I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields –Chp. 97

The solitary figure tread softly across the wasteland of death and debris towards the Mako Reactor, which loomed there before him amidst a grimy fog. Like a phantom enshrouded in black, the man had wrapped his scarf close around the lower half of his face to protect himself against the vicious chill, though it did nothing to shield him from the gloom tormenting his sanity. Vincent plodded along with scarce interest in his surroundings. He barely raised his dull red eyes; to lift them just required too much effort.

Weary. He felt so weary of this state, of himself, of walking, constantly, *constantly* thinking yet never reaching either a final destination or a conclusion. Only when his feet became too heavy to drag did the man pause a minute, during which he let his eyes wander around.

He did not realize he'd drifted into the Reactor grounds until he caught sight of that ravaged metallic skeleton in the distance. The charred ruins of the Reactor stood silhouetted against the pale grey sky. No wind dared visit this barren kingdom. Birds, even crows, feared to caw least they stirred up another calamity. Midgar, which once worshipped this magnificent fortress, had come to shun the very sight of its forlorn frame. True, weeks may have passed since that disastrous night. The air however still reeked of something sinister; a vile, unnatural stench which repulsed the rest of the world. And its source, whatever it be, till this day remained buried so deep underground not even God's hand could reach it. In return, the Reactor regarded God, Nature and the city with mute ruefulness, for all three had abandoned it to suffer its cruel fate alone.

Vincent surveyed the extent of Chaos' wrath. Were these sad ruins all that really remained? Had Chaos annihilated so much? As he viewed the Reactor, Vincent marveled at how he'd escaped, more so how he now stood outside when just some weeks ago he'd also been trapped inside. His morose gaze clambered up the building. Battlements of garbage waited on guard; he could imagine the ghosts huddled behind, glaring at him- the one who'd demolished their home- with quiet disdain. Vincent looked higher, up turrets of rubble, deluges of junk, stakes of steel and bars until he reached the peak: a crown of trash and cables placed askew upon its battered head.

Everything was burnt, broken, twisted.

Dismayed, Vincent next scanned the surroundings. Devastation met him on every front. The man found himself the only living soul amidst a desert of rubbish. As far as he could see, the explosion had spared nothing. Its force had cut a horrific swathe of havoc within a wide radius, cracking the very earth. Pipes, girders, glass, dismembered machinery lay strewn about. It seemed the Reactor's whole entrails had been splattered across the land like the victim of a brutal murder.

The man wrapped his long coat around him closer before he resumed his path, already lost in thought again. He'd been plodding about the city non-stop since daybreak. Judging from the sky, he reckoned it was now late afternoon. But time mattered little to Vincent anyway, no more than where his feet carried him. If only he could shake these thoughts and emotions off his trail. Yet here they remained, as they had the day before and the day before and one before, a forever wriggling knot of worms lodged deep in his mind.

Still, Vincent could not fathom why he'd returned to this place. Whether a subconscious desire or pure chance, either way the mystery gnawed at him. Had matters deteriorated to such an extent that he couldn't march forward, only retreat further and further into the past? What was he searching for? What could he possibly find here?

"Pretty grim, huh?" a familiar voice suddenly broke into his reverie.

Vincent stopped short. He swung his attention to the far left, towards a mound of debris and pipes some meters away. There he spied a white-haired man perched upon a sturdy horizontal girder, both legs dangling free, and an amicable smile across his face.

"Hey," greeted Davoren with a small wave of the hand.

Vincent, who'd been so engrossed in private meditation that he hadn't even detected the gunman's presence, muttered a quiet "hey" in return.

It was the first time they'd seen each other since that disastrous night at the Reactor. Despite the sickening haze that tarnished his final memories, Vincent nevertheless remembered Professor Hojo lunging at him in an unguarded moment. He remembered being pinned to the floor, with a hot, leathery hand as hard as marble crushing his windpipe.

Then a gun had dropped out of nowhere. The sight of that weapon lying there had seemed so implausible, so ludicrous, that it distracted Hojo just long enough for an unknown sniper to blast him off Vincent.

At this point, Vincent's mind faltered a bit. He'd reached out for the weapon. Gunfire followed. Loud, harsh gunfire. He'd just kept pulling the trigger, his sole intention to force Hojo as far away from him as possible. The outcome eluded him however. He merely remembered crashing back to the floor, after which he found Davoren looking down at him, disheveled and flustered with anxiety.

At the time, Vincent could not comprehend how this man was there; he'd thought he'd long since escaped. But by then, all his senses had degenerated to rot. Awareness soon followed, and Vincent remembered no more.

He knew of course he owed his life to Davoren. That gun Vincent at first imagined had dropped out of nowhere had actually come from him. When Vincent opened full fire on Hojo, so did Davoren; together they beat their maniacal enemy far back into oblivion. When he lost consciousness and reawakened three days later, only to find himself in some hospital bed, he'd realized immediately the gunman had carried him to safety (though *how* he'd managed to escape that deathtrap still intrigued Vincent till this day). Soon afterwards, Vincent discovered that he'd also rescued Aeris. The girl lay in the intensive care, comatose and critically wounded but alive- *alive*- solely because of Davoren.

Vincent flashed forward to the present, to this desolate graveyard. He remained statuesque in place, still studying Davoren pensively from across. Despite the dreary cold, the latter emanated a unique warmth as he loitered so casually atop that girder. Vincent found it odd to see his former leader out of a suit. Instead he wore a pair of dark jeans and grey shirt, with a charcoal-black coat left open to expose his gun harness beneath. But what struck Vincent most was his changed aura. What a contrast to the man he last recalled. Where before glowered malice and despair now lingered a sort of solemn tranquility: with both himself and this wasteland which told a story only they knew.

"You're looking much better," decided Vincent at length.

"Haha! Thanks," replied Davoren, "Wish I could say the same to you. Geez, you look awful."

The gunman told no lie. Sure enough, Vincent had slept very little and eaten even less over the past couple of weeks. He reckoned he must have cut a sorry figure, with his tall, haggard frame wrapped in this old long coat. His face, though obscured by a scarf, probably betrayed the wretched state of his mind. Still, he gathered himself up behind a stoic façade. He'd felt an instinctive resistance to reveal anything of himself to the open air.

Davoren most likely sensed Vincent's reluctance to discuss this matter. "How's your arm?" he steered away, "It was busted pretty bad when I found you."

"The circuitry was destroyed, but the main body was spared," came the cool reply. Vincent showed his claw to the gunman. It gleamed in the dying afternoon light. He'd replaced the broken knuckles and torn forearm covering. He could move the limb about freely and clench his fist, although the base, where flesh met metal, still tingled painfully from time to time. Vincent admitted "It was hard, but I've managed to repair most of the damage, as you can see."

"That's good to hear."

Davoren regarded him a moment before chuckling, "Some night, eh?"

"Yeah. Some night."

"Heh! Man, I tell ya, you and the girl each gave me a damn heart attack! I mean, the state of you two!" The gunman searched inside his front pocket for his cigarette pack. He slipped one between his lips, whereupon he reached for his lighter, still speaking on the same affable note, "Felt like I was racing Death itself to get you both out of here."

Vincent waited for him to light his cigarette, then asked, "What about Professor Hojo?"

All jest faded at the mention of that name. Davoren's face darkened as he stole a long drag from his cigarette, but his astute pink eyes always remained fixed on the man. "He ran off after we shot him," recounted Davoren through an exhalation of smoke, "everything was crashing down. I lost sight of him in the middle of all the commotion."

A heavy silence fell between them. For a minute, Vincent broke away from his friend's gaze to view the Reactor again, as if it might tell him what befell Professor Hojo. Yet the derelict fortress stood mute like before, holding Hojo's fate forever a secret within its folds.

Vincent breathed a soft sigh to himself. He returned to Davoren, who merely puffed his cigarette with quiet composure. He just realized that not once had felt any surprise to meet the gunman here. On the contrary, he almost seemed to have expected it. Was this "the thread" that had subconsciously pulled him back to this place?

Vincent, after another moment's brooding, advanced across the jagged terrain towards Davoren. The latter still said nothing, but watched the man climb up the steep mound of debris. Vincent soon reached that horizontal girder. He hopped onto it, then scuttled over to Davoren, where he sat down next to him. The two friends loitered side by side, neither speaking just yet. The ground beneath them seemed far away. From this height, the girder offered an even clearer view of the Reactor in all its burnt, wasted glory.

"The coughing has completely stopped," remarked Vincent at last.

The pensive gunman smoked his cigarette without looking at him. Still, Vincent could tell he was listening intently.

"I could always feel the pain and fever here," he continued, pressing his hand to his chest, "Sometimes it would become so intense, it felt like a knife tearing through me. Other times, the pain was just a small nuisance niggling at my lungs. But it was always there."

"And now?" asked Davoren.

"Now, everything has turned quiet. When I woke in hospital, my chest was calm. The coughing, the fever and pain have all disappeared. Do you sense it too, this… this absence?"

He could find no better word to describe it. But Davoren needn't answer Vincent's question. The latter already knew what his reply would be: yes, he too sensed this absence. Yes, he also recognized what it might signify.

Davoren slouched forward. Still staring into the distance, he asked what played on both their minds "You think he's dead then?"

"I don't know," mulled Vincent. He wondered what happened to Professor Hojo after they'd forced him to retreat. Did he also manage to escape? Did he really perish? Perhaps his tormented spirit still haunted this place, simply because he had no where else to go.

"I suppose," brooded Vincent, "whether he's dead or still alive no longer matters. Either way, he's gone."

Gone out of their chests, out of their lives, leaving behind a long trail of devastation.

"Yes," echoed Davoren, "He is gone."

Vincent glanced askance. Beneath Davoren's apparent placidity, he could discern a grievous turmoil slowly rising to the surface. Vincent said nothing. Instead, he allowed this trouble to manifest at its own pace, all the while observing Davoren's somber countenance from the side.

"It's been thirty-one days, Vincent," murmured Davoren some minutes later, when he'd gathered enough incentive to retreat from his private ruminations. His pink eyes rested upon the wasteland before them, "Exactly thirty-one days since the Professor told me about… about Donal. How he'd struggled and cried out for me, how much he suffered… then after that… after all that torture and fear and humiliation, how he was just…"

For a moment, the gunman floundered in evident difficulty. He could not, despite his best efforts to keep steady, bring himself to finish that sentence. Vincent waited. He never interrupted.

"I'd tried to destroy Donal, forget him, drown both him and myself in as much blood as I could shed. But y'know, that one time I lost consciousness, I think… no, no now I'm sure of it: Donal came to me," a small but genuine smile crossed his lips as he insisted, "It really was him. And Vincent, he was happy. There was no more pain. He wasn't angry for what I'd done. He wasn't frightened or disgusted by what I'd become. Donal was just so… happy I'd finally let him return to me. Heh! No actually, he told me he never left my side. ‘I'm right here,' he said, ‘I've always been right here'."

He loitered a moment upon those dear words. Yet soon the melancholic shadows overcast his smile again. Indeed, whatever consolation those words gave him, they remained exactly that: words. He would never be able to see them, confide in them, touch them, or press them close against his scarred heart; much like his beloved brother. Davoren, only too aware of that fact, mechanically pulled the last drag from his cigarette then flicked it away.

"Thirty-one years," he mused outloud, "For each one of those years, I have spent a whole day here, by this Reactor, because *here* was where I truly… ‘lost' myself."

It was here he unleashed all the violence inside him. Here where he gave that blood-crazed demon full reign, and where he managed to shove that pathetic man named "Davoren" into the darkest, deepest recesses of consciousness.

Here was where he lost himself.

"So that's what I do," he admitted to his mute friend, "I sit, hour after hour, day after day. And for the first time in thirty-one years, I allow myself to remember Donal. I think of him. Simple things, like how he looked and smiled. I think of what I did to him, how much I love and miss him, and how I wish to God h-he was still-"

Talking had become so painful, so excruciatingly painful, that Davoren squeezed both eyes tight and hunched over to restrain his grief. He could not continue. All this time, Vincent had watched his failing struggles to steer firm through this emotional storm. When Davoren finally capsized, he reached out to wrap a kind arm around his shoulders.

They languished thus for a minute or so. Davoren, despite his leaking tears, kept his sorrow muffled well within his chest. He fought in absolute silence to compose himself again. Vincent did not doubt there must have been times during the past thirty-one days when Davoren, alone and forlorn, had openly wept for his dead brother. There must have been moments, while sitting here surrounded by this vast destruction, when his grief turned so poisonous it suffocated him breathless. But Vincent also reckoned this was the first time after three decades of repression that Davoren had actually permitted himself to mourn Donal. He could sense beneath his sorrow a core of new strength and dignity. Eventually, it would blossom into the peace he so yearned for. Of that, Vincent was certain. For the present though, he could do nothing except offer this man continuous confirmation of his presence and support.

When the gunman had somewhat recovered, Vincent gave his shoulder a final squeeze of reassurance then released him. The grief needed another moment to completely abate, during which Davoren pressed both eyes and sat upright again.

"I wish I'd had the opportunity to meet your brother," said Vincent after a while.

The gunman chuckled softly at the idea. "Yeah, you would've liked Donal, actually. He could be a bit too headstrong for his own good (as can you), but haha! Donal always had this light-heartedness about him. With him around, things never seemed too bad. It's like, even if the entire world were to stop making sense to me, that was okay, because I knew I'd always have him to put some meaning back into it."

The confession brought a wistful smile to his lips. Davoren added, almost inaudibly, "He was my whole life, Vincent."

And that life ended three decades ago with the murder of his brother. Vincent could think of nothing to say. Instead he wallowed with his friend in the memory of Donal. He knew, even without having ever met him, that Donal had been a man as good and humane as his older brother. He did not doubt the infinite, unselfish love Davoren carried for him, how important he'd been- and still was- to him, or how resolved he was to travel down the long road of repentance to eventual tranquility.

Vincent wished he could tell Davoren's brother all this. Then again, there was nothing he could say that Donal did not already know: he'd learnt it all when Davoren, in the depths of despair, finally re-opened his heart to him that terrible night thirty-one days ago.

"Ah! But listen to me!" started the gunman, now trying to instill some cheer back into their conversation, "Here's me yakking away and I clean forgot to ask you about Aeris! Has she left the hospital yet?"

"Yes," confirmed Vincent demurely, "She's staying with some friends."

"Hm, I must say I was more worried about her than you. I'd found her with this huge gash across her chest. It was like the Professor had tried to literally rip her apart. And she was lying there so pale and still. I almost thought…"

But Davoren stopped; he did not want to remember what awful things he'd thought much less repeat them. "Anyway, that doesn't matter," he swerved onto a more positive note, "I'm just glad to hear she's pulled through after all. So how is she doing?"

"From what I can gather," he obliged, "she seems to be doing fine."

Yet one word bothered Davoren. "'Seems'?" he regarded the man in amazement, "Vincent, you mean to tell me you haven't actually spoken to her since…?"

"I haven't."

Cool and simple. To hear his own reply, however, darkened Vincent's demeanor into further gloomy preoccupation. In fact, he hadn't approached her once since that catastrophic night. He hadn't even allowed her to see him.

Davoren meanwhile fumbled to light himself another cigarette, at the same time muttering in jest, "So Mr. Valentine would rather waste his evening in a dump with an old fart like me instead of spending it with a young, lovely girl like Aeris? Huh! Well, I'm certainly flattered!"

Vincent however showed no reaction to the joke. Nor did the gunman pursue this matter any further, but rather smoked his cigarette nonchalantly, not the least bit discomforted by this silence that had sprung between them. Vincent brooded upon an open fire of hesitation and mistrust, his glowing red eyes always fixed downwards. He hesitated to speak, for really, he knew not how or where to begin. He mistrusted himself- his own judgment, his own heart, everything- because it had all become so muddled. So tangled and tiring and muddled.

And again, there she stood before him, watching him through this mist of uncertainty. Yes, *her*. Above all else, he mistrusted himself to approach *her*; he hesitated to discover which one she was.

"Do you know why Hojo tried to kill her?" Vincent heard himself ask suddenly.

Davoren looked to the man and waited. Vincent could not fathom any reason to share this story with him. The gunman hadn't asked, much like he'd never asked him why he was shunning Aeris. Vincent just felt this… compulsion to talk, to confide in him.

"The Professor had defeated me," he recounted, "he was about to finish me off. Me, I kept struggling to get up. I *had* to get up. Aeris was with me. I was the only obstacle between them, and damned if I'd stay down while he takes her away. But regardless, all of us knew how it would end: Hojo would kill me, and she would go to him."

In a flash, Vincent was back there, a heaving wreck sprawled across the floor. He saw that demon stomping towards them, his armor broken, one eye swiveling mad, his aura radiating murderous malice every step of the way. He'd failed. He'd failed to get her out. She was with him, holding him as he recalled, trying her best to keep him together. Still, Hojo had kept marching towards them. Closer and closer until…

"It was then that she stood up," marveled Vincent, "Aeris just stood up to confront him on her own."

Davoren's expression gravened, but he remained quiet, puffing his cigarette while the story unfolded.

"The things she said were so simple and honest, yet at the same time ruthless," reflected Vincent. He could hear her voice once again, tearing the helpless Hojo to shreds, "She told the Professor… out of everyone in the Reactor, he was the only true ‘monster', because he'd given away his very soul for his experiment. And ‘Genesis Retrial' never was about science. It was simply a refuge he'd built to hide from his own pain. Right then, I saw the Professor for what he really was. I understood him."

When he lost his soul, she'd said, he'd lost everything. All he had was… nothing except nothingness itself. Vincent pondered the meaning behind those words. After a pause, in which he drew himself up, he added more softly, "While Aeris spoke, Hojo couldn't touch her. I… I'd been battling him all night, but it was *her* words that defeated him. By the end, she no longer feared him. Instead she just stood there, strong, beautiful, and pitied him."

Davoren allowed another moment of silence to elapse before he ventured, "Is that when he…?"

Vincent nodded.

"Ah," he muttered. He correctly surmised the rest.

Of all he'd witnessed that night, Aeris' near slaying had branded itself deepest into Vincent's memory. The image still burned so hot and vivid. He remembered that vile feeling of utter powerlessness as he'd watched Hojo's five claws rip across her flesh. Then came the overwhelming grief, and the vortex of voices spinning wilder and wilder until rage exploded. That was the last thing Vincent recalled: unbridled, catastrophic rage.

"Do you blame yourself?" broke Davoren into his reverie uninvited.


"Do you blame yourself for what happened to her?"

Vincent contemplated the question. "A part of me does, yes," he admitted at length.


"Because I couldn't protect her when she needed me, when it really mattered."

Just like…

"But there's another reason you're avoiding her," probed the gunman.


"What is it?"

The question hardened Vincent entire front to granite. There it mocked him again, that damn question: what is it?

What is it that pulled him away from her? What is it, this unknown thing he kept searching for in a vast forest of darkness and doubt? The man scowled at his own inability to provide an answer, more so under the heat of interrogation. What, did Davoren think he hadn't already mangled his mind to insanity with that one question?

The gunman no doubt discerned Vincent's resistance to wander into such uncertain territory. Still, he would push him forth. "Vincent," he stated, "Aeris loves you."

Yes, she'd told him that once. To think it true had bewildered him, to hear her actually declare it had silenced him, and to hear it now again merely strained his brows with fresh perturbation. He looked away from Davoren bitterly.

The solemn gunman persisted, "You know as well as I do when Aeris escaped the Professor, she was nothing more than a shaking, tearful little mouse. No one terrified her more than Hojo. For her to confront him like that… Vincent, she loves you so much she'd face her worst fear, even defeat it, for you."

Vincent could give no reply.

"But then, that's not the issue here," observed Davoren as he stole another drag from his cigarette, all the while shrewdly studying this aloof man, "I suppose the question I really should be asking is: do *you* love her?"

Vincent still shunned his friend's eyes. After a very, very long silence, he breathed, "I don't know."

If the first question 'what it is?' had been the most confounding, then this one was the question Vincent had never dared utter, consider, or even consciously touch. It disconcerted him to admit that truth- that he did not know. Whether he said yes or no, constant, relentless doubt plagued either answer.

"My mind keeps tossing about," revealed Vincent, "There is this… this incessant whirlpool of worries and voices inside me. They're always asking, always doubting. I'm unsure what to think, unsure what to do, unsure what I want, and most unsure if I even want to know."

He had to continuously tear past layers and layers of hesitations and misgivings just to articulate a glimpse of this strife ravaging his head right now. "Every night," he growled in quiet torment, "I hide in the shadows while I watch Aeris' window. I wait and wait for the brief moment she appears behind the glass. But at the same time, I dread that moment. I dread it because that is precisely when… when *she* rushes in."

"Lucrecia," Davoren pronounced the name.

"Every night I go to Aeris, but in the end, I always leave again. I can't come near her. Lucrecia rushes in, with her the past, this confusion and uncertainty and… *fear*," he reflected darkly upon that particular word. He remembered how cruelly it had taunted him as he'd battled Hojo. It had dogged him throughout the night, always in the same foreboding tone: fear, Vincent, are you afraid?

"And if you were to actually go to Aeris, what then?" challenged Davoren, "Are you afraid of what might happen next?"

Vincent's jaws stiffened. He did not respond.

"You afraid of letting Aeris love you?"

No reply.

"Or are you afraid of what you'll find inside yourself if you look beyond Lucrecia, the past, confusion, uncertainty and everything else?"

Vincent remained barricaded behind his wall of silence, though even that could not stop Davoren's words from seeping through. His face, haggard and taut with deliberation, betrayed how solemnly those words had stained his conscience. The gunman's relentless probing vexed him; the deeper he'd dug, the greater tumult he'd stirred, the more Vincent realized how much these questions rattled his interior: was that it? Was it fear that kept him away? Fear of himself?

Yet still, Vincent held his tongue, and let this question too pass without an answer.

Nor did Davoren press for any. Instead he studied his friend thoughtfully, then returned to his cigarette, content to smoke the remainder in peace before flicking it away.

"Y'know, I'm glad we bumped into each other," he smiled, "I was hoping to say goodbye to you before I left town."

The announcement shook Vincent into attention. He looked around towards him. "You're… leaving?"

"Yeah. Today," the man confirmed. When he noticed Vincent still staring at him, he chuckled, "Heh! Don't pretend you won't be glad to see the back of me! At least now you won't have to worry about some crazy bastard trying to kill you, eh?"

The gunman gave him a friendly nudge in the ribs then gracefully hopped off the girder, whereupon he made his way down the cragged mound of garbage. Vincent followed just behind.

"Where will you go?" he asked as they strolled together across the wasteland, away from the desolate Reactor.

"I'm not sure," hummed Davoren, both hands in his pockets, "It just feels like I won't be able to start piecing my life together until I leave this place… put the ruins behind and try to make some sense of things again. Something like that."

Vincent pondered this reply. He did not know why he'd been surprised to hear Davoren was departing. Vincent reckoned he'd become such an important figure in his own life, from a brutal nemesis to dear friend, he had almost forgotten this man would eventually have to disappear back into the shadows from whence he came. Indeed, after thirty-one days of mourning, it was time to go.

"I understand," Vincent concurred. Davoren glanced aside to him with a smile: he knew he would.

"Will you ever come back?"

"I might. But probably not for a while."

"So, this is it."

The gunman said nothing for a minute. He appeared distracted by some stray thought his mind had just caught. The pair walked slowly. Their feet crunched over broken glass and coarse debris. Above them, darkness had begun to invade the cloudy sky, like black ink seeping through a think blanket of wool. Soon it would be night.

"As a matter of fact, Vincent," Davoren spoke at last, "I wanted to ask you a favor."

They both halted. The man delved deeper into his right pocket, only to procure some trinket and present it to the quizzical Vincent. The latter stepped closer to study this object: a small flint of stone held dangling by a thin, short chain.

"I'd like you to deliver this to Rufus," requested Davoren.

The fate of the ex-Turks and the former ShinRa President had remained unknown to Vincent, a mystery Davoren now dispersed. "I managed to smuggle him and those Turks out of the Reactor before it collapsed. I left the boy with them, actually. You'll find him there."

He passed the chain to Vincent, who accepted it with an open palm. The stone looked quite old. Yet underneath its dull green surface, the core shimmered a particular essence that he recognized at once.

"This is…?"

Davoren nodded. Vincent re-examined the stone with fresh intrigue: how rare nowadays to find unrefined materia, compressed by Nature instead of a Reactor. But what-

"It belonged to my brother," he heard Davoren confess.

By instinct, he clutched it tighter, if only to bear the significance this little trinket had suddenly gained with that one mere sentence. Vincent regarded his friend gravely.

"When we were kids- Heh! God, this is going way back," he recounted, "I happened to find that piece of materia one day, so I strung it through a chain and gave it to him. It wasn't much, but still, Donal loved it. He always carried it around; used to love holding it up to the light, watch it glow between his fingers."

His thoughtful pink eyes drifted towards the dreary Midgar skyline. In the tranquility of the evening air, he continued on the same soft, somber note, "I remember when Donal received his orders to travel to Wutei. It was his first mission abroad, and he was worried he might lose the chain or someone might steal it. So he gave it me for safekeeping. I promised I'd hold onto it till he returned."

But of course, Donal never returned.

"It's strange," mused Davoren, "I managed to throw everything about Donal away, but I could never bring myself to get rid of this chain. Such a small, old unremarkable thing. I guess secretly I was hoping someday, somehow, I could return it to him," upon which he looked back to Vincent with a gentle smile, "And in a way, I am."

Vincent understood. Still, upon considering his request, he had to argue, "I'm sure Rufus would much prefer you delivered it to him rather than me."

A tinge of regret overshadowed Davoren's face, yet the smile remained as serene as ever. "I know," he explained. Indeed, Rufus had been the hand that finally stopped this old man's thirty-one year old wound from bleeding, "But our roads have separated, and we've already told each other all there is to say. Still, I've been carrying that chain with me for so long. Today I've decided it… it's time I gave it away. Please," begged the gunman, a solemn intensity glowing through his eyes, "I really want the boy to have it."

Vincent, in face of such earnestness, studied his friend with thoughtful interest until at last he conceded. "Very well". He slipped the trinket into his pocket, to be delivered to Rufus later this night.

"Hey, I've also been thinking," ventured the gunman after a moment of silent deliberation, "About what you said earlier."

Vincent listened.

"I can't tell you what to do, of course. That's something you have to work out on your own. But maybe if you gather up everything inside you: those worries, confusion, doubts, fears- everything, and lock them out of your head for one minute. Just one," he emphasized with his index finger, "During that minute, Vincent, ask yourself: what do I want?"

A genuine conviction tensed Davoren's expression. He assured Vincent in a low but confident voice, "And I tell ya, the first answer you get, that'll be the right one."

Vincent beheld the gunman. He wasn't too sure he could follow his suggestion: how could he halt such a vicious war as the one raging inside him for an entire minute, never mind unearth an answer to this daunting, almost impossible question? Besides, what good would it achieve? The turmoil would re-start the instant those sixty seconds expired, and he'd return to the same helpless shipwreck forever spinning in its treacherous vortex, because he was too confused, doubtful and afraid to do otherwise.

Still, Vincent found Davoren's hard gaze, the sheer resolve upholding his words, had carved a deep imprint into his mind, so much so that despite his own uncertainty, he nodded in consent. The gunman smiled.

The two resumed their walk through the desolate land, under arches of mangled pipes and along hills of metal and stone. The road grew wider, the debris less thick as they put the Reactor farther and farther behind them. Soon, they found civilization again.

Vincent and Davoren walked side by side down the deserted street, neither speaking a word. An acrid chill penetrated the night air. The weather forewarned snow, probably the last of this winter season. The two men, no more than shadows, drifted along the pavement until they reached the train tracks. One end lead back to Midgar. The other snaked away from the luminous city, far into the gloom, and farther still into the unknown. The gunman stopped at this point, whereupon he wheeled around to face his companion one final time.

"Well, I'm off then," he declared simply.

Vincent knew they would part right here even before Davoren had spoken. When or if they'd ever see each other again, impossible to predict. Davoren held out one hand to Vincent, a farewell gesture lest their roads never crossed again. The latter shook it.

Yet each man owed more than just his life to the other. To Davoren, Vincent, together with Rufus, had helped pull him out of complete darkness. To Vincent, the gunman was one of the very few who'd cracked through his defenses to help him explore his own core better. Both had suffered such horrific pain and grief under "Genesis Retrial". But both had also gained a truer sense of understanding and connection.

To these two, a simple handshake seemed insufficient to convey the strength of this bond between them. It did not even express the great importance their friendship had come to mean to each other.

Indeed, before their ways parted here, Davoren stepped closer to embrace Vincent, who welcomed him with equal warmth.

"Take care of yourself, Davoren," he said.

"You too."

Davoren gave his shoulder one final squeeze of affection before they let go, after which the gunman slipped away. He walked the first few steps backwards, all the while regarding his friend, smiled then with a wave of the hand turned around. Vincent silently watched him walk alongside the train tracks towards the black mist.

Davoren ventured farther an farther into the distance until the shadows swallowed him. Vincent could still hear his footsteps fading, fading away. Soon they disappeared altogether.

End of Chp.97