I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.55

It was only another second before a horde of mercenaries came charging down the bridge, weapons ready for action.

"THERE!!" one man hollered.

"INTRUDERS!!" shouted another.

"Aw, shit!! Rude!" Reno instantly signalled.

They both acted at the same time, fast and without pause. Much to Rufus' great shock, Rude forcefully swept him under his armpit, then darted away at top speed. Meanwhile, Reno thwarted the advance. The nightstaff twirled through his nimble fingers into a fiery ring of brilliant electricity. In an instant, Reno hurtled this charged blaze at the charging enemy, then bolted away right after Rude.

Neither man looked behind, not even as the thunderous explosion rocked the whole bridge end to end, with the harsh clamour of metal collapsing behind. Instead, they both rushed to escape, Rufus angirly struggling (in vain) for freedom. They had just fled the bridge when fresh bullets tore after them: those survivng mercenaries had stumbled out of the wreckage, and already resumed persuit.

"Where's the way out?" demanded Rude as they flew down some bleak corridor.

"How should I know?!" snapped Reno.

"I thought you said you've been here before!"

"Gimme a break, will ya? I've only been in this rat-maze ONCE!!"

They ran a long time through this outstretched hall until finally emerging into open space again. The wild uproar stormed ever closer from behind. They followed another corridor, across the platform, then down some winding staircase. Rude lead the way, Reno guarded his rear.

Escape was their sole objective. They had only cleared the first flight of steps when two mercenaries came charging up at them for a brutual confrontation.

Again, neither man spoke; they simply acted: while Rude rushed onwards, Reno gracefully hopped over the railing down to the next flight below. He landed just in time to intercept the two astounded guards, whereby he lunged straight into instant-attack mode.

Reno hit hard and fast, granting neither enemy a chance to retaliate. He pumped a brutal electric shock right into one man's stomach with his staff, switched hands from behind, only to slam the weapon up into the other man's jaw, then hard against his left shoulder. Both hefty blows sent the stunned mercenary tumbling wildly down the stairs.

The remaining guard, though blind from shock, nevertheless groped for his gun. By then, however, Rude had reached the scene. Keeping the still enraged Rufus safe under his armpit, he ruthlessly twisted the guard's arm in some amazing move, which somehow flipped this enemy headfirst over the balustrade; all this while still running.

They continued downwards, with the angry storm hot on their heels. On clearing the staircase, both men miraculously swung a sharp turn sideways, just as more bullets blitzed down.

They dodged straight through a throng of metal supports, where the path ultimately led across an open corridor: one side overlooked an ominous pit of massive compressor-pumps far below, the edge was outlined by stiff railing. The wall side, on the other hand, lay hidden behind a hard curtain of pipes and metalwork.

"Left! Left! Turn Left!!" shouted Reno.

He referred to an upcoming passageway which diverged off this main path. Rude automatically lunged aside into this dark refuge, gagging poor Rufus with his whole hand. Reno followed in right behind.

Blessed darkness obscured them completely. Both men glued their whole backside against the cold concrete wall. They neither breathed nor spoke. Even Rufus had ceased his futile struggles (probably because he couldn't breathe anymore).

As hoped, the incensed mercenaries rushed straight past this bleak hideout, and instead headed farther down the main corridor. Soon, their heavy stomping trailed off until they disappeared altogether.

There was a long, silent wait.

When absolutely sure of their escape, both men heaved one huge sigh, then broke down into soft gasps. They seemed to have been running forever. Reno vexedly wiped the sweat off his face before turning to his friend.

"This place is crawling with goons. What the hell are they doing here?" he whispered in keen suspiscion, "This is a top-secret facility. It's supposed to be abandoned."

Another silence befell them. Each man found himself revolving a hundred frustrating thoughts around for some explanation. Rude in particular seemed quite discomforted by this grievous situation.

"...Reno, what should we do now?" he asked at last.

"Why do *I* have to do all the thinking here?!"

Rude replied as a matter of fact "Well, YOU were the one who woke me up at two in the morning, told me we were going to 'investigate' someplace, then dragged us into this broken Reactor. I thought you said yesterday you didn't believe the President could be alive."

Though Reno begrudged it, the simple truth stood undesputable. Indeed, it had been noticed that last night's scene had left him ever since in sour preoccupation. Reno had hardly spoken afterwards. His take-out ramen had been gobbled up, whereby he had then retreated to bed with a brusque "good night". Such uncharacteristic distemper had certainly baffled both Rude and Elena.

However, Rude had later discovered what trouble pesetered his moody friend: that same night, the man had been startled out of his sleep by a fully-dressed Reno, who insisted they go investigate the secret laboratory this minute. Rude, of course, had understood, and complied at once. It was agreed Elena would be excluded from this "mission". So, she was left asleep, while they had stealthily slipped out.

And then, Reno had flung both caution and secrecy aside for an impressive entrance.

"You couldn't have been more sensible and done a sneak-attack from behind," Rude accused, "No, you had to be 'cool' and crash right in the middle of it. *You* made this mess, *you* figure a way out."

"Oh sure! You 'n everyone else....just blame it on the punk!" Reno grumbled. He tossed his head away.

Silence again. They listened absent-mindedly to the dull drone of distant machines fill the chilly air. They waited within this dark sanctuary, yet knew not for what.

"...what about...*him*?" ventured Rude suddenly.

"I dunno."

Their attention turned to Rufus. The boy glared mute rage at these forceful kidnappers. Yet the hand remained stiff over his mouth, the grip ever tight.

"...maybe we should...take him with us..," suggested Rude timidly.

"Rude, do you even realize what this MEANS?! If word gets out Rufus ShinRa is still alive, there will be riots in the streets! Every lunatic with a grudge will be crashing through our doors to kill him!"

"But we can't just leave him here," he protested, an anxious firmness in his tone, "Maybe we can hide him somewhere until we figure out what to...OOF!!"

The abrupt sentence was thus cut short when Rufus suddenly rammed one elbow hard into his captor's stomach. The unexpected blow effectively loosened the loathesome hold, whereby he wrenched himself free.

"Get away from me!" Rufus snapped as he scrambled some steps away, "Who.. who do you two think you ARE, anyway?!!"

Poor Rude rubbed his stomach, more troubled by the boy's evident agitation than the pain. Reno beheld the angry outbusrt in silence.

"You can't just 'take' me away like I'm some stray animal!" Rufus exclaimed indignantly, "I..w-what do you want from me?!!"

Rude tried to calm him, "Please Sir, just..."

"I said get away!!"

"Alright! Alright! Just take it easy!" intervened Reno, who had grown a bit irritated, "Look, we're not gonna hurt you, Sir, we just.."

"My name isn't 'Sir' or Mr. Presu-presi-whatever! It's Rufus! just Rufus."

Yet both men found this sudden drop of formality too hard to accept.

"You...you want US to call YOU...just 'Rufus'??"echoed Rude in disbelief.

The boy's face darkened to a frown, as if to say "and what's wrong with just 'Rufus'?"

"Okay, okay...Rufus..," agreed Reno, pronouncing the name with cautious emphasis, "Let's try this again. We didn't come all this way to harm you. We actually came here to help you. See, we kinda knew you from before."

He edged a step closer to Rufus, fastening onto his blue eyes despite their harsh, suspicious glare. He had even lifted both palms slightly to prove his sincerity. Amazingly so, Reno looked quite serious.

"Now, I know you're all confused, and we've been dragging you around, but you gotta believe us. You're..were President of a mega-sized company called ShinRa Inc., right after your old man was murdered. We were your..ah, how do I put this...'special task' team..sorta like personal bodyguards."

The words had a rather peculiar effect on the boy. His expression tensed into muddled confusion; one marked by a vague sense of familiarity, yet that stems from a distant dream, not reality. He said nothing.

"It happened 'round last year. You were here, in Midgar. This huge...thing... this monster attacked the city. It blasted you while you were still in your office...blew everything to smithereens. Everyone left you for dead, and well...things pretty much fell apart after that."

Reno brought his clumsy explanation to a conclusion, "But last night, we got a tip that said you might be alive here. So, we came to check it out. Just relax, okay? We're not gonna hurt you."

They stood face to face, Rufus torn between suspicion and deep pondering, Reno awaiting some reaction. The uneasy Rude lingered behind without a word; this rocky encounter caused him the most consternation.

In the end, however, Rufus conceded to suspicion.

"I don't believe you," he hissed, glaring straight back at Reno, "All of what you said...it's nonsense!"

"It ain't nonsense!" retorted the man at the very end of his patience, "You don't remember 'cause your memory's screwed up! Or maybe living in this dump's made you a loony! But it's true!"

"I don't believe you!"

"Why would I lie to you?!"

"Why should I believe some stranger who comes crashing through an air-duct?"

The tone was too insolent to let pass. Reno's eyes flashed real fury, whereby he rebutted instantly: he slapped Rufus clean across the face.

It cracked like a whip against his cheek. The hard blow sent the boy's whole head to the side. Rufus was struck mute, his expression blank. Needless to say, Rude was horrified.

"You sure got a gratitude problem, you arrogant piece of snot!" snarled Reno at the boy, "We risked our asses TWICE to save you! The very least you can do is be POLITE!!!"

"Hey, Reno!!" cried Rude in a rare show of outrage.

Reno (who never suspected Rude could raise his voice) blinked back at him, "What?"

"You...you can't just SLAP him like that!!! He's the PRESIDENT!!!"

"...*WAS* the president, you idiot! What's he gonna do, fire me?!"

"But still!! He's right! You can't expect him to just magically believe everything we say! Calling him a...a...!! And hitting him! That's..."

"No...it's okay...," defended Rufus.

The unnatural calmness of his quiet voice brought the dispute to an immediate halt. Both men beheld him in absolute amazement.The boy gazed back with a look so sad, his empty eyes haggard by fatigue. His unkempt hair dangled loose; a very light reddness marked the slap on his cheek.

"Aren't you gonna snap back..or even get mad?" marvelled Reno.

"...no...I'm used to it..."

His melancholy eyes dropped to the side, "..I lose control of myself a lot. I never mean to...it just comes. When that happens, the guards here give me some...medicine...but it makes me feel worse. So if that doesn't work, they beat me up. It's okay...getting slapped across the face is nothing."

Both men listened to such atrocious treatment in complete silence. Reno glared at his guilty hand, then scratched the back of his head rather uncomfortably. Though Reno did mumble something which sounded like an apology, Rude still held onto his anger (at least for a few more minutes).

"...the only person who's never hit me, or even got angry at me... is Davoren," Rufus sighed out.

"'Davoren'??" repeated Reno, sturck by the unfamiliar name,"Who's that?"

"I don't know, really. He visits me from time to time. He's a very strange man...he talks about strange things too," the tired boy pressed one side of his temples, "...but Davoren always makes the pain in my head stop."

Neither the puzzled Reno nor the nervous Rude could even venture a guess to solve this mystery. Rufus sunk into silent dejection, gaze downcast by wretched exhaustion.

The tense awkwardness lingered a long time.

"Shit. This is starting to freak me out," mumbled Reno. He felt too conscious of their grim predicament.

"You'd better run away now," warned Rufus.


The boy's eyes remained fixed on the ground. But a dull haze had clouded their blueness, contorting his entire face into intense anxiety. His muscles stiffened; his breaths quickened.

"..go...before *he* finds you," Rufus whispered to no one, "..he'll be very angry if he finds you here..."

The distraught boy hobbled backwards, away from the two baffled men. he didn't see them; he saw some other presence, ominous and ugly.

"Whoa, hey!" started Reno, "W-where are you..."

"..go..or the fire will burn you too...they'll tear you...inside out... and you'll be all...all alone..."

Unmerciful derangement swept over his battered sanity. Rufus suddenly seized his hair by the roots, at the same time trying in vain to stiffle the screams of pain. He collapsed to his knees, where he slouched over to hold down the painful spasm. Of course, both men had dashed over at once.

"Sir! Sir!! Are you alright?!!" cried Rude, frantically supporting the boy by the shoulders. Poor Rufus only writhed more.

"What is wrong with this kid?!" exclaimed Reno, "He keeps on..."

"DON'T MOVE!!!" thundered one harsh voice from behind.

Discovery had come too sudden. Both men darted their alarmed attention to the source, Reno preparing for an instant retaliation. However, he stopped short at once: the stern mercenary had locked his deadly gun right on Reno's head, ready to fire at any movement. He had caught them completely off guard

Reno's face darkened to submissive hatred. He wisely (and slowly) lowered his staff. They surrendered.

It didn't take too long before the rest of the mercenaries made the scene. The two intruders and their unfortunate kidnapee were dragged out into the open. The angry guards, eight in all, surrounded them from every direction, their guns aimed right on them.

They had fallen prisoners: Rufus lay doubled over on the ground. He still clutched onto his head, groping for some sanity amidst each sharp pulse. He didn't seem quite aware of the grievous situation. Rude had assumed the protective role. He had crouched down by the boy's side to bar off those guns, but also in an attempt to ease Rufus' agony.

Therefore, Reno was the sole spokesman. He stood upright, palms held up, but expression stone-hard.

The leader of these mercenaries, a bushy-bearded man of scruffy appearance, stepped forward. His rifle was pointed straight at Reno's forehead.

"Who the hell are you? How'd you find this place?!" he interrogated sharply, "And what do you want with that crazy kid?"

"I could ask you the same thing."

"Don't smart-ass me, punk!!"

Reno bore his position with hardened dignity. Rude glared all around.

"Damn bastards!" spat one guard,"They killed five men in one run!"

"Argh! Just shoot 'em both!" bellowed another.

"Yeah! They've found us out anyway!" Neither prisoner spoke, even though they had already guessed the verdict. Indeed, the cry for vengence was too great. Without further ado, the bearded mercenary reached for the trigger.

"Hold your fire!!" boomed a coarse voice from no where.

If God himself had spoken, the effect wouldn't have matched the one this terrible voice had. The mercenaries obeyed at once, their silence a visible sign of tense nervousness. Some lowered their disappointed weapons, others (out of caution) kept it loosely aimed at the prisoners.

Both Reno and Rude wondered at such absolute authority. On noticing that all sight had turned over to the side, they followed likewise.

Their eyes led them up a complex network of pipes and girders, which altogther supported a balcony on the upper level. The balcony held this entire scene in full view. It hung in such obscurity high above, barely distinguishable amidst the metalwork and grim darkness.

Yet through the black void above, there peered an ominous pair of yellow eyes, their glare as brilliant as the sun. A closer look revealed some black figure poised at the balcony's edge. It seemed more a phantom of shadow than any human form. But even without a definite shape, its sheer presence there evoked a sinister fear deep within.

Poor Rufus, who lay doubled over in dull pain, somehow managed to peek far up to that ominous figure. He writhed his head back down again, while Rude concernedly crouched further by his side.

"...that's him..," whispered the boy weakly.

"..who?" asked Rude.

"...the Professor..."

No name, no face; simply a title. Reno felt his blood run cold, but nevertheless retained a stern expression. Rude could barely contain his anxiety: events went from bad to worse to hopeless.

"What is the meaning of this commotion?" demanded the Professor icily.

"These two intruders somehow busted in here, Professor," explained the bearded mercenary, "They tried to take the kid with 'em...and killed five men!!"

The Professor's horrible eyes gleamed over to the two brave prisoners. His figure seemed to grow more shapeless, more hideous in that darkness.

Reno, however, would not be intimidated.

"Hey you! Flash-eyes!" he angirly addressed, "You the ring-leader of this little circus?!"

The Professor was silent. One of the mercenaries threatened Reno with the muzzle of his gun, but the prisoner still persisted.

"You hiding out here in a top-secret ShinRa facility, with a kid who SHOULD be dead, 'n a bunch of thugs! What the Hell's going on here?!"

No reply.

"Who ARE you, anyway?!"

The angry questions hung in the stiff air. Reno glared up at those bright eyes in expectation of answers. Rude only looked on very nervously, with the distraught boy held down between his arms. Their situation did not look good.

In the end, the Professor was hardly impressed by this outspoken prisoner, much less bothered by his questions. He turned to leave.

"Kill them," he croaked the verdict, "..and dispose of their bodies."

Too glad to oblige, the mercenaries locked onto their two alarmed targets, and prepared to open fire.

The single bullet rang loud in Reno's ears, so sudden it startled his eys shut. But the gunshot hadn't hit him at all. Indeed, on opening his astonished eyes, he witnessed one mercenary reel aside against a wild gush of blood, then crash face down to the floor.

Someone had saved them just in time.

Instant chaos broke out amongst the stunned mercenaries: loud swears, mad scurrying about until one man screamed "Up there!!".

Thunderous gunfire errupted at once. Their bombardment blitzed the far end of the ceiling, where a framework of metal girders and supports arched high overhead. No bullets were spared, no cry or curse stiffled.

The prisoners found themselves amidst some mini-battle. Rude had immediately huddled over the confused boy, while Reno crouched down on the other side. Though he kept his head ducked low, Reno's eyes darted up to find their mysterios saviour.

All at once, he glimpsed some black shadow dash amongst the upper support girders, too fast for even these crazy bullets. The figure lunged into the darker end, where the enraged mercenaries blasted more fiercely. Yet this sniper had chosen his position too well: he was in darkness, high above; they were in the light, down below.

Another bullet hit a guard dead on; it sent him sprawling onto the floor. Two more gunshots blasted another enemy, one the shoulder, the next bullseye into the skull. The quick sniper never remained still too long, which made it impossible to pin-point his excact location.

It wasn't until a third man had been killed that the crazed mercenaries broke into disorder. Each one scurried away for cover, all the while blasting away.

"Stop shooting! Hold your fire!" roared their leader savagely, "Bastard's hid himself damn good!!"

The useless bombardment stumbled to a halt. Each gun remained rigidly pointed up at that ominous framework, but none opened fire.

All fell quiet again. An eternity of tense anticipation.

There was great wondrament at what devil had come to their aid. Reno slowly ventured up to his knees. Rude looked around in amazement, then checked the bewildered Rufus for any injuires. He found none.

During this brief shoot-out, the Professor hadn't retreated from the balcony. Instead, he had stood silent witness from the dark depths of his metal cavern.

However, amidst this eerie tranquility, the Professor slowly twisted his head up to that battered framework. His yellow eyes, two narrow slits of evil, hunted for this brave sniper.

The search didn't last long. As if sensing that keen glare, the sniper finally stepped out from behind his shelter, enough to only reveal half-himself. Through the grimness high above, he appeared a tall, black figure. The deadly gun hung tight in his hand.

Vincent's crimson cold eyes were riveted down on the Professor's. At long last, events had brought the two to meet.

-End of Chp.55