I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields –Chp. 98

"I know at first it will be very difficult for you," he'd told him, smiling despite that rueful glow in his pink eyes, "you'll get angry at me, probably end up hating me for a while. But I will always be there by your side, Rufus. And I hope with time, you'll finally come to understand."

Then came the nightstaff into his chest. The gentle hand Davoren had placed upon his shoulder minutes ago suddenly tightened into an iron clamp, thus arresting him, ensuring he received the voltage in full. He finished the deed so quickly, so precisely. He did not hesitate a second. For the gunman, the decision had already been made; it could end no other way.

And what an idiot Rufus had been to think anything he said would make a lick of difference. It didn't matter the secrets he'd just told him. It didn't matter that for once in his phony life he'd finally trusted someone enough to reveal the remorse, anger, grief and intolerable ugliness ravaging his insides. It didn't even matter to tell him he was sorry, or that he occupied the hole his own father never bothered to fill.

Davoren rammed that charged dagger into his chest all the same. And when Rufus reawakened, he discovered the gunman had completely vanished from his life.

Did he perish under the collapsing Reactor? Did he survive? Either way, all links between them had been severed by that despicable nightstaff. This one tiny shred of comfort and warmth incinerated in one blow. And why?

"I get it, okay?" he remembered Reno say, "It's just he… he believed that was how it had to be."

The condescending reply still coiled Rufus' entrails with fury. He "got" it, did he? This venom suffocating his mind, these piercing emotions, these restless thoughts- Reno got all that, did he?

Then why the heck couldn't he give him an explanation instead of "that's how it had to be" bullshit? Why? WHY is this bitter mess how it had to be? Fool! Conspiring with the gunman, thinking mere words can ameliorate everything when in fact he couldn't even answer a simple question like that!

Rufus felt that same old familiar ache tighten around his skull. He bowed his head further while at the same time raking all ten fingers through his hair, if only to clutch what little sanity he had left. Amidst the mental conundrum, Rufus threaded his way back to the Reactor. He'd sworn a thousand times before not to return there, but each time he broke that oath, each time he came back, simply because he knew not where else to go.

Now here he was again, beholding that mountain of steel burning wild in the distance. The flames mocked his helplessness, for there was nothing- utterly nothing- he could do to regain what he'd just lost. They ridiculed him for being so afraid in his heart, so ineffective in his actions, and so damn stupid to confide his all in the gunman when it never mattered anyway.

After all, "this was how it had to be."

"And I hope with time, you'll finally come to understand."

Understand what? That he'd deceived him? That he'd thrust him into a new life without even granting him the chance to fully close his old one? That he'd walked out on him, like things were somehow better this way?

"That's how it had to be."

You bastard, Rufus seethed fresh rage at the missing gunman, you bastard you bastard you bastard you goddamn bast-

But the boy suddenly jolted upright out of his delirious state. He thought he'd heard something just now.

The abrupt return to reality left Rufus breathless. It felt as though he'd been spinning wild in a vortex only to collide against a wall and reawaken here in this room. Amazing how far his mind had wandered while his body remained rooted in the exact same spot. Indeed, Rufus found himself as before, the sole human amidst a crowd of shapes and shadows. He sat huddled in the corner, hands still clutching his temples with loose hair strands dangling across those perturbed blue eyes. Rufus surveyed the bedroom in wary silence. Nothing. The clock continued to tick its monotonous tune. The furniture stood unchanged, the curtains drawn and the door slightly ajar as he'd left it.

Odd. He was almost certain he'd heard a noise. Maybe it was Rude? Or had Reno turned up his stereo too loudly again? Rufus reminded himself however that all three ex-Turks had gone on errands only a short while ago. They couldn't have returned already. Besides him and Elena's cat Simon, no one else was home.

So what then? Did he imagine it? Yet he was almost certain he'd heard a noise.

Moments passed. Still nothing. Rufus slumped back against the wall in defeat, though inside he remained suspicious of this tranquility. Even then however, his wayward mind began to drift again. The bedroom had grown quite dark, he noted passively. Black mist everywhere, defied only by a solitary lamp Rude had flicked on before leaving Rufus alone. Rufus beheld that lamp, so valiant poised there on the nightstand fighting the darkness back, so stupid thinking its efforts made a difference.

"That's how it had to be."

He wondered what time it was, more out of boredom than any real curiosity. Quarter to midnight, according to the clock. Several hours had already elapsed then as he'd loitered in this spot. Strange how fast time passed in reality whereas it dragged so slowly inside his head. He'd been languishing here since late afternoon, after Elena, desperate and on the verge of tears, had begged him to eat. She said he hadn't touched food in four days straight. Rufus had forced down half a sandwich just for her sake. The rest he'd left untouched on the kitchen table, where it probably still sat. Rufus knew she meant well. He even regretted causing her such woe. But really, he'd neither the appetite, energy or slightest interest in eating. All he wanted was to be left alone.

A desire the ex-Turks struggled to accept. It was only some days ago that Rude caught him awake in bed, wrestling a horrible spasm fit in absolute silence. Rufus had to concoct some flimsy excuse; he'd blamed his insomnia on a headache or such, though he could tell Rude did not believe that lie. The man had a keen sense of discernment which could be quite vexatious at times. Rude had begged him to share whatever weighed on his mind. He almost veered the conversation onto Davoren had not Rufus, his nerves already frayed, abruptly cut him short and retreated to bed.

He appreciated what this man was trying to do. Rude had always been so kind to him, sometimes Rufus forgot he used to be a member of the ruthless Turks. But really: the very last thing he'd wanted to talk about was the gunman. Just a hint of that damn bastard ignited a fresh surge of anger within his chest.

Since then, Rude had thankfully steered clear of this topic. Still, he could never conceal that dark, worried expression everytime their eyes met; like he wanted to say something but had to hold his tongue.

Both he and Elena cared about him. He knew that. Rude had even once told him they'd come to consider him part of this group. Yet in truth, Rufus felt no… no solid connection to them.

Perhaps he subconsciously did not trust them, at least not with his heart. Or maybe he just lingered too far away for them to reach him. His friends very much resembled this new life: good but remote, with no bonds anchoring their shores to his own.

"That's how it had to be."

Rufus' dull façade soured. He'd just squeezed both eyes shut, trying to bar those hateful words out, when a sudden noise jerked him awake again. The boy snapped up. This time, he was dead certain he'd heard something!

Rufus stared at the door, which still stood open ajar. There from down the hall and through the tiny crack slipped the noise again: three consecutive taps against a window pane.

Any logical mind would have refuted the idea of someone rapping at the window. This was after all the sixth floor. Yet those three taps resonated again, assuring Rufus that however inconceivable it seemed, a visitor was calling for him.

Rufus scrambled onto his feet. Emerging from the bedroom onto the dim corridor, he ventured forth towards the living room, where the sound seemed to emanate from. The entrance yawned before him like a ghost's den. He gingerly crossed the threshold halfway, just enough to peek inside at the balcony window, whose curtains had been forgotten open. There much to Rufus' bewilderment he discovered a tall ominous figure poised behind the glass, his silhouette black against the weak moonlight but his brilliant red eyes honed straight back at him.

He recognized Vincent immediately.

The surprise visitor, having finally lured Rufus out, lowered his claw, which he'd been tapping against the window. Rufus, still mystified, watched him then slip sideways out of view. All stood silent.

Rufus understood Vincent's mute invitation to go follow him outside, yet hesitated another moment before he complied, if only to better compose himself: to be sure, the very last person he'd expected to see alive, never mind at his balcony window, was this man.

In fact, he had not seen him since that catastrophic night in the Reactor. As Rufus recalled, they'd parted paths at the grand bridge overlying the drainage pits, when Professor Hojo, infuriated by Davoren's defiance, had hurled a fatal energy blast at him. Vincent had shoved him back, well out of harm's way, while he'd lunged forth to save the gunman. He'd managed to pull Davoren away in time, but not even Vincent's incredible speed could withstand the ensuing explosion. It had swept them both clean through the railing. Off the bridge they'd tumbled, only to plummet into the abyss below. That was the final image Rufus remembered of Vincent: him disappearing into a pool of black fog, spinning amidst a deluge of garbage with Davoren still protected in his arms.

How the man survived Rufus could never guess, nor did it matter that much right now. What weighed solely on Rufus' mind as he approached the balcony was the reason behind this visit.

He tentatively slid the door open and poked his head out into the cold night air. He found his visitor had retreated to the very end of the balcony, where he loitered by the parapet cloaked in shadow. Those unnerving eyes however remained fastened on Rufus.

"Um, hi," the latter greeted.

Vincent nodded in acknowledgement.

"Would you, uh… like to come in?"

"No, thank you," he declined politely. He did not intend to stay for long. Besides, last time he'd entered this place, that woman- Elena, he believed was her name- had thrown a lamp at him in terror. He doubted she'd welcome him were she to return and discover him inside her home again.

Rufus had no choice but to join his guest outside, though not without some trepidation. He knew Vincent bore him news about the gunman. Finally, the opportunity to find out what happened! Yet just as one thread reeled him forward, another kept tugging him back, away from the truth. Strange how after an entire month of agony wondering what befell Davoren, now he dreaded to learn the answer.

But Rufus forced himself, despite his very worst misgivings, to cross the threshold. He had to know. He couldn't leave the gunman behind in the Reactor and continue like this in ignorance. He had to know what happened to him, at the very least if he was still…

The narrow balcony offered a marvelous view of the Midgar skyline, which spread out like a sea of lights, shimmering bright under a cloudy black sky. The sounds of life echoed in the distance; of cars whooshing by, and stray footsteps dashing across the street below. Yet within the confines of this small space, the air between these two remained taut around a cautious silence.

Rufus stayed by the door. He wanted to maintain some distance from his visitor. Indeed, Vincent still filled him with a certain discomfort. Perhaps it was his perfect stoicism. To Rufus, this man very much still remained a mystery. He couldn't even scratch past that cool veneer to see what lurked behind. He did notice however, from the corner of his eye, a large tree rooted in the pavement below. Its gnarled, naked branches reached up to almost the second floor balcony.

So that's how he got here, deduced Rufus: Vincent must have climbed the tree then leapt across onto the second floor balcony. From there he'd flipped his way level by level up to the sixth. He'd found the lights inside switched off, which must have told him none of the ex-Turks were home; all except one bedroom light, which also told him only Rufus was there. An ideal opportunity, since he obviously wanted to speak to him alone.

"How have you been?" Vincent broke the silence at last.

Rufus regarded him, then hummed, "Alright, I guess."

Vincent mused over this blatant lie, but sensing Rufus' unease in the manner he flicked his eyes aside, he let the subject slide. Instead he asked "Your friends, how are they?"

"They're okay now."

For all their differences and Reno's lame vampire jokes, Vincent was glad to hear his two former allies were fine. "And?" he returned to Rufus, "Have they been treating you well?"

"Heh, better than the guards did anyway," joked Rufus humorlessly. He folded both arms across his chest, now studying this man with intent solemnity, "But then, I highly doubt you climbed up six floors in the middle of the night just to inquire about my well-being."

Vincent paused at such bluntness before he admitted, very quietly, "That is correct."

He could see the boy deplored this small talk as much as he did. The sooner he told him, the sooner the wretched apprehension so clearly squeezing his chest would be relieved. Rufus already knew what, or rather who, this was about. Therefore without any more delay, Vincent reached deep into his coat pocket and pulled out a small object. He tossed it across to Rufus, who automatically caught it. Upon opening his palm, he found a dirty green stone shimmering softly back at him.

The boy beheld this gift with a vague sense of familiarity. Where… where had he seen it before?

The answer suddenly struck him like a bolt of lightening: Davoren! He'd shown him the same trinket once. Rufus remembered the man had asked him to raise it up against the light, whereupon its dull color ignited to a luminous sapphire green. Such beauty, Rufus recalled, had mesmerized him to calmness. He even remembered the story Davoren told him about the stone; how as a child he'd discovered this flint of materia in some Mako cave and, fascinated by its shimmer, strung a chain through its head. Yet the trinket, Davoren added, did not belong to him. He said he was actually just holding it for "safekeeping".

Rufus reeled himself back to the present, to the stone still waiting demurely in his palm. He saw its meaning now: the gunman had actually survived, but had made a staunch decision to leave, and this was his parting gift to him, a sort of memento of the last bond between them. Rufus reflected long upon such a realization, visibly torn between genuine relief and fresh anger until at last he squeezed the trinket tight.

"I hope with time you'll finally come to understand," he'd told him.

Rufus felt a poisonous sense of finality seep into his blood. At last he realized… no, he'd always realized, he just couldn't accept it.. at last he accepted that beyond the words "I hope with time you'll finally come to understand", the gunman had nothing more to say to him. Their path ended right there. And yes, that nightstaff jab in the chest… that really *was* it.

"I suppose… Davoren has skipped town by now," muttered Rufus.

"Yes," confirmed Vincent, "I saw him off, as a matter of fact. But before he left, he gave me that chain and asked me to deliver it to you," his crimson eyes narrowed closer upon Rufus as he added in a firm undertone, "It used to belong Donal."

The simple revelation, the name- THAT particular name- startled Rufus into dumb bewilderment. His wide gaze drifted from Vincent down to his hand, which opened again to show him the same stone, but under a new grim perspective. This little trinket, so light in grams, yet so heavy with importance. To think Davoren's brother had once worn this stone…

To imagine he too had held it up against the light, admiring like he had its hypnotic green luster between his fingers…

The very idea rattled Rufus to the core.


Just then, he grasped the entire truth behind Davoren's story. So for three long, lonely decades he had carried this chain close, clinging to the hope that one day he would find its owner again.

But in vain. That day would never come, and all because of him. It was his company and his ignoble father who stole Donal and ruined Davoren. It was his own avarice which, rather than rectify those crimes, allowed them to pass not only unpunished but with his full support. For Rufus, the idea that a despicable scum like him would behold, never mind touch, something this pure and beautiful twisted his stomach with self-disgust.

So much so that he turned to Vincent. "L-listen," he pleaded, "I.. there is no way I can accept th-"

But the latter shook his head. "Davoren *wanted* you to have it. It belongs to you now."

Such adamance cut Rufus short. He realized that any argument would be wasted effort. Thus defeated, he fell back into a long pensive silence, only for that scowl to darken further across his face. For a moment, the stone became the most loathsome object Rufus had ever seen. Past its green shimmer, he could perceive all the love Davoren ever bore for his brother contained inside, staring squarely back at him. He felt an urge to throw the damn trinket away, to shout all sorts of obscenities after it then turn his back on everything.

Yet instead, Rufus noticed his fist had clenched more tightly around the stone, refusing to relinquish it despite the searing pain it caused him. Nor did he turn away. He'd done it too often before- turn away from his conscience, his crimes, himself. But this time to do that meant to deny all that happened in the Reactor, all the secrets he'd discovered and all the suffering he'd caused in the name of power. It was something Rufus could not… would not do.

His thoughtful blue eyes drifted towards the city skyline again. Midgar lay sprawled before him end to end, the remains of an empire long fallen.

The ShinRa empire.

"Pathetic, huh?" Rufus smirked weakly at the spectacular view. He returned to Vincent, who demurely watched him as he simpered in quite self-mockery "Y'know, that city infront of us… the whole planet in fact, I used to own it. I had magnificent Reactors all over the world that pumped Mako into materia, and materia into profit. I had everything in the palm of my hand. Heh! And right now? Look. All I got is this little piece of materia."

This tiny stone, this token of love Davoren had given Donal decades ago. Tonight it found itself prisoner between the fingers of the one ultimately responsible for tearing the two brothers apart.

"New Age President Rufus ShinRa," he pronounced the title with contemptuous irony, "Yeah, wasn't he great. Destroying, taking, killing… even if it meant burning everything inside of him and hiding the ashes behind a mask… none of that mattered to him as long as the bastard got power in the end. Now tell me," Rufus demanded, staring his visitor straight in the eye, "And give me an honest answer: do you think someone like that, who reeks of so much blood and filth, really deserves such a beautiful gift as this?"

Rufus did not know why he was asking Vincent this, just that of all people, he would have the best answer. In return, Vincent lingered a moment rather struck by the question. That word- "deserve"- clenched his heart. Hadn't that same word relentlessly pursued him over the past three decades: that he deserved punishment for all his crimes. He deserved to suffer for abandoning Lucrecia. Hideous monster that he was, he deserved to languish forever in self-hate, guilt and agony, always seeking salvation but knowing he'll never attain it.

Vincent realized why it still rattled him to remember Aeris say she loved him. It's because her feelings defied the very essence of his convictions. She'd given him all her love while he could not believe someone like him *deserved* such a tender gift. She'd soothed his pain, absolved him of the past while he believed, as he'd sat there helplessly watching her die, that he only *deserved* more punishment and torment.

That decisive moment Aeris stood up… she hadn't merely confronted the heart of Hojo's dogma, but his own as well. She'd torn through both of them, undaunted by the darkness she'd encounter, unyielding in her pursuit until she'd reached the core.

As Vincent studied the brooding Rufus, it suddenly occurred to him how similar he and this boy were: they'd both been granted kindness and love even though neither believed he deserved it. For them, the idea of receiving such a treasure flooded their whole interior with wary fear. Yet despite the blood-streaked trail behind him, Aeris said she loved him. And Davoren, for all Rufus was, had given him this chain- the sole physical remembrance of Donal he had- for him to keep.

"I don't know if you ‘deserve' it or not," mulled Vincent over the question, "But Davoren certainly believes you do. It's up to you to prove him right or wrong."

"You buy that?" challenged Rufus, "You think ‘belief', or faith, or whatever you want to call it, means I actually deserve this chain?"

The remark contained a sting of sarcasm, to which the unruffled Vincent replied "And you? When everybody else saw Davoren as a demon, you were the only one who had enough conviction to see beyond that. You held onto that conviction, even though everyone, Davoren included, believed someone like him didn't deserve it. And in the end, didn't your belief… your ‘faith' prove *you* right?"

The counter-argument caught Rufus off guard. Vincent lingered a moment, uncertain how to articulate the rest of his thoughts when they all hung so entangled. He clutched the thread which to him seemed the strongest, most trustworthy and strummed out his response "I'm not sure whether any of us ‘deserve' gifts like love or compassion with our hands this dirty. I'm inclined to thing we don't," he pondered quietly, "But perhaps if someone can look deep into you and find something good worth believing in and protecting… then perhaps that's reason enough to give them your faith in return and strive for some sort of… I don't know, ‘reconciliation' with yourself regardless of what you think."

Rufus fell silent. He wasn't certain he'd understood Vincent entirely, but he could see from his solemn red eyes that the man spoke with an open heart. Rufus looked away towards the skyline once more. Indeed, he remembered how fiercely he'd refused to accept that murderous, sneering devil as the real Davoren. Even when he'd pointed the gun straight in his face, Rufus knew that couldn't be him. The man who'd comforted him in times of darkness, and always treated him with warmth and sincere kindness, *that* was the true Davoren, not the demon before him.

Rufus became aware of the chain again, still clutched tight in his hand. All of Davoren's faith locked within this stone; all of it given to him.

What then? What was he supposed to do with such a gift?

"It's just," admitted Rufus at length, "somethings… when I think about them, they…"

He turned to Vincent but stopped: the guest, Rufus suddenly discovered, had already departed. Not a sound or a farewell. Just gone.

He felt no surprise, only the same old sense of heaviness as he peered over the balcony railing. Vincent, Rufus reckoned, must have already hopped down the tree branches onto the pavement below. He even thought he caught glimpse of a black phantom slip into the alley across the road.

It didn't matter. Vincent was gone, and he left alone to simmer in his own thoughts. Rufus stared into the gloomy sky for several minutes until he realized he was cold. He retreated inside and shut the door behind him.

End of Chp.98