I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.59

One word described this situation: ironic. Thirty-one years ago, Vincent's job had been to protect President ShinRa against attackers. Today, just moments ago, he had kidnapped that same President's son.

Vincent never stopped for a breath, not even after that acrobatic escape from the execution. Nor would he stop to hear the dozen of thoughts buzz about his head. For now, he must reach safety.

He had long lost his way inside this desolate labyrinth of ducts and shafts. Nor did he care; Vincent followed whichever path led farther away from the explosion site. He refused to notice his gentle gasps, let alone the fever. Neither were good signs.

Vincent dragged the unconscious boy along as if a potatoe sack. His hard metallic claw was wrapped around Rufus just above the waist, so that his head hung low, and his dead feet trailed behind. He never stirred.

There seemed no end to this balck maze. One path led upon a darker one, with too many side-vents to choose. Indeed, Vincent had his sharp eyesight to thank. At least he could *see* some path ahead.

He heard frightened rats skitter away to hide. Ghostly creeks and other mysterious sounds echoed like a sigh throughout these filthy, hollow ducts. By pure luck, Vincent at last discovered a small grate. Strained to exhaustion, he dumped the unconscious boy nearby, then slumped himself against the wall opposite the grate. Ribbons of faint light streaked across his face. Soon, his pensive eyes strayed far into deep contemplation.

The last few events had been enlightening, but more frightening than any nightmare. For years until this day, Professor Hojo had slaved for a twisted "experiment": to elevate man to God. Every person here connected in some way to create one ultimate entity, with powers well beyond Sephiroth's.

His next thoughts turned to Rufus. The Professor had pulled this boy half-dead from the wreckage of an explosion, then saved his life. Why? What "key"? How could this young lunatic link everything together?

Then was Rufus really the "guinea pig"? Would Professor Hojo infuse all the different components into this boy's body to prove this insane theory?

Too many questions, not one answer. From Hojo's wily smile, Vincent strongly suspected *more* to this "Genesis Retrial" madness...but what?

At a loss, he turned his meditative gaze down to Rufus.

The unconscious boy lay heaped upon his side, both lifeless hands loosely cast out. His dishevelled hair hung across his wan face. He looked dead.

So THIS is President ShinRa's notorious son, mused Vincent to himself: he had heard a lot about him (nothing good), but had never seen him until now.

He took a moment to indulge his curiosity: Vincent was instantly struck by how little son resembled father. In fact, he could not find one similar trait between them. The boy looked quite young, at most twenty-three. He certainly had a handsome face; a dignified touch of aristocracy, the opposite of a father with vulgar features and uncouth manners.

Yet Vincent cautioned himself not to forget: this young man was still Rufus ShinRa. The same who, in a bid to restore public confidence, has ruthlessly sentenced both Tifa and Barret to death. The same spoilt brat who would not be satisfied unless he had dominated everything and everyone.

President ShinRa's son, once the sole heir to a vast empire, now an insane, degraded prisoner for some experiment, without a shred of memory. What possible significance could this young man bear?

As if answering, Rufus suddenly stirred to consciousness. He winced an eyebrow, then forced one blurry eye half-open. At once, the dull headache pounded his senses. The boy grunted a soft "ugh!" before even attempting to move.

Confusion and fatigue marred his haggard face. Rufus' dizzy sight just happened to stray up, where they immediately froze upon a cool pair of bright red eyes.

It only took Rufus a moment to realize what had just happened; another to spring up at peak alarm. But Vincent was by far the faster: before Rufus could even speak, Vincent pointed his deadly gun straight in the boy's shocked face.

A rigid silence followed. Both gazes fastened on each other, one a crimson glow of stoicism, the latter intense ocean-blue strained by anxiety. Between them, the muzzle gaped only three inches from its mark.

"Don't speak above a whisper," commanded Vincent under his breath.

The boy blinked. He had expected one loud bullet, not this hushed warning. In truth, Vincent had feared the boy might betray this hideout by raising some alarm. But when sure Rufus would "behave", he holstered his gun again with cool composure.

He slumped back against the metallic wall. His pensive eyes withheld the feeble light, already lost amidst fresh thoughts. Vincent's sharp claw lay heaped across one bent knee. His whole demeanour fitted the dismal surroundings perfectly: dark and absobed within the many shadows.

The mute prisoner beheld his aloof captor from the side in a mixture of dread and anticipation. If possible, he would have probably attempted some escape. Yet something in Vincent's countenance discouraged him. Therefore, Rufus sat slouched on both knees, still rubbing his sore neck.

They seemed to await some event. Their silence was unnatural.

"...so...when are you going to shoot me?" confronted Rufus very, very softly.

Vincent flicked his dispassionate sight to the young prisoner: Rufus awaited his death, with dignified eyes cast far down to his empty lap.

Vincent, however, turned his gaze away again. "I'm not going to shoot you."

Rufus was amazed. "You're not??"

"Not unless you want me to," he couldn't help but reply. The joke, however, lacked any humour.

Another awkward pause followed, during which the boy fidgetted in evident confusion. This abduction made no sense, if his kidnapper would not kill him or at least harm him.

"..then...why did you bring me here?" ventured Rufus, himself edging an inch back. He mistrusted these bleak surroundings, more this dark stranger.

"I apologize for kidnapping you. It was the only way I could think of to escape."

Though silent, Rufus still remained visibly tense, as if doubting that assurance. Nor could Vincent blame him. After all, he had kidnapped him for his own purposes.

Vincent would have added another apology, if only to ease this suspicion, when a vicious pain from his chest suddenly strangled his voice. All at once, poor Vincent recoiled back agaist such tension, even Rufus was alarmed. But the man stiffled every bitter cough by pressing his hand hard over his mouth. His eyes squeezed tight.

"Are you..alright??" asked Rufus confusedly.

"I'm fine," Vincent snapped out the gruff lie.

Hot pain burbled inside his torn lungs. Already, the sour taste of blood clogged his throat. He felt himself supressing a rageous fever, one that would not remain subdued forever. Luckily however, the attack soon retreated, and Vincent breathed easy again.

Definately not a good sign, he mused, the fits have started already...that bastard Hojo doesn't waste a minute.

Indeed, Vincent had ventured straight into a lair where his health, perhaps his very sanity, rested in Professor Hojo's claws. He was in that monster's den now. Undoubtedly, the fits and fever would get worse. But still, he would not be thwarted. Come what may, he would not leave here without Aeris.

The mention of her name set his mind adrift for moment: the discovery of her past had just shattered her, nor had Professor Hojo taken pity on that fragile soul. He could still see her sprawled under Hojo's dirty foot, so frightened and helpless. He still heard her pitiful sobs of defeat. The more he dwelt upon her misery, the hotter his fury grew.

Vincent's thoughts broke off when he discerned two eyes scrutinising him from the side. On glancing askance, he caught Rufus' gaze. The alarmed boy, of course, gave a violent start, thinking he might have somehow angered his captor.

"Ah! S-sorry!" he faltered at once, "..it..it's just..I feel I've seen your face before."

Vincent had to discredit the awkward claim; he had never seen this boy until today.

"..just like Davoren..," Rufus mumbled, "when he first came, I thought I had seen his face before..."

Vincent said nothing, though all his attention remained rivetted on this young man alone. In the weak light, he appeared more like a ruby-eyed demon of darkness than a human. Small wonder why Rufus dared not move out of his kidnapper's range. Instead, he waited.

The two men had achieved *some* form of basic trust, enough for Vincent to start an interrogation. Not a cross-examination per say; then again, Rufus was a source of great mystery.

"You seem to know Davoren quite well," began Vincent. "Back there, you appeared very anxious about him. You kept on looking at him."

The boy, at first confused, reflected upon himself until a troubled look clouded his face, "...I don't know that much about him. Davoren's a very strange man...sometimes, he visits me everyday. Other times, he disappears for a long time."

"Has he ever mentioned this 'experiment' to you?"

"No...he's never mentioned it before."

Vincent's keen eyes dug deeper into this timid boy. "Then how did you know the experiment's name? You said it before the Professor did."

"I don't know...it just popped out...I don't know anything about the Professor's work or why he wants me."

Rufus had been quick to guess what this man wanted, and equally plain-spoken to prove he really knew nothing of Hojo's intentions. If anything, he probably knew the least. Yet despite this disappointment, Vincent regarded this young prisoner in much interest.

In return, Rufus fidgetted uncomfortably, too conscious of his own postion and that ever watchful scrutiny. Perhaps in his awkwardness, he felt obliged to provide any information to this man.

"The Professor has kept me for a long time. He usually locks me up in my room. But sometimes, he straps me to a machine, and hooks these cold electrodes to my head...right here and here," Rufus indicated opposite ends of his temples, "..it hurts so much. So many things I can't understand whizz around, I think my head will explode.

Rufus struggled amongst a whirlpool of muddled memories. "I stand in a fire..I hear it roaring in my ears, but it's still cold inside. I find myself with strangers...they babble non-stop...and this man follows me. I can never escape him. Davoren says it's just a nightmare, and I shouldn't think about it."

Rufus trailed into a long, sad silence, frought inside by troblesome thoughts. Vincent beheld this prisoner: how tragically wasted his young face appeared, and such gloom in those blue eyes. He found the boy pleasant enough; not "stone-crazy", maybe "not-all-there".

The mention of the gunman, however, had sparked another interest in Vincent.

"Davoren..he takes care of you then?" he inquired.

The question hid a peculiar meaning, but Rufus failed to understand it. He struggled to organise his many emotions and thoughts together, then cast his melancholy gaze aside.

"...long time ago, I was very sick. I guess it was after that 'explosion'.....my skin and eyes felt like they were burning...and I could never move, not even one finger. My whole body was wrapped in bandages. When I got better, they dumped me in a room. I didn't know where I was. In fact, I couldn't remember anything except my first name."

Anxiety strained his weary eyes. His gentle tone dropped to a fearful whisper of madness, "The fire always burned me, but inside, the cold made me stone-numb. That man sat there looking at me...he'd laugh, walk towards me, or just stare forever..."

Vincent could make nothing of such nonsense, except that perhaps Rufus hallucinated during these "spasm attacks". He recalled one mercenary mention how unruly this lunatic could become, also how Davoren alone could stabilise him again.

No doubt these recollections pained Rufus; his hands trembled with each word. "I couldn't control myself. The guards would give me medicine, but I hated it. So then, they would force it down my throat, beat me senseless, and leave me on the floor. It's okay. I know I deserve it. I'm always causing trouble."

"One night, the fire was burning the whole room, and that man was there too...his ugly voice wouldn't stop screaming through my ears. I thought the guards would come. But that night, Davoren came instead."

His eyes pulled to an intense gleam just at the gunman's name. "He began walking slowly towards me...he was saying something I couldn't understand. I..I didn't know him...and the fire was burning so hot...I got angry. So, I flung my food dish at him to make him leave."

Rufus hesitated. He shuffled against noticeable tension, trying to separate his confused emotions from the vivd memory. He sat huddled up against the wall, legs hugged loosely against his chest. His sad eyes peered into grim nothingness.

"Go on," encouraged Vincent patiently. In truth, this little anecdote had gripped his curiosity by the roots.

"I..I didn't mean to throw it...I just lost control again," Rufus apologized so pitifully to an invisible audience. "The dish struck his head hard, and some food splashed on his face. I thought...he'd hit me like the guards did."

When the pause stretched too long, Vincent asked, "...was he angry?

"No. Davoren wasn't angry at all. He...smiled at me."

In a life where abuse seemed the norm, no wonder why such a reaction struck the boy's awe. His gaze, though downcast, brimmed with bright wondrament. Vincent, on the other hand, absorbed each word. His scrutiny remained hard-set on Rufus.

The story continued, "I remember he wrapped me up in his trenchcoat....I didn't have any clothes back then. Davoren sat me down against the dirty wall, and sat next to me. He took off his jacket, then rolled it into a..a..."

"...pillow?" Vincent sought the right word.

Rufus nodded. "He put the pillow on the ground, then made me rest my head there. I lay down, while he sat next to me. He began talking again..no, he was whispering something to me..."

A new hope glimmered: perhaps the gunman had mentioned the experiment after all!

"What did he say?" Vincent demanded at once.

Rufus searched his dim memory by running his fingers back through his dishevelled hair. That same confused look returned. "...I can't remember exactly. I fell asleep while he was talking. I think...it was story....about some dargon and a princess..."

This time, Vincent blinked, struck blank by the most unexpected answer: a....fairy tale?? The gunman had told Rufus a *fairy tale*?

"When I woke up later, Davoren was still there," Rufus' soft voice harboured true fascination, "He had watched over me all night while I slept. He kept the fire and that man away."

"The next day, he got me these clothes. Sometimes, he even brings me good food. He never gives it to the guards, only me. And Davoren...he always makes the pain in my head stop."

"I felt I had seen him before...I asked him who he was...he told me his name was just 'Davoren'. He said he had to take care of me, because I was still sick, and the Professor needed me."

A heavy silence befell the conclusion. Rufus sank into his same gloomy dejection. Vincent was left alone to ponder the anecdote. At first, random thoughts collided against each other. But the longer he churned them about, the deeper he plunged into meditation.

Something sounded wrong here: this was *Davoren*, the heartless monster who spared nothing or no one to please his master. How could he exist as this paradox? Two extremes of a personality, one side brutal, cunning, sadistically insane, and the other side...

But the innocent simplicity of the story struck Vincent the hardest: it sounded like a little child had had some frightening nightmare. The parent would then appear to soothe the distraught child, and lull him back to sleep (with a fairy tale no less!). Just the comfort of having someone nearby, just the sound of a gentle voice instead of brash insults disperesed all fear.

Impossible! Davoren could never behave thus! Not that demon who had dogged poor Aeris non-stop, or schemed every artful trick to kill Vincent. It just wasn't possible.

"Then Davoren is very...*kind* to you," Vincent observed with such significance. His crimson eyes narrowed down on the confused boy.

"..I...I don't know..," faltered Rufus, unsure how to answer that tone, "..he's not like the guards. He never hits me, or gets angry at me, even when he should. He's just...strange."

Rather than accept that vague explanation, Vincent searched for another in the boy's befuddled expression. He found nothing. It seemed even Rufus himself knew not what to make of Davoren.

"But just now...Davoren was so different. I've never seen him like that before," muttered Rufus as a deeply peturbed look overcast his face. "His eyes...they weren't the same. They were...empty."

Another perplexing enigma to ponder: the gunman wore two masks. One evil for the entire world to fear; the other.."kind" for this boy alone to see. But underneath it all, which was the real gunman?

The image of Davoren conjured up in Vincent's mind. Those graceful, pure-white hair strands dangling before a stoic visage. Cold pink eyes gazing back, those of a ruthless killer, revelling the sight of blood above all else.

The stark contrast would boggle any mind when compared agaist the old Davoren, with dark chestnut hair. Such warmth in that smile. So much kindness radiated through his gentle honey-coloured eyes, enough to disarm any mistrust or suspicion.

Yes. Rufus had pin-pointed the true difference betwen these two versions of Davoren: the eyes. One pair lacked emotion. No anger, no pain, no regret, no compassion.... "empty".

At a loss, Vincent returned to Rufus. Instead of finding answers, the boy had left him with more questions.

"Come on," commanded Vincent at lsat.

"Eh?" blinked Rufus confoudedly, "W-where are we...?"

Vincent shifted to move away. "Your two friends are very worried about you. I have to return you to them."

Rufus fidgetted in evident discomfort. Obviously, he hadn't liked that idea.

"You can trust them," assured Vincent, "They'd never harm you. They only came here to help you, Rufus."

He thought it strange he would address the boy by his first name instead of his formal title. In any case, Vincent patiently waited for him to follow.

"...Mr. Vincent?" muttered Rufus after some hesitation, "..do you know Davoren?"

Vincent paused before admitting, "Yes, I do."

"..you...you're going to kill him, aren't you?"

A dead silence filled the air. In truth, Vincent found himself unable to answer, which aroused his discomfort.

Each man beheld the other, that question hanging bare in between them. The boy gazed at Vincent unafraid, but tense under anticipation.

Their mutual hostility was known to all, yet Vincent had to admire the boy for sensing it to its barest core. Rufus truely knew how deep this enemity went: down to the simple, beast-like instict to kill the other.

"Kill the other"...it seemed the only solution now. Davoren had taken too much, Vincent had resisted too long. If they met tonight, both men would plunge into a bloodbath. One would die, the other triumph. Simple.

But why, as he beheld those ocean-blue eyes, so intently set on him, Vincent felt an ominous feeling creep up?

He turned away from both his comtemplation and the boy. Without a word, Vincent crawled down the stuffy air duct. The mute Rufus never persued an answer, but obediently followed close behind. Soon, darkness engulfed their path again.

-End of Chp.59