[Shattered] Dreams 57

Chapter Fifty-Seven: Battle Plans

It amazed Sephiroth that, in the middle of everything and as he sat waiting in the conference room for everyone to arrive, his thoughts first turned to Tseng. By all means, he should be planning out the battle soon to come, considering the strengths and weaknesses of his crew, doing tasks of a “leader”, but instead, his mind was currently drifting to one raven-haired Turk Commander. Then again, considering the dinner fiasco at the Strife household, he knew that they were plotting against him; it wasn’t that big of a stretch either.

It seemed everyone was conspiring against Tseng and him. He had to give Aeris credit; she was even craftier than he had expected. He wasn’t sure why everyone saw fit to push them together, but even more so, he wondered if he was supposed to be annoyed or enthused by their meddling.

If he were being completely honest with himself, he would admit albeit inwardly, the attraction he had always harbored for the incredibly sexy Wutaiian. Zack was his first crush, but Tseng was his first lust. Before his descent into utter madness at Nibelheim, however, he had managed to do nothing more than speak with Tseng within the confines of “work”, not that he was trying particularly hard to be in any sort of relationship.

He had zero experience in such matters, especially once he had learned of the stigma surrounding homosexuality. After Zack and that rather unfortunate but also amusing incident, he kept his hands and his lips to himself before, Kami forbid, Hojo should find out his sexuality. He hadn’t even wanted to contemplate what other vile and twisted tortures the man would concoct to make his life even more of a hell than it already was. So he had lusted from afar and had kept it at that.

Now, however, things were different. Hojo was dead, somehow, most everyone knew he preferred male companions. His sanity was stable… for the most part. Should he dare, he could actually try his hand at a real relationship, but he blamed his pacifistic and procrastinating attitude towards an attempt at “dating” on circumstance.

Sephiroth frowned as he subconsciously tapped his pen on the table, one of the few nervous and thinking habits he had developed. His eyes were locked on the table as he brooded.

Not even Zack knew the true depth of what had been done to him under his father’s “care”, and he planned to never reveal his shameful secret. It made him ill even to think of it, especially after realizing in the events of Nibelheim… that what he believed to be nightmares were actually real.

Just the briefest thought of those years in Nibelheim before he was mercifully sent to the military school made his stomach churn, filling him with the irrational desire to go wash himself in boiling water, scrubbing until his skin was red and raw. It made him angry because he also knew that no matter how hard he scrubbed, he would never be able to wash away the taint of that sick bastard.

Sephiroth shuddered unconsciously, eyes narrowing at the dark turn his thoughts had taken. That man, that /monster/, had destroyed any chance of a normal life for him. Hell, he could barely function as a human, his training more suited towards the battlefield. What did he know of relationships and romance? Love or tenderness? Nothing save what he felt for Zack, his /only/ family.

With an aggravated sigh, Sephiroth dropped his pen on the table and rose. He moved towards the window and glared outside, scowling at the night.

It was beginning to be quite irksome, his constant staring out the window in broody thought. It seemed lately his thoughts had taken a darker and drearier tone, even if they had begun somewhat pleasant. Zack had been trying his damnedest but had also been somewhat absent as of late. Knowing his former subordinate, Zack had probably found himself some willing female, and Sephiroth had his suspicions just who. He didn’t have any plans to get in the way of that either. His friend deserved some happiness; after all, he had been putting up with Sephiroth for most of his life.

The former General heaved a sigh as he stared out at broken Midgar. Perhaps it was just time it died. There wasn’t much left to the ShinRa-born city anymore. Or maybe that was just his fatalistic side.

Sephiroth had no illusions about the battle to come. He was to lead a motley band of fighters, admittedly the most powerful on Gaia but still essentially human, against an unknown and uncounted horde of beasts and demi-deities led by a demi-god fueled by an unidentified power. Even his normally optimistic best friend had been having doubts lately, along with the frequent headaches.

Sephiroth frowned.

He was beginning to worry about Zack. Not that the man would allow himself to be fussed over, but the former General did inwardly vow to find out what was wrong. And perhaps aid Zack as he had always helped him. It was only fair.

Then again, Sephiroth didn’t know how much help he could be, especially if he couldn’t even solve his own difficulties. He still oscillated on the fact that he was now to lead these people. He knew they wouldn’t trust him. Hell, he didn’t trust himself. Yet, for some reason, Cloud was adamant that it be him to do it. Zack had been as well, though he hadn’t explained himself either.

And then, just twenty minutes prior this day, he had received a phone call from Cloud, informing him that a strategic meeting had been put into motion. Apparently, someone had discovered the location of Balaam, and despite the late hour of the evening, the ex-SOLDIER had insisted that the meeting be held. Perhaps he felt the constraints of time as well; Sephiroth couldn’t be sure. It was pure chance that the ninja and her companion had returned earlier than expected, seeming like the entire meeting had been preordained.

Sephiroth scoffed.

He preferred not to believe in destiny. He didn’t want to think that it had been his lot in life to burn down a city and then be brainwashed by an alien from another world. Or that it had been his fate to suffer the way he had.

What kind of deity would put that upon a person? For that matter, if there was a deity, why hadn’t anyone come to save him?

The door to the meeting room squeaked open then, distracting him from his rather morbid thoughts. In the reflection from the window, Sephiroth caught sight of the first person to arrive to the meeting. Spiky, black hair waved jauntily on his head as Zack moved towards him, taking a place at the former General’s side. Blue eyes peered out the window before shifting slightly to gaze at his best friend.

“What’cha doin’?” he questioned, slightly teasing but mostly serious. An edge of worry was evident in Zack’s tone.

“Waiting for everyone to arrive,” Sephiroth explained succinctly.

Zack eyed him disbelievingly. “I don’t suppose you were staring out the window with a slightly insane and depressing look on your face, either.”

Mossy green eyes shifted to look at his friend. Again, the feeling of something being different within the younger man washed over Sephiroth, but he couldn’t quite pinpoint it.

The former General didn’t say anything at first, which he knew would only concern Zack. Even as long as he had known the younger man, it was difficult for him to admit his weaknesses. It had been so firmly ingrained within him that as a soldier he was perfect, strong, and undefeatable. He was supposed to be callous, cold, uncaring, his abject shyness something Hojo had always chastised. He was told to be cruel and unmerciful, and sometimes, he still found himself struggling to maintain his grip on sanity.

“Seph?” Zack’s voice broke through his thoughts once more, his concern obvious. A hand was placed on his shoulder, comforting and supportive. He wasn’t supposed to need anyone, but he continued to rely on Zack more and more. Someday, he wouldn’t be able to… or more accurately, he shouldn’t have to.

Damn Hojo for ruining him.

The hand on his shoulder tightened even further, squeezing. “Sephiroth!” This time Zack’s voice was sharp and commanding, and despite his higher rank, it caused the former General’s eyes to widen in surprise. He turned to regard his friend with a questioning gaze.

“Zack?”

The spiky-haired male shook his head. “You’ve got to stop doing this, man,” he said with another gentle squeeze before patting Sephiroth on the back and dropping his hand. “I almost lost you there. Again.”

Sephiroth frowned, looking out the window once more. “I used to keep a careful tap on my emotions. With Hojo always looking over my shoulder, I had no choice. But… there’s something wrong with me. More and more lately… I’m losing control.”

Zack did not find this reassuring, and a sudden thought struck him. However, he hesitated in asking.

“You don’t think… well, it’s only a possibility, slim really, but…”

“You don’t usually stutter,” Sephiroth replied, rather bemused, turning his head slightly to look at his friend. “What?”

Zack sighed, taking a deep breath. “You’re certain that Jenova is gone?”

Sephiroth breathed in sharply at just the thought that she /wasn’t/. What if the bitch was only dormant, biding her time within him until he was weak enough for her to subjugate once more? He couldn’t really be sure and had no way to check. He only assumed that once Cloud and the others defeated her and her grip on him disappeared, he was free. But what if he wasn’t? He dreaded to think of the consequences of her toying with his mind again.

A noise interrupted their talk, both men turning their heads to see Cloud enter the room, a questioning look on his face. It appeared that the others were beginning to arrive.

The dark-haired man waved him off as he faced his friend. “We’ll finish this later,” Zack said, shooting the former General a look. Still, it plainly said that he meant business.

Sephiroth merely nodded his head in understanding before they made their way to two empty seats, preparing for the meeting to come. He tried to push all lingering concerns over Jenova’s possible existence out of his mind, knowing that worrying during the meeting would not be productive.

Conversation was quiet around the table as everyone slowly began to filter in, almost as if they had all been standing outside waiting for the right moment. Most looked tired, not that Sephiroth could blame them. It was rather late in the evening, and as Cloud had said, Nanaki and Yuffie had just gotten in not that long ago. They weren’t even supposed to arrive until the next day, but the blond suspected that something had happened in Wutai, even if the ninja refused to say anything. Both she and the lion wolf were being tight-lipped.

Most of the others, save Cid and Vincent, looked like they had just been dragged from the bed. Reno expressed his disinterest in being awoken by yawning at every possible moment and laying his head down on the table, where he would lift it at a scolding poke from Reeve only to start all over again.

Sephiroth was waiting for Elena to arrive as the female Turk was unusually late, when Tseng spoke, eager to get the meeting under way and return to whatever he had been doing before. The Wutaiian looked impeccably neat, and Sephiroth couldn’t believe for an instant, that even at one in the morning, the Turk had been pulled from the bed. Whereas the former General felt exhausted.

“The hour is late,” Tseng began. “I think it is time we get started.”

“You are not going to wait for Elena?” Sephiroth asked, his gaze taking a mental count of all the others at the table, confirming that it was only she missing.

Tseng shook his head. “No. I know what is keeping her. She will arrive when she can. Besides…” He paused, a vaguely amused expression crossing his features. “I have the feeling some of us are already falling asleep in our chairs.” It went without saying whom he was referring to. Reno gave a one-finger salute to his Commander without lifting his head from the table.

Reeve shook his head at his lover. “I agree with Tseng,” he commented before his eyes flickered to Cloud. “Why have you summoned us all here at this ungodly hour?”

Of course, none of them knew of Cloud’s decision yet. The blond was leaving that up to Sephiroth. The former General had no plans as to how to reveal that either. He was hoping that the right time would show itself. He expected it to be messy, however, and had already steeled himself for it.

“Actually,” Cid inserted with a cough. “Me and Vin called Spike and told him to get everyone together.”

Reno lifted his head, suddenly taking an interest in the conversation. He nudged Reeve with a not-so-subtle elbow as a smirk took over his features.

“You have an announcement, Captain?” he questioned in his lazy drawl. “Did you knock Valentine up, yo? Or is it the other way around?” the redhead teased, causing a number of snickers to emerge around the table, mostly from the direction of Yuffie and Archer. The engineer seemed particularly amused, especially when Cid flushed red and started sputtering in embarrassment.

Luckily for the pilot, his steadfast lover calmly stepped in, easily ignoring the laughter. “No, Reno,” replied Vincent. “I know where Balaam can be found.”

Instantly, everyone sobered, giving him their undivided attention. He had Sephiroth’s as well, the former General intrigued by how he had come across the information.

“What?” Yuffie questioned in surprise. “How do you know?”

“And you couldn’t wait until tomorrow to tell everyone?” Nanaki added in for good measure, brow furrowed slightly in thought.

Accustomed to his tendency to change forms without notice, no one was surprised when he had arrived as a demi-human. Sephiroth only hoped that it stuck around when the battle. Nanaki’s strength in this form was incredible, or so Cloud had claimed.

After delegating the leadership over to Sephiroth, the blond had gone on to explain what he could of their allies’ strengths and weaknesses in order to better prepare him. It was a crash course, which left Sephiroth reeling somewhat, but he hoped that the knowledge would stay with him.

Vincent winced at the ninja’s question but pressed forward nonetheless. “I remembered where Hojo first found them,” he explained quietly. “They are at the Lost Grounds.”

“And Vince felt the sooner we attacked the better,” inserted Cid in response to Nanaki.

Archer whistled in surprise. “You really think that Balaam’s hiding there?” he asked. After all, they had no proof.

“It fits,” Sephiroth inserted thoughtfully. “The location is out of the way, difficult to approach, and honestly, no one has ever fully documented the depths and extent of the caverns on the island.” He placed a hand on his chin as he contemplated the table. “Not to mention we have few other ideas.”

“Few?” Barret snorted. “Try fuckin’ none, Hojo Jr.”

Sephiroth’s eyes narrowed in anger at the insult, but before he could respond, Tseng interrupted them, his voice smooth and calm. “The point is that we’ve come to the conclusion that this is the best known location for Balaam. Am I correct?”

Vincent nodded as the tension dissipated momentarily. “Yes. I can feel the bastard. He’s /there/.”

“Wait a minute,” Reeve put in, holding up a hand as his brow furrowed in confusion. “Where and what are the Lost Grounds? I’ve never heard of them.”

All eyes turned towards Nanaki, expecting their resident scholar to have the answers, and he flushed lightly as he cleared his throat. “Lost Grounds is the old name for Barrier Island, a cup-shaped landmass northeast of the Midgarian continent. It is accessible only by Gold chocobo or…” He trailed off, lips curling into an amused smirk that revealed a flash of fang as he shot Yuffie a peculiar look. “Or by parachuting in from an airship.”

“No,” the ninja moaned, putting her head on the table. “I refuse! No more parachuting for me.” Her stomach twisted at the thought.

Nanaki chuckled but continued his explanation, his tone taking on that of someone reading from a textbook. “Within the towering and mountainous walls, the island is a dense forest, which entirely covers the area. The northern tip holds a singular entrance to a honeycomb maze of tunnels, but they burrow so deeply into the ground that no one has ever documented their paths.” He pursed his lips in thought, one clawed finger tapping his chin as a sudden fact occurred to him. “And if I’m not mistaken, there is a mako pool there as well.”

“A surprise attack would be rather difficult then,” Sephiroth commented, considering carefully. “However, it is not entirely impossible.” He raised his eyes, directing it at Vincent. “How long would you say we have until Balaam’s whole?”

The former Turk frowned as he considered the question, shifting in his seat. “A week” he said finally. “Perhaps even less.”

“Then, we’ve no time to waste,” Tseng said as he leaned forward, elbows on the table with his fingers steepled before him. “Which must be why you insisted on having this meeting tonight, even at this late hour.”

“Everyone’s got their hands full with the weddin’ tomorrow,” Cid interjected.

“And what better way to prepare for a life or death battle than first begin with hope?” Reeve murmured, beginning to understand Vincent’s reasoning.

Reno leaned back in his chair. “We’ve been ready for this battle for the last week. It only makes sense to take that bastard down before anyone else can get hurt, yo.” A murmur of agreement rippled across the table.

“Our best bet is to drop down from the Highwind,” Archer put in. “There are few Gold chocobos in existence, and if there are injured, it will be best to transport them aboard the airship.”

Zack whistled. “Right. That sounds like fun.”

“The anima could teleport us,” Reeve suggested. “Only, not all of them have that capability.”

“Let’s just jump,” Reno threw out, smirking slightly as Yuffie paled. “It’s more fun that way.”

Sephiroth lifted a hand. “I’m assuming this means we’re all in agreement to execute a surprise attack the day after tomorrow?” There was a series of nods around the table.

“You’re being awfully quiet, Spike,” Cid blurted out suddenly, drawing everyone’s attention towards their leader. Sephiroth had to force himself not to sigh aloud when he realized that the time he had been dreading, had arrived. “You ain’t putting forth no opinion.”

Cloud’s mako gaze rose from his contemplation of the tabletop to regard his companions with an even stare. “You don’t need to hear my opinion, Cid,” he replied quietly, wishing that his wife was here with him instead of resting.

Nanaki’s brow furrowed in thought as a small murmur of questioning rippled around the table. “What do you mean, Cloud?”

The blond shook his head. “I’m not your leader, Nanaki. There’s no need for me to make any suggestions.”

“What the hell you talking about?” Barret blurted out, growling as he slammed a fist on the table. “This ain’t no time for another one of your damn pity parties!”

Cloud’s eyes narrowed. “It’s not a pity party,” he snapped. “I’m not the fucking hero you all want me to be. And I can’t lead you to victory in this battle!” His words were sharp as a whip lashing through the air, stunning all those present into a shocked silence. Even Barret recoiled from his tone.

“But… if you’re not, then who is?” Yuffie asked quietly, unusually subdued. Then again, the ninja had been acting oddly since she had returned from home.

Cloud didn’t even speak, just allowed his gaze to center directly on Sephiroth, who looked distinctly unhappy. The others followed his line of sight, some of the sharper ones having already realized the blond’s intention from his first words.

“You can’t be serious!” Barret exclaimed, rising to his feet. “You made Hojo’s kid our leader? Didja forget he was our enemy six months ago? Have you lost your damn mind again, Spike?”

Sephiroth’s eyes narrowed. “Cloud’s reasoning was and is sound,” he said crisply. “I suggest you sit down and calmly listen to his explanation before creating dissention.”

Angered brown eyes flicked in his direction. “Was I talkin’ to you, $$# bastard?” the gun-armed man demanded.

“Enough!” Cloud’s voice rang out loud and sharp, instantly cutting through any argument and causing several opened mouths to close just as quickly as they had fallen open. The blond stood, palms planted firmly on the table as he glared at all those gathered.

“I could always lead, yo. If it /really/ bothers you,” inserted Reno easily. He smirked at everyone at the table.

Before the words left his mouth a resounding “No!” echoed from everyone around the table.

“We’re not that desperate,” mumbled Rude under his breath, perhaps the only thing he had said the entire time. If it hadn’t been for the already tense situation, there probably would have been laughter. As it were, it was enough for Cloud to take back control.

“I can’t expect you to understand, though I hoped you would,” he went on, somehow managing to calm his voice as Barret plopped down in a chair. “But defeating Jenova was a /fluke/,” he insisted with emphasis. “In case you’ve forgotten, I never even made it into SOLDIER. I know /nothing/ about strategy and battle. Balaam is no ordinary opponent. And I have something more important that I have to handle.”

Amber eyes regarded him thoughtfully. “What could be more important than this?” Reeve inquired, his voice managing to remain calm, though inwardly he was just as shocked as the rest of them. While he personally had little to say against Sephiroth, easily recognizing how hard the former General was trying to just be normal, he could understand the others’ thoughts, not to mention that they all were used to Cloud’s leadership. He was their hero, not Sephiroth.

Cloud shook his head, a sigh escaping his lips. “I have to stay in Midgar. It’s something that I know, however little of an explanation that may be. And I trust Sephiroth, contrary to what some of you think. While I could appoint Zack, he and I both know that only Sephiroth has the experience for this.”

Reno snorted. “Yeah,” he inserted sarcastically, jerking a thumb in the former General’s direction. “We do crap damage, and Sephiroth over here sneezes and takes out a whole damn army. We might as well sit on the sidelines.”

Zack smirked as a small laugh escaped from his mouth, clearly amused by Reno’s cynical wit. “That only happened the one time,” he interjected, shooting his friend an amused glare.

Sephiroth could feel warmth suffusing into his cheeks as everyone’s attention was diverted his way, half in awe and half in shock. What Zack was referring to was a complete fluke, something that had often been a joke between them. Nevertheless, it was a source of amusement for the younger man, and he thoroughly enjoyed bringing it up at all the wrong opportunities.

“Seriously?” Yuffie questioned in awe as she sat back in her chair. “Who’d ya sneeze at?”

The former SOLDIER laughed as Sephiroth shook his head and surreptitiously put a hand on his forehead. “It’s the funniest thing,” he began. “We were-”

“Zack,” the former General interrupted crisply. “This is neither the time nor the place.”

Yuffie was ready to protest, and honestly, Archer was considering it as well. He was interested in this story, having the feeling that it would be quite amusing, perhaps even manage to take down the thick tension a notch or two.

“Sephiroth is right,” Cloud interrupted easily, an amused expression on his face. “As interesting as it would be to hear, we have more important matters to discuss.” His mako blue eyes searched the table. “I’ve made my choice. If you want to leave, I won’t stop you.”

Cid scoffed. “We may not trust him, but we trust you, Spike. We wouldn’t just up and leave.” He leaned back in his chair, propping his feet on the table, Vincent promptly shoving them down. He shot his grey-eyed lover a glare before continuing, “Sides, Mr. ShinRa might just do a decent job.”

The other blond resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I appreciate the vote of confidence,” he commented. “Does anyone disagree?” His question was mostly directed at Barret, who merely harrumphed and sat back in his chair, making a noncommittal noise in his throat. No one else argued.

“Can we return to the matter at hand then?” Sephiroth inquired, fighting down the urge to sigh for what was probably the twentieth time since the meeting had started. He could feel the beginnings of a migraine pulsing at his temple, and he was only glad that Gilgamesh had disappeared for the time being and wasn’t yelling at him within his mind.

Tseng nodded, answering for all of them. “Hai. What is the battle plan, Sephiroth?”

And just like that, all of their eyes were on him, waiting for the brilliant tactical plan to emerge as if by magic. He couldn’t fail this. It was his chance to make things right, to help protect something he had once been used to destroy. All of Gaia, the Planet’s fate, was depending on him.

No pressure.

He cleared his throat, surprised by how his mouth had gone unusually dry. He was used to speaking in front of crowds, used to planning battle and war. Why then was this so different? Was it because so many lives would be depending on him? Or was it because for once, he actually cared about the outcome of the battle? Never having encountered this situation before, Sephiroth didn’t know what to think.

Ironically, however, a plan began to take form in his mind.

“There will be two parties,” he began, gaze locked on the table as the gears in his head spun with hurried activity. “One for the assault on the Lost Grounds, and the other to remain in Midgar as a rearguard. It is best if we parachute, dropping in three different groups and quietly make our way through the forest to convene at the entrance.”

Tseng nodded in understanding, silvery eyes becoming bright as he started to understand Sephiroth’s reasoning. “You’ll want the front to assault, middle for support, and back to scout, am I correct?”

A brief scan of the table reassured Sephiroth that they were all still listening to him and that no one seemed too adverse. So far so good.

“Yes. The tunnels are a verifiable labyrinth, and it is best if we split up to cover the most ground as quickly as possible. In order to keep contact, the three groups can carry walkie-talkie’s specially designed for spelunking.”

“That makes sense,” Zack commented, taking a deep breath. “But who goes to Barrier Island… and who stays behind?”

Sephiroth’s eyes fell on those gathered. He knew, instinctually, who should go and who should remain, but he was certain that there was going to be uproar. Still, someone had to stay behind, even if no one wanted to. He swallowed thickly, realizing that they were all waiting on his orders. The ones that had once killed him now united under his leadership. How ironic.

“I will remain behind,” Rude said, drawing everyone’s attention away from the former General for the moment. “I wish to stay with my wife.”

Sephiroth nodded, breathing easier. One down, only ten more to go.

“I will lead the attack on the Lost Grounds,” he begin, looking at their expectant faces. “Cloud, you will remain in Midgar and keep an eye on our defense.” The blond nodded in understanding, though he partly knew that much ahead of time. After all, it was the reason he sought out Sephiroth to begin with.

The former General’s gaze fell on Tseng next as he spoke. He wasn’t certain why, but perhaps it was because the Turk Commander would be able to understand his reasoning and back him up, so to speak.

“I will be taking six into the Grounds with me,” Sephiroth said slowly. “Tseng, Zack, Reno, Vincent, Nanaki, and Archer.” As expected, there was an immediate negative response.

Yuffie was the first to whine, the ninja always ready for a fight and certainly feeling the need for revenge after the attacks on Wutai. “What? Why can’t I go?” she asked sulkily. “I’m just as strong as them, and I want to kick some ass, too!”

“I’m not staying behind.” That was Reeve, sounding firm and resolute. Sephiroth had suspected that much as well, but he had hoped that both the man’s husband and his friends could explain the why the President of ShinRa needed to remain in Midgar.

Sephiroth shook his head. “Balaam is both malicious and sly. He could attack while we are gone. I’m counting on the rest of you to stop him when he does. Not if, but when.” He heard a scoff, his eye sliding towards a very irate pilot, who was fixing him with an intensely blue stare. And to think, that man could almost be his… father-in-law.

“Captain Highwind, you disagree?”

“I’m going with you.” He spoke like there was no alternative, that Sephiroth had not choice but accept it.

Before Sephiroth could protest, however, Vincent did. “No.” He shook his head. “You’ll stay in Midgar. It’s-”

Cid scoffed. “What? Safer?” He snorted at that thought, even as the rest of the table fell silent. Some openly gawked at what was beginning to turn into an obvious lover’s spat, while others had the grace to look away, pretending like nothing was happening.

“You don’t even have an anima,” Sephiroth stated calmly, trying to explain his reasoning to the pilot.

Blue eyes narrowed as the former General was affixed with the famous Highwind glare. “I don’t care!” he snapped as he gestured towards Tseng with a flip of the wrist. “Pretty Boy over there completely ignores his!” The Wutaiian Turk bristled at the remark but kept his tongue, not wanting the discussion to turn into a full-blown argument.

“Tseng is different,” Sephiroth explained, still managing to sound calm and keeping the condescension out of his voice. “He is-”

Cid cut in before he could even finish. “Stronger?” he snapped in question, fingers twisting for want of a cigarette.

Zack snorted, adding in, “Well, he’s not a chain smoker for one, meaning that he won’t cough and hack and give away our position. He actually listens for another. Shall I go on?”

A palm slammed onto the table, the sound startling nearly everyone. “Who gives a fuck? I’m not sitting on my ass in Midgar!”

“Cid-” Vincent attempted once more.

The pilot shook his head. “Dammit, Vince! It’s my fuckin’ airship, and I’m comin’!” At the gunman’s look, Cid’s angry glare softened and his voice lost all traces of anger. His next words were for his lover alone, not that everyone else couldn’t hear them. “I don’t trust that you won’t try to take a hit for someone then leap into another shiny green pool of mako. Because this time, I’m diving after you.”

“Cid…” The words issued on a sigh as all further argument dissolved from Vincent’s mind.

Any argument Sephiroth might have said at that point would have been null and void. He just couldn’t win, especially not when the look on Vincent’s face clearly proved that he was no longer on the former General’s side. He had to admit; Cid was a crafty one, and he had to give the pilot more credit. Sephiroth had sorely underestimated him.

The former General cleared his throat as he pinched the bridge of his nose, directing all attention back towards himself. “Fine,” he acquiesced with the wave of his hand. He also realized, that any attempt at stopping the pilot would probably only result in failure. Cid was stubborn to a fault.

“At least, our numbers will be even. It is, after all, your damn airship.” The Captain settled back satisfied, but Sephiroth’s moment of reprieve was short.

Reeve stood then, his chair shoving back with his movement, probably more violently than the President had expected. “If Cid is going, then I am as well,” he declared, expecting no further argument.

Sephiroth fought the urge to pound his head on the tabletop, wondering if Cloud had made him leader out of spite alone. Perhaps this was the other man’s means of revenge.

As things were, Sephiroth anticipated that he would spend the rest of the night explaining why each and every one of them could /not/ fight in the Lost Grounds. In the end, he would be lucky if /anyone/ stayed behind in Midgar, save Cloud. He knew the blond wouldn’t put up a fight, especially since he wanted to remain behind anyway.

The former General was doing a fine job at being leader; already no one was listening to him. It had only taken a few minutes for him to completely lose control. What a nightmare. He rubbed a finger over his forehead, trying to quell the developing headache. Luckily though, Reno saved him before he was forced to argue down the President.

“No,” denied the redheaded Turk succinctly. His voice was sharp, carrying such a serious and final note that even Sephiroth blinked in surprise. Few had ever heard Reno in his “boss mode”, and it appeared that persona had come out to play.

Reeve blinked, eyes widening as he turned his head to regard his lov-husband. Sephiroth had to keep reminding himself of that fact.

“Reno-”

Aquamarine eyes narrowed. “No, Reeve.” He was firm, unyielding, and sounding more like the boss in that moment than Reeve himself. “You are needed in Midgar, Mr. President.” His meaning was clear.

“You can’t abandon your responsibilities,” Tseng added in, but the others remained silent, perhaps embarrassed by what appeared to be yet another lover’s spat. Only the Turk Commander was brave enough to come between what was quickly becoming an angry Reeve and an already determined Reno.

Amber eyes darkened. “I know my responsibility,” he grated out.

“Do you?” questioned Reno, sharply. He sat back in his chair, unthreatened by the look in Reeve’s eyes. “What happens if you die out there, Reeve? What’s going to happen then? It’s not the same as six months ago.”

“What happens if I’m not there and you die?” the dark-haired man demanded in return. “I can throw out magic faster than anyone here, and Seiryu is one of the oldest and wisest demi-deities in existence. You /need/ me.”

“Not even modest in the slightest,” Sephiroth heard Archer mutter under his breath as the engineer pretended he was not listening in. When Reeve shifted his eyes to glare angrily at his friend, it was amusing to watch him blanch slightly and push his seat back a couple inches, his mouth slamming shut. Perhaps the rumors of the force of Reeve’s angers were based on fact.

“You are the President of ShinRa,” Reno stated simply, unperturbed by the tension rising in thick waves of the room. “There are thousands out there depending on what you are trying to do to save this planet. You can’t abandon them.”

Reeve gritted his teeth. “I’m not abandoning anything.”

Sephiroth could tell by the look in the President’s eyes that Reeve realized he was fighting a losing battle. Reno very well knew how his husband felt about his responsibilities, just as he knew Reeve had always struggled with choosing between them and his lover. The President wanted desperately to protect Reno but couldn’t do that and be in charge of ShinRa at the same time. The desire to make sure the one he loved came to no harm shone so strongly in Reeve’s eyes that for a moment, Sephiroth felt a pang of jealousy. He couldn’t help but conjecture what that felt like, to love someone that much. By all accounts, it seemed just as painful as it did wonderful.

“Then stop acting selfish,” Reno replied harshly. “Don’t underestimate our abilities… or mine for that matter.” His voice softened when he caught the expression on Reeve’s face, and he sighed. “Balaam doesn’t stand a chance in hell against us, yo.”

For a moment, all was silent as those pretending not to listen strained their ears for Reeve’s response. The President was torn between duty and heart, obviously oscillating between the two, so much so that his knuckles were nearly white against the tabletop. The silence lengthened to an almost unbearable level before a defeated sound escaped Reeve’s mouth, and he slumped back into his chair.

“If I’m selfish then what the hell is Cid?” he muttered under his breath.

“A stubborn bastard,” Archer replied almost immediately, an amused twinkle in his eye. It appeared he had recovered from the glare-of-death he received from Reeve.

Cid snorted in response as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Damn right,” he responded. “And I ain’t got nothing better to do all day then make sure you don’t leave me behind.”

Sephiroth fought down the urge to sigh and rub his forehead. He didn’t know Cloud handled it. With all the different personalities and attitudes, they hardly ever agreed… and never obeyed. It was a far cry different from leading a contingent of ShinRa soldiers, all having some form of hero-worship towards him. He knew that they were dependable and would possibly give their lives for the fight, but their varying degrees of stubbornness were taxing.

“The plans are settled then,” Sephiroth said, leaning back in his chair.

Tseng frowned. “With so few? Are you certain we will be enough?”

The former General nodded. “We are supposedly the strongest on Gaia. Six of us have anima, two of which are the oldest demi-deities created by Kami. Technically, that means there are twelve of us. I think it is adequate.” He paused as he tapped a pen on the table with his left hand, considering his next statement. “Besides, I can’t justify taking along anyone else.”

“Justify?” Nanaki inquired.

Sephiroth inclined his head. “There is a possibility, given the fortunate timing of Valentine’s knowledge, that Balaam is planning something. He /has/ been rather inactive since we all came together in Midgar.”

Suddenly, the door to the conference room flew open, probably with more force than the person behind it had intended. It swung back and hit the wall, causing nearly all everyone to jump in surprise. Sephiroth raised a brow as he took in the newcomer, not surprised to find that it was Elena, looking a little out of breath and clutching some documents.

Tseng shot his subordinate an amused glance. “You are late,” he informed her.

She grinned. “Sorry. I had to pick up those test results from Sion, and you know how he gets when he starts talking.” She came into the room more calmly than she had entered, closing the door behind her before taking an empty seat between her boss and Rude, who had been his usual self for the entire meeting. Mostly silent.

“So nice of you to join us,” Reno drawled, waving a hand at her, “because it just wouldn’t be a party without you.”

The blonde scowled as she scooted her chair in, fanning the documents on the tabletop in front of her. “No comments from the peanut gallery.”

“Elena,” Tseng warned. “Is there a reason you were late?”

She nodded as she shot Reno a glare. “I’ve got the results of the chip analysis.”

“Chip?” Nanaki questioned, tail waving behind him.

“It was found on the head of one of the Torama-clones Zack fought in Midgar,” Tseng explained succinctly. “We’ve been evaluating it for the past few days but have not been able to discern much about it. We know that it is a biochip and that it has a thought-converter. However, beyond that, we have nothing.”

“Until now,” Elena corrected, reaching for a particular paper amongst those on the table. “Sion has come up with some interesting results.”

“Wait,” Reeve interrupted. “You mean, you found this biochip on a /monster/?”

Zack nodded, recalling the battle. “Yeah, it was the weirdest thing. It wasn’t a normal creature either, obviously one of the strange Hojo-creations that you guys told me about.”

“But… why?” Reeve asked, his brow furrowed. “On nothing more than a lackey of all things.”

“That’s one of the questions that confused us as well. It wasn’t until Sion got a good look at it that we even realized the one we had was not only incomplete but also a rather degraded design. Almost as if it were merely a test run,” Elena replied, peering at the white sheet of paper in her hand. “I hate to say it, but I have a feeling there is a more complete and probably perfected model of it out there. It is most likely in use by now.”

Archer frowned. “This thing, this biochip… you’re saying it had a thought converter, right? So… it controls minds?”

Tseng responded evenly, “Essentially yes. Yet, just how much control was up for debate until we let Sion analyze it.” He turned towards Elena, who nodded.

“It has the capabilities for complete mind control, making the bearer completely subject to the commands of the original transmitter,” she explained, a troubled look on her face. The very idea of such a thing sickened her. Taking away someone’s freedom, making them no more than a puppet, it was one of the things that set her blood boiling.

“But why would Balaam need such a thing?” Vincent inquired at a loss.

The female Turk shrugged. “That’s the only thing we couldn’t figure out. Suffice it to say, we have to be prepared for anything when it comes to them. I shudder to think what they need to control.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Sephiroth inserted easily. The news of the biochip was unsettling but only further proved the belief that Balaam was up to far more than they knew. “Which is why those remaining in Midgar must /stay/ in Midgar until we return, unless the city itself is threatened. Our backup rendezvous will be Fort Condor, and if I’m not mistaken, it is still intact.”

Yuffie’s brow furrowed. “But why?” she questioned. “What if something happens?”

“That’s precisely the reason,” Sephiroth replied. “Balaam is a master of confusion and chaos. He will possibly seek to divide and conquer.” His green eyes flickered towards his blond compatriot. “I’m leaving it up to you to manage things here.”

Cloud inclined his head. “I expected as much.”

“So, that’s it then?” Archer asked, shifting in his seat. “We just… save the world the day after tomorrow?”

Reno snorted. “You make it sound like we’re beating up a couple of punks or something. I highly doubt it will be that simple, yo.”

The engineer shrugged. “Would you rather I said it was hopeless and that we should run while we still can?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Archer,” Reeve chastised with a distinct yawn. “He’s just being an idiot.”

“I think Reeve has the right idea,” Tseng interjected then, redirecting the conversation effortlessly. “It is rather late.” He glanced over at the wall clock, finding that it was almost three in the morning. With the wedding tomorrow, there was a lot yet to be done.

A small smile tugged at the corner of Sephiroth’s mouth. “I can take a hint well enough,” he stated, exchanging a look with Zack. “Very well, everyone. This meeting is adjourned.”

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