[Shattered] Dreams 65

Chapter Sixty-Five: Fate’s Cruel Hand

There was little left within the huge cavern, now that the battle was through. Alice Hojo noted this mentally as she scribbled down more details in the notebook she had balanced in her free hand. She idly pushed up her glasses with the forefinger of one hand before scanning the ground once more, stepping over a dismembered arm with one smooth motion. It twitched in a barely discernable shift, not that she paid it any direct attention.

“Hmm,” she murmured, more to herself than to the three large, winged demons that were trailing along boredly behind her. “Everything went exactly as planned, though less died than we had hoped.” Her tone was contemplative… cold, just like her late husband had always prided her for.

Her gaze swept over the bloodstained rocks, taking in what very few bodies that remained. Most had turned to dust when they died, like the rest of the monsters in the world. But a few of her late husband’s creations, having become more and more human with every experiment, remained behind with their deaths. Twisted, deformed bodies, some burnt to a crisp and others frozen to bits. Thanks to the one she had observed as Fenrir, many were turned to stone and shattered to pieces.

“Interesting.”

Her pen scribbled more on the pad, taking down extensive notes. It had been her job to remain behind and watch the execution of the trap from above. Alice had waited until the do-gooders had left, flying away in the Highwind, before letting the demons fly her down. Balaam had wanted her to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents, and he seemed to have a keen interest in Vincent Valentine. Alice had only agreed because she was very curious about her stepson, Sephiroth. By all accounts, he should have been dead. Yet, there he was, destroying a good portion of the monsters in Balaam’s decoy army.

She had been particularly delighted by the manic look on his face as he took out both Raidne and the Balaam-clone. For a moment, his eyes had even looked elliptical… just like her own boys. It was encouraging. She had started to think at that moment that there might be a chance to win him back after all.

Even if Balaam had lost many of the knights in the battle, and a good portion of his captains, he considered them a worthy sacrifice for a cause after all. It was not as if they were dead. With any luck, they would be able to slip out of whatever prison the damned faithful tried to lock them in and quickly rejoin Balaam once more. The mortals had been too scared to try and kill them… not like in Icicle.

There had been a great victory.

“Will Lord Balaam be pleased?” hissed one of the demons behind her.

She tossed him a look over her shoulder, adjusting her glasses once more. “This is for my benefit, not his. I’ve already given him his science.” With a huff, she turned back around and continued forward, stepping over another twisted body.

Behind her, the three demons exchanged annoyed glances, hating having to serve the human female. Even if they did hold a grudging amount of respect for her. After all, it was Hojo’s science that helped create many of their brethren as well as restore Lord Balaam. And with the Apocalypto weapon she had devised, there was little anyone could do to stop them.

Her eyes raked over the battlefield once more, inwardly recalling the battle. Two had been seriously injured, the dark-haired former SOLDIER and the spear-wielding blond. But only the SOLDIER had looked as if he were close to death. Balaam would still have to face more than he expected in the final battle, if the mortals chose to fight back. There were several opponents of note, one especially that she nearly salivated at the chance to get her hands on.

The Wutaiian man wielding two swords in particular had captured her attention. He seemed to have a third sense, so to speak. There were many times she caught him avoiding attacks that not even Sephiroth with his enhanced senses would have noticed. And at one point, she swore she heard him scream in another voice as his eyes shifted color. Very interesting indeed.

He would have been fun to play with. And it was common, documented knowledge of her late husband’s that Wutaiians had a greater tolerance for pain. She idly wondered what it would take to force a scream from that pretty mouth…

Alice moved to take another step, when something caught her eye. Or to be more precise, two somethings. Raising a brow, she knelt, her fingers brushing the dirt off of them. “Interesting,” she mused yet again as nimble fingernails plucked the two small spheres from the ground. They rolled into her hands with a small clink.

“What is it?” hissed the smallest demon, stepping up beside her.

She smirked, the two spheres rolling about lazily in her palm. “Materia,” Alice Hojo answered smugly. Her eyes roamed over them, noting the fractures raced across the once smooth surface. “Or to be more precise, broken materia.”

The materia slid into her pocket with one move, for further experimentation, as she turned towards her demon escorts. “Very well, I’m done here.” She tapped her notebook to illustrate her point. “I’ve all the data I need. Take me to Balaam.”

They grunted in agreement as she skimmed her notes once more, following them out. Her last thought was that her late husband would have been pleased. Very pleased, indeed.


The Highwind touched down on the plains just outside of Fort Condor with a smooth landing, despite the fact that the Captain was unconscious and bleeding from several wounds. It was a very subdued and worried crew that exited, heading immediately to the small tunnel that led into the former mako reactor. They looked the worst for wear, that on first glance, it appeared they had only lost the battle rather than gain victory.

But with two of their party unconscious, one barely breathing, it was hardly the time for celebration.

Sephiroth, in particular, was especially grave as his stomach twisted in his abdomen every time he looked down at his barely alive best friend. After Zack had passed out, he didn’t even move. Not a twitch. And his chest barely rose up and down, his skin even turning an ashen color that scared Sephiroth. He didn’t know if he could lose Zack again… not and it be his fault.

He didn’t know if his tenuous hold on sanity would be strong enough to survive.

The door to the tunnel burst open at that moment and a man came hurrying out, looking very harried with his grey hair tousled on his head. He bustled towards them before skidding to a stop in front of Sephiroth, attempting a clumsy bow that really didn’t suit him. The former General appraised him for all of a second before coming to the conclusion that this man was no threat and allowed himself to relax.

He paused in his walking and behind him, the others did as well, though they crowded around to hear the conversation.

“Umm, Sephiroth, sir,” the man began to say in a mildly stuttered tone as he twisted a hat around in his nervous fingers. “Or should I call you General? Was that impolite of me? They didn’t say-”

The formerly silver-haired man shook his head. “Sephiroth is fine. And you are?”

The man nodded. “Neme. I am the one in charge of this establishment. The others of your party are here as well, resting and healing.” His eyes quickly evaluated the situation, noting the unconscious men and the wounded bodies of their fellows. It appeared to have been a difficult battle and inwardly, he gulped in fear. Would they survive this catastrophe? Or was it finally Gaia’s time to explode?

It was a frightening thought.

“Healing?” Sephiroth repeated, not so much confused, as he was concerned. With the knowledge that Midgar had been destroyed, he had assumed something had happened, but would have thought they would have gotten out in time to avoid any battles. They were prepared to run if necessary, Sephiroth had seen to that before leaving.

Neme nodded, his face grave as he began wringing his fingers together again. “Yes. It appears they sustained heavy damage in their battles. Mr. Tuesti has not regained consciousness since being wounded and we’ve been unable to-”

“What?” Reno pushed his way to the front of the crowd, shoving Nanaki aside with little ceremony as all blood drained from his face. He stalked forward and grabbed Neme, jerking the innocent man by his lapels. “What did you say about Reeve?” he snarled.

Neme blinked owlishly, slightly frightened by the ash-stained and blood-spattered face of the redhead. “He’s in the infirmary,” the man choked out. “We’ve… been doing the best we can but nothing seems to be working.”

Reno’s jaw worked soundlessly, his heart dropping into his stomach as fear pierced his heart. He stared at the older man for all of a moment before violently releasing him and shoving past, taking off at a dead run for the tunnels and the interior of Fort Condor. Sephiroth didn’t even try to stop him, knowing that the man was probably scared half out of his wits. Left behind, Neme gulped loudly and rubbed a hand over his chest, watching Reno’s departure with wide eyes.

“And the others?” Nanaki asked, his anxious voice rising above the crowd as he pushed his way through. If Reeve, who was supposed to be nowhere near to battle was hurt, he feared for the others. Reeve was connected to one of the strongest anima and the fact that he had been injured was more than worrisome… it was terrifying.

The older man shook his head. “Ms. Kisaragi has responded well to the treatment and should be up in a few days and-” But he couldn’t finish his statement before a strangled noise escaped the demi-human’s mouth.

Golden eyes darkened in worry. “K-Kisaragi?” he repeated, voice barely above a whisper. “You… you mean Yuffie?” One of his hands clenched at his side as his heart thundered loudly in his chest. He desperately hoped that he had heard wrong, that he had been mistaken even if he knew it was only an irrational hope at best.

But he simply couldn’t stand it if he was going to be forced to be alone all over again. Bugenhagen was gone, there was no one left for him. Yuffie couldn’t be hurt, she simply couldn’t. But his hope faltered and sputtered a broken death as Neme nodded slowly, an apologetic look to his eyes.

Sucking in a horrified breath, his eyes widened impossibly large, Nanaki reacted much the same as Reno. He didn’t even spare the others a glance as he took off, running past Neme and nearly knocking other two more men that were emerging from the Fort Condor tunnel. He wouldn’t be able to relax until he could see with own eyes that Yuffie was unharmed. He couldn’t bear to lose his best friend.

Sephiroth’s mossy eyes watched the exit of the two men with a feeling of dread quivering in his belly. His hands unconsciously tightened around Zack in his arms and he could hear the sounds of the others shifting behind him, worry echoing loudly in their chests. His gaze shifted back to Neme, a question on the tip of his tongue.

“What about Cloud?” he demanded a bit more rudely than he intended. His words came out harsh and biting, tainted with trepidation that the strange feeling that had attacked him during the battle had some other meaning.

Neme blinked, his face pinched with confusion as he tilted his head to the side. His hands began to nervously twist the hat again, fingers pinching and pulling at the fabric. “No one is here by that name,” he answered slowly, eyes darting from the former General to the other men standing behind him, wondering if this ‘Cloud’ was someone important to one of them as well.

Unconsciously, Sephiroth took a step backwards, the words striking him hard from all directions. “… What?”

“What do you mean Cloud’s not here?” Vincent asked, his question echoing Sephiroth’s as he moved to stand next to the former General, Cid clutched desperately in his hold. Bloodied rags were wrapped around the pilot’s still seeping wounds and his face was ashen, but he looked significantly more alive than Zack, with his chest rising and falling in steadying movements.

Neme shook his head. “The others made no mention of a Cloud when they came here. But with everything so frantic… I could have missed him in the confusion.” He shifted his attention to one of the men standing at his shoulder. “Garig, go check, please?”

The dark-headed burly man nodded and turned, heading back into Fort Condor with quick movements as Neme returned his attention to Sephiroth and the others. “I see that many of you are injured. We will help you get them to the infirmary,” the older man suggested, waving the other two behind him forward.

Sephiroth’s hands tightened around Zack’s body as one approached, hands held out as if to offer help in carrying him. “No,” the former General denied, shaking his head firmly. “He is my burden. Just… lead me somewhere I can take him.”

The pale eyed man nodded. “Very well sir.” His gaze flickered to the others. “The injured can come with me. Those seeking rest can follow after Karin,” he explained, gesturing to his companion.

“Why are you helping us?” Tseng asked, slightly concerned as he somewhat limped forward. With Reno gone, he had started to lean on Archer. He had taken a slash to the thigh and while it wasn’t life threatening, some of the pain still lingered from the vague attempt at healing it. He was certain he would be back to his prime tomorrow, however.

The look on Neme’s face was grim. “We may not really know what’s going on, but I do remember many of those that came here and aided us. We always repay our debts.” For a moment, his tone was firm and determined, quite different from the nervous way he had been acting before. He turned away from them, gesturing towards the somewhat darkened tunnel. “Now, if you would come along please, we will help tend to the wounded.”

Sephiroth nodded, already hurrying to follow the man as the others started after him. The demi-deities, he noticed somewhat belatedly, had disappeared not long after the battle had ended. But frantic with concern and distracted with disgust for himself for walking into a trap, he hadn’t put much thought into the matter. And now wasn’t the time to be worrying about such inconsequential things either. Not with Zack breathing shallowly in his arms and Vincent’s hurried steps, equally concerned for his lover, echoing behind him.


Reno burst into the infirmary with little ceremony, slightly out of breath from his haphazard run through the corridors of Fort Condor. He had demanded directions from the first person he grabbed and the woman, with a slightly scared look on her face, had babbled them out before scurrying away. It might have had something to do with the manic look in his eyes and the blood that still dotted his clothing. But Reno didn’t care for formalities or politeness, not when he had visions of his injured lover flashing in his head.

His heart thudded so loudly in his chest that it echoed in his ears and he could scarcely hear anything over the pounding of his body. His breathing was harsh and echoing as he was filled with a cold, consuming terror. Faced with the type of life he lived, his profession, he had always been well acquainted with death. And there was a certain measure of realization that it could come swiftly and without warning. But no matter of preparation or understanding could have made it any easier to bear.

He simply couldn’t lose Reeve. It would be like a part of himself dying, as sappy as that sounded and his fear had driven him forward, running up stairs as opposed to waiting for slow and creaking lifts. The moment he careened into the infirmary, nearly knocking over a nurse and her tray of syringes in his haste, he had immediately scanned the beds, mostly empty. He had eyes only for Reeve, however and he was verging on panic when he couldn’t see the other man anywhere.

“Reeve!” he hollered, despite the fact that his lover probably couldn’t hear him. All rational thought had left his mind as he stalked forward, gaze sweeping over every bed. “Ree-”

A hand settled on his arm and he whirled in anger, only to find himself looking up into saddened, ancient eyes. He recognized their owner in an instant. Seiryu, Reeve’s anima, was looking down at him with something akin to pity. Anger blossomed inside of Reno as he glared at the demi-deity.

“This is an infirmary, wild one,” Seiryu informed him sharply. “Your hollering will not ease the rest of any of these patients.”

Reno gritted his teeth. “I don’t give a fuck about the others. Where’s Reeve?”

The older male released a sigh, giving off an insufferable tone as his gaze flickered to the other side of the room, cordoned off from the rest of it by a white sheet. Reno followed his line of sight and without another word, charged past him into the enclosed space. He skidded to a stop the moment he laid eyes on the still form of his lover, lying pale and wan within the hospital bed.

His heart stopped in his chest as his knees wobbled and he felt every bit of air drain from his lungs. Wires and machines, a soft beeping in the background, he barely noticed these things. And everywhere he looked Reeve was connected to them, dark eyelashes a sharp contrast to his pale cheeks, as he lay motionless. White bandages peeked around the edges of the hospital clothing and blankets. He only faintly heard the curtain rustle behind him as Seiryu stepped into the enclosure as well.

“By Kami,” Reno stammered, feeling light-headed from the lack of air. He stumbled forward on shaky legs, cautiously approaching the bed for fear of disturbing any of the wires that crisscrossed his lover’s body. He could already feel it, the sob welling up in his throat, as he reached out with a trembling, brushing the back of his fingers over Reeve’s cheek. He was startled by how cool Reeve’s skin felt.

His knees buckled and he dropped into the chair at the side of the bed, his free hand reaching to take Reeve’s limp fingers into his hold. There was no response from his lover and Reeve’s name echoed from his lips, a faint whisper. “What happened?” he asked, speaking to Seiryu in a strangled tone. “Why was he…? He shouldn’t have been?” Reno shook his head, his gaze dropping to the floor. “Damn stubborn bastard…”

“Icicle was attacked,” Seiryu said softly, slowly beginning to explain. “Reeve refused to stand idly by.”

Reno’s jaw set as his fingers rubbed across Reeve’s hand, his thumb grazing over the familiar gold ring that represented their commitment to each other. “And you let him,” he replied coldly. “You let him fight.”

The demi-deity was incredibly patient, recognizing the mortal’s concern and in truth, feeling much the same for his animus. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was partly to blame for Reeve’s condition since he had been the one to suggest the joining. He sighed heavily.

“I am not one to tell an adult what he can and cannot do,” Seiryu replied. “You know him better than anyone. He would not leave them to their fate.”

The Turk sucked in a deep, shaky breath. “What happened?” he repeated, slower this time, as if every word was difficult to speak. “How did he get like this? Why won’t he wake up?”

“It is not something that any materia can cure,” the demi-deity explained, taking a step towards the other side of the bed. His aged gaze swept over the motionless form of his anima. “It is damage to the mind caused by the forced breaking of a bond.”

Aquamarine eyes shot towards the older male accusingly. “Quit talking shit and explain something!” he snapped, unconsciously gripping his lover’s hands tighter. He could feel his body trembling violently and tried to rein in his emotions, but they were escaping far too quickly than he could handle. “What bond?”

Seiryu’s gaze was steady and unyielding despite the subtle, condemning darkening of Reno’s features. “Only the eldest of us are capable of it, but when bonded to a mortal, we can merge our bodies to form one being, one entity which is stronger combined then fighting together but separate.” He paused, letting his explanation sink in as he gingerly pressed his palm to Reeve’s forehead. A stab of fear shot through him at the clamminess to the executive’s skin. It did not bode well.

“We employed this method in order to fight, but during the battle, we were attacked from behind and I was forcefully ejected out of the bond.” Seiryu shook his head. “It is not something that can simply be recovered from or even healed. There is nothing more we can do but wait for Reeve to pull through on his own. If his will to live is strong enough.”

“Bullshit!” Reno snarled, rising to his feet in a violent movement. He was hurting, every piece of himself crying out with grief. Even if Reeve wasn’t dead, he looked so damned near close that the shadow of death seemed to cling to him, just waiting for the moment to strike. He was hurt, he was unconscious, and Reno was helpless in the face of those glaring facts.

And yet, there was no outlet, no place for him to ease the aching inside of him. He was angry with Reeve, for being so foolish, for fighting when Reno had told him of his importance on Gaia… for being such a damn, stubborn hero. The pain that was welling up inside of him, threatening to spill from his eyes, turned into anger and unerringly, it was directed towards the one source that was providing answers.

“This is your fault!” The Turk snarled, pointing sharply at the demi-deity. “You broke him so you’d better damn well fix him!” He sliced a hand through the air. “This stupid fuckin’ war is all about you damn deities and your problems and now…” He jerked his hand, gesturing violently towards his lover. “Now he’s been dragged into it and look at him. LOOK at him!”

Emerald eyes flashed as irritation began to grow inside of the older male. “I have seen him, wild one,” Seiryu snapped as he began to move around the side of the bed, not caring to argue over Reeve’s unconscious form. “I know what has happened and I can feel his pain. We did not start this war and we did not ask for this pain!”

Reno pursed his lips, breathing haggardly as his anger was fueled by the demi-deity’s words. “What do you know of pain?” he demanded. “My lover, my life, might never wake up and you expect me to care how you feel?”

“We lost one of our own! Don’t belittle my actions when you know nothing about what happened!” Seiryu growled. “It is a war, Reno. Sacrifices are expected to be made.”

“That’s just fuckin’ typical,” Reno shot back, stepping closer to the other man as he voice dropped until it was colder than ice. “You are a god so you think you can do whatever the hell you want with whoever the hell you want.”

“He made his choice. Reeve knew what he was doing before he even stepped off that helicopter.”

It was the last straw. What little restraint Reno had left broke in that moment and a cry that was a mixture of anger and despair escaped from his mouth as he grabbed onto the front of the demi-deity’s robes. He pushed Seiryu violently away from Reeve, his face twisted up with a flurry of emotions that he couldn’t even begin to describe as tears prickled hotly at the back of his eyes.

“Get out!” he shouted, not caring how loud his voice had risen or how crazed he might have seemed. “Just fuckin’ get out, you bastard. You did this to him!” He continued shoving the older man, blinded by his grief and rage.

Seiryu spluttered, perfectly capable of defending himself, but speechless in the face of the mortal’s pain. He could have easily broken the man’s hold, or muttered some type of spell to silence him, but he couldn’t deny that Reno spoke an element of truth. That unsettling feeling of guilt waged heavily inside of him and he couldn’t bring himself to quiet Reno, instead enduring the blame and the anger being directed his way.

Until hands grabbed onto Reno and yanked him away, restraining the Turk with a hold that was much too strong for the redhead to break. “Stop it,” Nanaki hissed, locking his elbows around Reno’s arms as the man struggled and cursed in his hold. “You aren’t the only one. Someone I care about is hurt, too,” he intoned sharply, his maturity belying his age.

“And whose fault is that?” Reno spat, glaring harshly at Seiryu with all the poison he could muster. “His, too?”

Nanaki sighed, tightening his hold. “It is no one’s save fate’s cruel hand. Balaam is the one who started this war, Reno. Remember that.”

He was startlingly aware of how violently the Turk was trembling in his hold. Reno was hanging on by a very thin thread and it was several minutes before he completely deflated in Nanaki’s arms, his eyes trained solely on the floor. The demi-human sighed and looked towards Seiryu, golden eyes quick to catch the slightly shell-shocked expression on the dragon’s face.

Seiryu shook his head, closing his eyes for a brief moment. “I’m going to return to Elysium for some research. With any luck, I will come across the cure to Reeve’s ailment,” he uttered softly before turning his gaze towards the demi-human and the Turk he held in his arms, a flash of pity and regret staining his emerald orbs.

“I am sorry,” he murmured before promptly disappearing in a shower of sparkles.

A moment of silence filled the infirmary, broken only by the sound of a patient coughing somewhere beyond the curtain. Feeling it was safe, Nanaki released Reno and the Turk just stood there numbly, still staring at the floor. His hands were still clenched at his side and he seemed to be holding himself together with great effort.

“This is not the time for blame,” Nanaki admonished softly. “Right now, Reeve needs you, not your anger.”

Reno didn’t answer as golden eyes sent him a sympathetic look. Sighing, Nanaki shook his head, when suddenly his keen hearing picked up something.

“Nan… aki…” It was his name, called out in a weak but very familiar voice.

His heart thundered loudly at the sound and he turned towards the curtain, throwing it open to have his gaze land on the bed just on the other side of Reeve’s. Bloodshot brown eyes greeted him, along with a tired smile on the face of a very much wounded, but very much alive Yuffie Kisaragi. He had seen her briefly earlier, but raised voices from Seiryu and Reno had drawn his attention away.

On the sight of her conscious, however, Nanaki could practically feel his tail wiggle with glee. “Yuffie!” he exclaimed. “You’re awake!” He hurried out of Reeve’s semi-private quarters, swiftly closing the curtain behind him and leaving Reno to his thoughts. The Turk had sat back down at Reeve’s bedside and was currently tenderly brushing hair out of his lover’s face, looking very much the defeated man.

The ninja managed a weak smile as Nanaki plopped down on the side of her bed. She lifted one of her hands feebly and patted his thigh. “We got our asses kicked,” she rasped, a scrawny laughter escaping her, only to be choked off by an encroaching cough.

He looked to her in concern, raking his gaze over her body practically swathed in bandages. “You weren’t supposed to be fighting anyways.”

She rolled her eyes. “Spare me the lecture, I don’t really need it right now.”

Nanaki nodded, reaching forward to gingery touch the bandage across her forehead, nearly hiding her dark hair completely. “I should have been there,” he said softly. “I could have stayed behind and-”

“-and then you would have been hurt, too,” she finished for him, giving him a baleful look. “We didn’t do like Sephiroth told us. He warned us. Besides, you were there… sorta.”

He cocked his head to the side. “Sorta?”

She smiled, her free hand moving to her throat where her fingers brushed across the necklace he had given her. “You’ve used this thing so much that I think a bit of you merged with it.”

Reddish brows rose in interest. “Really?” he asked, before suddenly changing the subject. “What happened, Yufs?”

Her gaze slid away from him as she sighed. “Icicle was attacked and Reeve was goin’ so…” She shrugged, shooting him an apologetic look. “I wanted to fight and Sephiroth said I couldn’t come… It was stupid, I know.” She frowned, brown eyes darkening as she began to recall the battle. “Reeve and I were hurt but Elena… Raijin’s dead, ‘Aki. And I don’t mean he just went back to Elysium. Dead as in… he no longer exists.”

Golden eyes widened impossibly large. “What?” he asked, stunned. Thanks to the explanation provided at the Lost Grounds, he knew how difficult it was to kill a demi-deity and the destruction it could cause.

“I don’t know much and Elena’s not really talking. She’s been depressed since it happened. You’ll have to ask one of the other anima to explain…” Yuffie hacked again, her body wracking with the force of the cough. A flash of pain crossed her face when her bruised ribs were made to endure the shudders.

With a loss for what to do, Nanaki soothed down wayward strands of dark hair with his fingers, wishing he had something to ease her pain for her. She gave him a grateful smile before it dissolved into coughs again. Concerned, his turned his head to call a nurse or something, but the door to the infirmary burst open in that moment. Sephiroth entered, carrying Zack, followed by Vincent and Cid. Nanaki could only assume that the others had gone somewhere to get some rest.

Vincent’s arms were beginning to sag underneath his lover’s weight. It felt wrong to say so, but he was somewhat glad Cid had lost that weight. As it was, with his decreased strength and lithe form, it was becoming increasingly harder to carry the man. He stumbled towards the nearest bed, ignoring the strange looks other patients were giving him. Warmth splashed onto his fingers and he cursed under his breath when he realized the wound on Cid’s shoulder had opened once more.

He gingerly dropped Cid onto the bed, half-wishing that he hadn’t urged Archer to go get some rest. The engineer had been equally worried about Cid, concern brimming in his amethyst eyes and he had hesitated before nodding curtly. Still, Vincent could have used the second pair of hands as his own slightly shaking fingers worked to pull off Cid’s sticky clothing.

He grimaced at the blood, his stomach wrenching at the ashen coloring of Cid’s normally tanned face. Trying not to disturb the carefully bound shoulder, a wound that would not heal no matter what materia or potion they applied, he gradually worked the pilot’s shirt off of his body, dropping it down to the floor with little ceremony.

Cid stirred, a small moan echoing in his throat as his head tilted to the side. Vincent’s hands immediately paused as he raised his gaze, watching sky blue eyes flutter open, hazed over with pain.

“Vin?” the blond croaked, his voice breaking on the last syllable.

The gunman nodded, swallowing thickly. “Don’t try to speak… just be quiet,” he murmured, something inside of him breaking at the weak timbre to his lover’s voice.

Cid shook his head, a barely noticeable movement. “I… remember now.”

“I said, don’t try to talk,” Vincent reprimanded.

The pilot’s hand twitched as he managed to lift it a few scant inches off the bed and touch Vincent’s arm, instantly grabbing his attention. “In the crater… Chaos called Diablos… the Grav… ity beast,” he stuttered feebly before sucking in a shaky breath. “I’m… c-cold Vin.”

Vincent’s heart dropped into his stomach as he looked up, frantically trying to locate a nurse or a doctor or someone who knew more about medicine then his own paltry experience. Being cold generally wasn’t a good sign in any sort of medical situation and to his horror; Cid chose that moment to slip back into unconsciousness, his hand falling limp from Vincent’s arm. A chill feeling of terror swept through him as blood began to sluggishly pump through his lover’s wounds again, staining the pristine white of the covers beneath Cid.

And yet, the pilot’s words echoed in his mind. Gravity beast? It sounded all too similar to a story his mother had once read to him. It was an old folk tale about the winged demon brothers who fell in love with the same human woman. In the end, all three of them died. But most importantly, the name of the Gravity brother was Baal.

‘Is that your name, Diablos?’ he asked inwardly, hands busily working to remove Cid’s pants. The wound on Cid’s leg needed to be treated as well. ‘Baal?’

“Yes,” came the deep tone, echoing from behind him. Vincent jumped in surprise, looking over his shoulder to see a plum-eyed male standing there, dark-hair much like his own cresting down in an ebony wave. Webbed wings stretched out behind the male and the gunman knew with certainty that this was Baal.

He allowed himself all of a second to stare before returning his attentions to Cid. “Wonderful,” he muttered under his breath sarcastically, shaking his head. “Come on, Cid… don’t die on me now.”

Suddenly, bodies were shoving past Vincent, taking over what he was doing. Two men in white doctor’s coats that reminded him all too eerily of Hojo tried to push him aside, calling out nonsense medical jargon that Vincent didn’t understand as they started examining his lover. He refused to budge, however, unwilling to leave them in their hands alone when a pair of clawed hands gripped his shoulders and yanked him out of the doctors’ way.

The gunman reluctantly allowed himself to be pulled aside, staring down numbly at the blood dotting his fingers when he ended up being shoved near the door. He could barely see Cid beyond the press of bodies, but judging by the frantic rush of their movements at least something was being done.

He wondered why he didn’t feel in the least bit assured.

“I cannot believe that Byakko would turn like this,” Baal murmured, finally releasing Vincent as he moved to stand beside the gunman. Dark purple eyes watched the hurried movements of the medical staff. “Especially towards his other.”

Grey eyes widened. “What?” he demanded, whirling towards the winged deity.

Baal nodded slowly. “Byakko was Cid’s anima. He was actually one of our more gentler demi-gods.” He sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. “I regret being unable to help you during the battle, but after a thousand years, I am still placed under more restriction than the others.”

The ex-Turk’s brow furrowed in confusion, prompting him to question Baal’s enigmatic statement when he was distracted and the words lost. Sephiroth was promptly shoved in their direction by two of the staff, who were pleading with him to let them handle it. His body was shaking violently, Vincent noticed, and those mossy eyes were shadowed with worry… and guilt. Even Sephiroth’s struggle was faintly futile, as if he were being contrary because he lacked knowing what else to do.

Almost like a child. It wasn’t until that moment that Vincent truly understood just how off from humanity Hojo had made him.

Vincent momentarily pushed aside his own worry, though it lingered on the back of his mind. “Sephiroth,” he stated sharply, wincing when his tone came out sounding far more parent-like then he had intended. “Let them do their job.”

The former General’s shoulders sagged as he shook his head, standing with his back to Vincent and staring resolutely at the form of his best friend, completely surrounded by medical personnel. “I don’t like doctors,” he mumbled.

Frankly, the gunman could sympathize. Just staring at all the white lab coats was giving him the shivers. “What happened?” he asked abruptly. Everything had been so frantic after the end of the battle and in the chaos, no one really quite knew anything of what had happened. Just that all of the monsters had been destroyed, most of the demi-deities defeated, and that it was quite clear they had been involved in some type of trap.

After all, Vincent knew with certainty that Balaam was still out there somewhere. The faint tugging of the last vestiges of power that resided within him was all the proof he needed.

Sephiroth sighed, scraping a hand through his hair as he turned towards the older man, not even raising a brow at the unfamiliar winged deity standing beside him. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “We were fighting and then he was crying and…” He let out an aggravated breath, hating how incoherent his words were coming. “All I know is that something was off about the whole thing.”

“I have my suspicions,” Baal interjected. “But they must be confirmed with the others first. There were those fighting… that should not have been.” His eyes flickered to Vincent. “I will return as soon as I can.”

Vincent nodded, only half-listening to the deity as the sound of doctors calmly barking out orders and the beeping of monitoring machines echoed on his subconscious. Baal blinked out of existence seconds later, presumably to return to Elysium. “This is a disaster,” the gunman muttered under his breath, shaking his head and rubbing his forehead in an aggravated motion.

“Sephy!” A child’s voice pierced the air, accompanied by the sound of small feet running across the floor seconds before Denzel appeared in the doorway. The child took one look at the surprised former General before promptly throwing himself at the older male, wrapping his small arms around Sephiroth’s waist and ignoring the bloodstains already seeped into the dark fabric.

Tears leaked from saddened brown eyes as Denzel began to sob. “You’re… still… here… Cloud…” The boy sniffled, making very little sense to the two older males.

Sephiroth blinked in confusion, unsure what to do as he laid an uncertain hand on the boy’s head and gave him an awkward pat on the shoulder. Yet, something in Denzel’s stammered and incoherent babble struck a chord inside of him. It was the same strange feeling that had attacked him the chest only seconds before Zack had gotten injured.

“What about Cloud?” Vincent asked, his voice coming out far sharper than he had intended.

“He’s dead.” Both Sephiroth and Vincent looked up at the deep and unexpected voice, turning to find Barret standing in the hallway just outside the infirmary. Marlene was gripping tightly to his flesh hand and tear tracks stained her usually cheerful expression. “He fuckin’ took out two of the bastards and exploded Midgar.”

Both men paled at Barret’s words as Sephiroth shook his head, hand unintentionally pressing harder against Denzel’s shoulder. “No. He… no.” The former General took in a breath, unable to register the validity of the gunarmed man’s words. “Cloud cannot have died.”

“He did,” Barret stated flatly, dark brown eyes narrowing slightly. “So now our plan’s failed…everything failed.” His gaze flickered past them to the infirmary, catching sight of the doctors rushing frantically about. “And half our people’s dead or hurt.”

His words hung heavy on the frantic air as Vincent tried to digest the information. It simply would not settle within him. It seemed impossible, for their leader to be gone. Cloud was always the strong one, with more luck than the average person. A heavy feeling settled in the gunman’s chest. He and Cloud might not have been particularly close but the blond was still his friend and above all… he had been Vincent’s leader. With Cid close to death, the news was not easy to accept.

The ex-Turk lowered his head, staring at the floor. “How’s Aeris?” he asked, voice quiet and solemn.

Barret sighed as his daughter pressed close to him, in a desperate need for comfort or some sort of assurance that it would all be okay. “She’s holdin’ up. Tryin’ ta be stronger than she needs to be and won’t let none of us comfort her.” His eyes fell down to his daughter, filling immediately with concern. “She ain’t cried but once… other than that…” His words trailed off.

“I just,” Sephiroth began, his statement halting as his brow furrowed in frustration. It was different for him this time. He knew these soldiers under his command, he knew their faces and their names. He couldn’t just dismiss them as the acceptable loss for any war like he had done in the past. His mind whirled with the events, leaving him teetering on the edge of control.

“What’re we gonna do now, Mr. Leader?” Barret interjected, an accusing note to his voice. He shifted his position, turning a critical stare onto the former General. “Judgin’ from all the blood I’d say we lost the battle.”

Sephiroth pinched his nose, eyes closed as he struggled to form a coherent thought. He knew that he needed to pull himself together, but his overly strong senses couldn’t shake the acrid scent of far too much blood, his mind couldn’t stop replaying the look on Zack’s face or the deathly pallor to his best friend’s skin. He had never expected to have to cope with something like this. Hojo had done his best to make him a being without feelings, without care, and now faced with all these emotions, he was barely clinging to some vague sort of sanity. And he didn’t have Zack there to answer the questions.

“We didn’t lose,” cut in another voice as soft footfalls approached them. “It was a trap,” Nanaki continued, cutting his eyes disapprovingly at Barret. “However, this is neither the time nor the place to discuss this.”

Reluctantly, Barret had to concede his point.

“Very well,” Sephiroth agreed, dredging up some sort of composure from a place he hadn’t even known existed inside of him. “We need to get those capable of doing so together then. Something tells me that Balaam is not going to wait for us to mourn our losses before striking again.”

The former AVALANCHE leader frowned. “I’ll go tell e’erone then,” he offered, with evident reluctance. He still held reservations about Sephiroth, especially considering the recent events. “Neme will set up sumthin’,” he finished, kneeling slightly to pick up his adopted daughter and swing her into his arms. She buried her face in his neck and clung tightly.

Sephiroth nodded. “You do that.”

Brown eyes flickered to Vincent and Nanaki briefly before the gunarm turned on his heels and departed, leaving a still sobbing Denzel pressed tightly to Sephiroth, soaking his shirt. The former General sighed, feeling a sudden and strange urge to go bang his head against a wall. Vincent crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the floor, an uneasy silence settling between them.

Until Denzel sniffled, his fingers grasping tightly to the bloodstained shirt he had buried his face in. “You came back,” he sobbed.

Sephiroth nodded, looking down at the small child. “I did,” he answered as simply as possible. He still did not understand why the boy had attached himself so firmly to him, especially considering he knew absolutely nothing about children.

He felt more warm tears trickle onto his skin through his soaked shirt as Denzel pressed closer, seeming to Sephiroth as if he was trying to push through the older man. “Cloud didn’t tho’. It’s my fault, too.”

Grey eyes, still with a faint taint of mako green, widened in surprise. “What?” he exclaimed. “How is it your fault?”

“He saved me,” Denzel cried. “I got left behind and he came’n got me.”

At a loss for words, Sephiroth looked to Vincent for help. Not that the gunman knew any more about children than he did but he felt completely helpless in the face of Denzel’s guilt. The boy was simply too small to be thinking in those terms and Sephiroth had no idea how to make him understand. His childhood had been brief at best, practically non-existent. He didn’t know anything about the mentality of children.

But Vincent had no advice to offer the former General. He looked past him completely, a strange expression fluttering across his face when he saw that the doctors had finally left Cid alone and had joined the others across the room, working on Zack who didn’t seem to be improving. A slight flutter of hope eased the tightness in his chest and without another word, the gunman hurried back to his lover’s side, leaving Sephiroth to handle the sobbing child.

“Some help you are,” Sephiroth muttered under his breath before returning his attention to Denzel. Heaving a sigh, he lowered himself to one knee, gently detaching the clinging fingers from his shirt. From this level, he was able to see eye-to-eye with the boy, looking directly into red-rimmed brown eyes and tear-stained cheeks. His hands settled on the boy’s shoulders.

It reminded him all too much of his own childhood. He used to hate looking into the mirror.

“It is not your fault,” he said gently, with hopes of assuring the boy. When Denzel shot him a disbelieving look that was far too old for the boy to be so young, Sephiroth sighed and tried again. “Cloud… Cloud chose to do what he chose to do and nothing you could have said or done would have changed his mind.”

A small hand came up, touching the metal tags that hung around Denzel’s neck. “I left ’em behind,” he whispered, hanging his head. “An’ I went back an’ Cloud had ta come after me.” His breath hitched just slightly and Sephiroth felt something inside of him break at the tears trickling down Denzel’s face.

What was it about children that made a person want to hunt down evil just to see them smile again?

Unconsciously, Sephiroth’s fingers tightened on Denzel’s shoulders as he exhaled slowly. “It’s all right,” he attempted to assure, feeling as if his words were just as hollow as they sounded. “No one blames you, Denzel.”

Denzel nodded and sniffled, wiping the back of his hand across his runny nose as all children were wont to do. The former General took a deep breath, hoping he had said something at least close to the right words.

“I am certain of it,” Nanaki added in, his voice startling Sephiroth enough to make him jump slightly. He had nearly forgotten that the demi-human was standing there. “So don’t worry,” Nanaki finished before stepping away quietly, moving back to Yuffie’s side where she greeted him with a warm smile.

Someone cleared his or her throat just then. “Uh… sir?” Sephiroth looked up, blinking when he saw a doctor standing over them. There was a grim expression to the rather young-looking man’s face as he discreetly waited for Sephiroth’s attention. A surge of dread settled in the former ShinRa’s belly.

“Zack?”

The man nodded, idly smoothing down the front of his white coat in a nervous gesture. “We’ve managed to stabilize his condition, sir, as well as stop the bleeding. It doesn’t appear to be a serious wound.” He paused, shifting to the other foot. “But we can’t understand why he won’t regain consciousness. If you do not mind my asking, what exactly happened?”

Sephiroth frowned as he rose to his feet. “I don’t know. I turned around and…” His words trailed off as he raked a hand across his forehead, brushing strands of dyed hair out of his face. Denzel grabbed his free hand, clinging tightly to it as he registered the frustration and concern on his adoptive father’s face.

The former General forced himself to take a deep breath, attempting to latch onto his usual composure, the same impassive placidity that he had relied on for all those years. But he couldn’t because his body shook and his nerves were ripped to shreds. Zack had been the one to tear down his boundaries, carefully crafted all those years ago and now Zack was lying over there on the bed because of Sephiroth’s own failed plan. How could he expect to know what to do when Zack had been the one to teach him everything? What was he supposed to now?

What would he do if he lost him?

A great fear clenched Sephiroth’s heart and he swallowed thickly, an unexpected bout of dizziness causing him to sway on his feet. He stumbled a step forward, before quickly managing to catch himself.

“Sir?” The doctor’s voice was quizzical. “Are you well?”

Sephiroth waved him off with a dismissive flip of his free hand. “I’m fine,” he insisted, despite the fatigue that was starting to claw at him.

He didn’t know what else to do but cling to what he already knew. He was leader and they were looking to him to know what to do, to decide where to go from there. He had to have all the answers and all the assurances. He had to be strong for them. So no matter how much he wanted to be like the Turk and sit by Zack’s side pretending he had the skills to make him all right, Sephiroth knew he couldn’t.

The physician regarded him strangely, with inquisitive pale eyes, but continued nonetheless. “We will continue to monitor your companion, using low-level Cure every so often to ensure he is healing properly. Outside of that, there is nothing more we can do.”

Sephiroth nodded. “I appreciate the help nevertheless,” he murmured, wishing that there was more he could do. It seemed unfair that no matter how strong he was, he simply couldn’t will his friend into healing faster or into understanding what had happened.

A few short raps on the doorframe alerted him to the presence of someone standing just in the hall. The doctor bowed and turned back into the infirmary, leaving Sephiroth free to turn and acknowledge the new visitor. It was Rude.

“Barret and Neme have arranged a conference room,” the bald man informed him.

“How many can we actually expect to make it?” asked Vincent, suddenly appearing just behind the former General.

Rude shook his head. “Not as many as we would all like.” He shifted and gestured to his right. “Down the hallway, third door on the left. Once I find Elena, I’ll join you.” Without waiting for a dismissal, the bald Turk turned on his heels and disappeared down the hall.

Grey eyes regarded Sephiroth with a look the former General wasn’t sure how he was supposed to decipher. “Cid’s going to be sleeping for the next four hours, at least,” he explained. “I’ll come along.”

“And I,” Nanaki added, sidling up along the gunman’s other side. His gaze flickered to the curtained area just beyond Yuffie’s bed. “However, Reno I would not recommend bothering right now. He’s not exactly… stable.”

Sephiroth sighed. “It’s to be expected.” He turned away from them for a brief moment, his eyes immediately falling on the form of his best friend, lying limply on the infirmary bed. The childish urge to flee from everything rose up in him so strongly that he had to gulp it down and quickly turn away, heading quickly out of the hallway and inadvertently dragging Denzel with him. The boy refused to release him as Vincent and Nanaki fell into step behind him.

Yet, no matter how far he walked from the infirmary, the smell of spilt blood and the tint of quickly cast restorative spells would not leave his nose.

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