I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.87

Once they'd put enough distance between themselves and that deathtrap, the group slackened their pace to a trot. Davoren lead the small expedition, assault rifle in hand least any "unexpected surprises" dared thwart their advancement. He also carried the unconscious boy slung across his shoulders like a dead lamb, whose carcass hung floppy loose, secured around there solely by the gunman's firm grasp. Reno, tired and dirty, trailed just behind. He supported his injured friend along the way.

The survivors bore a demeanor of grave urgency, especially their leader. His eyes confronted the path ahead with stone-hard determination. Thus far, Davoren hadn't given his teammates a chance to recover, even after that crazy rescue operation. They couldn't afford to lollygag about with a catastrophe literally hovering over their heads. Indeed, no man would congratulate himself on their success just yet. They may have escaped that vestibule, but certainly not danger, for they still roamed inside the inflamed bowels of the dying Reactor. Till then, everyone kept their guard up and their feet moving.

The place rumbled in a state of constant perturbation. Eerie noises and crashing mayhem, mixed with their galloping footsteps, re-echoed throughout these empty corridors as havoc continued its rampage. They still hadn't been able to explain what exactly had happened to trigger such a destructive response; what force so powerful that it could level an entire Reactor. Davoren did have an idea, more like this dark premonition which continuously tugged at his mind. However, he couldn't worry about that problem right now. He had his own to contend with at present.

The group sped down long, labyrinthine halls, their path lighted by overhead lanterns that blinked with every tremor. A fine drizzle of debris whiffed past them as they ventured through these trembling catacombs. Reno felt increasingly uneasy. Not that he still mistrusted Davoren. If anything else, his genuine concern for Rufus had brought him to their side. But for all this running about, he'd yet to learn where they were headed. They just followed their guide.

At an intersection of corridors, the company stopped to consider which path. "This way," Davoren decided. Onwards they continued.

"You DO know where you're going, right?" inquired Reno.

After a pause, he admitted, "...kinda."

The latter man frowned: not exactly a reassuring answer.

Davoren said, "I don't know how much of the Reactor's been destroyed so far. It's most probable though all the main exits are blocked now," he added, rather mysteriously, "However, there may be another way."

The gunman did not elaborate, nor did his puzzled allies ask. They flew down two more flight of stairs, which lead them onto a devastated hall littered with damaged forklifts, shipment containers and transportation tracks. Davoren took the expedition across this wasteland under some arched entrance. They rushed further down an extended corridor, passing by many rooms, until finally they reached the opposite end. There, the path terminated at a storage ward.

The ragged survivors stopped in the middle of this rectangular room. Around them stood crates, delivery packages stacked on metal shelves, and dusty file cabinets asleep in one corner. Useless junk. Davoren took another step forward. He appeared a bit miffed. He scanned this squalid hovel as one who cannot find a specific object but knows for sure it existed somewhere close by.

Behind him lingered the company, exhausted to dullness and gasping hard, for unlike their guide, they were humans with more humble limitations. Reno surveyed these dismal surroundings. Nothing. He spat a curse. Meanwhile, Rude, who relied heavily on his friend to keep him upright, floundered in an inner vortex of fatigue, injuries and stress. Indeed, they'd been roaming around non-stop since they fled that Hellhole. Small wonder then why the man, wrecked inside out, suddenly keeled over towards unconsciousness. Reno gave an alarmed "Hey!" as he tried to hold him up, which also brought Davoren's attention to the scene. At once, both men tended close to the weary ex-Turk.

"I'm okay..ugh! J-just need to catch my.. breath..," he faltered. But Rude could no longer maintain the lie. He was heaving so harshly, and clutched his side in such agony that Davoren ordered he be seated on the floor before he actually passed out.

Rude was thus settled upon the ground. He continued to gasp unsteadily. His eyes squeezed tight to control the pain. For the moment, Reno's sole concern fell on easing his friend's suffering. With kind encouragement, he leaned Rude back against the wall, and had him tilt his head back for better airflow.

While Rude was being seen to, Davoren propped his assault rifle upright against the shelves. Next he unloaded Rufus off his shoulders and carefully laid him on the side near the ex-Turk, after which he squatted down in place. The gunman felt for his comrade's misery. Ever gentle, he slightly adjusted Rude's position so as to lessen the strain on his wounded flank, and had Reno support him there until his ordeal eased off. They gave him a quiet minute to find some coordination again. When the man's breathing had calmed and he seemed in better control, Davoren instructed him "Rude, you rest here. Just keep an eye on the kid, alright?" the former nodded in consent. "Reno, you come with me," he then motioned for the other man to follow.

Reno didn't understand, but complied. Once certain his friend could manage unattended, he left him with a firm pat on the shoulder before trotting after Davoren, who determinedly marched towards the opposite end of the ward. There, Reno was asked to help push these crates away. Again, he obeyed.

Together, they toiled about displacing boxes and shoving furniture around. At first, Reno thought they were searching for something inside the crates. But soon he noticed Davoren to show far greater interest in the space they occupied, not the boxes themselves. Whatever the objective, Reno wondered how "spring cleaning" this place benefited their dire situation. He didn't even know what the heck they were looking for!

Similar thoughts probably revolved inside Rude's head. He for one couldn't perceive any way out of this dead-end dump or what their strange teammate hoped to uncover. Still, he appreciated Davoren granting him a respite. Plus he'd no strength to ask for explanations. Instead, he languished in tired silence watching those two work. Under his guard lay the boy, wan and senseless to events around him.

"Hold on! I think we found it!" cried the gunman all of a sudden.

Indeed, they'd been pushing a particularly large crate when Davoren at last discovered his objective hidden beneath. He told Reno to keep pushing. With redoubled resolve, they managed to shift this obstacle farther and farther aside until they'd exposed a square grate underneath. Nothing new there. They'd passed hundreds of vents on their journey. What made this one, in this room, so special? Lingering around its parameter, the baffled ex-Turk looked to his ally for an answer. The latter only nodded towards the grate. Thus Reno crouched down and removed this barrier to see what it hid beneath.

Nothing. Just a square, empty recess in the ground.

For a moment, he thought it might be some kind of weird joke. But no. Davoren stood there grimmer than death, not a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. Puzzled, Reno asked the gunman, "W..what is this?"

"Our exit," came his curt reply.

Things were not quite as they appeared. Davoren obliged a demonstration: he delivered one mighty kick straight down into the recess floor, which to Reno's amazement, smashed wide open and hung devastated upon its hinges; this "floor" was actually a disguised trapdoor. Beyond this point stretched a man-made tunnel deep into the earth. Metal rungs followed its course downwards, lighted at equal intervals by small, glass lanterns.

"Damn," marveled Reno softly. He edged in for a closer inspection.

His comrade squatted near him. "This is a secret passageway the mercenaries used sometimes whenever entering or leaving the Reactor," he revealed in a calm undertone, "We didn't want anyone to suspect we were, hiding out here. It leads down through the drainage system then onto the city sewers. After that, well-"

At that moment Davoren, discerning a particular pair of eyes fixated hot upon him, happened to glance aside when he abruptly stopped short; not alarmed, rather caught off guard by the unexpected sight. Baffled, Reno looked over his shoulder towards the opposite end of the room.

Over there they beheld Rufus, unkempt and dazed, yet wide awake, having regained consciousness less than a minute ago. As he sat slouched upon both knees, loosely supported by an awkward Rude, he gaped right back at the gunman. Acute consternation rendered him equally speechless. He appeared visibly shaken, unsure whether to believe his own eyes of his memory.

In truth, neither man realized the boy awakened until this very minute. While Rude had been watching them shuffle crates around, he'd detected a faint movement by his side, only to discover Rufus already writhing to get up. Of course, assistance came immediately. Rufus had sustained no additional injuries. Yet a haze of confusion so beleaguered his senses that the attentive ex-Turk had to hold him steady. The boy knew not where he was or how on earth he got here. These new surroundings bewildered him, more so upon finding his supportive friend in an even worse state than he last recalled.

Roused to alarm, Rufus had tended to the battered man with a barrage of fragmented questions, wanting to understand everything at once. In the rush, Rude managed to reassure him that yes, he was okay; they'd been saved during his short coma and brought here.

The boy had yet to clear his befuddled logic when a familiar voice drew his attention to the far end of the ward. The sight of Davoren had petrified him stiff: how could this...? Was he really...? It was not until the busy gunman actually noticed him did Rufus, as startled as he by the eye contact, at last realize that yes, Davoren was still alive. Alive!

Right then, an uncomfortable hush befell the group. The situation resembled a previous one they'd experienced, bright pink locked on stormy ocean blue, yet with far greater complexities since their last encounter. Here was one man who'd served his cunning father the President of ShinRa Inc.; the same who'd brutally revealed to him his sordid past, and shown him first-hand the darker, callous side to his mask. There was another young man, more like a boy in Davoren's eyes, whose dignity and sanity had burnt in a fire; the same who'd witnessed him break down to a tearful, miserable wretch, having discovered the truth too late.

They viewed each other plainly, lost in a moment of uncertainty. But unlike his belligerent reaction last time, Davoren's surprised look gradually softened to one of demure thoughtfulness the longer he beheld Rufus. The latter struggled all the more to comprehend. He'd watched both Davoren and Vincent plummet over the bridge into the void. That scene still raged inside his memory. So how had...? What should...? When..?

Having just recently regained consciousness, only to confront Davoren and these heavy emotive bearings point-blank, Rufus reacted faster than his giddy state could handle. His own perturbation almost toppled him over had not Rude supported him upright again. The kind-hearted man temporarily sheltered him from the main scene. He provided many words of comfort, to which the boy listened with head bowed in one hand. Rufus was alright. He simply needed a minute to collect himself together.

From his place, the morose gunman clearly perceived what a profound impact his presence had on the boy. However, Davoren himself seemed at odds as to what he should do. Rude had already informed him how Rufus, believing him to be dead, had deliberately wrecked Hojo's experiment for his "sake". That story always occupied the back of his mind. But at the same time, so many issues remained unresolved between the former leader of the Turks and New Age President Rufus ShinRa. Hurtful words, ugly truths, their pasts and this present. Maybe deep inside, Davoren felt just as intimidated as the boy did. They were two shattered criminals whose lives fate had intertwined together under the strangest circumstances. And yet Davoren realized they just...

"You should go talk to him," suggested Reno softly.

Davoren flicked his eyes back to the ex-Turk, who held his pensive gaze with steadfast solemnity. Reno had been studying his face all this time. He couldn't fathom what went on inside his ally's head, but he did know that between his loyalty to the Professor and his affection for the kid, Davoren had chosen the second. And they could just hop down this tunnel way without another word. Yet they both knew that unless he and the boy opened up to each other right now, then they never would, nor could their minds rest easy afterwards. He left the matter up to Davoren.

After a long inner deliberation, the gunman leaned closer to Reno and muttered something only audible to his ears. Whatever was said, Reno looked at him very significantly, almost alarmed. The latter however maintained a stern visage; his intense pink eyes beseeched him to accept.

Reno's expression darkened. In the end, he nodded in consent.

Their hands slipped by each other as Davoren rose to his feet again. He walked over to where sat the pair.

Reno also stood up. "Hey, Rude!" he called, "C'mon! We gotta get a move on!"

Rude glanced towards him. He perceived Davoren approaching them and tacitly understood the man wished to have a private moment with their young President By now, Rude had mollified Rufus' agitation; at least the boy could hold his own despite the internal turmoil. As for himself, he decided he'd rested enough. So with a final reassurance, the ex-Turk bid a quiet retreat. On his way, he met Davoren, who gave him a curt nod in passing, as if to thank him for his kind consideration.

Rude paused to watch the gunman continue his own path. His brows knit in grim scrutiny, like he'd just discerned something hidden behind that man's composed demeanor. Not evil; he knew Davoren bore no harmful intent on the boy. No, what he'd detected felt more like...pain.

The ex-Turk soon resumed course. Onwards he limped until he reached his friend; the latter helped him sit down again upon some box. Neither spoke a syllable. Reno stood on edge, arms crossed, roasting under a contemplative fire as they viewed Davoren march away. Rude didn't ask either. He hunched over to support his wounded side, content to follow events from the corner of his eye. Together they watched, and waited.

Davoren's walk ended at the other side, where he halted right infront of the solitary boy. He lingered there a silent moment, during which his gaze, a tranquil pink lake of meditation, rested squarely down upon Rufus. Meanwhile, Rufus' head remained bowed, disheveled hair strands dangling free before his pale face. He was quite aware of Davoren's presence. He wanted to speak. But then, what could he possible say? Out of rigid anxiety, or maybe plain fear, he couldn't bring himself to look up at this tall man. Instead, he stared intently at his two fists that sat clenched upon his knees. He noticed they were trembling a little.

It wasn't long though before Davoren simply plopped onto his knees too and sat there upon the dirty floor at the same level as Rufus, hands loose in his own lap to prove he'd nothing to hide. Such easy mannerism rather startled the boy. He looked at this gunman despite himself, only to be greeted by his sunny, amicable smile.

"So," he asked at length, "How are you feeling?"

Rufus instantly shot his eyes away again. "Fine," he answered. After a pause he faltered, "I th-.. I mean, we all thought you were.."

"Dead? Heh! Well, we could say I thought the same for you, son," chided Davoren in jest. However, his tone warmed back to its gentle friendliness as he dismissed "But that doesn't matter now. I'm just relieved you're safe 'n okay. God! You sure had this old geezer worried sick about you the whole time!"

Rufus said nothing. The reference to his failed "suicide" escapade, plus the frivolity of this conversation brought a painful strain to his face. They'd seen each other at their very worse and their most pathetic. What should they do now, pretend nothing between them has changed? How when his mind felt repressed under such torture?

"Your friends over there, I got a chance to meet them. They're good men, y'know," Davoren praised the two unwary ex-Turks, for they loitered far out of hearing range, "Both of them were quite concerned about you too. In fact, I couldn't have rescued you without their help."

Rufus remained disconnected from this trivial chat. Dark gloom hung so thick over his head that the gunman, himself beginning to feel a bit dispirited, proclaimed, "Geez, kid! If saving you from certain death doesn't cheer ya up, then I don't know what will!" Again, he tried to instill some humor into this depressed soul. "Heheh! But man-oh-man did you have everyone in a tizzy! We were struggling like mad just to get outta there ali-"

"Davoren," Rufus cut in suddenly.

He stopped short.

"I.. have to tell you something," the boy admitted after great hesitation.

The intuitive gunman was quiet. Though his smile had faded to a solemn expression, Davoren's demeanor always remained affably open as he edged a bit closer to Rufus, bracing himself for whatever he had to say. The troubled young man indeed carried many burdens he wished to unload, if only he knew where to start or how to begin. Davoren waited. He gave him all the time he needed to speak.

"I know you loved your brother Donal very much," he finally confided in a hushed undertone, eyes downcast yet brimming like his heart with melancholia, "And I know that no amount of money or bloodshed, not even destroying myself with the Professor's experiment, will ever compensate your loss."

The gunman knew that too. Put simply, Donal had been his whole family wrapped up into one person. With him at the center, there'd been a purpose, a reason. He'd made Life for Davoren worth living. And after he'd lost him, his own world had just... crumbled around him.

Entangled in deep thought, Davoren reflected long upon this boy. He watched Rufus, at a struggle with himself, hang his head lower; the self-hatred and disgust had become intolerable to the point of suffocation. "W.. what makes it even worse for me," he lamented, "..is that ShinRa robbed you of everything, and I.. I've nothing to give in return... nothing except an apology."

The gunman, stunned blank, reacted at once. "Ah, Rufus! Now wait! That's-"

"I have to tell you how sorry I am, Davoren.. truly and deeply sorry!" he insisted with rueful fervor, squeezing his downcast eyes tight as if to force these words onto the man despite any protestations. Indeed, such a passionate assertion rendered the latter silent again. He just didn't know what to say.

Rufus realized what a contemptible figure he'd become by apologizing. A year ago, he probably would have cut his own tongue out rather than admit any remorse. But then, behind that proud, arrogant mask, he'd always been nothing more than an isolated lump of hurt; trapped inside a hateful prison without the courage escape it. Why should he care now? What good did "sorry" do? Hadn't he desired more power, more wealth, all to make his detestable father suffer? Didn't he always used to tell himself the costs never mattered?

But they did matter. Davoren mattered. Those tears he shed over his dead brother mattered. Rufus faltered a moment to balance his emotionality again. He didn't want to make a scene. He just wanted to speak his thoughts. "I.. I know they're just a few pathetic words, hardly worth Donal's life," the embittered boy told his attentive listener at length, "Just by supporting 'Genesis Retrial', *I* become the one who took him away from you. *I'm* the one who caused your tears. And I can say 'I'm sorry' a thousand times more, still it wouldn't change a thing. But Davoren, what else can I do? You're not just my friend. To me, you're like the..," his fists tightened. He whispered wistfully, "..you're like the father I wish I had."

Davoren's eyes tensed bright at this artless confession, like it had etched itself deep into his being. Still, he did not respond.

Nor could the crestfallen young man bring himself to look at him. Instead, they sat here suppressed under silence's heavy weight. But even without any eye contact, the gunman read straight into Rufus. He mused profoundly upon all that torment raging inside his miserable soul. Everything Rufus had said ached from heartfelt sincerity. He had apologized to this man not because he wanted forgiveness. No, he'd just wanted Davoren to know how sorry he was. That he regarded him as a father-figure, and that he'd have given anything including his own measly life were it to compensate his loss.

With so many emotional scraps lying exposed between them, Davoren pensively studied the despondent boy. All this gloomy talk about death and regrets, that's not what he wanted. In the end, he let out a small sigh as his upright posture slackened again. That same benevolent smile returned to his face.

"I know a way you can 'compensate' me, if you're willing to try," Davoren offered at last, placing one gentle hand upon his shoulder.

The riddle mystified Rufus as much as that supportive touch. His bemused gaze lifted to meet the gunman's dead-on.

Yet there was no mystery or haughtiness to Davoren's words, just a soft-spoken honesty which, like Rufus' apology, flowed straight from the heart. He told him "Re-enter Life. Live the rest of it as best as you can, happy and proud. But most importantly, I want you to make peace with yourself," he squeezed his shoulder as he repeated compassionately, "Please live your life at peace, Rufus."

In all his memory, Rufus never remembered seeing such a kind, brotherly warmth like he did at that bewildering moment, with Davoren's supplication still re-echoing in his conscience. For the very first time, he felt connected; as if the man had forged a bridge between them that reached deeper than anger, agony, or angst could ever go. Yet for some reason, Rufus also began to discern an eerie dread creep up his spine. Something terrible was about to happen. But... but what...?

Indeed, searching past that smile, the perplexed boy thought he glimpsed a bittersweet sorrow in Davoren's benevolent eyes. He seemed to wish he could say more, that he could change things and make them different... better for them both. At the same time, he seemed unsure how to express himself, whether he should, or even if Rufus would be able to grasp it. Maybe, he decided, this was just the way it had to be.

"I know at first it will be very difficult for you," the wistful man forewarned Rufus in closing, "You won't understand. You'll get angry at me, probably end up hating me for a while."

A frightening enigma to which the latter anxiously stammered, "Davoren, w-what are you-"

"But I will always be there by your side, Rufus," Davoren reassured him uninterrupted, "And I hope with time, you'll finally come to understand."

The boy never had time to anticipate or even realize what followed next until it was too late. Davoren had actually lied; he did have something hidden. At that exact instant, the quick-handed man yanked out the nightstaff hitherto concealed within one holster and jabbed it straight into Rufus' stomach; he kept an iron grip on his shoulder to make sure he hit the mark.

When Reno lent him his weapon in secret, per request he'd deliberately set it on "stun" then shortened it for Davoren to hide. The moment that prong touched him, Rufus felt this exquisite pain rip through his entrails. Three seconds later, Davoren withdrew the device, leaving its victim in a numb, voiceless, wide-eyed state of shock.

The betrayed boy watched Davoren's grim yet serene face recede into obscurity. He keeled over towards the floor... falling... Suddenly, everything went black.

-End of Chp.87