I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.71

Throughout their lifetimes, Reno and Rude had fought many battles; some quite easy, others best abandoned. But this was one fight both men refused point-blank to surrender. They simply did not consider that option.

Events had long turned desperate. They had bravely (or foolishly) confronted Professor Hojo, who soon proved to be powerful as equally vicious; so much like a beast let loose upon two hapless prey.

Rude fought hard. All strength concentrated into combat. Even as the monster wreaked havoc upon him, he still managed to endure it with fists bared out.

No less could be said for Reno. He had honed his skills to a fine point just to stay alive. The nightstaff always twirled through his nimble fingers, jabbing, blocking, whiffing out voltage unlike anything before. Rude had the brawn, he had the speed.

They fought together as a team, in perfect synchronisation. They went all-out against a common foe. And for a while, they even managed to hold their ground. In the end, however, the strong must yield to the stronger, as Hojo soon demonstrated that painful adage.

The hurricane battle moved further down the Reactor until it reached the old mako reservoirs. All the way, both men were blasted and beaten back. Clashes of a hopeless war echoed up the air, with a demon sparing neither fire nor fury to overwhelm them. Every effort thrown was rejected tenfold. Nor would Hojo show one shred of mercy towards these fools who dared challenge him.

Finally, when the game grew boring, he suddenly lunged in for the coup de grace: one dash, straight ahead.

Neither man could anticipate such high speed, such beastly ferocity. The blow came hard into Rude's stomach. Next one rammed clear into Reno's side right in the ribcage. The now shattered team came tumbling through the grand entrance, out across the open bridge like two wild barrels.

By some major exertion, Reno recovered onto one knee so that he skid backwards to a halt. Rude unfortunately had already lost consciousness. He rolled on until he collided back-first into a huge valve at the end of the bridge, where the loud "clang" affirmed just how grievous the impact was. There, he lurched over in place, and moved no more.

The alarmed Reno shot one concerned look back towards his friend, but instantly returned his attention up front again.

Smug as ever, Professor Hojo emerged from the entrance onto the scene. The battle hadn't affected him the least, not even scratched his evil humor. Indeed, for all their valiant endeavours, neither man had managed one effective blow at this creature.

"..shit..," cursed Reno for the hundreth time. Hojo had quashed them flat without fighting them seriously. He probably didn't even consider this a "fight", more like a mild exercise session.

In a more prosperous era, this bleak cavern had been the Reactor's heart, pumping fresh Mako up through its metallic veins. Now only the ruins remained. The main bridge extended straight across the reservoirs, from the entrance to the control valve at the other end. Overhead arched a complex of ducts and pipes. Slanted aside hung a massive girder, from which dangled a rusty crane, all roped in cables. Far, far below yawned a black pit. Once emerald life had filled its depths. Now filthy-green muck clogged its throat.

Such a grim Hell-hole. Perhaps here would be the best place to put these pests out of their misery.

Hojo stood pompously poised, with one hand propped against his waist to flaunt his superiority. No doubt, that thought delighted him much. He had already spent enough time playing around with weaklings.

On the other side, both men had been pummelled to pulp. Never had they challenged such incredible power. Even now, Hojo's presence evoked deeper dread than ever before. Of the two, poor Rude had suffered more. The lifeless man sat thrashed against the valve, head bent so low one thought it would roll off.

Reno fared no better, the only difference being that he still clung to consciousness. To use his own expression, he felt more battered than an old punch bag; he certainly had sustained enough blows to look like one.

Either way, he was on his own now. Vincent was probably dead, and Rude half-way there. Regardless, Reno climbed onto his wobbly feet again, clutching his side for support. The man stood his ground single but firm. With one graceful flip of the staff, Reno assumed a rigid defense stance.

He had absolutely no intention of dying tonight. Then again, he wouldn't back down, not with his friend and the boy at stake.

"Rather pathetic how you persist so hard," mocked Professor Hojo, rubbing his chin with wry amusement, "Heheh..actually, you'd make an interesting specimen too."

Hard-grit hatred flashed across Reno's face. He spat right back, "You damn fugative from the freak show! Why don't ya just shove a microscope up yer ass!!"

The vulgar retort did not impress Hojo one bit. On the contrary, his smirk soured into a frown of dire consequence. Inside, Reno had his big mouth to thank for adding fuel to the fire. But outside, he hardened his front further, ready for whatever fate awaited him.

And that fate was greusome death. Professor Hojo suddenly buckled to make one sweeping finish to this insolent pest. Reno prepared himself.

But before violence could errupt anew, one stern voice boomed, "Professor, wait!!"

It emanated somewhere from above. The battle crumbled to an instant halt as both enemies searched upwards, Reno particularly anxious to find the brave speaker (also his saviour). Their sights fell on a sturdy pipeline which ran across. There stood Rufus in full view of the scene below. His face, as if chisled from marble, expressed hard determination, fixed straight down upon Professor Hojo.

He would confront the scientist.

In truth, the boy had fled quite some distance. Behind him had raged a battle against a demon determined to kill him, or worse, use him for a vile experiment. As a hideout, he had huddled amongst the pipe bases, listening to the war echo from afar.

However, it wasn't long before his thoughts had caught up with him. For a long time, Rufus had floundered in evident struggle. Reflections and emotions whirled around this madness: so many discoveries, how could he grasp them all? New lights which shed such ugliness upon these truths. Himself; his father, a loathsome blur haunting his mind; and then...Davoren. Yet strangely, as Rufus had grappled with this turmoil, something new brimmed through his eyes.

Something which for the first time since he could remember, hardened his resolve into solid stone.

It was at that moment when the war exploded onto the bridge with Reno and Rude tumbling across (it saved him the trouble of running back). From then, Rufus had emerged from his hideout above. It shone clear upon his face: if never again, then now he knew exactly what to do.

"..Rufus..," Reno muttered rather affectedly, affected with sudden rage that is. He exploded upwards, "YOU GODDAMN LOONY SHITHEAD!! I THOUGHT I TOLD YA TO RUN AWAY!! WHAT'RE YA-?!!"

Rufus, in glancing towards this infuriated man, mumbled half-annoyed, "Hmph! So who's got the gratitude problem *now*?"

However, he immediately spoke his determination outloud again, "I'm not running away or hiding anymore. You two escape. I'll handle the Professor by myself."

"Wha?! B..but.."

"Don't question me! Just do as I say!!"

His tone bore strong command. Rufus' hard visage, with blue eyes darkened to such intensity, left no room for compromise.

From his place below, Reno gaped in a whirl of astonishment, unsure how to respond to that brusque order. Whatever had drawn Rufus out here had certainly caused an uncanny change in his demeanour. As he stood there, one could have sworn a certain part of "President Rufus ShinRa" had surfaced again.

Professor Hojo heard the challenge loud and clear. For a long time, he studied the boy in cold contempt. He had to admire Rufus for his bravery, and scorn him stupidity; for what could a miscreant like *him* possibly do?

Nevertheless, Professor Hojo was not one to ignore a defiance, especially against his authority. For now, he left matters below with a leap high up into the air. Reno gave an alarmed "Hey!", as if that would somehow divert Hojo's attention. No such luck. The monster hopped onto one pipe, then further up onto the next, where Rufus waited, stern-faced and totally unarmed.

Meanwhile, Reno lingered below at a complete loss. What to do? Obey that order? Try to blast Hojo away, even though his nightstaff couldn't reach a target that far up?

First things first: he must check his unconscious friend. At once, Reno scruffled back to Rude.

He crouched, or rather dropped onto his knees. There, he roughly shook the man by one shoulder. "Rude! C'mon man! Wake up!"

No response, not even a twitch. It occured to Reno that perhaps his friend had already died; he certainly appeared dead. Gripped by sudden panic, Reno angirly cried "Rude! Wake up already! Dammit!!"

Three hard slaps across Rude's face proved far more effective. The battered man was started back to consciousness with a confused grunt. Reno could not conceal his relief. He steadied Rude up while the man swam in a tizzy, still struggling for sense amidst this agony.

Yet it didn't take Rude too long to snap back into sharp focus. He blinked from Reno all around in amazement, then his alarm shot sky-high when he suddenly spotted Rufus up there. He even grunted something as he tried to scramble up again.

In vain. He collapsed back before he even reached his knees, in which Reno had to support him least he may fall to the floor next. Nothing was left to do. In their helplessness, both men could only behold the scene above, and expect the worst.

Rufus ShinRa, their ex-President, was on his own.

Exactly how Rufus wanted it. Never once did he glance down towards those two ex-Turks, as if he expected them to obey without delay. He stood his ground in firm dignity. On the other end of the pipeline, Professor Hojo took a stance infront, making sure everyone could see his dagger-like claws.

"..miserable whelp," Hojo burbled, "YOU are going to 'handle' me? You plan to fight me then?"

The insideous creature couldn't help but snicker. Once upon a time, this boy had stridden master of the world. But no more. Once "Mr. President", full of pompous vanity; now just "Rufus", an insane beggar.

One slash would end his life. And still this weakling dared stand in Hojo's way?

Rufus didn't waver in face of the question. Instead, he stiffly rebuffed "Of course not, Professor. I want to talk with you."

"Oh really? Huh! You certainly have the nerve to go about making demands from *me*."

"Actually, I have more than that."

Situations are won by those who possess the upper hand, as Rufus dramatically proved. No words, just one move: he yanked up the hem of his sweater just enough to procure a tiny orb from inside, then held it out for Hojo to gawk at.

A perfect reversal of postions.

The orb gleamed brightly through these prison fingers for freedom. Shock spread like wildfire, from the stunned Professor, who couldn't absorb this blow, down to the two men.

The enraged scientist instantly thundered forth, "YOU!! HOW-?!!"

But Rufus was quick to assert his own authority, and quite effective too. Before Hojo could take another step, he swung his arm aside so that the precious orb hung way out in the air. This time, Hojo froze dead still. His eyes bulged so wide with terror, they almost popped through his specs.

It all became clear. Back when Rude had blocked Hojo's first attack, the orb must have accidentally slipped out unnoticed. By sheer impulse, Rufus had snatched it off the ground before fleeing the scene, and didn't even realize he had done so until he had ran far away.

He did not know what value this mysterious object had; but he played on the assumption that whatever purpose it served, Hojo prized it greatly.

How right he was.

"Tell me, Professor," mocked Rufus, too pleased by that look, "what would happen if I dropped your little treasure down there?"

The plunge stretched far, far down into a pit below, where green muck hungirly oogled that dazzling beauty. Behind Rufus' words lurked an intention with disastrous consequences. All he had to do was open his hand, and...

"Don't do that!!" spluttered the alarmed scientist, "That's super-refined, highly condensed mako! If you you dump it into raw mako, it will be destroyed in a massive exothermic reaction!!"

"An explosion, hmm?"

"You wouldn't *dare*, boy!"

Rufus smirked vindictively. "Well I'm crazy, so I guess I would. Either way I'm dead where I stand."

There shone a peculiar slyness in the boy's gaze; one which arose from stormy derrangement. Neither sane nor all insane, Rufus held the scene in limbo, and did not fear the outcome.

Each second passed tightened the air further into unbearable tension. In truth, no one knew what to expect now: dread hung heavy upon Rude's face. Reno hid his strained nerves behind a solemn visage, and waited.

One could practically palpate the deadlock high above. On one end, Hojo seethed on the very verge of eruption. Half of him anxiously awaited what would follow; another half wished to shred this pest to pieces.

All fine by Rufus. It didn't seem to bother him the least. But at heart, he had always been a shrewd businessman. Therefore, he rolled the orb back into his palm, and clasped it close again.

"On the other hand, I'm willing to return it if you answer my questions," Rufus negotiated, or rather extorted. "They're not hard. I just want to know...before I die."

A simple trade off: the orb for answers. Hojo only stiffened in response. No doubt, he considered it below himself to barter with this lunatic, especially when suspicion ran so high. Then again, he daren't underestimate the boy's capabilities or endanger the materia.

Rufus took this long silence as agreement. No less stern than the Professor, he inquired dryly, "What you said back there...was that true? Did I really support this experiment?"

"Huh! Why the big shock?" snorted the spiteful scientist, "Surprised to discover you're not so innocent after all?"

Rufus wouldn't be mocked. His blue eyes hardened into ice. "Answer my question."

After a tactful pause, in which Hojo deemed it best to obey, he grudgingly admitted, "Yes. What I said is all true. You funded 'Genesis Retrial', just like your father. Not only that, you also helped bring it to its final stages."


Much as this farce boiled his fury, the Professor yielded to the briefest explanation, only because he had to. "That is no ordinary materia. It is a genetic enhancer which triggers certain biochemical reactions, Merger Grade-1, as they're called. It is simply vital to my experiment."

Rufus listened. He listened to a forgotten past unfold before him. Word by word, every detail another crime to sully his hands.

"You had agreed to help me. At the time, you headed a team of materia-engineers and biotechnology specialists. Together, they were to construct this materia for me. You assumed responsibility for that part."

Hojo's voice strained into a hiss. This recollection obviously doubled his irritation, "However, the materia was still halfway through development when ShinRa Inc. collapsed. I had this laboratory within the Reactor. I could have finished the construction by myself. Only I hadn't the design blueprints or enough data to complete it."

"Ah, so that's why you saved my life then put me on the 'brain scanner'," Rufus completed the connection, in rather strange good humour, "I had headed that team. So naturally, I'd know every detail of those designs. And of course, now that you have your materia..your 'key'.. I am useless."

Hojo needn't reply. In fact, there was nothing more to add. Just silence. Rufus ShinRa had supported "Genesis Retrial". It was he who brought this "enhancer" into existence. If this experiment was a crime in itself, then he was as guilty as Hojo and his father.

A greedy jackal, just the way "daddy" moulded him.

Hojo had answered all questions. By agreement, Rufus had to return the orb. However, instead he indulged the moment to examine this curious object up close.

"..materia..pretty, pretty materia..," he murmured in fascination.

The orb shimmered seductively between his fingers. Its hazy glow reflected upon his eyes, making them sparkle twice as bright. Slowly, a wistful smile curled his lips; the picture of madness wrangled by pure pain, with long hair strands dangling infront.

"..there is this man," Rufus simpered gently past an inaudible buzz, "..he says he's my father, but I'm not his son. No, I'm his clever 'business partner'...just another person who makes money for him. See, the old man's madly in love with his materia kingdom, he doesn't even know I exist.."

Shards of memories tore across his mind. The more he spoke to this mystical jewel, the farther away its blueness lured him, "..when they told me he died, I felt... happy. But deep inside, I was so cold...so cold I got torn in two. One part controlled my body, the other just watched."

"You speak utter rot!" Professor Hojo cut short. He hadn't the patience or interest to listen to these ramblings. "I suppose now you want to turn yourself into some pitiful victim."

Rufus blinked back into reality, if only to grasp those vicious words. Indeed, they stirred another emotion which resolved into unnatural amusement. Somehow, those words sounded funny.

"On no!" Rufus laughed, "I'm not some poor victim. I'm a ShinRa! I tread over others for my own personal goals!" He flung out one arm just for added grandeur. "But Professor, why SHOULDN'T I tread over people? Aren't their lives so cheap?!"

Louder and wilder. His voice, seething hot in sudden bitterness, reached the darkness above, where no doubt his father lurked...listening to every word. "He loved his kingdom more than anything. I..I wanted to take it away...to have him there in the dirt, while I enjoyed *his* power. That made me happy! And the more I abused it, the more I knew the old man was writhing in the grave: I had his kingdom all to myself, while he had nothing!! I wanted him to hate me, because I HATED HIM!!!"

One simple emotion: hatred. Rufus couldn't remember that man's face. But he clearly remembered that hatred. For a moment, the lunatic stood lost amidst a nightmare. He glared at Hojo as if into a mirror, where the reflection revealed a broken psyche. All he could do now was glue the pieces together.

"..that's how I lived...in my wonderful 'doll-house' society. Leeches and liars all clung to me, until I became one of them," Rufus lamented, unaware of the tragic sadness upon his face. "At first...when I was small, this angered me..no actually, it frightened me. I didn't want to live like that. But it was already too late. Everytime something hurt me, or made me angry, I'd say 'it doesn't matter'... 'I don't care'. If I repeated it long enough, it went away. And as I grew older, it got easier, until I could do it without even thinking."

Unafraid, Rufus pronounced his own confession, "I'm selfish. I'm cruel. I'm greedy and so arrogant. I deserve this torture. That's how it is. Once we fall from grace, there's nothing but Hell and punishment, and none of us know the way back up."

He paused upon a stray thought. His expression darkened into puzzlement, yet at the same time profound intrigue. "It's strange. Davoren knew all that. He knew I deserved this torture. But he still...hid me away from punishment. When I burned in the fire, only he dared step in to pull me out...no one's ever done that for me..," he added softly, "..no one.. not even my 'father'."

The sentence, though quite simple, held the lunatic in deep melancholia. Only he truely understood the significance of that sentence.

Down below, the scene remained frozen in stiff stasis. Rude, by some tortuous exertion, had managed to stand up, while the ever grim Reno stood by, nightstaff still in hand. They could do nothing. Between the boy's rambling and this danger, they could not guess what to expect.

All very touching, to be sure. Professor Hojo, however, had strained his patience beyond the limits. He wanted that orb...now.

"You've wasted my time long enough with this silly speech, boy!" he snarled outloud, "Give me that materia! And if you're so attached to your precious Davoren, I'll gladly send you over to join him."

The mockery cut straight through, but Rufus only sighed back to himself. "No. I can't face Davoren...not after I've learned what my company had done to him and those two other men. I can't face his tears of all that grief."

A heavy silence befell the air.

Nothing else was left to do. Donal was long dead; Davoren and Vincent both gone too. Lives tampered with for the sake of profit. The revelations, so many...so painful...

Yes. Nothing else left to do. Rufus' resolve suddenly hardened to solid stone again as his grip tightened upon the materia: he had made his decision.

"I'm to blame for this," the young man addressed the Professor with impressive fortitude, "I supported you of my own free will. For once, I'll take responsibility for my own crimes and my company's."

"What does that mean?!" barked Hojo in suspicious alarm.

"I'm putting 'Genesis Retrial' out of operation...permanently!"

"AH?! BUT YOU-!!"

"Forgive me, Professor," Rufus smiled back so sweetly, "I lied."

Sly like his father, twice as manipulative.

Events spiralled out of control; just as the astonished Hojo realized he had been duped by a very clever businessman. Struck mad into a frenzy, the demon lunged straight at Rufus, roaring for his blood, claw stretched out to prevent a disaster.

Too late. The boy had already flung the orb aside.

One simple toss, but of such impact, enough to lock the Professor in rigid stupor, so stiff he stopped breathing altogether. The two ex-Turks blanked upon this twist. They saw it, but could not comprehend.

Time slowed to an eternity. In this silence, all eyes followed the materia as it plunged towards doom. Down, down it spun in a trail of blue hue; bounced off the metalwork, past the bridge, still bewailing its fate. Below, the viscous mako swamp gleaned in welcome of this beauty.

There resounded a dull "plunk": the orb plunged straight into the reservoirs, and never resurfaced again. It was gone.

No sounds. No breaths. Just an agony of waiting. Neither Reno nor the disconcerted Rude dared move. From high above, Professor Hojo gaped down, by far the most shocked of all. Somehow, he wrenched his sight from the pit back to the lunatic...this wretch...a mere boy without even enough hold on reality. How could *he*...?

But in return, Rufus simply stood there. Triumph lit his face, with a smile so devious feeding off Hojo's bewilderment. Insane or not, he understood what he had done. He understood it too well, knew where it would take him, and that made him smile.

The boy didn't bother to move. There was no need.

~...it doesn't even matter...~

He had stood like this before, studying his reflection in a glass pane... just waiting...

~...and I don't care anymore...~

He had fallen through Hell before; through all the many levels until he crashed into its deepest pit.

~..it burns me up, but it's still so cold inside...am I really all alone?...~

Fire. All around danced the flames of sin to scorch them black. For those who lost their souls or simply never had one, is that the only way to pay for their crimes?

Five seconds from the moment it dropped to the next heartbeat, and suddenly the depths of Hell exploded sky high.

Both Reno and Rude were flung hard to the ground by rumbling violence. Professor Hojo darted his eyes all around in alarm. The insane turmoil rocked the Reactor's very foundation as spumes of fire and mako whooshed up, so much like a furious volcano. Up swirled the roaring heat, putrid fumes, metal debris and shrapnel stone. Hearing was lost to the drone of disaster; sight gone in flames.

Yet still Rufus did not move. There was no need. Instead he gazed smugly at the catastrophe he had wrought, his hair billowing like mad in the wind.

Yes. He swore he'd make Hojo pay *dearly* for killing Davoren. So much like his father, Rufus knew exactly how to strike an enemy where it hurt most.

And this was the price: "Genesis Retrial's" ultimate destruction.

The chaos spiralled its way up the Reactor faster than sense could comprehend. Indeed, Hojo narrowly escaped the explosion by one high leap, abandoning the scene below to the flames. From pipes to scaffholds, the nimble demon raced the danger upwards until he reached a ceiling girder, where he gracefully flipped on top, just as the final gust of fire whirled by. He was safe.

It took some moments before the choking whiffs of flames subsided, at least to permit a cautious peak. Such devastation by such a small object: whatever could be seen past the crackling flames revealed an abyss of wreckage, with the walls charred black. The enormous blast had literally ripped off the main bridge by its supports. Pipes and cables hung dead, many less fortunate girders incinerated to scrap. A thick mist clogged the air. Regardless, Hojo scoured the ruins far below for something...anything. In vain. Even his sharp senses could not detect any life signs through this fog.

All was gone. All gone in the fire.

Another desperate scan only confirmed it. Finally, Professor Hojo squatted down upon the beam, if only to brood over his thoughts. Anger. Disbelief. Frustration. Indeed, his yellow eyes reflected emotions more intense than the flames below, boiling wild until his veins throbbed under their heat.

Gone. It was all gone.

The truth laughed at him. In the smoke, no doubt he saw Rufus' face, still smirking back. Hotter and hotter he seethed, when at last the creature roared all his fury out, so loud neither Heaven nor Hell dared challenge its might.

Gone! That lunatic..! Without a weapon, without even sanity, he had..!! All gone!!

His wasted frame shook hard. Professor Hojo blistered there another minute, gasping, or rather wheezing, his anger upon the disaster site below. The question hung clearly upon his face: what to do now?

Not too long afterwards, the answer surfaced, just as his expression tightened into a resolute frown. He had suffered many setbacks before, but always overcame them. Yes..yes...overcame them, one way or another.

His mind honed in on *her*. That girl. He had to find that girl first.

-End of Chp.71