I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.66

The bullet hears no plea once the trigger has been pulled. It shattered clean through Rufus' desperate cry, straight for his life...his life which stood bare for the taking.

That is, had not the astonished gunman reacted first.

Such speed, such reaction indeed defied belief. By miracle, Davoren barely managed to tilt his aim aside, just before that one bullet rang out. Rufus was whiffed a step back as it zinged right past his face, so close it snatched a lock of hair.

Davoren was still at full charge. Yet rather than collide into the boy, he forcefully skid himself to a halt, using one foot as the emergency brake. The violent friction trailed dust behind until he came to a complete stop, just one step infront of Rufus, and a hair-width from disaster.

With him, the entire war crumbled to a confused halt. Time itself lingered upon this moment to capture every detail. A heavy silence trickled in, so contrary to the previous chaos, one could feel his own heartbeat pound aloud.

Between them the minute lasted an infinity. Stormy ocean blue searched the brilliant pink. Through these lies and false pretenses, past the confusion, just searching.

Rufus stood his ground shivering and breathless. Though bewildered by his own miraculous survival, he still held out both arm weakly to block Davoren's way, as if that alone would somehow stop this madness. The turmoil inside showed its intensity on his face, every fine feature stressed to tense sharpness.

He had cried for Davoren to stop, and (surprisingly) Davoren stopped. Now, poor Rufus could only gape at the gunman, and await whatever may follow next. It seemed he hadn't planned anything beyond stopping the madman.

Vincent had not expected this boy to interfere, much less to see him still alive afterwards. Nevertheless, he owed him his life. This precious pause had been enough to gather his scattered senses again, at least disperse this buzzing daze from his consciousness.

Thrashed and battered bloody, Vincent sat hunched over with face buried in hand. The boy stood right infront of him. However, Vincent soon peered through his fingers, where his keener observation wandered over to the gunman.

If Rufus were breathless, then Davoren was gasping from perturbation. No physical blow, no matter how brutal, had in as much affected him as this second encounter. Nor had such a fatal near-miss ever paled his face to such stark anxiety. Beads of sweat rolled down. Vincent noted how harsh sounded Davoren's breaths, like wind rasping through tight chest muscles. His pink eyes stared wide into the boy's. His tattered appearance, with his white hair in such dangling disorder, accenuated the wildness of that gaze.

Vincent's expression darkened in contemplation. Very slowly, he climbed up to his feet again, leaning himself against the wall for support.

The tension became increasingly palpable. Neither enemy stirred, but beheld this boy.

That bullet should have killed Rufus point-blank. There was no way he could have survived unless Davoren hadn't so quickly diverted his aim. He knew it. Vincent knew it. And when calmed again, Rufus would realize it too.

Hadn't the Professor ordered him to kill Rufus too? Then why divert fire...why *stop* when he could have just blasted his way through? It was such an easy target. Yet twice already, Davoren had shunned both opportunities.

Instead, there he stood at an utter loss, unable to even brush aside a mere boy; a boy who for all his bravery could only hold out his two scrawny arms as an obstacle.

Even Davoren himself seemed unable to explain himself, which bemused him all the more.

A mad rush of footsteps suddenly shattered the moment. Awash with aggravation, Reno stormed onto the scene from behind. On spotting Rufus right infront of the gunman, he instantly cried out "Ah! Kid! Get away from him!!"

Too late.

Already Davoren had snapped from stupor back to a brutality even more ruthless than before. Rufus grunted a cry as Davoren savagely grabbed him by the hair, then slammed him up againt the wall, at the same time pressing the gun into his throat. The boy froze at once.

Stark alarm seized both men. Vincent took a step forward, but instantly thought better. The enraged Reno skid to a quick halt. He impetuously flipped out his charged weapon for an attack.

"Back away, or I'll blast his throat open," ordered the gunman icily. His eyes darted between Vincent and Reno as he drew closer upon the hostage.

From that maniacal glare, both men knew there was a real chance he may follow his threat. Vincent stood still. Reno stiffened, torn between his refusal to obey and gambling the boy's life. His fingers still itched for an attack. Perhaps he could lunge in fast before..

"Don't try it, punk!" roared Davoren against such dangerous thoughts. He shoved the whole muzzle further into poor Rufus' throat, almost choking him. "Just back away NOW!"

No use. If this shrewd man could read their minds, then he could definately anticipate their moves. Reno wouldn't take the risk. So, he resentfully dropped his stance, and backed two steps away. The disappointed nightstaff hung dead by his side.

Davoren had won the upper hand thanks to luck and quick wit. Now he held both allies at a safe distance. Neither man would dare attack. And even if Vincent did, Reno would not, not with Rufus as hostage; they had to act together. In other words, this alliance was strained in the middle.

Triumph tickled Davoren. His lips curled into a grin. "Heh..heheh...my! What a delightful predicament THIS is...little Rufus ShinRa at gunpoint." He peered over to Reno. "Yes..you'd be *pretty* upset if I killed him, hmm?"

Reno boiled with rage. Through grit teeth, he growled restrainedly, "I swear...you harm that kid, and I..."

In truth, Reno knew not *what* he could do against such a devil. He trailed into a hateful silence, which only amused Davoren more.

Vincent, on the other hand, showed an unnaturally stoic front. Behind those crimson eyes he pondered the situation at hand. Instinctively, he searched for his forsaken gun. It was spotted some distance away on the floor; too far to make a dive for it. And he certainly daren't challenge the gunman bare-handed.

Vincent's keen scrutiny returned to the scene. He noted one detail which particularly struck his interest: Davoren's hands were trembling. Just a slight tremor. But it seemed no evil smile could fully conceal the hot storm within.

Deeper sunk Vincent's thoughts upon this enigma.

Soon, Davoren's delight cooled down. He still held the boy up againt the wall, having yanked his head so far back to expose his throat. There, the cold muzzle pressed into his skin for all to see.

Rufus never flinched any resistance, nor could he even swallow past the muzzle. His eyes twitched anxiously just to stay shut. He seemed to expect that bullet any second.

Everyone, in fact, seemed to expect it in this long moment of agony. However, Davoren suddenly released the boy. He took one step back, not to spare him; the gun still remained fixed on Rufus' face, but rather to behold him in his helplessness.

The boy hesitantly re-opened his eyes. No one could guess what raced through his mind: Fear? Anger? Feelings of betrayal? After another moment, Rufus steadied himself upon his feet again. He stood at gunpoint, attention focused beyond the muzzle upon a bright gaze of murderous derrangement.

Blue met pink again. Everything else receeded to oblivion.

"Why are you doing this?" asked Rufus. There was no trace of anger or fear in his bearing, only quiet sadness.

"It's the Professor's orders, boy," conceeded the gunman unaffectedly, "I am to kill everyone here. You've outlived your usefulness, and so, you too must die."

Poor Rufus could not reply.

"You should have stayed safe in hiding. Tell me, what did you hope to achieve by coming here?"

The boy's resolution wavered a bit against the direct question. He fumbled to put his muddlement into words. "..something..very wrong has happened to you, Davoren..so wrong it shakes me inside just to look at you now. This..," Rufus gestured all around the battered battleground, "..all of this has changed you into something I know is wrong!"

"And?" Davoren cut short, "You came here to stop me?"

Such cold words, mocking him to the core. Again, the poor boy struggled to reply, "I came here...because I..I.."

"You came here because you were afraid of what you saw back there. You wanted your stupid caretaker back, not this. You came here because you are a fool!"

Rufus blinked at the blunt insult.

"Has it ever occured to you, boy, that maybe the only reason I've taken care of you...is because the Professor ordered me?"

Apparently not, as the boy stood lost amidst a whirl of consternation, more intimdated by Davoren's eyes than his gun.

Yes. Vincent recalled Rufus fiercely refute that idea: that Davoren couldn't be the "friend" he valued, but just a hollow machine who served Hojo. Davoren was the sole source of kindness and warmth this lunatic posessed. Yet how sharply this situation contrasted against the boy's stories.

Both were true, but which the reality?

The gunman beamed into a sneer as he beheld Rufus' visible anxiety. "Oh yes. Us Turks..we're a special type of monsters. We're bred to swallow ANY order, and obey....the perfect type the likes YOU and your father want."

"..me..and my father..?" echoed the boy in amazement.

"You and your father."

He slightly tilted his head aside. Through loose hair strands, his eyes blazed pink madness. "I served your illustrious father thirty-one years ago. And I've heard plenty about you, Rufus ShinRa. Like father, like son. You live in your wonderful play-house society high above, surrounded by wealth, toys and pretty faces. Its glamour for show, but dirty hands beneath the tables. Me, Vincent, your friend over there...WE are your dirty hands."

Whatever Rufus understood from this half-demented rave profoundly disturbed him. From their places, both allies listened in anticipation. It took Reno every effort to restrain his rage. However, Vincent found much interest in listening.

"Why sure!" declared the madman all around, "Anything you order, we obey! We sully ourselves in people's blood and tears, so that bastards like you stay clean and innocent."

"I...don't remember," mumbled Rufus weakly.

"And what a convenient little excuse THAT is!"

Such a sudden outbusrt startled Rufus to look up again. All traces of amusement had vanished from Davoren's face, replaced by hot anger furrowed deep. His pink eyes glowered behind a rigid gun, both fixiated upon him alone.

"If we are all guilty here, then you're probably the guiltiest one out of us. If God does care for justice or retribution, then you DESERVE to have fallen, Mr. New-Age President Rufus ShinRa," Davoren spat out the title through venomous sarcasm, "..a huge Hellfire to cast you from your throne down to the mud...down with the rest of us! Our crimes are your crimes. Your hands are dirty too, and you just answer 'I don't remember'. PAH!"

It wasn't the gunman accusing. It was an endless storm of voices, all blustered by hatred. The era had died, but their misery still remained. They still charged their wrongdoers with crimes, still cursed their existence. And now Rufus knew he received a fair share too. It did not matter whether he remembered or "conveniently" forgot. Just like Davoren, it only made the voices angrier.

Vincent couldn't argue with Davoren, however harshly he may have spoken. The old ShinRa jackal had moulded a new one. There stood the product: a power-hungry, arrogant and utterly merciless monster. Around him stood his "dirty hands": demons who'd dress in suits. They'd stalk the inky night in his service. No fire could ever cleanse Rufus. He was like them, forever damned by crimes.

The boy almost seemed able to hear those accusing voices inside his mind. He struggled to understand this hideous truth until his head hung low.

"..somehow..I already knew that, Davoren," admitted the boy dejectedly. "When the fire burned me...when the pain ripped me up, and the guards beat me...I somehow knew I deserved it all. I deserve to be punished, even though I couldn't remember why."

The gun remained pointed. Davoren said nothing. Another struggle spiraled up Rufus as both fists tightened. He looked directly into the gunman's eyes, angry desperation strained upon his own face.

"That nightmare..me trapped in there..with..with that man always following me..it was real! All of it!" he cried straight out, "But if that's how I really was, and you felt so angry...why didn't you tell me before? Why didn't you tell me of my past?!"

But Davoren instantly snapped against the outburst with triple the rage, unable to tolerate another word. He grabbed the stunned Rufus by the throat, then yanked him up right under his pink, icy glare. Needless to say, Reno started in alram, while Vincent tensed.

"Tell you, boy?" growled Davoren, "Why? Weren't you already miserable enough, living your life in shambles? Even a DOG lives a better life than yours!"

His stern voice drilled into Rufus. The poor boy struggled for air as the grip squeezed further upon his windpipe. Pain strained his eyes shut.

"That infernal scanner tears your brain apart. The guards beat you day-in, day-out, then stuff your system full of drugs. You always rave in fear, about 'fires' and some 'man' who chases you. All of that and you still wanted me to tell you?!"

He broke all restraints upon a brash fury, rattling the boy once just for emphasis. "Tell you you once used to be the most powerful, richest figure on the Planet? Look at you then, look at you now! Tell you, Rufus? Why? To make you MORE MISERABLE?!"

"So..that's..w-what you were trying to..do..," wheezed the boy in a cracked whisper.

Davoren only raised one quizical eyebrow.

"Whenever the nightmare..crawled up on me..you beat it away, and tried so hard to cheer me up again-ugh!" Rufus barely managed to open one bleary eye. "All this time ..y..you were trying to..hide me from punishment."

The interpretation, so plainly presented, caught Davoren off guard for a moment. He simply stared back at a total loss, looking into that eye which struggled to stay focused. Soon however, his face darkened again to a deep frown.

Davoren could have crushed Rufus' throat. It was that easy. But instead, he contemptuously flung the boy back, who at once hacked a violent gasp of relief, then hunched over against the wall in dizzy pain. The gunman beheld him in cold silence.

"Argh! You damn bastard!!" bellowed Reno for vengence, preparing to lunge in. However, he stopped dead when Davoren aimed his gun again at the hostage, this time with rigid fixation. A silent warning that any wrong move would be fatal.

Though fuming red with anger, Reno returned to a helpless spectator. He gripped his staff very tightly, one thought he'd snap it in two. What would he give to snap Davoren's neck instead.

Unlike his hot-tempered ally, Vincent remained cool in place. Inside his keen mind, he churned a dozen thoughts while observing Davoren, espcially after Rufus had momentairly disarmed him with those words. Each thought was an irregular fragment of an enigmatic face. If he unlocked the door, and pieced the puzzle together, he knew he'd find the true face behind there.

He knew because he had finally found the key.

The ruthless gunman stood unbothered by the surroundings. Instead, with chin turned up, he callously viewed the hostage from behind a fixed gun. There was no pity in his eyes, just cruel mockery.

"My dear boy," he patronized, "that explosion has degraded you to a ragged, frightened lunatic. You haven't even sense enough to survive anymore. You NEEDED someone to take care of you. When you were starving, I had to feed you. When you were shivering naked and hallucinating, I had to clothe and calm you down again."

Rufus listened with head bowed low. Loose hair strands fell between his fingers, adding such wretchedness to his beggarly appearance.

"That's how pathetic you are now, Rufus ShinRa. You need to rely on a *stranger* to keep you alive!"

The boy still did not stir.

Reno seethed on the verge of another interference when something else caught his attention. At the end of the corridor, Rude hid behind the dark corner, having snuck here undetected. He stood perfectly still. His stern brown eyes fought nervousness to transfer a messege over to Reno.

This messege contained a simple bargain. It was their final hope.

Reno's expression turned quite solemn, whereby he glanced to Vincent. Vincent understood at once, then flicked his sight back to the unwary gunman. All this time Davoren spoke, a secret plan brewed about. He was too occupied with Rufus.

"Take a good look!" he snarled in a passion, "This man you see right now...ugly, tattered and demented...this is what I really am! I am the Professor's slave! I live to obey his orders! He ordered me to keep you alive, I obeyed. He ordered me to kill you, I will obey!"

"And when you brought me those rice-cakes, were you obeying the Professor too?" retorted Rufus firmly, removing his hand to reveal a calm face. He returned none of Davoren's malice or bitterness.

It was a question only these two understood.

The gun did not waver off its mark. Davoren gazed back in a long, pensive silence. Slowly, a gentle smile crossed his lips, giving his face such unnatural warmth.

"Don't give me that look, Rufus," he begged rather playfully, "Heh. I wouldn't know whether I should kill you...or just adopt you."

They'd never find the answer. Before Davoren could decide, the now three allies lunged into sudden action.

The scene plunged into instant madness, fast-paced without pause. Vincent dived straight in at Rufus for a swift tackle. His hard claw secured the boy as they tumbled over across the floor, where Vincent snatched his own discarded gun, then recovered onto his feet. All strength converted to speed. Grabbing the bewildered boy even more tightly, Vincent fled at once.

Davoren couldn't react amongst three simultaneous events. Just as Rufus was rescued, Rude swung out of his hide-out, forcefully wrenching open a gasket in the process. Loud, icy steam instantly choked the hall to the brim; the perfect smoke screen.

Sight went foggy, but not before Reno hurtled two mega-charged fire missles at the vital support girders above. Both fireballs blasted their targets dead on. Soon, the walls groaned under the mammoth weight of the now unsupported delivery system. The groan escalated to a thunderous rumble as the whole ceiling stormed to a collapse, dragging down the system as well.

The demolition zone spread outwards, swallowing everything into darkness.

Vincent never once glanced back. He flew beyond the limit, holding onto the boy through this chaos. Behind pursued a tidal wave of destruction. Its insane roar deafened his ears to numbness. The ground shook angrier than an earthquake. Yet both feet carried him forth regardless. They sought escape.

Down the maze he ran in a race against time, faster and faster, until deliverance shone up ahead. He boosted himself to a final dash forward, barely clearing the premises as it all caved in behind.

The violence swept both men far across the floor, neither one able to coordinate any balance amidst such madness. By sheer determination, Vincent recovered his focus. He huddled over Rufus as a spume of fiery rubble and dust rained Hell upon them.

Reno and Rude had struck an unspoken deal with Vincent: he was the fastest. If he would save the boy, then they would "handle" Davoren. With their eyes they had sealed the pact, and together went into action.

Now, Rufus was safe; Vincent battered from battle but well alive; the two ex-Turks and Davoren missing, with the battlegrounds in ruins.

-End of Chp.66