[Shattered] Dreams 60

Chapter Sixty: Departure

The cavern was once familiar, covered floor to spiky ceiling with the numerous bodies of ill-formed monsters and their allies. Their raucous cries of blood and destruction were a swell of degradation, shaking Gaia from within. The stench of unwashed carnivores and sulfurous breath permeated every neck and cranny.

But now, it was silent, a deathly quiet that was eerie even to one such as Alice Hojo. She had grown quite attached to all the intriguing blood-thirsty beasts. They made such good test subjects. Yet, as she walked the hollowed out hallways, the crisp click of her heels echoing around her, she was even more pleased that their true plans were coming to fruition.

The knights were completely submissive, her biochips an astounding success, though she couldn’t even begin to fathom the long term effects on their sanity. They would probably end up stark raving mad, not that it bothered her in the slightest. The knights had been a worthy challenge but could not stand in the face of absolute science.

And the device had been completed as well, much to her enjoyment. Her life’s work was compiled into this one scientific masterpiece that would alter the fate of Gaia and everything that lived upon it. She couldn’t help but chortle in glee to herself. With her device, Balaam had nicknamed it Apocalypto, the world would be changed. She couldn’t be more proud.

The sound of hissing voices filtered her direction, and Alice smirked in response. It was Balaam and his closest in command no doubt. With a brief adjustment of her chunky glasses, the scientist altered her original course and followed the sound. Rounding a corner, she ducked under an arch and found herself in one of the smaller alcoves that had been designated as a living space. This particular one belonged to the already defeated Azamat, hence the reason why it was small. The fallen demi-deity had been the weakest of the host’s four, and Alice was glad that weak link had been snapped.

The three remaining deities hardly looked up as she entered, ignoring her altogether. She snorted in annoyance before plopping down gracelessly into a chair, completely uninvited.

“Why does Hojo’s whore make her presence known?” Daunte hissed, none too approvingly. The masked demi-god was perhaps the creepiest of them all with his dead, soulless eyes and rasping voice.

Yet, Alice returned his stare without fear, giving him her own withering glance. “Most everyone has dispersed per Lord Balaam’s orders. What is the next step?”

Balaam laughed, dry and raspy sound coming from his yet uncompleted form. But soon, very soon he would be whole, and the entire pantheon of deities above him would rue the day they ever crossed him, including those traitors. His eyes glowed from deep within his shadowed face, crimson coals of malicious intent.

“The fools head straight for my trap, just as I knew they would.” He chuckled loudly as a clawed hand clenched. “Those imbeciles are leading their lambs to the slaughter. It is almost too easy.”

“And Apocalypto?” Alice questioned, pushing up her glasses with one finger.

“In three days, this world can begin under a new chaos,” Balaam cackled, his minions at his side joining in the raucous laughter.

Serpentine yellow eyes fell on Alice. “And what of Hojo’s wife,” the third demon rasped, one who’s name she hadn’t bothered to learn. “What will she do?”

“I told you before,” she replied icily, indignation rearing its ugly head. “Hojo is dead. As for me. I’m no fighter. I’m going to remain here. I have interest in the General Sephiroth.” Her eyes took on a maniac gleam. “I have several theories that I am most intrigued to test.”

Balaam laughed at her words, the sound harsh and grating, lacking in sanity. He stood, stretching out his great wings and emanating his slowly returning power, feeling better than he had in decades. The mortals and their foolish faithful were unaware of his plans; they had no idea of what was truly in store for them.

He was determined. This time he would not fail; he would find his freedom or die trying. He refused to be sealed away again or locked away to be forgotten. He would fight to end with his dying breath.

“The time has come,” he rumbled to the approval of those in his company. “Let us give the mortals a taste of true fear and ultimate defeat.” Dark eyes burned with the force of his fury, and all those around him had to fight the urge to shiver.

Balaam merely smirked at that. “Let them come.”

He ignored the knocking on the door, finding he would rather pretend he wasn’t home than listen to the ranting of his father. Why the old man bothered when he had clearly moved out was beyond his comprehending. Besides, with that freaky, muscle-bound oaf Seraph gone, his house was fair game. Eben was living the life of luxury now. There were no rules, no worries.

He was more than glad Seraph had disappeared. The oddly quiet man had beat Eben up far too many times, and as if in remembrance, the cocky teen scrubbed a hand over his shoulder. Seraph had unusual strength, which made him somewhat frightening.

Not that Eben was scared. Nope. He didn’t fear anything.

It was a bit disappointing, however, to search Seraph’s abandoned home and find nothing of importance or interest. He would think that the man would have had lots of secrets, but there was nothing, not even a left behind sock. The knocking disappeared at his door, and Eben relished the silence, feeling utterly content as he grabbed the remote and clicked on the television, picking a channel at complete random.

A smirk on his face, Eben leaned back into his chair and stared at the screen, not even paying attention to the action flick on rerun, just relaxing in the lap of luxury. That was until a sudden low and fierce rumble shook the entire room, causing several gaudy knickknacks to tumble to the ground with a loud crash. He bolted upright, wondering if, for the first time in his life, he was experiencing an earthquake. What was he supposed to do in such situations again?

Another violent tremble rocked the building, and this time, Eben tumbled from his chair and scrambled to his feet, narrowly missing knocking himself in the head on the edge of the coffee table. The echoing boom of some loud explosion quickly informed him that this was no mere earthquake. His gaze flickered to the window, catching a dim, orange glow beyond the sheer fabric. His mouth dropping open in surprise, Eben raced to the front door, fumbling fingers unlocking the bolts on the third try.

He threw it open and stepped outside, skidding to an abrupt stop when his heart leapt up into his throat. His gaze first fell on the body of his father, mangled and torn in the snow several yards in front of him. Blood stained the ground, and he could feel the bile rising up in his mouth. Despite his anger and annoyance, that was still his father.

But before he could even begin to mourn, his eyes rose to the sky and the cause of his father’s death. Demons were swarming into his sleepy, peaceful little town by the hundreds. Dragons, goblins, gargoyles, and creatures he had never seen before dropped down like deadly rain. Many spouted flame as they fell, catching rooftops on fire. Water streamed as snow abruptly melted, joining with the blood of the fallen and creating scarlet-streaked rivers.

Numb with surprise, his heart aching, Eben dumbly stepped out onto the walkway, his eyes widened with terror.

Why? So much destruction…

The acrid smell of ash and burning filtered his direction, and another fierce rumble rocked the town. Those monsters were destroying his hometown; when had they banded together to do such a thing? And why Icicle?

The echo of growling and scratching sounded from behind him. Fear gripped his heart as Eben slowly turned around, raising his eyes to the rooftop of the structure. Malevolent eyes gleamed down at him, offset by already blood-stained claws and a feral grin, and the fur around the creature’s maw foamed and dripped with some nameless substance.

He didn’t even have time to scream before the beast attacked, leaping directly on top of him, claws digging into his flesh. He grunted and growled, fighting back, blunt fingernails doing no damage against the heavier and stronger monster. Cold snow slipped down his back as he was brought to the ground, and he had only one thought before the jaws enclosed his head.

Why?

The wind stirred from the hovering Highwind made it seem much colder on the roof of the Neo-ShinRa building than it actually was. Cloud couldn’t help the slight shudder that wracked his body, despite the mako that continuously warmed his blood. Or maybe the chill was more from circumstance, the fear that came before any major battle. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t himself participating; he feared for the lives of his friends. They might have been the strongest on Gaia, but they fought against immortals, extremely powerful demi-beings.

He was right to be concerned.

Chewing his lip in apprehension, Cloud’s gaze roamed over those few gathered on the rooftop, most there to say goodbye to those getting ready to leave for. He could make out several couples. Cid and Vincent were already on aboard the Highwind, the Captain no doubt barking out orders, while Vincent gave him bemused stares. Archer was currently climbing the dropped ladder, having already said his brief farewells. Unlike the others, he wasn’t leaving anyone behind, and at that point, Cloud couldn’t really say whether or not that was a blessing.

Mako eyes shifted to the married couple, Reeve and Reno, a match he would have never suspected on his own. Reeve looked pained, his face drawn tight with worry, and Cloud knew without asking that he was still wishing that he could go along with the others. There was nothing worse than being forced to stay behind while your loved one fought without you, especially considering their foes.

He couldn’t see what they were saying, but when Reno turned to head towards the Highwind, Cloud caught the flash of naked fear on the President’s face moments before he grabbed his redheaded lover from behind. Reeve wrapped his arms tightly around Reno, and the blond turned away, immediately feeling as if he was intruding on a private moment. In that moment, he felt incredibly selfish, knowing that he was staying behind with his own precious love. In many ways, it wasn’t fair.

His gaze shifted to a parting that was not quite so emotional, Yuffie and Nanaki, yet another relationship that he had not expected. He wasn’t quite sure what was going on between the two, but judging from the blush in the ninja’s cheeks and the way she kept glancing at him from beneath her lashes, there was something. She laughed as Nanaki teased her and punched him playfully on the arm. They were even being loud enough that he could hear a bit of their conversation.

“If you die on me, I’ll take you out of hell and kill you again!” Yuffie warned, a stern look on her face.

Nanaki snorted, shaking his head at her. Cloud couldn’t hear his response as he was much quieter than his Wutaiian friend, but he assumed the demi-human was assuring her. He tightened his Dragon’s Claw as he spoke, tail waving about behind him, displaying the nervousness his cool demeanor refused to show.

Cloud felt a hand on his arm and half-turned to find his wife standing there beside him, a comforting smile on her face. “It’s getting close to that time,” she said, rubbing her belly with the other hand.

The former leader of AVALANCHE hmm’ed thoughtfully, watching with great amusement out of the corner of his eye as Nanaki glanced surreptitiously around him before kissing Yuffie lightly on the cheek and darting towards the ladder. He quickly climbed aboard, tail waving about significantly more jauntily than before. Yuffie, however, was blushing profusely, gaping at her best friend.

He chuckled before turning his attention back to Aeris. “If the emotions on this rooftop get any heavier, I doubt the building will be able to stand up beneath the pressure,” he commented.

“Can you blame them?” Aeris questioned, her gaze shifting to Reeve as a sympathetic look crossed her face. The President was trying his best to composed and unworried, but he was failing miserably, watching as Reno climbed into the Highwind. “Back when we were fighting Sephiroth, we were altogether.”

At the mention of the former General’s name, Cloud couldn’t help but find the man, their leader now, standing on the rooftop. Sephiroth seemed perfectly ready for battle: stoic, calm, thoughtful, even when faced with the continuous jibes and jokes of his best friend. That was understandable. Battle was what Sephiroth had been born for, what he had been made into. He was in his element.

“And now we’re fighting along the same side as him,” Cloud mumbled, shaking his head. “Strange how thin the line between good and evil is.”

“If there’s even one at all,” she murmured in response, squeezing his arm again to show her support.

The door to the rooftop suddenly squeaked open behind them, causing the married couple to turn in surprise. All those leaving were already present and accounted for. Therefore, it came as a surprise when Marlene and Denzel emerged, followed closely by a slightly weary Rude. The little girl seemed excited, her face flushed, but Denzel hung back, clearly troubled by something.

“Marlene!” exclaimed Aeris in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

It had been Cloud’s decision that the children not come to the rooftop. He thought it would upset them, but he should have known better. These were children of war. They had survived through worse.

Brown eyes twinkled up at her. “I wanted to tell everyone good luck!” she chirped, refusing to relinquish her hold on her friend’s hand. That was until her sharp gaze fell on her favorite victim, who was giving last minute instructions to his subordinate. The Wutaiian never knew what hit him.

“She’s very persistent,” Rude intoned as he joined Cloud and Aeris, a quiet Denzel clinging to his side.

The blond shook his head, lightly running a gloved hand over his face. “So I noticed,” he commented from between parted fingers. His gaze traveled back to those still remaining on the rooftop, finding Sephiroth immediately, and Zack’s loud voice drifted their direction.

“Balaam doesn’t stand a chance, yo!” the spiky-haired man laughed, obviously mimicking Reno from the planning meeting. He shifted where he stood, the Zanken sword on his back rattling in its sheath, as if it, too, was anxious for battle.

Sephiroth groaned, shifting his sight away from his idiotic friend. “Zack, get on the ship,” he ordered, turning back towards Cloud, intent on leaving a few more parting words. His eyes fell on Tseng and Marlene, the Turk Commander listening to the little fangirl babble on as Elena tried to restrain her chuckles at their side.

“Ah, Seph!” Zack latched on to his back, playfully nudging at his hair. The younger male was in full fool around mode today, a way to hide his nervousness about their upcoming battle, something Sephiroth recognized easily. “Don’t you love me anymore?”

Silver eyes met mossy grey, and to his horror, the former General felt himself blush. He abruptly twisted away from the Turk Commander, running a hand through his hair as he did so and effectively dislodging the subordinate leech from his shoulder.

He turned one annoyed eye on his best friend. “Zack, get on the Highwind before I leave you behind.”

Zack made a face before playfully saluting his commanding officer and turning on his heels. He blew a kiss to Elena, which she caught with a wink, before sauntering towards the waiting airship. Somehow, that action did not surprise either Sephiroth or Tseng. Both men had already suspected much, probably due to Rude and Aeris’ discovery and subsequent rumors. Though not outright announcing their relationship, it appeared the two were beginning with subtleties. Most likely, it was Elena’s idea. Zack never was one for delicacy.

“Bye, Mr. Tseng!” Marlene called out, waving happily to the Wutaiian as he followed Zack towards the airship, leaving Sephiroth the only one on the rooftop. “When you come back, we’ll have another tea party.”

The former General noted the Turk’s grimace and had to stifle his own laughter. However, booted footsteps alerted him to Cloud’s approach, and Sephiroth turned to greet the blond, knowing some final things needed to be said. Cloud seemed distracted, worried, more likely concerned for the fate of his companions, considering he was leaving them in someone else’s hands.

“Take care of them,” the blond said quietly. “They may be strong, but they’re still… human. Don’t forget that.” The ex-soldier paused for a moment, a small grin curling at the corner of his mouth. “Well, for the most part,” he amended, thinking of Nanaki.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. “I was General of an army of imperfect soldiers, Cloud. I know their limits.”

“Perhaps,” his companion said softly. “But sometimes, they don’t. I want to say bring them back alive, but considering your opponent, I don’t know what to hope for.”

Mossy eyes darkened. “We will win. There can be no other outcome.” Sephiroth paused as a sudden thought occurred to him. “Remember, Balaam is the master of chaos. Don’t leave Midgar for any reason.”

“You really think he will attack?”

“I can’t say.” The former General frowned as he shifted his stance, folding his arms over his chest. His every instinct was raging at him to be wary, including the voice of Gilgamesh inside his head. He didn’t know what Balaam was planning, but he was certain, one straight jaunt to the Lost Grounds might not be the end of it.

Cloud sighed. “Just come back alive… all of you.”

Sephiroth nodded before turning away from the ex-SOLDIER, fully prepared to climb aboard the Highwind. There was nothing left to say, and now, only the battle stood before them. If he believed in a god, he might have thought to pray for them. But as it was, he was content to believe in their strength.

“Sephy!”

The former General turned in surprise at the call, eyes widening moments before a small form barreled into him, wrapping arms around his waist and burying a brunet head in his belly. He immediately recognized Denzel as the child clung to him, small shoulders shaking in silent sobs. Unsure what to do, he placed a gloved hand in the child’s hair, trying to soothe him with a touch.

“Please don’ die,” Denzel whimpered, sniffling quite unattractively as he snuffled and wiped his nose on Sephiroth’s shirt.

Sephiroth was speechless, unsure what to say to the boy. He knew that Denzel was searching for reassurance, but having very little experience with children, he didn’t know what to say that wasn’t the truth. And he refused to lie. That had happened to him far too much as a child. So he patted the boy’s back in silence, eyes snapping up to look for someone vaguely Shera or Aeris-shaped to help him out.

The boy’s hands tightened on his shirt as watery eyes looked right up at him. “Promise?” he questioned… no, demanded of the former general, lower lip trembling in a pitiful fashion.

Sephiroth chewed on the inside of his mouth in frustration before nodding, unsure of what else to say. “I don’t die that easily, Denzel. I’m strong.”

“Da’ was strong, too,” the boy put in stubbornly, more tears trailing down his face. “You can’t promise, can you? ‘Cause you’re gonna leave.”

Such honesty from a child. Sephiroth knew it was wrong in some fashion that the war should have torn innocence from him. And it reminded him all too well of his own sordid past, making his heart clench. He gulped, glancing up helplessly for some sort of aid.

He caught mako blue eyes, and Cloud came to his rescue. The blond wrapped arms around the little boy and worked to pull him away from Sephiroth, but Denzel refused to let go, afraid that if he did, he would never see his surrogate father again. In such a short time, he had already gotten irrevocably attached. Sephiroth was helpless in the face of such loyalty.

Finally, Cloud was able to pry Denzel away, but that did not stop the tears. “You’re gonna leave, too,” the little boy mumbled unhappily, turning limp in Cloud’s arms. “I’ll be alone again.”

It was more than Sephiroth could take. “I’m not,” he said with a shake of his head, surprising himself with the words that seem to come from nowhere. “You won’t, Denzel. I… I promise.” Strange how easily they fell from his lips, as if he could truly promise such a thing and expect it to come true just because he said so. He was strong; he was powerful. He was the great General, but for all intents and purposes, he was mortal. And Denzel knew that.

The brunet sniffled. “I don’ believe you.”

Sephiroth looked helplessly towards Cloud, but the blond just frowned. “Denzel, it’s not that simple,” he attempted to explain. But the child just cut him off with a violent shake to his head, having seen too many horrors of the world to take even his newest caretakers words at face value.

He acted completely on impulse then, hands going to the military tags around his neck. Remnants of a past he hated, something he had appeared out of the Lifestream with, that he couldn’t seem to forget. To him, they meant nothing, but to a boy searching for a promise, something to cling to, they would be reassuring. He frowned down at the silver links for a moment, eyes tracing over his name on the flattened metal before stepping forward, gloved hands placing them around Denzel’s neck. Brown eyes widened in surprise.

“These are only on loan,” Sephiroth explained, somewhat shocked at his own sensitivity. As quickly as Denzel had become attached to him, he had become attached to the kid. It was strange and something he would have never expected. Just the knowledge that there was someone who believed in him so implicitly was enough to send his hope for this mission rising far above the level of dismal.

“I’m coming back for them.”

Denzel nodded, and that was all Sephiroth needed to see. The hope shining in the boy’s eyes was plain on his face.

“‘Kay.”

“I’ll take care of him,” Cloud inserted easily, mako eyes watching his former mentor almost curiously.

Sephiroth nodded before turning on his heels, the wind kicked up by the Highwind whipping about his frame. There was nothing more that needed to be said.

As Cloud watched him go, Aeris appeared at his side, a thoughtful frown on her face. Her gaze flickered to Denzel for a moment before watching Sephiroth’s ascent into the airship.

“We have to evacuate Midgar,” the ex-SOLDIER stated before she could even speak.

The flower-girl blinked. “Why?”

Cloud shook his head. “I don’t know, and I can’t explain it.”

She sighed, her grip tightening on his arm as she watched the Highwind rumble and groan before rising in the air. “I sense it, too,” she murmured. “I have a bad feeling about this entire venture.” Her eyes followed Marlene as the little girl rushed past them, waving up excitedly at the departing airship, clearly believing entirely in the success of their group. “Somehow, I feel we’re being played the fools.”

“If there is a god, we had better start praying,” Rude intoned from Cloud’s other side. He adjusted his sunglasses with the tip of one finger, gaze locked on the Highwind that was quickly becoming little more than a speck in the sky. Though his own wife was safe with him, he still feared for his friends.

Suddenly, the door to the roof burst open with all the subtlety of a train whistle. Everyone present turned to find an unknown ShinRa soldier rushing towards them, waving about an unidentified document. He seemed anxious, eyes wide with fear as he stumbled towards them, gasping out an almost unintelligible phrase before depositing the document in Reeve’s hands, the President moving to join all the others.

“What is it?” Elena asked, jogging up towards them.

Amber eyes quickly scanned the document before Reeve suddenly paled, wordlessly handing it over to Elena before looking up at Cloud. “It’s Icicle,” he said succinctly. “Something has attacked the town.” He shifted where he stood, hand restlessly tapping the hidden daggers under his sleeve. “There’s the possibility that it’s Balaam.”

“What?” Yuffie exclaimed, her gaze darting towards the Highwind. “But… what?”

Elena shook her head. “No, the force described here is too small to be Balaam’s. Possibly just a scouting group or maybe-”

“Maybe he’s trying to draw us out like Sephiroth suspected,” Rude interrupted smoothly, jaw set tight with anger. “It must be a trap.” He had to believe that it was anything but a coincidence, not with the Highwind completely out of sight already.

“We can’t just abandon Icicle though,” Reeve insisted. “They wouldn’t stand a chance against the power of a demi-deity.”

Elena shook her head. “We don’t even know if it is Balaam. The report only talks about a horde of winged creatures.”

The ninja scoffed, one hand stroking the edge of her shuriken. “I don’t want to sit around on my ass here and wait. We’re heroes, not bad guys. What would it look like if we abandoned them?”

Rude shook his head negatively. “I’m not leaving my pregnant wife here, undefended,” he stated stubbornly. There was a point in everyone’s life when they had to choose, and Rude already knew where his loyalties laid. A sense of unease settled in his belly as he realized Sephiroth had been right. Balaam knew they were coming. It didn’t bode well for those attacking the Lost Grounds, if there was even anything there for them to fight at all.

Cloud sighed, pinching his nose with one hand as he listened to them argue around him. Part of him raged to run immediately off to Icicle and start swinging his blade, but another part of him wanted to believe Sephiroth’s order to remain in Midgar. But then, could his conscience take the abandonment of those innocent people?

He was left feeling like he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and everyone looked to him for answers.

“I’m going,” Reeve announced before Cloud even had a chance to think things through. “I can’t sit by idly.”

“Me, too!” volunteered Yuffie, all too excited to be finally joining the battle.

Cloud should have suspected that. Both were unhappy about being left behind. He felt a migraine beginning to develop as Aeris shifted beside him, frowning concernedly.

“But what if Sephiroth is right, and Balaam is just trying to divide us?” he inserted.

“We’re already divided,” the President insisted, amber eyes flashing. “And can you honestly look me in the eye and tell me that you can abandon them without a second thought? Because I can’t.” He couldn’t help but wonder if Reeve was just desperate to find something to occupy himself other than worrying for his husband.

Yet, Cloud couldn’t justify leaving Icicle to its fate. The hero part of himself, the one he could never deny that always seemed to rule his life wouldn’t allow it. He was in charge of Midgar, and it was up to him.

He nodded. “All right. Take a helicopter and check out Icicle.”

“I’m coming, too,” Elena added in quickly, eyes darting between Reeve and Yuffie. “I promised Reno I’d not let Reeve do anything stupid.”

Rude snorted as he moved to take Denzel from Cloud’s arms and grabbed Marlene’s hand. He turned on his heels as he shook his head and moved to the door, intent on taking the children with him.

“I think this qualifies as stupid,” he muttered under his breath as he left.

Cloud followed his exit with a thoughtful gaze.

“Garret, find Sion and tell him to evacuate the rest of Neo-ShinRa and Midgar at once,” Reeve ordered, speaking to the man who had brought him the missive. “I want all upper employees to convene at Fort Condor, all citizens to Kalm.” He paused, thinking another moment. “Find Reis, my sister, as well. Tell her to not leave Shera’s side.”

The man, Garret, nodded quickly. He saluted the President with a quick snap of his wrist before turning on his heels and heading back into the Neo-ShinRa building, movements quick and efficient. Cloud only hoped that they weren’t making a mistake.

On the bridge of the Highwind, it was relatively quiet, most of their passengers choosing to gather elsewhere. Cid had also dismissed everyone but the barest of his crew, explaining that it “wasn’t no fucking game” and “go home to your &!#$ families.” They had argued, but the pilot had been firm. Now, most were gone, and Vincent couldn’t help but smile slightly as he watched his lover puttering around the bridge, fixing dials and adjusting switches.

At the present moment, the blond had his back to him and was muttering curses over some setting that wasn’t fixed to his own definition of perfection. Tired of leaning against the wall and knowing that Cid was only fiddling for the sake of having something to do, Vincent strode across the bridge, surreptitiously glancing around him.

Yep, completely deserted.

He wrapped his arms around the pilot from behind, resting his chin on Cid’s shoulder. “If you curse at it enough, will it fix itself?” he inquired, very bemused as he whispered in the pilot’s ear. He curled his tongue out, wrapping it around the shell and absorbing the small shudder that wracked his lover’s body.

Sky blue eyes rolled. “Ain’t you the least bit concerned?” Cid replied shortly, turning his head to kiss Vincent. It was slow and sweet, a culmination of the strange and sorrowful events of the recent past. Their love had been tried and tested several times over, and proved to be strong and true, at least, by the end of this battle.

“What’s the point?” returned the gunman mildly once their kiss had ended. “After all, you already promised you were jumping in after me.” Grey eyes sparkled with a rarely seen before contentment.

Cid reddened at the reminder. “I would prefer to not have to,” he responded gruffly, one calloused finger tweaking at an already tweaked switch as he returned his attention to the panel in front of him, ignoring the ex-Turk’s soft chuckles behind him.

The intercom beeped just then, and the pilot reached for the button. “Yeah?”

Sephiroth’s voice filtered in from the cargo bay, vaguely disrupted from the static. “Everyone’s aboard, Captain. Let’s get her in the air.”

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Cid simply responded, “Got it.” The intercom clicked off as he sighed, scrubbing a hand over his stubbled face. It was so strange to heed orders coming from someone other than Cloud. He half expected to hear a “Let’s mosey” and was slightly disappointed at the clipped, clearly confident, organized missive from Sephiroth.

“Time to save the world, chief,” Vincent mumbled, undraping himself from Cid’s back.

The pilot snorted. “Again,” he commented before reaching forward and flipping on the intercom for the entire ship. “Hold on to sumthin’. We’re taking off,” he gruffly announced before clicking off, shifting towards the wheel.

Vincent chuckled as he folded his arms across his chest, leaning back against the wall once more.

(Are you ready?) Erebus questioned, suddenly making an appearance within the gunman’s mind. Vincent frowned, adjusting his balance as the Highwind began to lift into the air.

‘I’m not sure what you mean by that,’ he responded internally. ‘I’m prepared to fight. I’m prepared to face Balaam.’

Erebus sighed. (Yes, there is that.) He paused, however, and Vincent could plainly hear the hesitation, which confused him even further. What was his anima trying to tell him? (Have you ever stopped to consider what is going to happen afterwards?)

The dark-haired man furrowed his brow. ‘Afterwards? Is there something you’ve been keeping from me?’

The demi-deity was quiet for a moment as he considered his words. (You still haven’t managed to summon your other. You will need his help against Balaam; I guarantee it. Balaam has some power that we know nothing about.)

‘You’ve said so before. But I have a sense that’s not what you were intending to tell me before.’

There was a swirl of darkness and cloaks, a pulse of shadows before suddenly Erebus appeared beside him. “You’re right,” he commented in response. “What do you think will happen to Balaam when you defeat him? Do you think a mortal can kill a demi-god?”

“I’m guessing not,” Vincent replied. He eyed his anima critically. “What are you trying to say?”

Erebus sighed, tapping his scythe once against the ground. “We are not lawless beings. We live by guidelines, which are regulated by the Conclave. It is they who decided to lock up Balaam after the first betrayal and exiled him to the Lost Grounds. And after this battle, it is their decision which we have to follow through on.”

“Decision,” the gunman repeated. His eyes became narrow grey slits. “Quit circuiting around the issue. Just spit it out, Erebus.”

The Underworld deity nodded before taking a breath, eyes flickering only once to the seemingly oblivious pilot. “Kami laid down strict rules when he gave us our powers. When Balaam is defeated, we had only two choices because we cannot just destroy him. That is impossible, against the rules. Thus, the reason he was sealed before, but we can’t risk that again.”

“Choices? What kind of choices, Erebus?”

If the older male could show his discomfort, Vincent was sure the deity would have been fidgeting. “We could either give up our powers as a whole… or subject the Host once more to the sealing.”

“The Host…” Vincent murmured, quiet for a moment before his eyes widened. “You’re talking about me. What exactly do you mean by sealing?”

(He means that you will have to take the four into your body again. It’s the only way to keep them under control,) the other voice in his head answered. He knew it was Diablos but hadn’t yet discovered that deity’s other name. (The others refuse to give up their power to save one mortal. Not for the sake of Gaia.)

“You want me, now that I’m finally free, to have those voices again?” the former Turk hissed, eyes flashing angrily. “To suffer those nightmares? And that horror? When I hadn’t even asked for it in the first place?”

Erebus flinched. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t. But it is not. It is still your choice.”

“Except that it isn’t,” the gunman intoned lowly, pushing himself up off the wall violently as his hands clenched at his side. “Because if I don’t, then what are your options?”

(Hojo has already conditioned your body to accept the demons,) Diablos answered. (Which means, in order to find another, we would have to have them suffer much the same. Mako treatments, Jenova applications-)

“In other words, torture!” Vincent growled. He heaved a deep sigh, anger beginning to burn within him.

“Torture? What the hell are ya talkin’ bout, Vince?” Cid questioned, blue eyes darkening in concern. His gaze flickered to Erebus, narrowing slightly.

The gunman shook his head as he crossed his arms over his chest, staring at the floor. He wasn’t sure how to put it into words, to tell his lover that everything they thought they had escaped from was about to return to haunt them again: the nightmares, the power, the bestial transformations… the immortality. Cid would die long before he did, and then, he would be alone again, forever trapped in a cursed body. And Vincent knew that as much as he hated what had been done to him, he couldn’t allow it to happen to anyone else. He wouldn’t be able to survive the guilt. He knew that this Conclave was aware of that, too, the bedamned selfish deities.

“Vince?” the pilot pressed. He stepped forward, putting a hand on Vincent’s shoulder. He winced when he felt the stiffness in his lover’s body and the slight tremble.

“Ask Erebus how they mean to win this war,” Vincent replied lowly, not removing his gaze from the floor. The blue gaze automatically shot towards the demi-deity.

Erebus sighed again, instantly feeling like he had been shoved back onto the chopping block. “We need Vincent to take the four back into his body once we defeat him.”

“No,” Vincent sneered. “You don’t want to give up your power, so you’ll put it on someone else that’s not part of your precious pantheon.”

“You’re not fuckin’ serious,” Cid argued. “There’s no way in hell. He’s been through enough!” The pilot looked towards his lover, hand tightening on his shoulder. “Vince?”

The gunman sighed, voice low and somewhat dull. “You know I can’t say no, Cid. I won’t let anyone else go through what I had to.”

“It will make you immortal,” Erebus explained, turning on his back, unable to watch the emotions flickering through their faces. He couldn’t help the guilt that flowed through him from his inability to change the council’s mind.

“#$# ridiculous!” cursed the pilot, glaring fully at the Underworld’s deity back. “Gods in heaven or whatever you fuckin’ call that up there, and you can’t come up with no better option? What the hell good are you?”

“There are rules, all right?” Erebus snapped. “Decrees passed by Kami that we have to obey. If I could, I would change things, but I cannot. I tried to get them to find another way, but I’m one of the youngest. They are stuck in the old ways. It is the same reason we are fighting Balaam now.”

Cid scowled. “That’s bullshit! You’re-”

“Enough!” roared Vincent, interrupting both of them. Two pairs of eyes turned towards the gunman and his uncharacteristic outburst. “Stop arguing, there’s no need for it! Cid, you know that I can’t say no.”

Blue eyes darkened before the pilot grabbed Vincent by the shoulders, spinning the gunman around to face him and pushing him against the wall. “I know you don’t want that,” the pilot claimed, his voice low as he tried to lock eyes with his lover. “I don’t want you to have to suffer again, Vince.”

“I couldn’t live with myself if I forced someone else to endure it. At least, I know what to expect, and I know, for a time, I won’t have to go through it alone.”

“Dammit.” Cid sighed, as he leaned forward, his forehead lying on his lover’s chest. “It wasn’t ‘sposed to be like this. It isn’t fair.”

The gunman swallowed thickly, not even having the words to comfort Cid, not when he couldn’t even reassure himself. It certainly brought a new level to their upcoming battle against Balaam.

Erebus shook his head, and for the first time in his life, he wondered if maybe his birth father had been right in some ways. If the rules that Kami had laid down were to bring about this, perhaps they weren’t so right after all.

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