I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.49

The door stood half-way open, a threshold between the light outside and the thick darkness within. The apartment echoed in heavy silence. Nothing inside stirred.

And yet, no mistake: Reno felt certain "someone" was there.

"What? Don't be silly!" Elena laughed nervously at his unreasonable suspicion, "The door was locked the whole time! Nobody's inside!"

But Reno seemed to grow all the more sure of this mysterious presence. He glanced over at Rude, who instantly gave one meaningful nod in agreement. Neither man breathed a word.

Elena found herself effectively pushed back out of harm's way. She wondered at their odd behavior. But rather than protest anymore, she lingered behind in a very uneasy silence.

Both men glued their backs against opposite ends of the door. With one quick movement, Reno slipped out a short metallic rod from his sleeve, which instantly elongated into his nightstaff weapon. Rude cautiously pushed the door open, then motioned his head towards the inside. After another moment, the two stealthy men snuck inside.

The empty hallway stretched into obscure blackness. An eerie silence haunted the air. Each man slowly slid along opposite walls of the corridor, stern eyes riveted on the darkness ahead. Nothing so far; no thief or intruder.

They decided to split up. Rude signaled towards one bleak room to indicate he would investigate inside. Reno nodded in consent, then continued his noiseless journey until he reached the living room. He listened a moment: nothing except the monotonous tick-tocks of the clock. Gripping his nightstaff into defense mode, Reno ventured inside.

He could barely make out the outline of the room in such suffocating darkness. His sharp eyes strained through this obscurity: there stood the wide couch in the middle of the room, the lonesome T.V and coffee table propped up infront. Elena's piano snuggled against one wall. The thick curtains were drawn across the window. Everything was in perfect order. Indeed, no one seemed to be here.

Yet Reno still clung onto his suspicion. Tightening his grip around his weapon, he cautiously drifted deeper into the pitch-black room. His footsteps sounded so loud against such silence. His narrow eyes darted from one corner to the other in hopes of discovering this invisible presence.

He checked by the piano, then the coat closet: nothing. He peeked into the kitchen: empty. At a loss, Reno blindly groped his way towards the couch.

Suddenly, mad chaos shattered the silence. There was a wild, unearthly shriek, a hideous crash, followed by confused struggles in the dark and weak moans.

Rude rushed into the black living room at once. He found Reno clumsily sprawled on the floor, one leg twisted up on the couch, with the whole coffee table overturned against him. Elena, who had up to then anxiously waited outside, bolted straight for the commotion.

She pushed past Rude, where on recognizing that wailful moan, instantly cried out in horror, "Ah! Simon!! My poor baby!!"

Simon, of course, was Elena's beloved tabby cat, the fourth member of this odd little "family". Elena immediately found her way to the crushed Reno. She shoved the heavy table aside, heedlessly rolled him away too, then groped around the floor. At last, she picked up a soft, furry object into her arms.

"Oh Simon!" she sobbed out, nestling her limp cat so tenderly against her bosom, "Oh! Did that big, bad Reno squash your paw? Did sweet'ums get a nasty boo-boo on his paw?"

The cat let out a long-drawn meow to complain of its agony.

Apparently, while searching near the couch, Reno had stepped on the cat by accident. Its sudden shriek had startled him so badly, the poor man had stumbled over the coffee table, and crashed thus.

Reno struggled to sit up, while Elena tended to her distraught cat. She took absolutely no notice of his painful grunts or clumsy attempts.

"Reno! I told you no one was here!!" Elena scolded severely, giving his pigtail one vicious tug, "You just HAD to scare everyone with your crazy imagination!! Now look what you did! You hurt my poor kitty's paw, you brute!!"

"Ow! Stupid refugee from the fiddle factory!" Reno spat back against her cat, "I'll hurt more than his paw!"

Amidst more such angry threats and bitter rebukes, Reno staggered up to his feet again. It seemed he had either imagined an intruder, or mistook poor Simon for one. In any case, Reno limped away, groping blindly through the heavy darkness for his way.

"Damn it! Rude, turn on the lights, will ya?" he called out.

Rude, who had remained at the entrance in silence, fumbled to obey. He groped along the wall until he found the switch, then quickly flicked it open.

But no sooner had the lights emerged, than Elena sprang back with a most terrified shriek, startling her cat and the two men into confusion. Reno instantly shot his eyes around, and stared in stunned shock.

There stood Vincent in one corner of the living room. *That* had been the mysterious presence he had detected but not found.

"OH..OH MY GOD!!" Elena screamed more hysterically, "IT'S A THIEF!! A KILLER!!!!"

She did not wait another minute. Much to everyone's alarm (including Vincent's), the crazed woman yanked hold of a ceramic vase and hurtled the whole object straight at the intruder. Vincent barely managed to duck down, just as the vase smashed violently into the wall behind, then he stood up again.

Frightened out of her wits, Elena grabbed the lamp nearby for another try. Luckily however, both Rude and Reno acted in time to prevent any more damage. One grabbed her arm, the other blocked her way.

"Elena! Elena, calm down!" begged Rude, wrenching the hapless lamp out of her grip.

"Whoa! Hold it! Just hold it!" Reno tried to reason out, "I've seen this guy before! He was in Avalanche! Right, man? You were in Avalanche!"

He looked back at Vincent for some confirmation. Vincent uneasily affirmed with a calm, "That is correct."

The stunned Elena gaped a full moment at the composed intruder, in particular his sharp, metallic claw. Vincent coughed under his breath to ease her tension, at least show he intended no harm.

"What? You..you know this....man?" she faltered out to Reno.

"Of course! Don't you even recognize him? He's one of those Avalanche losers! Y'know, the blood-sucking vampire with the crippled arm!"

Vincent only frowned at the inaccurate description, but restricted all comments to himself.

"Lemme see now...," Reno delved back into his memory, snapping his fingers at the intruder, "Your name..it was.....Vinnie, right? ..uh...Vinnie...Vultine?"

"Vincent Valentine," he corrected very, very curtly.

Yeah. Something like that."

A long, uncomfortable silence followed.

Vincent remained in his spot, the sole subject of all present scrutiny. He stood slightly turned away, with one hand thrust deep into the pocket of his long overcoat. Yet he seemed hardly bothered by this tension. His face expressed stoic coolness, that of strict business.

The others stood their ground too, Reno up front in cold defiance, his two friends behind in nervous restlessness. On picking up her precious cat again, Elena hid behind Rude's broad back, peering so apprehensively at this intruder. Rude felt very awkward in such silence. He scratched his bald head, then rubbed his light goatee.

It seemed Reno alone had assumed the position of speaker. He stood before Vincent, arms loosely folded across his chest, chin turned up to measure this tall, dark man.

No one spoke for another minute.

"Pretty impressive break-in skills you got there, pal," remarked Reno at last, "You didn't even set off the burglar alarm. And you sure picked a good spot to hide. I couldn't see you at all."

Vincent easily detected the note of mistrust in Reno's calm voice. Indeed, not only had he snuck into their secure apartment, but had also evaded notice. Nevertheless, he remained silent.

Reno merely scoffed outloud, a bit vexed but still retaining some good humor. For the moment, he ignored Vincent, and instead set about to restore some order to the room. He turned over the upset coffee table, heaped the magazines and ashtray on top. He finally picked up his nightstaff, where it was slipped back into his sleeve again. He seemed at total ease with this awkward situation.

Rude fidgeted in evident uneasiness. Elena nervously hugged her cat, glancing between the two men but saying nothing.

Vincent silently watched as Reno walked towards the kitchen. The man only disappeared a moment inside. When he emerged again, he had a cold can of beer in one hand, and a scornful smile on his lean face. He stood infront of Vincent as before.

"I'd love to ask you how you snuck in here," he began, "...more how the heck you managed to find us out, but instead, we'll skip all that and cut to the chase: what do you want?"

A most suspicious glare accompanied that blunt question. Reno narrowed his eyes so intently on Vincent, as if he could perhaps guess a reason. Vincent, however, did not answer.

"Company's dead, you guys won," Reno added, "What, are you guys going after all the employees too?"

"Far from it," replied Vincent calmly.

He took one firm step towards the centre of the room, where Reno stood in total defiance. Vincent glanced at the two friends in the background, then turned his full attention to the speaker.

"Ill-mannered as my entrance may be, I have only come to speak to you," he addressed in a cool, businesslike tone, "Rest assured, once I am finished, I will leave."

"Oh yeah? What's up?"

"It is a question, actually."

"So ask away."

The two men stood face to face, Reno so casually poised with an icy can of beer in hand, Vincent in perfect composure. Their gazes fixed on each other.

Five days had already passed, during which time Vincent had exhausted all efforts to find these former Turks. He had spared no query, no hidden information or possible whereabouts until at long last, he had uncovered the address. He hadn't, for obvious reasons, expected a friendly reception nor to win over their favor. He himself had found the task laborious and quite frustrating. In addition, his health, utterly ravaged after that miserable night, still hadn't recovered completely.

Yet these Turks were his last hope to finding *her* again. That thought alone had kept his determination so fiercely alive.

"I have received some information concerning a 'secret ShinRa laboratory' built by the company. It is supposedly somewhere here in Midgar," stated Vincent in a cool, clear voice, "I would like to ask if you perchance would know of such a lab?"

The direct question received a long, heavy silence, far too suspicious for Vincent to discount. He noted Rude fidget very uneasily, but turned his keen eyes back to Reno.

In return, Reno lingered at perfect ease, taking his time before granting a reply. He sipped his cold beer, then swept his fingers back through his pink hair. Both Rude and the anxious Elena gazed at their carefree friend, yet no one dared intervene.

A smile suddenly crossed Reno's lips, simply beaming with scornful cynicism. He cast one languid look at Vincent, then scoffed out loud again.

"Heh. Excuse me? A 'secret ShinRa lab'?" he repeated.


"Hmm...there WAS that big lab at the old ShinRa Headquarters, but it was...."

"I am not referring to the main lab in the ShinRa Headquarters," Vincent cut short tightly, "I am asking about a secret laboratory hidden somewhere within this city."

Reno merely took another sip from his beer.

"If you would happen to know it's location, then I ask you to kindly tell me."

At this dry conclusion, Vincent awaited in a patient silence. His cold tone had indicated he expected an answer.

All eyes rested on Reno. Rude fumbled about in his spot, far too discomforted by this entire situation. He continuously looked back at his carefree friend, as though he could perhaps transfer some invisible thoughts over to him. Elena huddled further behind her shelter. She too said nothing, but instead studied the guest from a safe distance.

At last, Reno began to carelessly swirl his beer can. His sly sea-green eyes gleamed back at Vincent in intent scrutiny.

"...and *if* there were such a lab, why do you wanna know about it?" he stalled.

Vincent paused a moment, then rebuffed coldly, "Pardon my bluntness, Sir, but my reasons do not concern you."

"Ah! So it's like that, huh?" Reno laughed, but there was no humor in his voice.

Vincent narrowed his keen eyes straight on this man. He had come here with one question, and it would not be evaded.

"I am simply asking your help," he repeated tonelessly, "Please, tell me where to find this lab. Answer my question, and I will leave immediately."

Rude let out a soft uneasy cough. Nothing else interrupted.

At this request, Reno measured up Vincent bottom to top, from the tip of his heavy leather boots up to his stone-hard, crimson eyes. The crooked smile, so insolent with scorn, twisted his lips. After one loud gulp of beer, Reno ventured towards his stiff guest.

"Well, I only help people I'm sure about," he lazily admitted, peering so sharply back at Vincent, "Call it gut-instincts, maybe just plain suspicion, but I got a bad feeling 'bout you, pal."

Vincent made no reply.

"I mean, you just pop outta the woodwork, and ask us about some 'secret lab'? C'mon, get real!"

Still no reply. Reno halted directly infront of Vincent, where the mistrustful gleam in his eyes grew all the more sharper.

"Why'd you *really* come, hm?" he demanded, turning it into an interrogation, "That Cloud set you on us? You working for somebody else? Enough of this 'lab' crap. What're you really after here, Vamp-man?"

Vincent turned slightly away to escape the many questions. He would not be cross-examined.

"Mr. Strife has nothing to do with this, I assure you," he stated very clearly for everyone to hear.

Vincent gazed askance at Reno as he added, "..and as for what I am 'really after here', Sir, I have already said my reasons do not concern you."

An awkward silence followed. Reno glared at this curt evasion to his questions. Vincent returned the look with double the coldness, his crimson eyes a stern barrier of ice. Soon however, that same crooked smile lit up Reno's face, whereby he turned away with another derisive laugh.

"Ah well! So much for that then!" he dismissed Vincent, "You snuck in, I'm sure you can sneak your way back out."

In other words, he would not answer the question. To him, this "visit" had ended.

Reno swaggered away without looking back once. The break-off had left a noticeable silence in the room, one which poor Rude seemed to feel the most.

Vincent's morose face darkened as he watched this man drift so casually across the room. Indeed, Reno made this task neither pleasant nor easy. He behaved too suspiciously, always turning his questions around. And if he knew of this lab, he'd never speak. Yet Vincent had no alternative. One way or another, he *must* find the answer.

He plunged deep into his own thoughts for a moment, as if debating some grave matter. At last, Vincent spoke again.

"You'll find this quite hard to believe, but I think of all people, you three have the right to know."

All three turned their quizzical eyes to him. Reno carelessly stood with his back to Vincent, his head twisted around to the side. He lingered in wait.

"Rufus ShinRa may still be alive."

Though so simple, the statement had quite a noticeable effect on all present. Both Elena and Rude gave a surprised start at the most unexpected announcement. Even Reno had tensed in his spot on hearing the news. His sea-green eyes, ever so mistrustful, locked onto Vincent's solemn face. For a moment, no one could speak.

"Are...are you sure??" Rude faltered all of a sudden. He took one hesitant step forward.

"I can only guess this based on the information I have received," admitted Vincent, glancing briefly at the nervous man, "But I believe he too may have some connection with this 'secret lab'."

Rude's expression grew extremely grave. He asked no more.

The original question hung in the stiff air: did such a mysterious 'lab' in fact exist? If so, where? All eyes rested back on Reno. He seemed the only one who would determine the answer.

Reno slowly turned to face Vincent again.

"Fuh! You know, somebody must've pinned a sign saying 'I am stupid' on my back," he joked in cutting sarcasm, "You're now telling me Rufus ShinRa...*THE* Rufus ShinRa is still alive?"

Rather than affirm, Vincent gazed stoically back at this mistrustful man.

"And just how DUMB do you think I am, Vampy?!" snapped Reno at once, propping one fist against his hip in real irritation, "In case you were unconscious all last year, Rufus ShinRa died in an explosion! Killed! Gone! Dead!"

Elena lingered behind, clutching her cat amidst this uncomfortable scene. Rude seemed to hesitate between interrupting and holding his tongue. He chose the latter.

"In all likelihood, yes. Rufus ShinRa is probably dead," agreed Vincent very composedly, "but, have you ever recovered his body?"

"'Body'? What 'body'?! You think there was anything left after that blast? His body was blown to bits and buried under all the rubble!"

"Then did you uncover his remains?" Reno scoffed to the side.

"Anything at all?"

A hateful scowl darkened Reno's whole face as he beheld Vincent, his voice so calm yet so persistent. He took one firm step forward to put this debate to a final rest.

"President Rufus ShinRa is dead," he insisted for everyone to hear, yet glared at Vincent alone, "Some WEAPON blasted him in his office. The fire burned him up, and the rubble crushed whatever remained. He-is-dead! So quit bullshitting us. You're not very good at it!"

Vincent said nothing.

"And as for your little question, Red-eyes, the answer is...NO! Wherever you got your 'information', it's all wrong. There is no 'secret lab' ShinRa Inc. ever made, not in Midgar, not anywhere else. The end!"

No one interrupted.

Reno angrily guzzled down the rest of his beer, then swung one finger towards the door, "Now get the hell outta here, before all three of us gang up on you and kick your butt clear down the stairs!"

Both Rude and Elena fumbled awkwardly in their spots. To be sure, neither of them wished to revert to violence (at least not against *this* guest).

Nevertheless, Vincent remained unruffled by the violent threat or boisterous voice. Instead, he gazed back at Reno, ruby-red eyes narrowed down so piercingly; he seemed to have spotted some hidden secret behind that angry look.

Reno found himself put on full guard against such a strange gaze. He instantly turned away to show he had no more to say: the answer to the question was no.

The stiff silence lingered another moment.

"I see. Then, I thank you for your time," concluded Vincent at last. He too had nothing more to say.

And with that dry gratitude, he made his way to the door.

"Miss, I apologize for the intrusion. It will not happen again," Vincent paused to bow politely to Elena, then resumed his way as before. He never looked back.

Everyone watched him leave, Reno in particular disdain. Vincent's footsteps died down the dark corridor. They heard the front door gently closed behind, and all was silent again. He had left.

They stood in their spots, overwhelmed for a moment by what had just transpired.

"....damn freak! Gives me the willies!" spat Reno after the departed guest. He hadn't liked that peculiar look in his eyes at all.

"Actually, he was so polite!" marveled Elena after Vincent, enchanted by that gallant bow. She had forgotten she had flung a vase at him, "...and now that I notice it, he's kinda cute! In a gloomy sort of way..a bit too pale, but still..."

Luckily, she spotted Reno glare so hard at her, which effectively cut short any further admiration.

"Uh..oh yeah! I'd better order those ramen noodles," she suddenly remembered. Elena placed Simon back on his dainty feet, then hurried into the kitchen, "I'll clean up that broken vase later. Don't let Simon go near it or he'll cut himself."

The two men remained in the living room, the resentment still evident on Reno's lean face. Rude lingered near him in an uneasy silence. His tense brown eyes were fixed on his vexed friend.

"That stupid chalk-faced weirdo," growled Reno as he tried to appease his distemper, "...should've just chucked him off the balcony."

Rude hesitated a moment.

"...Reno, why'd you lie to him?" he muttered gently all of a sudden.

Reno paused at the meaningful question. He cast a long pensive look down to the side, far away from Rude. His scowl changed to a grave frown as he pondered some troublesome thought.

Suddenly, Reno broke away from this dismal atmosphere.

"Ah, everyone's been pissing me off today," he complained rather cheerfully, "Hey! I know what'll restore my good mood: T.V!"

The previous unpleasantness was abandoned to the new suggestion. With a good-humoured "C'mon!", Reno bounced over into the couch. On finding the remote, he flicked through the many channels until he settled on some comedy show. Reno relaxed back into the comfy couch.

The cat gracefully hopped onto the arm of the couch, where it curled into a furry ball for another nap. Rude lingered in his spot. He glanced towards where Vincent had just left, then moved over to the couch. He silently sat by Reno.

They watched T.V. for a while. Reno seemed immensely amused by the funny show. He laughed without a single care in the world. Rude, on the other hand, never spoke. An entirely different matter occupied his pensive mind.

It didn't take Reno too long to notice his friend's glum mood. He glanced askance at him.

"What's with you, Rude?" he asked.

"Huh? Oh..uh...n-nothing," Rude instantly replied. He watched the T.V., pretending to find it quite interesting.

Reno, however, narrowed his sharp eyes. He saw straight through that feeble attempt. Therefore, with one click, he turned off the television.

"Okay, Rude. I know that kinda silence only too well," Reno cut to the point, " Something's bugging you and I wanna know what."

The man, discomforted by this blunt confrontation, fidgeted in his spot. He cast his eyes down to his lap.

"C'mon! Spit it out!"

"It's just..I was thinking about what that guy...Vincent..said"

Reno paused before asking curtly, "Rude, did you believe him?" Silence. "YOU DID!!"

Rude fumbled to organize his thoughts into some order.

"Ah, fer God's sake, Rude!" declared Reno vexedly, "I swear, if some crack-pot told you the moon's made of ice-cream, you'd ask 'What flavor?'. I can't believe he actually got to you!"

"It's just that, he had a point," Rude agreed, "President Rufus's body was never recovered from the blast site, not even his remains."

Reno frowned.

"We were told he had died in that blast, and accepted it. But that was only *assumed*. No one could say for sure unless..."

But he stopped short when Reno expelled one annoyed sigh through his nose, then glared straight at him. This tired argument had lasted long enough.

"Okay! Re-cap time!" Reno exclaimed in resentful sarcasm.

He suddenly grabbed hold of his empty beer can, and propped it on the table for Rude to see.

"This is the ShinRa Headquarters. Here is little President Rufus in his cozy office on the 70th floor," Reno tapped the top of the can to indicate the office, "In comes a mega-sized blast that not only destroys the entire office, but also tears havoc through the floors below. Now, YOU tell ME, (simple mathematics here), what chance had Rufus of surviving?"

Rude only fidgeted at the question.

"Oh, about one in a gagillion chance!" Reno answered himself. He crushed up the can, then flung it over to the trash basket, "Hmm.. yeah! I'd say he's pretty much dead, just like his old man!"

Poor Rude glanced uneasily at his vexed friend, then looked down again. He hesitated to speak.

"I don't know or care what that freak hoped to find outta coming here," scoffed Reno with a sweep back through his hair, "But that Rufus bit isn't gonna work on me! He could just mosey back to ol' Cloud and tell him that!"



"I..don't think he's with Cloud."

Reno listened in silence.

"I'd think this guy would never speak unless he had something important to say. He doesn't look the type that just blabs for show," Rude debated softly, peering at his suspicious friend. His voice sounded very steady, almost stern, "And Reno, I don't think he'd have bothered looking for us unless he really needed to. He said...the President could still be alive, and could have some connection with the ShinRa secret lab. Isn't there also a chance he could be actually telling the *truth*?"

"Bullshit!" Reno snapped back at once, "Hey, I'm not buying this 'Rufus is still alive' crap, not for one minute! He's dead!"

Rude kept his deep brown eyes fixed on this distempered man. He said nothing.

"And besides," Reno added sourly, "Even IF Rufus were somehow still alive, what do I care! Sure, we were loyal to him. Sure, there was a time I would've given my life to protect him. But it's like I said, Rude, that's all gone. He's not our boss anymore. We don't have any obligations to him. So just drop the subject already!"

They did not speak again. Out of respect for his friend's wish, Rude looked away to show he'd say no more. Reno returned to the T.V. He leaned back, and watched the show.

Yet, unlike before, he never laughed, not even cracked a smile. Indeed, when Rude happened to glance at Reno again, he found his friend engrossed in some deep contemplation. His mind had strayed elsewhere.

-End of Chp.49