[Shattered] Dreams 39

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Coming Together Again

“Oh, gods!”

“Vinnie!”

“You’re back!”

These were the just some of the words the ex-Turk heard before he was all but tackled to the ground by a very pregnant Aeris, who was now firmly hugging him around the middle. He fought down the urge to stiffen and pull away, accepting the embrace instead. He had promised Cid he would, after all.

They missed ya, Vince, not just me. You’re a part of something now, you’re not alone anymore.

That’s what the pilot had told him, but it was the look in those sky blue eyes that sealed it for Vincent. For Cid, he would do anything… even embrace people when he rather wouldn’t.

Though he had returned, the dark-haired man could tell in the way the pilot refused to let him out of his sight or how he was clutched tightly at night that Cid still feared he would again disappear. The former Turk relented to the closeness as it was something that the pilot needed. Vincent’s own fear of intimacy was still present, but he was fighting against it with all his might for Cid’s sake… if not his own.

Even now, he could practically feel the blond smiling at him from this vantage point right at his side. The flower-girl finally released him from the embrace, pulling back to look at his face and smile at him brightly.

“I’m glad you are back,” she said simply, as if he had been gone on vacation rather than had disappeared for six months. She glanced past him and gave a wink. “I know Cid is as well.”

Vincent shifted awkwardly at the female arm that was still around his waist. He cursed himself for the slight blush that he knew was spreading across his cheeks as he tilted his head in acceptance of her words.

“I am sorry that I’ve worried everyone,” he put in smoothly, side-stepping to untangle himself. However, she held fast.

“Just don’t disappear again! Alright?” Aeris questioned with a light punch to his shoulder, which did little to overshadow the slight gleam of worry in her eyes.

Vincent made a neutral sound, the corners of his mouth twisting into a ghost of a smile, one which vaguely mirrored the Ancient’s. Yet, that seemed to suffice enough for her as she pulled away and moved past him, hugging Cid as she did. A second later, she entered the conference room, tugging a beaming Yuffie behind her. It was a fact that the ex-Turk was grateful for as the little ninja looked ready to fling herself at him as well.

The grey-eyed man was forced to cover his mouth so that no one would see the true grin that spread across his face as the now dejected Yuffie was dragged inside. Cid, on the other hand, didn’t even bother, simply chuckling as he entered also. By now, nearly everyone was already inside, having gone on after Aeris’ abrupt display of affection. Only Shera and Elmyra were not currently present as the two women were in a separate room down the hall, watching Denzel and Marlene.

Initially, Vincent had been surprised by the presence of the boy, who reportedly had been saved by Sephiroth. Also, although he had never personally met Barret’s daughter, she had greeted him warmly, gifting him one of those innocent and trusting smiles that only children seemed to be able to give.

“You sure know how to make an exit,” Vincent heard as he moved to the door a second behind Cid. The ex-Turk silently gave a whispered pray of thanks to Kami. At least, words were more Cloud’s way of announcing himself rather than with an attack of affection like his wife.

Somehow, Vincent had not been surprised to find out that little tidbit of information.

He remembered well the look on their leader’s face when the flower-girl had been killed by Sephiroth. It was not unlike the one he was sure that the pilot had had when he had made his sacrifice for the good of the planet. The ex-Turk still didn’t know why he had been allowed his life… or if he had even died to begin with. From the moment that Chaos emerged, everything was a blur of blood and anger until he awoke on the shores of Gongaga.

Vincent gazed down to find the blond swordsman grinning at him, as if he were Cloud’s own lost love or something similar. He seemed battle ready, sword already strapped to his back. It was a fact that the gunman did not find at all comforting, as if proving to him the reality of why they were all in Midgar… and why he had heard two men long dead had been given another chance at life.

“And an entrance, too, for that matter,” the blond implied as he stuck out a hand in greeting.

Vincent accepted it, shaking his hand and nodding his head. “It had to be done.”

Cloud raised a brow before gesturing towards the conference room. “After you, Mr. Martyr. I’m sure everyone is as curious as I am as to how you survived.”

Vincent shook his head. “Not even I am sure of that,” he claimed as he stepped past the blond swordsman to enter the room. “Yet, I will say what I can.” He went through the doorway and found his eyes immediately centering on the one man he had not yet talked to. The man the ex-Turk could not even force himself to seek.

He looked just like Lucrecia, especially with his hair darkened and the maniac gleam gone from his eyes. He looked human… and especially vulnerable sitting among those that had taken his life before. It wasn’t that Sephiroth looked nervous. In fact, there was a look of faint bemusement on his face with a hint of mischief, but perhaps the latter was due to the fact that Zack was right next to him. Regardless, Vincent could tell in the way the man sat and occasionally darted glances to his friend, who should have also been dead, that the former General wondered exactly what everyone had planned.

‘Sephiroth could be my son.’

And those words haunted his mind as Vincent made his way towards where his lover was already seated, talking about something with Reeve from across the table. The ex-Turk did not know what plans or stipulations the President and Tseng had devised to allow Sephiroth to roam freely, but he could tell by looking at the former General that he meant them no harm.

Idly, Vincent wondered if he himself was being given a second chance as well.

The door clicked shut behind Cloud, dragging the gunman from his musings rather abruptly. The blond strolled over to the last empty chair, which was conveniently next to Aeris. Thankfully, everyone was finally present, and even if it was quite crowded with all the people in attendance, they would make do. All of the Turks were present, as well as every member of AVALANCHE… well, the true ones at least. Then, of course, there were also Zack and Sephiroth.

Reeve rose to his feet, the first to speak. “It’s unfortunate that only times such as these would bring us all together again. At least this time, it is with all our friends alive and accounted for.” His meaning was clear as everyone smiled towards Vincent, who shifted a bit uncomfortably under their gazes.

“Wait a minute,” Yuffie said, holding up a hand as Reeve opened his mouth to speak again. “Before we go all into what’s going on in the world and shit, I want to know what happened last night that caused the rooftop of this building to go up in flames.”

The executive nodded and sat back down. “Over the past six months, ShinRa has been receiving death threats and the like from an unknown source. Construction projects were ransacked and sabotaged, and various employees were getting attacked in the streets, seemingly at random. It wasn’t until a few days ago, when Reno’s helicopter went down in Gongaga and he was taken hostage, that we even learned who or why.”

“It was Tifa,” the redhead answered everyone’s questioning gaze, leaning back in his chair. “Her and that traitorous bitch Jennifer.” He all but spat the name, growling slightly. “She was angry because she considered ShinRa money and property rightfully hers. After I freed myself from her slimy paws and we finally managed to return to Midgar, it was only to find that Jennifer had double-crossed us and had allowed Tifa into not only the building but into Reeve’s office no less, yo.”

“Tifa’s alive?” questioned Barret, a surprised look on his face.

Reeve shook his head. “Let me finish. Tifa had planted five bombs, one of which was in a building just outside the view of my office window.” He grimaced before continuing, “She detonated that one for show. After we took her down, we found the remaining four, one was under my desk, and I took them up to the roof, built a barrier around them and detonated them all at once.”

“She was locked away,” Tseng clarified at Barret’s confused expression, taking over in the explanation. “Tifa was to remain in one of the jail cells until we were able to figure out what to do with her.” Unhappy lines marred his face as he sniffed disdainfully. “However, at some point in the early morning hours, someone from the outside took down the walls to her cell, freeing her. We do not know who or what it was since the security cameras were destroyed in the blast. Jennifer was left behind. Though in her current state, she is unable to say anything.”

“Her current state?” Aeris inquired faintly, not liking where this was going.

Reno nodded and made a slitting motion with his thumb from ear to ear. Everyone got the picture without him having to explain. Tifa had taken it upon herself to dispose of her accomplice. He supposed the saying: “There is no honor among thieves” had some truth behind it.

Archer rubbed his temples. “It was nothing less than she deserved. They would have happily killed us all, if only to keep the money out of anyone else’s hands.” It was a decidedly morbid way of looking at things, but it was the truth of the matter.

A shuddered silence fell across the room as everyone absorbed the information. Reno felt a nudging at the back of his mind and nodded his head. Asclepius giggled before bouncing into being, popping out of thin air and surprising everyone in the room that had never seen a demi-god before, Barret most of all.

“What the hell!” the dark-skinned man exclaimed as he jumped backwards, eyes very wide. “What the $# is that?”

“Not what, yo,” the demi-god teased, blatting thick eyelashes. “Rather who! I’m Asclepius, but more importantly, you have to know how Tifa escaped.”

Barret spluttered, unsure what to say in the face of such a strange creature popping into existence in the middle of the conference room. No one else seemed surprised except for himself, so he wondered what it was he was missing. He settled back into his chair with a wary glare to the giggly creature and waited for someone to clarify before he started firing and demanding answers.

“It was something I didn’t even realize until just last night,” Asclepius continued with a very odd expression. “Tifa is an animus, yo.”

There was a general wave of surprise and confusion among those present.

(I know… hear me…)

Tseng frowned as he absentmindedly tapped a finger on the table. Such a sign of nervousness was unusual for him, and it bothered the other Turks in a way they couldn’t completely understand. They noted it, exchanging glances, but remained silent, not exactly certain what it meant.

“I thought only the wisest and strongest were as such,” the Wutaiian stated very carefully, considering the implications. A peculiar expression crossed his face, but it was gone in an instant. Regardless, his underlings still saw it, and his subsequent, albeit very faint, flinch did nothing to alleviate their growing concern.

The perky demi-god made an affirmative gesture. “Tifa was… at one point. Just because she is on the ‘opposite’ side does not mean she isn’t worthy. Kami does not distinguish between good and evil. After all, Mr. Psychopath over there has one, too, yo.” He giggled, pointing at Sephiroth. In turn, the former General flushed and looked away.

“Great! Just $&#! believable!” Cid exclaimed as he threw up a hand to signify something akin to defeat. “Now, we have to worry about the damn enemy having strong ass friends.” He gestured violently to the green demi-god. “Is there anything else you’ve failed to mention, demi-god?”

Asclepius giggled again, laughing. “Yeah, I’m a female, so that’d be demi-goddess, yo!”

Reno instantly reddened as the revelation struck him. He turned in his chair to pointedly glare at his anima. “You’re a girl?” he questioned, shock registering in every word. “But I like undressed in front of you and… stuff,” he mumbled to himself, surprisingly disturbed by the fact that he had been naked in front of what amounted to a the demi-goddess equivalent of a teenaged girl.

She nodded. “Yep, all my life.” Asclepius smirked mischievously. “Boy, you got it all wrong. Though, it was rather funny.”

Reeve laughed as he shook his head. “It figures. Reno’s anima is a girl. I really should have seen that one coming.”

Most of those present also found it amusing, laughing along with him as Reno sighed and banged his head down on the table. “I hope no one else has anything surprising,” he muttered under his breath, his mind still focused on the revelation. He had changed in front of the demi-god… ahem, demi-goddess several times. She had actually watched him do it, too, not that nudity bothered him. Still, it was the principle of thing!

The Turk felt a tapping on his shoulder and looked up to find Yuffie grinning at him mischievously. “You might want to know,” she said with her voice in a whisper, ignoring the fact that everyone could still hear her. “You’re ever wonderful boss, Tseng, and I are cousins. Not only that… but first cousins!” She chucked before playfully slapping the redhead on the arm.

Instantly, all eyes turned towards the Wutaiian Turk, who regarded them back evenly. Reno stared at him before shuddering at the ninja’s implication. Rude actually grimaced before quickly schooling his features blank once more. Elena merely blinked, making a strange noise.

On the other hand, Reeve studied them both very closely, his eyes going over their features. Belatedly, he realized just how much they looked alike. In fact, if you ignored Yuffie’s normally mischievous grin and replaced it with Tseng’s typically blank face… well, the likeness was uncanny. The President idly wondered how he had missed it. Perhaps it was because one would never think that two people so vastly different in personality would be so much alike in terms of looks.

“I can see the resemblance,” Reeve put in after a moment, the Turk Commander glancing at him out of the corner of his eye.

Tseng rubbed his forehead with a faintly twitching hand and raised an eyebrow. “It is true. However, it is not something we generally broadcast at random intervals.” He gifted Yuffie a scathing look.

Barret shook his head. “Man, I feel sorry for you,” he murmured aloud to the Turk.

More laughter resounded around the table. The feeling of worry and tension that had settled around with the events looming over them seemed to dissipate in the general silliness that had just occurred.

“Hey!” replied Yuffie indignantly. “I’m not that bad.”

“Perhaps, but everyone be sure to count your materia before you leave the room,” replied Nanaki mischievously, his eyes sparkling. There was the sound of rustling as everyone obliged the lion wolf’s suggestion, though a little earlier than he had meant.

Cloud sighed, idly wiping a pretend tear of laughter from his eye. “I’m glad to see that six months separation, the addition of new friends, and so on has not broken the bond between us all.”

For the blond, he was acting strangely somber. His words and tone cut through the happy tone. It was time to get back to business, after all. The world was being destroyed around them from a menace that only a few actually understood.

“You’re right,” Rude commented. “But first, I want to know what has been happening in Gaia? I see people who should be dead. There are cities destroyed by creatures more powerful than any I’ve ever known, and something just generally feels off with the Planet.”

Vincent sighed softly. “I think I am perhaps the only one who truly knows what is occurring. Or at least, as much as Erebus has informed me and that which I have learned for myself. Much of everything that has happened has been the fault of one being, a demi-god by the name of Balaam.”

The entire conference room fell deathly silent as Vincent spoke what would probably be the most words he had ever said at a single time. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair under their gazes but was somewhat comforted by the strong hand he felt gripping his thigh under the table. The same hand secretly reached for his fingers, intertwining with them.

“I know you are all curious as to what happened after my fall in the Northern Crater,” the ex-Turk said softly, gaze trained on the tabletop and straying nowhere else. “Yet, there isn’t much I remember. After Chaos took over, everything is simply blank.” He shook his head, ignoring the hand that fiercely squeezed his own. “There are flashes of blood shed, madness… and a desire to destroy. Blackness filled most of my mind then, except for the tinge of crimson, and I lost all sense of self. My consciousness blanked out, and then, I was awakening on the shores of the Gongaga area with two elderly people looking down on me with none of my memory intact.” He unconsciously tapped his fingers on the table, lost in memory.

“Six months went by before anything changed in that respect. The couple took me in, and I called them Granny and Gramps. They were very kind in that regards.” Another smile tugged at his lips, but it died quickly. “Then, the next thing I knew, Gongaga was attacked by a group of flying demons that were out to kill me. They destroyed the entire town, slaying without reason, just to get to me.”

The ex-Turk paused, mind instantly recalling the night that had began another round of nightmares. Guilt settled in him again. If only he had remembered… or had been stronger. Perhaps he could have helped them more, saved them.

“Some part of me remembered how to fight, and I borrowed one of Gramps guns.” He touched the weapon absentmindedly. “This one I have with me now, the Hell Fire, and destroyed them all, including their leader Azamat. I would have died myself were it not for Rude’s mother, who poured an elixir down my throat. I was too late to save my caretakers, however.” His voice was very tight, and he forced his eyes to remain on the table and not drift to his companions. “They perished at the hands of one of the demons. Due to that, I left, following what few memories I had. I headed for Cosmo Canyon with my newest cohort, the mysterious Erebus.”

There was a quiet gasp from the other end of the table, and Vincent looked up, eyes instantly locking on the dark-spiky hair on the opposite side from him. Zack’s blue eyes had widened in surprise at the name of the weapon, and he had paled slightly.

“They… were they…” He shook his head, gulping loudly as he tried to find the words.

Shame colored Vincent’s cheeks as he lowered his head and again stared fixedly at the table. A hush fell across the room, and the tense atmosphere revived.

“While they were kind enough to take care of me,” the ex-Turk began, “it was obvious that I reminded them of someone. They called me Zack enough that I finally allowed them to just continue.”

The Ex-SOLDIER slumped back in his chair at the confirmation of his fears. His parents were dead… dying before he even got a chance to see them. Yet again, they had not been allowed to say goodbye. Sephiroth reached for him quietly.

“I’m sorry,” said Vincent softly. “If I had been faster, I might have been able to stop the creature before it got to them. It was because they were after me that your parents lost their lives.”

Zack shook his head, determination and resolve bringing some sparkle back to his crystalline-blue eyes. “No, you are not to blame here. It is this Balaam person, the one who sent these monsters to attack.” His hand clenched around the table’s edge. “It’s him that will pay for taking away my home and family before I could even return.” Yet, even as he made that vow, it was obvious that he was truly upset by the fate of his parents. Sephiroth laid a hand on the other man’s arm, his fingers rubbing a soothing pattern.

Silence fell over the conference room. Everyone gathered exchanging ominous glances.

“Balaam is a demi-god,” Erebus drawled darkly, suddenly sparkling into existence behind Vincent, once again startling poor Barret. “And he is not to be taken lightly.”

“That’s it!” exclaimed the gun-armed man loudly, slamming a fist down on the table. “Someone is going to tell what the $# these things are that are just appearing out of the $#&! air right now or I’m gonna get pissed!”

(You… can’t just… ignorance…)

Tseng shook his head, trying to dispel the ringing in his ears. Elena watched him out of the corner of her eye but remained silent.

“We are the anima,” Seiryu replied, materializing into existence in all his majestic glory. One by one, the known anima followed his example, appearing behind their respective animus. “Demi-gods were created by Kami and made to serve under the great maker, to work with the mortals to protect the Planet. Long ago, the residents of Gaia knew us, just as you know us now. Yet, after the punishment for the Great War, we were forgotten.”

“Balaam was once one of us,” Gilgamesh clarified, many recognizing him immediately as the summon Odin. “Or rather, he still is. However, he wanted his freedom so he broke away, causing the first war and now trying to start a second.” There was an odd gleam to his eyes, but he blinked it away. “Regardless, you would all better know him as Chaos, just as you would know his companions Azamat, Daunte, and Mabuz as Vincent’s prior limit breaks Galian Beast, Death Gigas, and Hellmasker.”

“That’s why they wanted to kill me,” Vincent responded with comprehension dawning on his face. “Due to whatever Hojo did, their powers were trapped within me when they broke away from my body. With my death, it would all return in a flood rather than the slow trickle I hadn’t even known I was releasing.” His hand slipped into his pocket, fingering a small and round, grayish-black globe before he withdrew it and set the swirling marble on the table. “This is what happened to Azamat when I killed him.”

“You didn’t kill him, silly,” responded Asclepius. “You can’t kill a demi-god, yo. He merely returned to the sealing materia that Kami had closed him up in.”

The redheaded Turk frowned. “Those things that attacked Wutai, they are demi-gods too, right?”

Asclepius nodded, her cheery exterior dimming. “Yes, they’re my brothers.”

“Brothers!” Reeve exclaimed in surprise. “I didn’t realize that the demi-gods were… eh… familial?” he struggled for the word, unsure of how to phrase his statement.

“Many of us were created by Kami himself, but there are still a some that came into being through reproduction,” Gilgamesh explained carefully. “For instance, the truth of the matter… Balaam is my son.”

“Whoa,” Reno commented, shaking his head. “Talk about some shit right there, yo. Glad you’re on our side, though.”

Barret was gaping, unsure how to handle this new influx of information. “So why are you here, now? With all of us in this room and appearing out of $#&! thin air?”

Aeris sighed and shook her head, shooting him a sympathetic smile. “They are our companions, our match in battle. We are bonded to each other through power due to our unusual strengths compared to the general population.”

“Then why don’t Spike have one?” the dark-skinned man threw out.

“I do,” Cloud answered quietly, looking fixedly at the far wall, “but I have been ignoring him up until this moment.”

(Sound familiar?)

Tseng grimaced to himself, forcing his eyes shut. He took several deep breaths before opening them again.

“Just as there are those of us that are fighting on the side of the mortals against Balaam, there are also those that believe in what Balaam desires and have joined his struggle,” Gilgamesh inserted with a calm explanation. “Some of the forsaken have also abandoned their anima.”

“What I don’t understand,” Cid expressed loudly, “Is why Mr. Meteor over there has a $#&! anima!” His fingers twitched, as though desperately seeking a cigarette to hold.

All eyes turned in Sephiroth’s direction. On the outside, he was calm and collected, but inwardly, he was squirming under their scrutiny. He opened his mouth to speak, but it was Zack who said something first.

He beat his fist on the table and gathered all the attention to himself. “None of you understand what’s going on, so just leave him alone!”

“Zack,” Sephiroth said gently, his hand squeezing his friend’s arm. “There’s no need for that. I will tell them what I know, though it is not much.” His friend moved to catch his fingers, but he pulled away.

“Please,” Aeris expressed, her dainty hands pushing down the tabletop, “we want to understand.”

The former General inclined his head and took a deep breath. “Three months ago I woke up on the shores outside of Icicle. The Planet told me that I was to be given a second chance due to the fault of Jenova. Yet, if I messed it up, then she would take it back.” He ran a nervous hand over his face. “I didn’t understand much of what she or the others were saying, but I know that they needed my help to destroy the current threat.”

“Your help?” snorted Yuffie. “Puh-lease. The last thing we need is to stop another Meteor from crashing into our planet.”

“That was not me,” the former General insisted, his voice rising uncharacteristically. “I did not call Meteor to destroy Gaia!” He wasn’t surprised by the disbelieving glances he had been given.

“Right,” Cid sneered. “It was some other guy wearing your face and clothes.” The pilot flicked his fingers

Sephiroth exhaled slowly and rubbed his forehead. “You don’t know how close to reality you actually are with that statement,” he murmured as he leaned back in his chair. “I do not ask for your forgiveness as I know I won’t receive it.”

“Please, explain,” Nanaki beseeched, an expression of interest on his face. “According to Cloud, you should have died in Nibelheim, and yet, you showed up five years later with interesting new powers.”

The former General shook his head. “I accept responsibility for the destruction of Nibelheim. In my madness and grief, anger at what I had discovered about my origins, I destroyed what I thought was the cause of my pain. I destroyed the town where I had been created. Yet, even then, she was influencing me.”

“She?” questioned Barret with the frown. “Who the $#&! hell are you talking bout?”

But it was Cloud who answered. “Jenova.”

Sephiroth nodded, lost in memory. “Yes, that siren from the skies. She whispered words in my mind: that I should repay those who lied to me, destroy and take the world for my own. In the Lifestream, I would find the power to go to the Promised Land (1). And so, I dove into the mako reactor after Cloud and I fought.” He forcefully dismissed his remembrances. “That was the last time I was the Sephiroth anyone knew. She lied to me, and I died, my mind and body separating.”

Rude frowned. “Your body and mind separated?”

“That’s right,” Cloud realized suddenly. “Like when I fell into the Lifestream… and when you guys found me at Mideel. Aeris had to help me put together the fractured parts of my mind, and the only reason that was possible was because the Lifestream when it takes a living person… it separates their mind from their body. So then technically, Sephiroth, you never died… if what you claim is true.”

Erebus’ eyes widened in sudden understanding. “That explains how Vincent’s demons separated from him. Did Balaam know the properties of the Lifestream?”

Gilgamesh shrugged. “Only Kami knows exactly what he absorbed while listening to the idle ramblings of a madman. Hojo undoubtedly spoke freely around Vincent, not expecting to be heard.”

“Then, it was you that summoned Meteor,” Yuffie inputted. “I mean, if you didn’t die and everything.”

Sephiroth shook his head negatively. “You misunderstand. When I fell into the Lifestream Jenova’s cells and thoughts took over my body. I had no control over what she said or did. I could only watch as she became even more powerful and tried to destroy the world once again.” He gestured helplessly. “There was nothing I could do.”

Reno laughed, and everyone gave him an odd look because it was the absolute wrong time for someone to be cracking a joke. He grinned and shook his head.

“I just got this terrible picture in my mind.” The red-haired man shrugged. “So, basically, it was like Jenova in a Sephiroth suit, right?”

(His madness is not yours, can you not see that?)

Tseng exhaled, an uncharacteristically bizarre look in his eye. “Reno, that is disgusting.”

The other Turk shrugged. “Just calling it like I see it, boss.”

“It is fine,” Sephiroth expressed, cutting off any other remarks “since he is essentially correct. I suppose that is why Gaia decided I deserved a second chance. A madman ruined my life before I even had a choice in it.”

“But if you are here to be a warrior, then why is pretty boy over there alive, too?” Barret questioned, jerking a head towards Zack.

The dark-haired man grinned as he leaned back in his chair. “I’m special.” He smiled wolfishly.

Elena sniffed derisively in a gesture very similar to her boss. “Right. From what I’ve seen, your talents aren’t that much to be admired.”

The ex-SOLDIER appeared completely indignant as he narrowed his gaze at her. “Hey! Unlike those two,” he commented, jerking his thumb at Sephiroth and Cloud, “I was actually dead for almost two years, so give me a break, woman.” He squared his shoulders. “I killed that Torama-clone, didn’t I?”

The blonde Turk laughed. “You don’t even know how you turned it to stone so don’t get all huffy on me, loser.” She was obviously teasing, a sparkled in her eyes.

“Humph,” Zack mumbled, folding his arms over his chest. “Damn arrogant Turk.”

“So, are you gonna explain how you got here and why?” Cloud queried. “Not that I’m sad you’re here or anything. It’s just hard to believe.”

The other ex-SOLDIER sighed heavily. “I suppose. I haven’t been here that long. I only woke up a few days ago.”

“The night of the earthquake,” Reeve murmured more to himself than to them, “what a strange coincidence.”

Zack shook his head negatively, but it was Fenrir that responded. “It was not a coincidence. The Lifestream now flows from a new area as a result of my animus’ appearance. If not for Lady Aeris’ infirm condition, I don’t think he would have even been revived at all.”

“It’s true,” the flower-girl confirmed. “I’ve been informed by the Planet that I can’t fight in my condition, but Gaia still needs someone to be her warrior.”

Zack grinned. “Now, I got two voices in my head. I have the old man Fenrir here and the screams of the Planet.” He tapped himself on the temple. “Gaia told me that if I would agree to do this, I would be given a second chance since, apparently, Cloud can’t handle it without me.”

The blond swordsman rolled his eyes. “Truthfully, I don’t think anyone can handle your ego.”

Elena snorted. “With his talents, his ego is overrated.”

“Hey,” the former SOLDIER inserted. “No ganging up on me. I’m just out of practice. I was dead, you understand. I think that can account for any lapse in my skills.”

“So the way I understand it, Sephiroth is here since we need the help, and Zack is here because Aeris got knocked up?” Yuffie asked, her voice cutting through the banter between the three ex-ShinRa.

“You would not believe the people I met on that island either,” Zack said with more than a hint of approval, ignoring the ninja’s interruption. “They called themselves the Jissus, and they were primitive but very helpful.” He put a hand to his chin and rubbed thoughtfully in a gesture very familiar. “I haven’t ever heard of them, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we went back and found they weren’t there anymore.”

“Sounds to me like you got hit on the head a few times,” Yuffie commented with a snort.

There was a general nod of agreement among the anima present.

“Whatever,” Zack intoned dismissively before eyeing all those present. “So are Seph and me to be trusted… or are you still going to kick us to the curb?”

“I still can’t believe I’m sitting here in a conference room with my worst enemy,” Barret exclaimed, his real hand squeezing the tabletop so hard it was almost white. “It’s hard to stop myself from wanting to shoot his crazy $#&! ass.”

(Curses, child! The very world is at stake!)

Tseng shook his head forcefully and gave a pained grunt. He absentmindedly rubbed at his temples, but only the other Turks noticed any of it as everyone else was too involved in the conversation.

“But everything Sephiroth said is true,” Aeris replied quietly. “I have listened to the Planet and Hephaestion both. He is not here to kill us, but I understand that we will not be able to trust him completely without warrant.”

“I don’t know how you do it,” Nanaki commented with a slight shake of his lupine head. “This man is the same one that murdered you, and yet, here you stand speaking for him.”

“But he didn’t,” the flower-girl insisted beseechingly. “It was Jenova, not Sephiroth. And if you would just open your eyes and look at him, you will see the difference between the… creature we fought and the man before you today.”

There was silence as all considered her question. Sephiroth lowered his eyes under their glare, even more uncomfortable under this scrutiny than he had been before. But it was their acceptance he desired, not anyone else’s. If these people could look past him, these one’s whose lives he had harmed the most, then perhaps there might be a chance for him after all. Even if he did not deserve it. He only hoped that they would allow him the opportunity to take down a few forsaken demi-gods before they locked him up.

“I wanted to tell myself that he was the same, if only to make it easier… but not even I can deny it,” Cloud said. His voice was soft; yet, it still managed to cut through the silence. “I remember Sephiroth before Nibelheim, probably as well as Zack does, but I know it is my words you will believe before either of them.” He nibbled on his lip. “As much as I hate to admit it, but he is right. I never thought that the Sephiroth we were fighting was the one I had admired, and it was only with grudging acceptance of that fact that I even allowed myself to face him.”

“What exactly are you saying?” Elena questioned, lightning flashing across her eyes as she crossed her arms over her chest defensively.

Cloud sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “As much as I want to say that I hate him and that he should just be killed on the spot, I can’t. I know he is speaking the truth.” He eyed his friends, all of whom were turning to them for the answers with faithful expressions, just as he knew they would. “I’m not saying we should trust him completely… I’m not that much of a fool, but we can at least give him the chance to redeem himself.”

“If Spike says it, I suppose we can’t hardly argue, can we?” Cid suggested, his fingers just itching for a cigarette.

“Humph,” Barret muttered. “I don’t like it. But so long as he don’t attack nobody or try to hurt Marlene, I don’t care.” He started mumbling under his breath, saying something that suspiciously sounded like “the $#&! bastard” before being elbowed into submission by Cloud.

“Don’t worry.” Zack winked and grinned devilishly. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“And so the warriors of Gaia were chosen,” Hephaestion stated forcefully, cutting off any and all unneeded comments. Somehow, he knew that Elena had a smart ass remark to make. “Nevertheless, there are yet others that need to be found.”

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