I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields –Chp.99

Rufus' right fist weighed heavy as it dangled by his side, still clutching the materia stone Vincent had faithfully delivered to him. It once belonged to Donal, he heard a voice whisper the awful secret into one ear, it used to belong to Davoren's brother. And in the opposite ear hissed the malicious response over and over again:

You do not deserve it, Rufus ShinRa.

Your eyes upon this stone, your very touch defiled it. Everything it represented, all the love, sacrifice and beauty within, recoiled at the sight of your rotten heart. You do not deserve this gift, Rufus ShinRa, and you know it. You don't deserve it, just like you don't deserve any salvation, peace or even the tiniest crumb of compassion.

And yet, Davoren believed he did. Why? How did he obtain such solid conviction? Why did he hold onto it so adamantly when all Rufus could see was a repulsive, selfish monster not worth the air he inhaled, never mind this faith given him?

He'd asked Vincent this question. The man's answer continued to wrangle Rufus, even now while he loitered in place, statuesque, staring emptily around the living room. He closed his eyes a moment. God, he felt so weary. Indeed, Vincent's visit had touched several wounds still raw in Rufus' conscience; but instead of healing, Rufus found the visit, the words, the sheer grip of those crimson eyes, had torn the wounds wider, forcing him to confront all the unresolved pus and unhealed flesh he'd been trying hitherto to contain.

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

Davoren's final words still prickled his memory despite the grave tranquility of the living room. But unlike before, when they sparked such anger, now they merely evoked a dull, exhausting sense of sorrow.

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

He heard the clock tower in the distance announce the arrival of midnight. Each indifferent chime reeled the boy an inch back into reality until he stirred out of his reverie, only to find himself, after so much wandering, still standing in place. His gaze, however, seemed transfixed on something at the opposite end of the room.

It was Elena's piano.

He realized he's been staring at the piano all this time. Rufus could not fathom why his eyes – damn traitors!- had chosen and still clung to that loathsome box. In turn, it surprised him to notice how irate he felt at the sight of a mere piano. Again, he could not explain why, but it stirred some unpleasant knot of emotions buried within, out of his memory's reach yet just close enough for his conscience to touch.

Elena practiced the piano a few times a week. He could tell from the way she played it was just to maintain her skills, not to improve them. Nevertheless, Rufus had often listened to her play as he'd sat huddled alone in his room. The melody didn't arrest him as much as the actual sound of the instrument being played. Somewhere amongst those keys there lurked a shadow he could not see, only sense.

Rufus slipped the stone into one pocket then approached the piano. He lingered infront of it a minute before slowly lifting the cover, only to find those ebony and ivory teeth grinning back at him. He stared down at the vulgar keys. Until tonight, he'd always avoided this piano. He never ventured into the living room while it was being played. Even as it sat before him in silence, Rufus detested the sight of it like a disease.

Paradoxically though, he found the more he hated it, the greater he felt this inexplicable… "connection" to it, for lack of a better word. Now to stand face to face with this enigmatic foe, Rufus could sense the connection stronger than ever.

It was pain. Terrible, numbing pain.

The boy propped himself upon the bench. The first time he tried to touch the key, his finger hesitated. The second time, he managed to tap it. He listened to the note rise out of the box's throat, where it loitered in the air a moment before dissipatating into the silence. He pressed another key. Again he listened. The sound both repulsed and fascinated him.

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

Rufus passively watched all ten fingers crawl across the keys to assume position. They seemed to know exactly where to begin. Rufus didn't feel awkward, rather bemused at how familiar and easy this motion came to him. Did he used to play the piano before his… "accident"? That was the only explanation he could think of.

Upon searching his mind for a tune to play, he discovered he could recall none. Yet his fingers, unlike his memory, seemed so sure of themselves, poised there and ready, that he gave them control.

The song started gently, like an eerie whisper. Rufus listened without understanding as it soon accelerated into a melancholy crescendo. All he could do was behold his hands dance across the many keys.

The notes flowed as smoothly as a stream into the darkness around him. Rufus realized he hated this melody. His face, he finally noticed, had tightened to a frown. He loathed this song. He knew he'd always loathed it, all the hypocrisy and selfishness welded into this beautiful tune. He hated it! Still, the boy continued to play, and from the flawless movements of his hands, he realized he must have practiced this particular song many times before; so many times he'd fused it into his very fingertips, where not even fire could obliterate.

                 ~… it burns me up, but I still feel cold…~

                 ~…"Inside, Sir, you and I have the same blood"…~

A dull ache began to creep up his skull. Rufus ignored it, like he ignored the hundred shards of voices carving his sanity. He continued to play. He allowed the music to sweep him upwards. His fingers and his thoughts raced each other towards a terrifying unknown…

                ~…"it's our blood… our ShinRa blood"…~

God, how he hated this damn tune.

                ~…"I want you to make peace with yourself"…~

Yet everyday, he'd practiced. Hour after hour he'd wasted, learning this one song till it had become a part of him. He wondered why he'd bothered so much with this song in particular?

                ~"… "I know at first it will be very difficult for you"…~

Someone else used to play this song. He didn't know who it was. He couldn't remember. This ghost of a person, faceless, ethereal to him, remained in the shadows of his mind. He still couldn't remember who it was. Yet he knew now why he'd practiced this song so much.

                ~"…"But I will always be there by your side, Rufus"…~

It's because that unknown ghost left him long ago… cut him out… and he, in his childish foolishness, had believed that if he played this song well enough… if he played it often enough, it would somehow bring that ghost back to him…

                ~… "I hope with time, you'll finally come to und-

Rufus suddenly smashed the piano cover shut on both the song and Davoren's reverberant words before either could finish. The last few notes he'd played lingered a moment, suffocating him with dread, until they faded away. Silence filled the living room once more.

Rufus remained frozen at the piano. He found both hands still clamped hard upon the cover, as if terrified of the secrets it might unleash were it to open again. He felt such horrible pain inside he could barely keep his own breath steady. Every second spent listening to that infernal tune, every key he'd pressed, every motion he'd made had torn deeper and deeper into him until-

"Hey, I was enjoying that," drawled a familiar voice.

Rufus snapped to full attention. His icy eyes shot aside straight towards the living room entrance. He discovered Reno there, dressed in bulky winter boots and a wooly muffler around his pale, scarred face. By his side, the ex-Turk held a brown paper bag filled with groceries. Indeed, he'd finally returned home from his errands.

Reno didn't seem the least bit threatened by Rufus' glare. Rather, he viewed the boy in genuine marvel. "Damn!" he whistled, "I didn't know you played the piano, and so well to boot! You're packing some serious talent there!"

The compliment received no answer.

Nor did Reno appear to expect any. Instead he unwrapped the scarf from around his face, at the same time stepping across to flick on one of the lamps. Only then did Rufus realize that all this time, he'd been playing in utter darkness. Once more, he'd forgotten to switch on the lights.

The awakened lamp spread a gentle glow throughout the room, yet the shadow of animosity remained furrowed across Rufus' wan face. He had already arisen from the bench and retreated towards the opposite end of the room, as far away from the piano as possible.

He wondered when Reno had come in. He hadn't even heard the little sneak open the front door. It nettled Rufus to imagine how long Reno had been standing there, silently listening to his anguish unravel amongst the piano keys. What vexed him more however was the fact that of all people, *Reno* had heard it.

Several days had passed since their tempestuous confrontation, yet the bitter aftertaste remained strong in Rufus' mind. Even now as he lingered by the balcony window, brooding upon the Midgar skyline outside, Rufus remembered what Reno had told him. He'd said it was okay to grieve for the loss of his friend. He'd said he "got" what he was going through. But for all his exclamations, Reno couldn't explain to him why Davoren chose to depart with such a painful deception or why he'd aided him.

All he said was "that's how it had to be."

From thereon, the two had avoided each other completely. Whereas before when he might have ventured out to join the others at the table or in the living room, Rufus spent his entire day safe in the bedroom. Reno never approached him again. In fact, Rufus suddenly realized that this was the first time he'd seen Reno since their dispute several days ago.

He peaked over his shoulder, towards the kitchen where Reno was unpacking the groceries, softly humming the tune he'd just played. The man was either unaware or much more likely ignoring this frost between them.

So typical of that asshole to act all cool, grumbled Rufus.

"Elena and Rude not back yet, huh?" called Reno, "Sheesh! How long does it take to pick out a movie?"

The past week had been unkind to the three ex-Turks, what with Elena and Reno working overtime and Rude trudging through body guard duties for his paranoid boss during five straight days of meetings and dealings. So for tonight, they'd all decided to relax at home infront of a movie. Reno had agreed to purchase the essential snacks. The latter two meanwhile had volunteered to go rent a film from the store five blocks away.

"And that woman better not bring another 'chick-flick'," growled Reno to himself, "Or I'll be wishing I friggin' DIED back there in the Reactor. Oh hey, kid! I got something for ya!"

The perplexed boy turned to face Reno as he pulled out a small, crinkly packet from the grocery sack. He shook it for Rufus to see.

"Rice cakes!" he grinned, then tossed the pack onto the counter with the other snacks, "Think I heard you mention rice cakes before. Can't remember where or why though. Anyway, these cakes looked really good. I know you're probably gonna say you're not hungry, but I thought what the Hell! He may like 'em!"

All this time, Rufus regarded the ex-Turk in tense surprise, not so much taken by his benevolence as by the flash of memory he had provoked. It was one of those trivial things the mind treasured for some reason. For Rufus, it was this one time, eons ago it seemed, after Davoren had just saved him from another fiery spasm fit. Once the madness had abated, the gunman, knowing he hadn't eaten for several days as usual, somehow coaxed him into eating a bag of rice cakes with him. That was all.

Rufus remembered later, when Davoren had pointed his gun straight in his face, and sneering, told him he was simply obeying the Professor like a good Turk. The same reason he'd watched over him, the same reason he kept him alive, and the same reason he was about to kill him; because the Professor had ordered him. Of all the questions Rufus could have asked before he died, he recalled only one rising out to challenge the gunman: and when you brought me those rice-cakes, were you obeying the Professor too?

The stand-off with all its details and players rushed past Rufus' mind. Yes, Reno was there. If memory served him right, the ex-Turk had even rushed a good distance in the vain hope of stopping him from confronting the murderous gunman. So much had happened since then. Yet what gripped Rufus most was the fact that Reno, however vaguely, remembered the question he'd asked.

No, it was more than that, admitted Rufus. When Davoren shared those cakes with him, it was the beneficence of his action, the kindness of his face and soul that had truly struck Rufus. He'd asked him about those rice-cakes because he himself knew all about lies – he'd lived his first life trapped in an opulent falsehood, and the second caged in ignorance and deceit; he knew a great deal about lies, and he'd known that the compassion Davoren had always shown him, right down to sharing some measly cakes, was no lie.

And now Rufus realized what bewildered him the most was that Reno, whom hitherto he'd held in such contempt, thinking he knew nothing, might actually appreciate the meaning behind those cakes too.

Rufus' expression darkened into reluctant thoughtfulness the longer he studied the man. Reno meanwhile worked on in oblivion, mumbling "…beer for me 'n Rude… popcorn… some low-fat, tasteless junk for Elena…," as he emptied the grocery bag.

He and this ex-Turk had been at odds from their very first encounter: the moment Reno struck him across the face for his ingratitude; the countless times he harshly antagonized him for defending Davoren- indeed, out of everyone, he'd been the most cynical to believe him; the time he called him a 'goddamn loony shithead' for confronting Professor Hojo by himself, or an 'arrogant piece of snot', or a 'real pain in the ass'; the list just went on. With Reno, it always felt like they were a tiny boat bobbing and tossing about in turbulent waters.

Then came that nightstaff. One blow, and the boat had completely capsized over. But now, he…

"Vincent dropped by," Rufus muttered at long last.

To Reno, the idea of them speaking had seemed so impossible that, upon hearing Rufus, he doubted his own ears. He looked towards the boy. "Say what?"

"Vincent," he repeated more clearly, "He was here some minutes ago."

The words hung stagnant in the air. Reno obviously couldn't decide which bewildered him more: the realization that Rufus was actually speaking, or the fact that he was talking to him.

Either way, he paused to digest the news. Reno had often wondered what befell Vincent. He couldn't say he'd enjoyed joining forces with a former AVALANCHE member (and an eerie one at that!). Then again, Vincent had proven himself a worthy ally who'd saved his butt at least twice. Reno admitted he was glad to learn he was alive.

"Heh!" he smirked, "So, Mr. Tall-dark-and-creepy survived, eh?"

Rufus remained infront of the balcony window with arms folded. He knew fully well that, despite his best effort to keep stoic, to detach himself from his surroundings like he'd always done before, the torment inside him had already crept across his face for Reno to see.

Indeed, the ex-Turk regarded him with intent scrutiny. Part of Rufus berated himself savagely for opening his mouth: the last thing he wanted was to talk to this man. Damn both him and his nightstaff! He should have just shut up and walked away! He wanted to be alone. He wanted nothing other than solitude and silence!

Another part of Rufus however, held Reno's gaze in equal solemnity. It would not let him leave. It forced him to admit that above his desire for solitude and silence, he wanted to talk. The pain in his chest had just become too excruciating for him to bear.

"Vincent then… he gave you news on Davoren?" prompted Reno as he stepped forward to stand at the kitchen threshold.

Rufus nodded. "Davoren's okay. He told me he made it out of the Reactor."

"Well, that's good, right?"

"Yeah," breathed Rufus. His eyes strayed sideways, towards the piano, only to sink into pensive gloom again, "But Davoren's left the city now. I doubt I'll ever see him again."

Reno said nothing. Instead he leaned aside against the entrance and with arms loosely folded. He allowed this silence between them to linger as long as Rufus needed.

They both realized this was the first time Rufus had willingly spoken of the gunman since that catastrophic night. And for Reno to be his sole listener- the irony did not escape either of them. Rufus thought it better to just leave the matter there. He even took a few steps as though to retreat, but stopped again. Reno's gaze never released him.

"You know back there in the storage ward? That was the last time I spoke to him," Rufus recounted slowly, "I apologized to him for everything ShinRa and I had done to him. But Davoren didn't want my apology. He wouldn't even accept it. Instead, he said he wanted me to 'compensate' him by living the rest of my life as best as I can. He wanted me to be happy and proud, and start making peace with myself."

His brows strained into uncertainty. "I don't understand," he confessed, "A month's gone by, I think about what he said, but I still don't understand what he's asking of me. How am I supposed to find a foothold or make any sort of 'peace' with such an ugly past or such an awful bastard like 'Rufus ShinRa'? Vincent said Davoren had faith in me, but I just…"

Rufus paused before his own doubts overwhelmed him. He wanted to say that he didn't share Davoren's faith. He doubted someone like him could achieve this peace. He didn't even know how to start and feared where it would lead. After a moment, in which he managed to enforce calm again, the boy conceded "The thing is, Davoren knew I wouldn't understand. You were right: that IS why he knocked me out cold. Because he understood something that is just beyond me. And you helped him for the very same reason: because you also knew I wouldn't understand."

His eyes lifted to meet Reno's dead-on. The latter said nothing.

"It's okay. I accept that we had to go our separate ways, of course. I accept it was for the best. But still, the man was… he was like a father to me. For him to just cut me out like that, it… it gets me so angry, thinking about it. At times, I even find myself hating him. Actually *hating* him," Rufus gave a faint, humorless smile at his own admission, "What's funny is that Davoren also predicted I'd wind up hating him."

He fell silent. There was nothing more to say. Besides, he was tired. His mind, his body, his heart- everything felt so sickeningly tired. Still, it rattled him to realize how much he'd spilt out infront of Reno. He'd said a lot more that he'd intended, some of it truths he hadn't even admitted to himself never mind another person.

Reno meanwhile remained quiet for a rather long time. Behind his solemn demeanor, he no doubt weighed Rufus' words against the memory of their vicious confrontation: the way he'd tried to force Rufus out of his grief when he knew only a fraction of it, his inability to explain, and most damning of all his arrogance and haste at thinking he could simply drag him out when he couldn't even find him through the darkness.

Now however there was a tiny flicker of light, just enough for him to catch a true glimpse of this figure standing before him. It wasn't the New Age President of ShinRa Inc. It wasn't his former boss.

It was just Rufus. And quite frankly, the candid sight had tightened his face into a deep scowl.

"Geez, kid!" the malcontent Reno suddenly snorted, "I swear, you bottle up so much shit inside you, it's a damn wonder it doesn't come pouring outta your ears!"

The outburst surprised Rufus. He'd always known this man to be unafraid of speaking his mind, but somehow, that wasn't quite the response he'd been expecting.

Like Reno cared. "Has it ever occurred to you," he pressed on, now straightening up to face Rufus squarely, "that maybe you're not supposed to understand all this *just* yet? I mean, c'mon! 'Making peace' with yourself? That takes time to achieve! For some, it can take a lifetime."

Rufus said nothing.

"Heck, we've all got our own bad shit that follows us around, Rufus. Some run away from it. Others bury it under something else. But to actually confront it, to be able to 'make peace' with it, that's not easy. It takes a lot of courage and even more strength. Yeah, Davoren tricked you. He let you go, but there is no chance in Hell or Heaven you're gonna make me believe he 'cut you out' like you were some worthless piece of rope. I've half a mind to kick your stupid ass just for thinking that!"

Reno raked his hair back in search of the right knot to tie his thoughts together. "I reckon…," he ambled along, "I dunno. I reckon when Davoren saw you face up to your past and apologize, he just realized you'd become brave enough to set out on your own. He saw the strength of your soul. Or something like that anyway."

Though he'd spoken bluntly, Reno's tone contained neither harshness nor anger. On the contrary, even the mystified Rufus could feel the kindness beneath his voice, as clearly as he could see it warm and steadfast on his face.

"You'll figure everything out in due time," smiled Reno, "You just gotta cut yourself some slack. Besides, not like Davoren said goodbye, right?"

He blinked. "Ah? R-right."

"So what are you so depressed about?" the ex-Turk declared, now turning away from Rufus with a casual wave of the hand, "If the guy didn't say goodbye, there's a chance you'll bump into each other again," after which he sauntered back to the kitchen, grumbling in feigned annoyance, "Honest to God, kid! I've seen people at *funerals* more cheerful than you…"

Rufus remained mute for a very long minute. He watched the man bustle about the kitchen, now pulling out some electronics magazine from the grocery bag and plopping it upon the counter, only to flip through it at a lazy pace. Reno always kept his back to Rufus, though the latter felt certain he could sense his gaze on him.

He could see the ex-Turk pretending it was nothing, playing it cool like always. Still, his nonchalance did not avert the realization from unfolding before Rufus. There was none of the belligerence of their previous quarrel. No treading over the past when Rufus now conceded that however much it hurt, it was in the end the best and only way. The ex-Turk wasn't even going to pretend he could easily find him amidst all the darkness.

Nevertheless, despite all the cold and black waters between them, it hadn't deterred Reno from stepping forth to comfort him in his loss (by his own unorthodox methods, though last time Rufus checked, threatening someone with a severe beating did not merit as solace). But more bewildering, it hadn't stopped Reno from understanding him in his despair, even if he still couldn't fully reach him.

Rufus reflected upon Reno's words for a longer minute. Was that what the gunman saw right before ramming the nightstaff into his stomach: "strength"? Past the crimes, the self-disgust and desolation, did he see this… this "something good", as Vincent had put it, "worth believing in and protecting"?

The same doubt niggled at Rufus' mind again. He could see no good in here. No solid place to make peace. But then, Davoren had believed there was. The man had poured his entire conviction into this materia stone and given them both to him: to show how firmly he believed in this strength of his, even at the risk of gaining Rufus' hatred in exchange.

Rufus returned to the present, to the ex-Turk who'd opened a can of beer as he skimmed his magazine. He listened to everything, thought Rufus, when he could have walked off. The same way he and Rude had fought hard to save him when the much easier option was to just let him perish in the Reactor. The same way they'd sheltered him whole within their folds when neither man nor Elena owed him a shred of obligation.

He had always been grateful to them, of course. But he had also felt that no matter how far they stretched, the shores between him and the three ex-Turks were too wide apart to make any connection; that he, or rather, both this new life and they were inaccessible. Now however it occurred to Rufus that maybe he'd been gazing out the wrong direction. Perhaps he never had to search so far off in the distance. All he had to do was turn around, and he would find the three of them right there behind him.

He would find Elena there despite the apathetic manner he'd treated her beneficence. Rude was there too even after the dozens of times he'd shut him out in the cold. And Reno was there as well, in spite of the harsh verbal bruises Rufus had inflicted upon him during their quarrel.

But Davoren must have known that too, mused Rufus. He knew the ex-Turks would help hold him up in this new life, the same way he'd held him up through his old life, because they'd both seen this so-called "soul" in him, and they believed it would ultimately keep him steady.

What was that Vincent told him? "Perhaps that's reason enough to give them your faith in return, and strive for some sort of… 'reconciliation' with yourself regardless of what you think."

A remorseful look spread across Rufus' face as this final riddle unfolded before him. His mind turned from Vincent to Reno. The man paid no attention to him. Rufus however still felt the ghost of their bitter quarrel hanging about. He fidgeted between a desire to speak and a heavy uncertainty of what to say until at last, the former prevailed.

"Listen, Reno," he stumbled, "About what I said the other day-"

"Forget it," he cut him short.


"Ah, shut yer trap already," insisted Reno, as though he already knew what Rufus wanted to say. He stole another sip of beer then added gently, kindly, "Besides, it's not important anymore."

Rufus fell silent again. He didn't want to make this any more awkward for Reno. By now, he'd learned enough about the ex-Turk to know this kind of stuff made him uncomfortable. But if he wasn't going to apologize, then Rufus decided he would at least say one thing.

"Thank you, Reno."

After just being told to shut up, Rufus felt certain this defiance vexed the man enormously, even if it was heartfelt gratitude. He thought it funny how they always seemed to end up at loggerheads no matter which route they followed. But whatever his reaction, Reno maintained his poise. He did not turn around. He did not answer. In fact, he just held his can of beer while reading his magazine; though Rufus did note that he'd stopped midway through turning the pages.

A rattle at the front door suddenly interrupted the silence. Elena stumbled into the main hall, her cheeks flushed from the cold outside, followed by Rude.

"We're hoooome!" she chirped in relief.

Reno had already left the kitchen to meet them in the hall.

"About time! What took you so long?" he demanded.

"Couldn't decide on a movie," explained Rude, taking off his heavy coat and skull cap. As he tossed the two upon the hanger nearby, he noticed Rufus standing at the living room entrance. "Oh, hey," he greeted diffidently.

Elena, who'd just been reminding Reno of some chore he had to do tomorrow, also stopped upon seeing the boy. "Ah, Sir! Wasn't expecting to find you there. You… you alright? Everything okay?"

Neither could conceal their amazement at discovering Rufus here. Nor was Rufus too sure what to say. Thankfully, Reno saved him.

"Nah, it's cool," he shrugged, whereupon he yanked Rufus by the arm into the hallway with them, "I've been trying to talk the kid into watching the movie with us. He says he just *might* depending on what movie we rented. And hey! If it's a really good movie, he might even eat a whole bag of rice cakes by himself."

"Eh? Really?" beamed Elena in delight.

"Of course! I actually bought a bag of cakes 'n everything. We're all set to go here!"

Rufus had no recollection of making such a bargain. He glowered at the sly ex-Turk while rubbing his sore arm (that pull actually hurt! The jackass didn't have to be so rough, thought Rufus). He supposed it was Reno's way of exacting revenge for his defiant thanks earlier. Reno however just gave him a mischievous wink. He then returned to the kitchen, leaving Rufus to Elena, who was eager to show and praise the movie they'd rented least he changed his mind.

"Yo, Elena! Rude!" cried Reno, "So you guys gonna help me prepare these snacks sometime today or what?"

"Fine! Fine!" she sighed back. She trotted off, still smiling behind at Rufus.

As he lingered there in place, a bit disoriented by all that was happening, Rufus felt Rude come up to him and drop a friendly hand upon his shoulder. He looked aside to find the man smiling knowingly at him. Rude squeezed his shoulder as silent support, then left him to assist in the kitchen.

Rufus remained alone in the dim hall another moment. The voices of his three friends wafted from the other room. He heard Elena calling him; the film was about to start, she said. Rufus dug deep into his pocket and pulled out the materia stone once more. He beheld its soft, lovely green shimmer in quiet brooding.

"I know at first it will be very difficult for you," he remembered Davoren's words, "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."

A small smile passed across Rufus' lips. He was at last beginning to understand.

-End of Chp.99