility, that something amiss loomed nearby until at last the man, dazed and torpid, awoke.

He checked his watch- 3:37. His weary eyes rolled around. The whole room whirled by as one big blur of shadows, from which Rude could detect nothing out of the ordinary. Satisfied, the ex-Turk shifted onto his side. Already he could feel himself drifting away…

But right then, that same premonition poked him awake. Rude forced his eyes open again. This time he stared over the edge of the bed straight ahead.

He knew Rufus’ futon lay down there parallel to his own bed. He expected to find the boy fast asleep. Yet to his great surprise, Rude instead perceived the silhouette of a lonesome figure sitting slouched up in the futon with his head bowed low. His sight adjusted better to the dark, only to recognize that profile as Rufus’. An eerie stillness surrounded the boy. Rude could not distinguish his features that well, but to him Rufus appeared engrossed in private deliberation while listening intently to something… something sinister no other ears could detect.

Apprehension seized Rude. He raised his head off the pillow to call, “…Sir?”

His initial anxiety however subsided a bit when he saw the boy’s head turn towards him. Rude fumbled about the nightstand till his fingers found the lamp switch. He flicked it on.

The dull yellow light immediately dispersed the darkness to all corners of the room. Rude rubbed the last trace of sleep out of his eyes then sat upright in bed.

“I couldn’t sleep,” admitted Rufus.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“I have a headache.”

The ex-Turk studied Rufus a moment. While he had to respect his reply, the astute part of him did not entirely believe a “headache” alone had kept the boy awake. Intuition told him Rufus had been struggling against something more than mere insomnia until he’d interrupted. In the faint light, Rufus appeared pale and rather shaken. Even his blue eyes, gleaming bright through his unkempt hair, betrayed a distress suppressed deep beneath forced composure.

Rude’s expression darkened. He began to suspect the boy had suffered some kind of nightmare or hallucination with this headache. It could have been the aftereffects of the brain scanner. Reno, who possessed better knowledge of this frightening technology, even seen a few victims himself, had explained to Rude that it often took time for sufferers to recover. Yes, the mainframe had perished with the Reactor, but the cerebral implant in the victim’s head might emit some late impulses, like a fading battery with an extra ounce of juice left.

Rude couldn’t dismiss the possibility. Inside though, neither he nor Reno believed this technical reason alone explained the turmoil raging within the boy’s tattered psyche.

Whatever the cause, Rude still had to wonder how long Rufus had been awake. Better yet, he wondered how often he’d sat up like that, suffering through the night on his own.

Rufus however did not want to discuss it. Indeed, he sensed the ex-Turk’s pensive gaze rest a little too long upon him. Rufus returned his own melancholic eyes to his lap. He raked his chaotic hair back, then hunched over further to prop his head down against one hand. He lingered thus.

Rude did not know what to do. “Do you… want a pain killer for that headache?” he offered tentatively, “I have some in the drawer over there.”

“No, thank you.”

A pause.

“You sure?”

“Yes,” the boy muttered from a distance, “These headaches come and go by themselves. I’ll be fine in a minute.”

Another silence.

Rude remained at a loss. He couldn’t just resume sleep with Rufus in pain. Then again, how could he help when, from that curt answer, he understood the boy wanted to be alone. Rude frowned: yes, that was it, wasn’t it? The boy was always alone. At that, the ex-Turk felt the desire to speak override his awkwardness, “Sir, can I tell you something?”

Rufus only looked askew towards the man again, head still supported in one hand. His face lacked expression. Rude moved to the edge of the bed. He leaned over to rest both elbows upon his knees. His eyes, serious and so sincere they shone, met the boy’s straight on.

“Those things I said back there in the Reactor, when we were hanging over the pit and you wouldn’t take my hand, I…,” yet that encompassed only a fraction of what he really wanted to say. Rude tried a more direct approach, “All of us, we’ve come to see you as part of our group now. We want to help you out. But there’s a lot going on inside you that you just won’t discuss. Maybe you think we won’t understand or it’s none of our business. And I won’t pry, even though I know at least *one* of the things that’s on your mind,” by that, Rude meant the missing gunman, “It’s just… well, we’re all really worried about you. You keep pushing everyone away, especially Reno, and I think out of us three, he’s the one worried about you the most.”

The mention of Reno stiffened Rufus to near stone. Rude, who’s anticipated this reaction, hastened to argue, “Yeah, he can be a bit… brash at times. He may like to put on a ‘too-cool-to-be-bothered’ attitude. That’s just his style. Still, he’s my best friend. I *know* him: he’s loyal and trustworthy. More importantly, Reno’s got a good heart, one that always open to his friends,” Rude added, almost like a supplication, “Maybe if you gave him half the chance, you’d realize that too.”

But Rufus, while attentive, neither replied nor did his hard façade waver.

“I’m just saying… you don’t have to keep it all bottled in. You can tell us what’s going on. I mean, what you’ve been through… must have been pure Hell. And besides, we haven’t really talked about what happened back there in the Reactor. You haven’t even mentioned Dav-“

“Rude,” snapped Rufus suddenly. The ex-Turk stopped.

Rude couldn’t tell whether he’d angered or upset him. Either way, the mere threat of pronouncing the gunman’s name had provoked a strong response. Rufus bristled. He visibly struggled to restrain his emotion least Rude, a complete innocent, took the brunt. He even had to look away and press his throbbing temples a moment, if only to restore composure to his frayed nerves.

“I appreciate your concern, Rude,” he forced out at length, his voice soft, toneless, “I’ll always be grateful for what you’ve done for me. But I… I’m very tired. I want to try and get some sleep now, please.”

The ex-Turk regarded him. “Okay,” he accepted.

He did not press the issue any further. Instead he watched the boy sink into his futon. Rufus rolled away and burrowed deep underneath the covers, so that only the top of his head could be seen. He spoke no more.

Rude lingered a minute longer. He stared down at the back of that head as if he might catch glimpse of the trouble inside. But Rufus remained the same, an inscrutable, motionless lump hidden beneath the blanket. Rude doubted he’d wanted to sleep as much as escape their conversation. Yet once more, he had to respect the boy’s wishes.

So in the end, Rude also retired to bed. He switched off the light, then drifted into contemplation as darkness swallowed the room again.

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

“Whaddya think?” asked Reno.

Rude twisted his head aside to regard the large, enamel pan Reno held up to his face. After brief consideration, he declared, “Nope. Still not clean enough. Give it another wash.”

“Wha? But I’ve already scrubbed the damn thing twice!”

“Well, do it again.”

Reno grumbled but complied. He returned to the sink. With both hands wrapped in rubber gloves, he drowned the pan under the hot soapy water, where he began to scrub it furiously. Rude merely shook his head in despair: no, cleaning never was Reno’s forte.

Which mattered little to Elena. The austere woman had made sure they suffered their punishment: a month’s worth of bathroom and kitchen chores for sneaking off to the Reactor without her knowledge. Tonight their obligations bound them to the latter. After serving a particularly elaborate dinner, Elena, looking quite smug, had left the two bemused men to contend with the horrible mess she’d created in the kitchen. Reno swore she’d done this on purpose as some sort of revenge. Regardless, a deal was a deal. The ex-Turks divided their tasks by the flip of a gil coin: Reno, as luck would have it, won the dishes. Rude got the floor and counters.

Each took to his job at once. Rude spent perhaps twenty minutes on the second task: cans and cartons needed to be returned to their correct places, crumbs swept away, leftovers wrapped in tinfoil for storage. Afterwards he started wiping the counters with a wet cloth.

Reno meanwhile battled solo against the mountain of dishes. The ex-Turk showed no mercy. Under a scalding hot tap, he scrubbed each prisoner clean then banished it to the rack on the left. The war had been going well until he encountered a big, greasy pan- the last resistance. The utensil proved to be a formidable foe indeed. It refused to surrender. Frustrated, Reno had tried to slip this troublesome enemy into the rack just to rid himself of it. Unfortunately, Rude had caught him and, to ensure he never tried that again, insisted he show him the pan *first* before its deportation.

So the irate Reno struggled on, as he had for the past ten minutes, to vanquish his opponent.

“Goddamit!” he cursed.

“Elena said she wants that pan sparkling clean, so make sure you do a good job,” Rude couldn’t help teasing him.

“Y’know,” spat Reno, “this would’ve been a whole lot easier if she’d just ordered dinner instead of fixing us that ‘Toxic Waste Casserole’.”

“It’s ‘Tussock-West Casserole’, named after its two inventors, ya nit.”

“Whatever! This crap is stuck like glue!” time for big guns then: he seized the bottle of liquid soap and squeezed half its contents upon the enemy, hissing, “Son of a-! Suck deadly dishwash!”

Rude didn’t bother to look around. Behind him, he could hear his friend scraping the pan so ruthlessly one feared he’d erode its floor straight through. Instead, the ex-Turk continued to wipe the counters.

The two worked thus in silence for a minute or so until Reno at last declared, “Hah! Finished!”

Rude glanced back towards the man, who presented the humiliated pan for inspection. Rude nodded in approval: yes, *now* it was clean.

The pan joined its fellow prisoners in the rack. Reno quickly dried his workstation then discarded both rubber gloves. He was done for tonight. But rather than leave, Reno lingered by to ponder some grave matter. This same nuisance had, in truth, been tugging at him nonstop even since Elena had left them alone in the kitchen. Now seemed the most opportune time to talk to Rude; Reno actually preferred her not to hear their conversation.

He looked towards his friend. The man had already resumed polishing the counters, unaware of his scrutiny. Reno frowned slightly. He dropped his pensive gaze to the ground, still unsure whether to hold his tongue or speak; he could no longer bear the first nor had he quite the courage yet for the latter.

Torn, the ex-Turk leaned back to rest against the sink. He raked his fingers through his red hair. It took him another moment of internal deliberation before at last, he mustered enough resolve to venture awkwardly, “Say, uh, Rude?”

“Yeah?”

“How long has it been? Since we escaped the Reactor, I mean.”

Rude stopped: not that they hadn’t discussed the Reactor in the past. Yet behind Reno’s casual question, the intuitive man discerned a significance which had never tainted this subject before. He turned around and, as he beheld his friend in full, replied, “About a month. Why?”

His solemn expression told Reno Rude had already anticipated where he intended to usher this discussion. In return, Reno’s frown deepened. He still felt uncertain of his decision to tread into such thorny terrain, but now that he had, found it impossible to retreat. Rude waited patiently until at last he confided, “It’s just… it’s about the kid. He’s been living here for a bout a month. And well… he hangs out with you most of the time. So I wanted to ask, since you’ve probably seen more, how you think he’s coping now with a whole month behind him,” his eyes narrowed upon his friend as he added, almost threatening, “And don’t tell me ‘he’s doing fine’ because you know that’s a lie neither of us will believe.”

Rude hesitated to answer. In truth, he knew not what to say. His discomfort only vexed Reno more, who wanted to confront this issue straight on, right now, “C’mon, man!” he prodded, “You know as well as I do all he does is sit alone in a corner like some crazy schizo. He’s stopped talking. He’s not eating. He’s so drawn into himself, I’m starting to think it’s just an empty shell that’s sitting there!”

Rude digested his words. He realized this worry had been chewing on Reno’s conscience for a long time. He understood his frustrations. A part of him even echoed them. He hadn’t told Reno either about the other night when he caught the boy awake in his futon.

Yet at the same time, Rude found he’d developed a sharper insight into Rufus since they’d fled the Reactor, if not then certainly a great deal of empathy. With this in mind, he strung together a gentle but firm answer, “Reno, Rufus has been through a lot over the past year. He survived a major explosion. He lost his memory; every connection to his old life has been cut. He’s been living worse than an animal. He’s been tortured. He’s had his mind constantly violated for months. Plus you have to remember, that boy learned about his entire past, cheated death, *and* lost his only friend all in one night. You don’t just bounce back to normal after a thing like that. He needs a lot more than a month to adjust to life again.”

To which Reno retorted, unmoved, “But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? He’s not adjusting at all.”

He’d nailed the problem blunt and hard. Rude fell silent once more. He watched Reno, restless with inner turmoil, start pacing about the kitchen. He appeared ready to burst.

“We gotta do something,” he growled at length, “Shit! It’s like we’re just standing back watching him drown right infront of us!”

“You think I haven’t tried talking to him?” interrupted Rude, a twang of annoyance in his tone, “He wants to be alone. All I can do is remind him we’re here for him if he needs us.”

“Well that’s not good enough, obviously!”

“Then what should we do, Reno? You tell me!”

“I dunno! Something! Better than this wait-‘n-see bullshit!”

“Sometimes that IS the best thing to do.”

Reno stopped. He retaliated, “And in the meantime what? Kick back while he rots away in that damn corner?!”

His voice cracked louder than he’d intended. A long, stifling silence rose between the two men. Reno glared at Rude before he resumed his aimless pacing about the kitchen. He rubbed his temples, awash with agitation and equal regret for losing his temper like that.

Rude however maintained a cool front. In truth, Reno’s outburst hadn’t offended as much as intrigued him with its blend of emotions. His thoughtful eyes followed the listless man back and forth, back and forth, until a kind understanding finally softened his perception.

“We can never make up for what he’s lost, y’know,” he stated quietly.

Again, Reno stopped, though this time, far from starting a new quarrel, his jaws stiffened to granite. He cast a sidelong glance at the solemn Rude, then looked away.

“Reno,” continued the ex-Turk on the same subdued tone, “Rufus had a very special bond with Davoren. When I look back on things, I guess, in a way, they were both chained to the same rotten place. They had no one else except each other. It’s like two prisoners of war- they rely on each other to stay alive. They build a bond out of their suffering. But besides looking after him, I reckon Davoren… he was probably the only person who’d ever reached out for him. Rufus is our friend, sure, and we want to help him out any way we can. But no matter how much we try, none of us can replace that connection he had with Davoren.”

“Huh, yeah,” quipped Reno, less agitated but now more sour, “A connection *I* helped break.”

After a pause, during which Rude reflected upon his comment, he dared ask, “Is that why you’re trying so hard? Because you feel… like you’re the one who took it all away from him?”

A heavy silence answered his question. Reno remained pensive, eyes still fixed away from Rude’s. He’d never really discussed his involvement in helping the gunman trick Rufus. Nor had Rude mentioned this topic until now. For one, he deemed such a complicated affair strictly pertained to the boy, Reno and the gunman. Indeed, the latter two had excluded him from their collaboration. For another, Rude quite honestly knew not what to think.

 He felt Rufus’ loss. He understood his reaction. However, he also knew Reno would never have conspired with Davoren unless he’d put his faith in this man and believed, like he did, it was what ultimately had to be done. And perhaps it was. Yet while Reno’s convictions matched Davoren’s, his sense of guilt for destroying the only true bond Rufus ever had, as Rude now observed, still pecked at his mind.

“Huh!” Reno dismissed the topic abruptly. He cast a small, humorless smirk at his friend, “I’ll tell ya one thing though,” he remarked, “Life has some twisted sense of humor. I mean, just a year ago, Rufus was our arrogant, smug president. Always sure of himself. Never let anything touch him. Now… geez, look at him.”

Rude pondered this observation: yes indeed, look at their president now. Stripped of all his former glory, mangled by suffering until nothing save a melancholic, dark, and utterly lonely shadow remained. Or maybe… “Maybe,” Rude mused outloud, “Deep down inside, Rufus has always been like this. Only back then, he knew how to hide it.”

Reno regarded him thoughtfully but didn’t reply.

Just then, Elena entered the kitchen, thus terminating their conversation. Both men silently watched her carry a simple tray of sandwiches over to the sink. There she dumped the food into the trashcan nearby before giving the dishes a quick rinse. The woman appeared heartbroken. She glanced aside at the two inquisitive ex-Turks then shook her head sadly: she’d left this tray with Rufus an hour ago in hopes it might tempt him to eat, only to find he hadn’t even touched it. That made the second consecutive day he’d refused food.

Reno’s face tightened to a dour scowl. He looked from Elena to his friend, who despite his clear dismay, saw more wisdom in not meddling at the present time. He thereby shuffled away to resume cleaning the counters.

That did it. Rude and Elena may repress their anxieties all they wanted. Reno for one had endured enough. He no longer cared whether Rufus wished to be alone or not. He no longer cared whether he desired or despised his presence. Someone had to talk to the boy and if that task fell upon him then so be it!

The ex-Turk left his friends in a huff. He marched out of the kitchen straight for Rude’s bedroom, riled up with such resolve it bordered close to outright hostility. Reno barged through the door uninvited. He discovered Rufus huddled in the usual spot, legs drawn up with his right hand under his chin.

Amazingly, Reno’s unceremonious entry didn’t startle Rufus in the least. He’d been gazing through the window across into the gloom outside when he’d stormed in. The boy cast a cursory glance at the flustered intruder then coolly returned to the window. He probably thought Reno just needed something from the room and would leave again at once. It had nothing to do with him anyway.

Such apathy doubled Reno’s exasperation. The man stomped across the room to stand towering over Rufus, arm folded tightly.

“You’re a real pain in the ass, you know that?” he spat, “Why the Hell aren’t you eating?”

Again, the boy glanced up. Again, he wrenched his eyes away, determined to ignore him as long as possible.

That suited Reno fine- he’d cracked open far tougher opponents in his Turk days. Breaking Rufus would be a cinch and he knew the easiest method: the man squatted down to Rufus’ level then simply pinched his arm into a hard twist.

“Hey-OW!! What are you doing?!” yelped the boy in surprise.

“Oh, good! You can still talk,” cried Reno sardonically, “You’ve been quiet for so long we were afraid you might’ve forgotten how to speak!”

Rufus glared pure scorn at the man while rubbing his sore arm. He said nothing.

“Why aren’t you eating?” demanded Reno again.

No reply.

“I asked you a question!”

“Piss off,” he growled.

“Withering away in a corner isn’t gonna achieve anything.”

“I said *piss off*.”

“And starving yourself isn’t helping either.”

“Would you get out of my face?!”

This constituted the first time they’d spoken properly since their return from the Reactor, and already Rufus couldn’t tolerate it. He scrambled up onto both feet to escape this confrontation. Yet he’d barely taken five steps towards the door when Reno, having also sprang up, called after him, “You listen to me! I get it, alright? I get what you’re going through. You lost a good friend back there. God knows, maybe he was more like a father to you than a friend!”

He didn’t realize how close he’d hit the mark. The exclamation rooted Rufus to the spot. He didn’t turn around. Instead he stood there, statuesque, forced to listen to Reno continue on the same sincere tone, “You don’t know where Davoren is or what’s happened to him and now you’re grieving. That’s okay. You want time to sort things out. That’s okay too. But what you’re doing to yourself right now, that’s –“

“I didn’t ‘lose’ him,” Rufus’ icy voice cut him short, “he knocked me out cold then took off on his own without an explanation or even a goodbye.”

Reno’s demeanor darkened to a more solemn shade: of course, he could never have known what the gunman had told the boy before rendering him unconscious. Both he and Rude had loitered well out of that private conversation. However, Reno did distinctly remember Davoren’s face before he left them to return to the bowels of the dying Reactor. In particular, he remembered his serene smile, his parting words, both the sadness behind them and also the tremendous strength supporting them.

“It’s not like Davoren wanted to trick you,” Reno stated this fact calmly, “It’s just he… he believed this was how it had to be.”

“And you agreed with him.”

Beneath the question boiled an accusation, uttered with such disdain that Rufus bowed his head slightly least it burned him alive. Reno beheld him. After a pause, he confessed, “Yes, I did agree with him.”

“So you helped him.”

“Yes.”

“Do you still think he was right?”

Reno didn’t answer at once, “Yes,” he finally admitted.

“Then maybe… maybe you can explain it to me.”

Silence.

“Explain to me why the Hell that’s ‘how it had to be’!” barked Rufus menacingly.

“I suppose… because he knew no matter what he said, you’d still try and stop him from going back.”

“Of course I would’ve tried and stopped him!” he dismissed that reason. His hands curled into fists as he seethed out harsh wrath, the likes Reno had never heard before, “Davoren… yeah, you’re right- I *did* see him as a father. He meant more to me than my real one ever did anyway. I… I sit for hours thinking, trying so hard to figure out why he chose to leave that way. I keep remembering the things he told me. I keep wondering what happened to him. And again, I ask myself why –WHY- that’s the way it had to be. But I never get an answer. All I see is the Reactor burning and falling apart and it’s like… everything inside me is crashing down too. N-now suddenly you,” Rufus cocked his head aside to incinerate Reno with those stormy blue eyes, “of all people,” he hissed, “YOU come here telling me ‘hey, it’s okay. It’s alright. I get it’. No, you don’t! You don’t ‘get’ anything! You haven’t the faintest CLUE what it feels like to have someone who meant that much to you cut you out of their life completely. And how could you, Reno? You agreed with that bastard! Worse still, YOU were the one who lent him that damn nightstaff!!”

The ex-Turk remained fixed in his spot. He could muster no response against such scathing words.

Rufus in turn could no longer bear his own anger. The mere recollection of that event- the moment the nightstaff stabbed him- seemed to stir a real, terrible pain. The boy turned away and stormed out of the bedroom. He did not look back, nor did Reno pursue him. Instead he lingered behind in quiet contemplation.

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

He’d witnessed in Rufus’ glare an internal vortex of rage, confusion, agony and bereavement. But what had struck Reno most was all the sorrow within those eyes.

Black, crushing sorrow.

It dismayed Reno to discover that, despite the strength of his beliefs, he’d failed to articulate them to Rufus. To be honest, he still hadn’t quite explained his own actions to himself. Yes, he’d agreed with the gunman. Everything, down to his deepest intuitions, had told him this deception, no matter how much he regretted it or what personal feelings condemned it, was indeed how it had to end. But why? What made it so?

Much to his exasperation, Reno still couldn’t find the answer.

His thoughts returned to Rufus. Rude had been right- hitherto, he had felt as though he’d robbed the sole source of comfort the boy had ever possessed. In fact, Reno now realized Rufus didn’t blame him at all; that crime Rufus accredited to the gunman himself. Rather, he fiercely resented Reno for sharing Davoren’s convictions, for conspiring with him, and most of all for imagining he could now reach out for him when he understood nothing –not one thing- about him.

Which was true. In retrospect, Reno admitted he knew much about the New Age President of ShinRa. He knew how he’d seized power and how he fell. He knew of his ruthlessness; the man “no one has ever seen bleed or cry”. Reno remembered his dedication to his job. He remembered how he floated through society with incredible grace. He’d exuded such confidence, in his style, his words and actions. Men admired him. Women wanted him. Everyone would flock around him.

But Reno realized he actually knew nothing about Rufus himself, nor had anyone else. He’d barged in here in a flash of temper to try and force him back to his former self. Yet in truth, that person he remembered had never really existed… just a clever mask Rufus had worn all his life to conceal his real self- a trapped, tormented, now completely broken wretch- from everyone. And Reno, like the rest of them, had believed the deception. He’d only seen the surface.

Rude’s words floated across his mind again: “Maybe deep down inside, Rufus has always been like this. Only back then, he knew how to hide it”.

Right then, Reno truly wondered about Davoren. He wondered how he’d managed to reach Rufus. The boy had this unnatural ability to detach himself from his surroundings- a skill Reno supposed he’d had to learn very early in order to survive his, as Rufus had called it, “Doll-house society… with leeches and liars all around”. He wondered how the gunman delved into such darkness deep enough to forge a strong bond with this isolated soul.

Reno wondered how Davoren did it. How he coaxed Rufus to eat, what he said to comfort him, how he earned his trust, and above all else, how he got the boy to just let him be his friend….

“When I burned in the fire, only he dared step in to pull me out”, he remembered Rufus once rave, though now he found it contained an eerie ring of truth, “No one’s ever done that for me. No one… not even my father.