[Shattered] Children 14

Chapter Nine: The Twilight Hour

When the phone on his desk began to ring, Reeve wasn’t entirely sure it was unexpected. His eyes flickered to Reno and Archer, both in the room with him, before he reached for the device. He lifted it from the cradle with a click and held it to his ear.

“Tuesti here,” he answered crisply, half-expecting a familiar voice to pour through the speaker. He was not disappointed.

“Mr. President,” Kadaj drawled in his usual tone, half-mocking and nowhere near sincere. “How kind of you to answer the phone.”

Reeve’s fingers tightened around the curve of the phone, even as Archer looked up in interest, recognizing the voice. “No games, Kadaj. Just tell me what you want so I can tell you to fuck off.” He hadn’t realized how angry he was until he actually spoke to the boy. Now it was pouring through his voice before he could stop it.

“Tsk, tsk,” Kadaj chided with a faint laugh. “So vulgar? Now is that any way to treat a business partner. After all, we’re trading here, aren’t we?”

The President felt his anger building and he forced himself to swallow it down. “I do not negotiate with terrorists,” he reiterated. “What have you done with the children?”

“I need them,” the boy answered flippantly. “This is just a courtesy call anyways, Mr. President. I want you to have Mother ready. I’m coming for her.”

“I will not hand it over to you.” Reeve responded, feeling himself rising to his feet as his free hand slammed down onto the desk. “You-”

But before he could finish his statement, the phone was ripped from his hands. Reeve had only seconds to blink as Archer turned away from him, taking the phone into his possession. There was a moment of apology in his purple eyes before he turned his attention to the receiver.

“Kadaj?” he nearly yelled into the phone.

There was silence and Reeve sighed, rubbing his forehead. He supposed he couldn’t begrudge his associate the use of the phone. It wasn’t as if he were going to be able to reason with Kadaj anyways. He knew what the boy wanted, all that was left was for him to make plans. Kadaj had made no mention of Sephiroth attacking, so perhaps they hadn’t arrived yet. Though, logic clearly pointed otherwise. Reeve didn’t want to think that the former general had been defeated. It seemed impossible.

“Kadaj!”

“Don’t yell, Archer,” came the quiet response, much more reserved than Reeve would have expected and barely audible for him to hear.

Reeve turned surprised eyes towards the phone, momentarily exchanging glances with his husband. Reno seemed equally shocked, the both of them having suspected that the three look-alikes had already completely succumbed to Jenova’s will. That Kadaj was capable of lucidity was startling.

Archer’s shoulders sagged. “What do you think you are doing?” he demanded in a ragged voice, etched with hurt. “And, for that matter, why?”

“I told you, didn’t I?” Kadaj returned, his own tone speaking of regret. “Forget about me. For your own sake.”

A part of Reeve was glad that he couldn’t see his associate’s expression since he was certain the sight of it would have been painful. Archer was clinging to the phone with both hands, hunched over as if expecting some sort of physical attack. He had been silent and non-communicative since Kadaj had first shown up, blaming himself for what had happened. Even Reeve could see that he was in love with the boy, though he was damned if he knew why.

“You know I can’t do that,” Archer countered, struggling to maintain composure. “Give me an explanation, or something. Why would you even listen to her?”

Silence spread through the receiver and it was obvious Kadaj couldn’t answer that question in a way that Archer would be able to understand.

“Kadaj?”

Something crackled on the other end of the line. “Forget me, Kyle, and don’t even try to stop me. I can’t guarantee I won’t kill you.” When Archer sucked in a breath, Kadaj’s parting words came through. “I’m sorry.”

There was a click and then the phone beeped lowly as the dial tone came through, sounding loud and painfully final. Archer held onto the phone for several long seconds before he turned slowly, returning it to the cradle. His eyes were shifted to the ground, carefully hooded to conceal his pain.

Reeve wished that he had the words to say, knowing that “I told you so” was completely inappropriate, no matter how much he knew he was right.

“Archer?”

The engineer simply shook his head and whirled around, heading for the door. “I’m going to see if they’ve gotten any of the helicopters working, we need to make sure we get Reis and Revan out of here,” he threw over his shoulder.

Reeve didn’t even think to argue or stop him. He watched as his husband followed Archer’s exit with his eyes, showing his own restraint. The both of them flinched as the door clicked closed behind Archer, and Reeve sighed, pressing a palm to his face. Why couldn’t anything ever be simple?

“What did Kadaj have to say?” Reno asked as he crossed the floor, moving around the desk to stand beside his husband. His hands fell to Reeve’s shoulders, fingers digging into stiff muscles.

The President rolled his eyes. “The usual. Give me the piece of alien that is supposed to be my mother.”

Reno snorted. “I don’t think he put it quite like that, yo.”

“No, he didn’t.” Reeve responded, feeling a headache coming on. “He wouldn’t say what he had the children for either, and no mention of Sephiroth.”

“Hmm.” Reno made a non-committal sound in his throat, leaning over to press a kiss to the back of Reeve’s neck. “Guess it’s time to get ready for battle.”

The President groaned. “Don’t remind me.”

When was it all going to be through? Reeve couldn’t help but wonder. From the first battles against Sephiroth, to the war against the gods, and now against ShinRa-spawned SOLDIER again. Would they ever find peace?

On the other end of the phone, and half a world away, Kadaj clicked END with a measure of regret striking at his heart. Hearing Archer’s voice had been bittersweet, reminding him of what Jenova was forcing him to leave behind. He had known better than to form attachments and yet, he had gravitated to the engineer anyways. There was something he couldn’t ignore in those amethyst eyes, but all he had done was bring the man pain.

Sighing, Kadaj slipped the phone back into his pocket and turned to face his brothers, even though only Yazoo met his gaze. Loz was playing with the kids, some kind of game that Kadaj didn’t really understand. The eldest had always been more of a child at heart.

“What next, nii-chan?” Yazoo asked, something unnameable in his gaze.

“Now,” Kadaj answered, sweeping his eyes over their gathered, new followers. “Now we begin our reunion. If that doesn’t bring Mother to us, nothing will.”

Yazoo inclined his head and elegantly turned, sweeping his hair over his shoulders. “And it will bring our brother, too?” he questioned, the barest hint of doubt tainting his query, almost as if he were fighting the same internal struggle.

“She certainly thinks it will,” Kadaj responded, distraction in his tone.

Jenova was quiet for the moment, her presence only a faint prickle in the back of his mind. And he relished the tiny, momentary freedom. He curled his fingers around it and cradled it as though it were some precious item. They were coming fewer and further apart, and he knew the day would come when they would disappear altogether.

Yazoo made a noncommittal sound in his throat, and glanced over his shoulder at his younger brother. “When she finds him, what will become of us?”

“I don’t know.” Kadaj frowned, folding his arms over his chest.

He could feel her wants trickling through them, trying to resonate with his own. She wanted her son, her child. The three of them, the brothers, were mere appetizers to her hunger for Sephiroth. She wanted his power, his speed, and his grace. She couldn’t wait to sink her teeth back into his fractured mind.

Nowhere could he see a purpose for them, except to bring her to him.

His brother snorted, and the sneer that decorated his lips was a mockery to his normally beautiful features. “What else?” Yazoo posed rhetorically, answering his own questions. “Worthless beings who have served their purpose are disposed of.” His gaze had fallen forward again, locking onto some nondescript piece of dirt.

It was a testament to his own roiling feelings that Kadaj couldn’t refute Yazoo’s statement. Even if he wanted to escape, to find his freedom, he knew that death would come first. Jenova would rather see him as a rotting corpse than allow him free reign over anything, even his own life; he was lucky to have enjoyed even those peaceful and happy months with Archer. He knew far better than to hope for it again.

The weight of his pathetic situation pressed on him like a physical presence, and it made him sick. He knew he was being used, that death was all that awaited him, that he was going to be thrown aside, just like trash, once brother was finally back at Mother’s side. And yet, he helped her anyway, even if it was partially forced. Some silly part of him wanted to live, rather than die so she couldn’t complete her plans, but he wouldn’t be able to run from his fate.

Selfish, he was. And Kadaj knew it. He’d had a taste of life and now he couldn’t let go of it, not even to free himself.

Nor could he hate brother for being that much better, that much more perfect. He was the original after all. No one could compare to Sephiroth, to archetypal perfection. Hojo had tried to repeat his experiments, and had three failures at hand. Only Kadaj had come the closest, and he still wasn’t good enough. Just barely useful enough to manipulate, but not good enough to find a home in that so-called promised land.

He wondered if this rising feeling inside of him, a surge of helplessness and rage and sorrow intertwined, was just a small cry for help. If the reason he stood by and did everything Mother said was because he was expecting someone to save him the same way they had helped—were still helping—Sephiroth. He couldn’t help but see Archer in the back of his mind, couldn’t help but recall the pained sound of his lover’s voice.

By Kami, he wanted to see Archer again before he died so much that it ached. But Kadaj had never believed in the gods, not even when they spoke to him, and he wasn’t about to start now. No higher being was going to save him.

If they hadn’t helped him even when he was in the laboratory and under his own father’s thumb, they wouldn’t help him now. What about when he had suffered experiment after experiment, was forced to listen to the screams of his own brothers from the moment he was born? If they existed, why hadn’t they been there for him then? No, Kadaj had long ago stopped praying to the gods.

“-aj. Kadaj.”

He blinked, not even realizing he had been so deep in his thoughts. Yazoo was standing in front of him, a concerned look on his face. “You awake in there?” he asked, and part of it was a worry for himself. Kadaj understood that all too well.

He nodded jerkily and turned away from his brother, feeling an uncomfortable tremble beginning to wrack his body. “It’s time to go,” he stated, waving away all further attempts at conversation.

Mother was getting anxious, he could feel it and hear her urgings. She was tired of standing around and waiting. She wanted results, and who was he to deny her?

Yazoo’s eyes burned into the back of his skull and he felt, more than saw, that he must have nodded in agreement. “Understood.” It was followed by the barely present sound of his boots crunching over the somewhat frozen ground.

Rubbing fingers over a suddenly aching forehead, Kadaj dropped his hand to his sword, taking comfort from the well-worn hilt. Though he had hated it during the endless hours of combat training, Souba was like a friend to him now. One of the few items he knew he could rely on, that would never let him down or expect anything more than what he could give.

Soon. Jenova crooned in the back of his mind, flexing her fingers in his brain like the claws of a playing feline. Soon, it will all be over. It will all be ours.

Kadaj had long ago learned the waste of effort it was to refute her. ‘Yes, mother,’ he responded, and he took every effort to remove the disdain from his words.

The sound of jingling metal and heavy jogging floated to his ears and Kadaj paused, giving time for Loz to catch up to him. He glanced over his shoulder, his eldest brother approaching and trying to wave him down.

“Nii-chan,” he began, a bit breathlessly, as he drew to a halt beside Kadaj. “That brat got away. She must have disappeared in the confusion.”

It took him a moment to recognize just whom Loz spoke of. Likely that girl who had been clinging to the dark-headed Turk and who had come with Denzel, Sephiroth’s brat. Her presence hadn’t been important in the long run. Without the taint of Geostigma, she was useless for the Reunion anyway, and Denzel had already joined their cause.

Kadaj waved a hand of dismissal. “It’s fine,” he responded. “We have the others, and she already served her purpose.”

Oh, the irony.

“Yeah, but…” Loz trailed off as he scratched his chin with one black-gloved hand. “It’s dangerous out there…”

A short growl of frustration – Mother’s influence more than his own – left Kadaj’s mouth before he could stop it. “That’s not our problem,” he stated shortly, hating the sharp edge to his tone. Loz certainly didn’t deserve it.

The elder blinked at him for several long moments, and Kadaj idly thought his brother might actually rebel against him this time. The though was gone as quickly as it came, as Loz simply inclined his head, submitting to Mother’s whims just as he and Yazoo did every time.

“Yeah, got it.” Dropping his hand, Loz turned away from Kadaj. “I’ll help Yazoo get the rest of them ready.” Then, he was gone, in a flash of naturally enhanced speed.

Kadaj watched him go, his insides a twisted knot of confusion and inner voices. It didn’t matter, he told himself. There was no turning back now. He had plans to execute, and Mother didn’t approve of delays. Swallowing down the human feelings that threatened to rise, he turned to finish preparing for the journey to Junon.

The sound of water trickling was the first thing to infiltrate Sephiroth’s consciousness as he stirred. He peeled his eyes open as he registered the low sounds of a familiar voice cursing in the background. Tseng’s, he recognized.

The pale glow of frozen trees filtered to his eyes, dimly lighting the area around him. He was lying on the ground, he realized, his own jacket pillowed beneath his head. Biting back a deep groan, he slowly rose to a sitting position, one hand moving to his aching skull. His entire body felt sore, as though he had gone ten rounds against himself and lost pathetically.

“You’re awake, I see.” Valentine’s voice.

He turned his head, following the sound, and noticed Vincent and Tseng propped on the ground a few feet away from him. They were close to each other, and Sephiroth caught sight of Valentine diligently tending to Tseng’s wound. That much, at least, explained the muttered expletives and the visible wincing.

The groan he was trying to halt escaped anyways, his head pulsing and pounding. He swept his gaze across the tiny clearing, the brightness of the trees nearly blinding, but a quick survey was all he needed to determine that there were no children present. He surged to his feet before he knew entirely what he was doing.

“Marlene? Denzel? Where are they?” he demanded, automatically hunting for his blade despite the protest of both his skull and his body.

Stabs of pain were rocketing through him, including the dull ache he had learned to associate with the Geostigma. It was enough to make him vaguely nauseated and he was instantly glad he hadn’t eaten anything recently.

The former Turk didn’t pause in his work, the soft green glow of a Heal, or possibly a Cure, centered on his fingers. “I imagine they are still with the brothers. I was unable to rescue both them and you two at the same time.”

A feeling of helplessness surged through Sephiroth, on the wake of the weakness in his knees and the lingering dizziness. “Then you should have saved them,” he stated through gritted teeth, heart pounding at the thought of the two children still in the hands of those madmen.

At the thought of Jenova, his eyes narrowed. Who knew what the bitch was planning, what she would do to them if only to make Sephiroth angry or hurt him. The very thought sent a stronger surge of anger through him and he could have sworn he heard her mocking laughter, taunting him for his weakness.

His hands curled into furious fists.

“They weren’t going to kill them,” Vincent countered in that same calm tone, the glow of the healing disappearing from his fingers as he sat back and reached for bandages. “But they were going to kill you.”

Sephiroth shook his head, ignoring the ache in his skull, and took a cautious step. The need to have his sword in his hand was growing stronger. “They wouldn’t have,” he murmured distractedly. “They want something from me.”

The Turk was absolutely still as Vincent wrapped the bindings around him, keeping the recently healed bones straight and in proper place. No matter how strong the materia, a good portion of the body’s natural strength was required for a good healing. Snapping the last piece into place and securing it with a pin, Vincent moved back to give Tseng space and shifted his gaze to Sephiroth.

“They want you because Jenova wants you,” he informed the former General, very nearly sounding parental in that moment. “And for you, that is a fate akin to death.”

Sephiroth worked his jaw, understanding Vincent but not wanting to concede to rationality. “What kind of man would I be if I let them take those kids?” he demanded coldly. “We have to go after them. Right now.”

“And how do you suggest we do that?” the older man demanded, rising to his feet and letting his cloak settle about him concealingly. “I very much doubt they are still in this forest and we have no clue as to their intentions.”

Silver eyes watched the two men with interest as Tseng pulled his clothes back on, removed so that Vincent could heal him. He had nothing to add to the conversation, however, and simply listened. Two stubborn wills clashed.

A noise suddenly disturbed the tense atmosphere. To their left, the bushes rustled noisily. In a flash, the three men were prepared for battle, every muscle tensed. They turned as one coherent unit, Vincent’s slightly less powerful but still deadly Outsider aimed on the foliage. Tseng dropped a hand to the Yoshiyuki, fingers curling around the hilt in preparation to draw, and he could tell by the look on the weaponless Sephiroth’s expression that he was calling a spell to the forefront of his mind.

They watched in tense anticipation. The bushes rustled once more, and then a form emerged, practically exploding from the green foliage. To every man’s shock and amazement, their attacker was not one of the brothers, but Marlene. Tears glimmered in her brown eyes as she threw herself at Tseng, nearly knocking the Turk over.

“Mr. Tseng!” she sobbed, her fingers grasping at his shirt and pulling her body closer to the protection of his arms. “Denzel! They took Denzel!” she cried, dampening the fabric of his clothing with her tears.

Her little body shook with both fear and sadness, which Tseng could feel swirling about her madly. It was enough to make his own heart ache and he took several steadying breaths to build his walls back up enough to dull the emotions. Children’s feelings were always so much stronger and purer. They hurt that much more.

He removed his hand from Yoshiyuki and gently laid it on Marlene’s head, curling his other arm around her small frame. He soothingly stroked her hair, trying to calm the little girl down. Silver eyes exchanged glances with the other adults. Sephiroth was in the midst of dismissing his spell, and Vincent lowered his weapon, returning it to his holster with an artful twist of his fingers. Their battle-wary stances were already fading.

Satisfied, Tseng focused his attention on the sobbing girl. He gently lowered himself to one knee so that he was eye level with Marlene. “How did you escape?” he asked kindly, gaze frantically checking for any injuries on her person. One hand continued to stroke her hair in a soothing fashion.

She didn’t seem to be injured, which struck him as odd, given the circumstances. The small sense of murder that had been building gradually dampened. Had anyone hurt her, Tseng didn’t think he could be merciful.

Sniffling, Marlene wiped at her eyes. “They weren’t paying attention to me, so I ran,” she explained in a tired voice, “but I had to leave Denzel. He wouldn’t listen to me!” The thought of leaving her friend clearly distressed the little girl and she choked on her words, dissolving into tears once more.

“I know,” Tseng murmured sympathetically, feeling a surge of hatred towards the three brothers who would cause her such distress. “Do you know where they are going?”

Marlene nodded. “Junon,” she answered, coughing a little into her hand. “They said something about a ‘union’ and ‘calling their mother’.” She chewed on her lip, worry furrowing her brow.

With gentle fingers, Tseng wiped away the last of her tears and looked up at Vincent and Sephiroth. Both had been listening with acute interest and were now frowning, especially the former who appeared to have some understanding.

“Reunion,” Vincent repeated, a shiver of unease creeping down his spine. He had the sudden urge to feel the comfort of Outisider in his palm. “I should have known. They are going to use the Geostigma in the children to find Jenova.”

Tseng’s thoughtful frown deepened. “Will they succeed?”

The former Turk shook his head. “I cannot say. Even for Hojo, it was only a theory that he was never able to prove.” A disconcerted flicker of emotion raced across Vincent’s face. “But, judging from personal experience, the pieces of Jenova do seem to have an affinity – for lack of a better word – for one another.”

It was all the proof that Sephiroth needed in deciding what had to be done. The judgment was made in his mind even before he had any real plan in mind. He ignored his own pain, tired of standing idly by. He had a location now, and that was all he wanted.

“Tseng,” he began, calling the Turk’s attention, mind already in the midst of trying to remember exactly where he had lost Odin and how to get the bike back. “Take Marlene to Rocket Town. She should be safe there.”

Rising to his full height, Tseng frowned. “Why?” he demanded, silver eyes narrowing. Marlene clutched tighter to him, face still scrunched with worry.

“I’m going after Denzel.” It seemed so simple. Sephiroth couldn’t understand why Tseng wasn’t understanding him. He ignored the sudden onslaught of dizziness from the recent injuries. The mako would heal them soon enough.

“Didn’t you just hear her?” Tseng asked, voice taking on the edge of Turk Commander. Gone was the softness of Sephiroth’s lover, leaving only the steel of command in its wake. “They’re going to Junon.”

Frustration swept through the former General as he locked eyes with the other man. “Then I’ll follow them,” he declared, fingers twitching. He needed his blade and damn if he couldn’t get a focus on the direction of his bike.

Heedless to the argument between the two men, or perhaps because of it, Marlene grew frustrated. “No!” she shouted, interrupting their staring contest. “I’m going to Junon, too. There’s something wrong with Denzel!” One small foot stomped the ground as her lips firmed into a stubborn pout. Marlene tugged on Tseng’s suit jacket to prove her point, brown eyes hard with determination.

Sephiroth sighed, resisting the urge to pinch his nose, and shifted his gaze to the most rational member of their little group.

“I don’t know exactly what they are planning with the children but I know what it means,” Vincent supplied, his eyes guarded as they watched Sephiroth, never varying in their intensity. “A fight is on the way.”

“I realize that.” Sephiroth gestured towards Marlene, hoping that Tseng would take the hint and urge her closer to Vincent. “Please, take her with you.”

If he couldn’t get his lover to listen to him, perhaps Vincent would prove more amenable. Someone among them had to have been born with common sense. Sephiroth knew he couldn’t stand here and debate. He was itching to do something, getting an anxious sensation in his limbs, causing his blood to sir. Mother was planning something, was in the midst of executing those plans, and he was still standing there arguing.

Vincent shook his head, pushing Sephiroth to the point of near-exasperation. “If I were to do that, then you would rush off on your own, not heeding your own safety.”

“My own life doesn’t matter when Denzel and the other children are being manipulated,” Sephiroth retorted, raking a hand through tangled hair and wincing when the action pulled one of his many bruises.

The mako wasn’t working as fast as usual and he couldn’t help but wonder why. Could if have something to do with the Geostigma?

Fed up with being ignored, Marlene jerked free from Tseng’s hold and shoved herself between Sephiroth and the Turk. “Mr. Sephiroth!” she cried loudly, reaching up and tugging on his shirt.

The former General didn’t even notice her appearance, too busy locking eyes with another will as strong as his own.

“That is foolish.”

Sephiroth worked his jaw. “Maybe so,” he conceded. “But I have no choice.”

Watching the two of them for a long moment, Tseng didn’t think once of interfering. It wasn’t his place. Instead, he quietly stepped forward and drew Marlene away from Sephiroth, calming her with a few murmured words. Whatever the two men were discussing with their double-meanings and their hinted phrasings, Marlene’s input would not be needed.

“Do you think I can’t hear her,” Vincent demanded, drawing up straight as though he had been accused of something sharp and bitter. “That I don’t know what she’s promising? Or that I haven’t been tempted? You’re not the only one who is struggling, Sephiroth.”

Something clenched inside Sephiroth’s chest, a jarring resonance of familiarity that he wished upon no one. “How?” The query was ground out between his teeth.

Grey eyes returned his stare penetratingly. “Hojo did not limit himself in his choice of test subjects,” Vincent replied in a grim tone. “You have to be calm otherwise you will walk right into her arms, which is exactly what they want. This was a trap, or haven’t you seen that yet?”

Sephiroth swallowed thickly, and firmed his jaw. He knew that Vincent was right, could feel it. But the stubborn part of him didn’t want to admit it. He whirled on his heels, kicking up a small spray of dirt and rock. “Very well,” he agreed grudgingly. “We will all return to Junon.” With that, he strode towards the forest.

“Where are you going?” Tseng called over him, confused by the action which seemed counterpoint to Sephiroth’s declaration.

“To find my bike,” came the response over Sephiroth’s shoulder, carrying a definite hint of irritation. “With any luck it won’t be a mangled mess.”

And then Sephiroth was gone, not even the sound of his boots over the nearly frozen ground to mark his passage. He blended so easily into the night.

Left behind, Turk and ex-Turk exchanged glances, but neither had the words to say.

Shaking his head, Vincent pulled out his cell phone, fingers automatically dialing for Cid. They would need a pick up and he knew that Cid was more than willing to provide one. Grey eyes slid to Tseng, who looked as if he planned on diving right into the forest after Sephiroth.

Listening to the phone ring, he directed his attention to Tseng. “Relax,” he suggested, sparing the Turk Commander a glance. “There’s nothing out there for Sephiroth to fight, even if he wanted.”

“I’m not worried,” Tseng responded, seemingly on automatic, but Vincent was no longer listening to him. Cid had answered and Vincent had turned away to offer some privacy as he conversed with his lover.

Frowning, Tseng focused his gaze on the path Sephiroth had taken, unable to shake the distressed emotions he had caught in the other man’s aura. This whole business was ruining everything that Tseng had fought hard to restore and save. It certainly wasn’t helping Sephiroth heal, and that was what concerned him the most.

He worried that he was losing his lover to the past, and to a future that only Jenova wanted. He worried that his voice wasn’t enough to call Sephiroth back, that their relationship was that shaky and unfounded. He felt, on some small and terrified level, that he was going to lose Sephiroth before he ever truly found him.

A small hand wrapped around his arm, tugging his attention back towards Marlene. “Is Denzel going to be okay?” she asked, and her eyes sheened over with unshed tears. But she held on strong, determination like steel.

A wave of fear and worry swept through Tseng’s senses, pure in their intensity, and he dropped back to one knee. He placed his hands lightly on her shoulders, comfortingly.

“He is strong,” Tseng assured her, hoping that he hid the uncertainty in his tone well from the little girl. “Denzel will be fine. And we-” He included Sephiroth in this for reasons unknown to him. “-we will get him back. I promise.”

She nodded, brown braid flopping lightly over one shoulder. “I know. Thanks, Mr. Tseng.” It was filled with so much gratitude that Tseng couldn’t help but feel just a bit guilty because honestly, he didn’t know. He was only guessing. But he couldn’t tell that to a child. He couldn’t let her worry that deeply.

“You’re welcome.”

He couldn’t quite ignore that niggle of doubt inside of him, however. Something that told him all was not going to be as well as they hoped, and that something even larger was coming. Something that was bathed in blood and reeked of death, that promised a deep sorrow.

He could only hope that they were prepared for it, and in the end, didn’t lose anyone important to them.

Reeve’s headache was only getting worse and the bottle of aspirin in his desk drawer had long since run out. Sighing, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, rubbing fingers over his temples. He could feel it pulsing in his skull and behind his eyes, each stab of pain accompanied by the faint and uncomfortable pull of nausea. He been so sure to save a brief moment for lunch, and now he wished that he had left his personal health to rot.

Something cold and wet pressed to his temple, dripping condensation down the side of his face. Without even opening his eyes, he reached up to take the glass of water that had been handed to him.

“Thanks,” he murmured, sipping at it.

“You looked like you needed it,” his husband answered, and then there was a rattling sound before something tapped on his desk. “And these, too.”

Somehow, Reeve managed a faint smile. “My hero,” he responded teasingly, blinding reaching for the bottle of pills.

A few were tapped into his palm before it was closed again. He swallowed down all four of them, took a swig of water, and then prayed that they would work as quickly as they claimed.

“How did it go?” he asked as he waited. He kept his eyes closed. The brightness of the lights overhead only made his migraine worse.

The glass and the bottle returned to the desk with a minor amount of noise before a pair of lips swooped in, pressing to his neck just behind his ear. “Fine,” Reno murmured softly, designed to keep from worsening his headache. “Revan cried and Reis was pissed off, but they’ll survive, yo.”

“Reis was angry? Why?”

Out of concern for the safety of his only sister and his only child, Reeve had arranged for the both of them to be as far from the action as he considered possible. And in the meantime, also under some protection. He had sent both to Rocket Town, where Rude and Barret remained as a line of defense for Aeris, Shera, and their infants.

His husband pressed another lingering kiss to his neck before straightening, and stretching out his body with audible cracks. “Her argument was that if we were injured, she couldn’t be here to help. I told her that a Heal or two would hold us together long enough if that happened.”

Despite the pulsing of his skull, Reeve managed a light chuckle. “I’m sure that reassured her,” he responded dryly.

“She has quite the temper,” Reno countered and Reeve was certain his husband was smirking in that usual way of his.

There was a thump, likely Reno plopping himself down on top of Reeve’s desk with little regard to the important paperwork. Amber eyes slid open, despite the pain of the bright lights on his headache, and focused on the other man.

“By the way,” Reno continued, lifting his legs and dropping them on the arms of Reeve’s chair, using his ankles to drag the President closer until he was poised between Reno’s legs. “I picked up some extra cargo in Rocket Town.”

He couldn’t resist the comfort of those arms and Reeve laid an exhausted head down on his husband’s thigh, strangely enough, able to feel the strong beat of Reno’s pulse. “Cargo?” he repeated, and wondered if the strained, old note was really his voice after all.

“Uhn.” Reno’s answer was a low rumble above him, and it was comforting. “Yuffie and Nanaki wanted a ride back. I was gracious enough to give it to them.”

“Gracious, my ass,” Reeve mumbled, but it was a half-hearted tease as he felt the tension gradually ease out of him. The comfort would be only temporary, but he would take what he could get right now.

Reno chuckled and one of his hands found the back of Reeve’s neck, rubbing gently and easing out the kinks. It was a moment that Reeve intended to entirely enjoy. It was a moment ruined by the clamorous noise of his phone ringing at full volume, somehow managing to convey a sense of urgency.

Groaning under his breath, Reeve flopped out a hand and dragged the blaring device towards him. He lifted his head far enough to speak directly into the receiver, though he couldn’t quite hide the disgruntlement from his tone. Above him, Reno snickered again and didn’t cease his light massage.

“Tuesti, here.”

“Mr. President?” Reeve recognized the voice in an instant, though he couldn’t fathom why Sion would have need to call his direct line.

He sat up a bit straighter, concern beginning to worm its way through his gut. “What is it, Sion? Have you uncovered something on the specimen?”

“No, sir,” the scientist responded, and there was clear disappointment in his tone. “But I’ve come across something else. I’ve been monitoring the newscasts on the side and there’s something you should see.”

Amber eyes narrowed of their own accord and Reeve sat up fully, all traces of relaxation pushing out of his body. “What is it?”

“Pull up your monitor to channel 14. I think it’s better if you see for yourself,” Sion returned tightly and in the background, Reeve could dimly hear the bubbling of the tanks and many experiments currently in progress.

Lips becoming a firm line, Reeve turned away from the welcome warmth of Reno’s arms and pressed the button for speakerphone. He returned the device to the cradle and swung his chair towards the screen he kept behind a sliding length of thin wood on the wall. Grasping fingers quickly located the remote and within seconds, the panel was moving aside and the screen clicked on. Two sharp finger presses later and he was on channel 14, catching the tail end of a woman’s voice, narrating some event.

“This strange scene before you began about thirty minutes ago,” she was saying as Reeve’s widened eyes took in the incident. A cold anger began to burn in his belly.

The video was obviously being shot by an amateur, the camera shaky and out of focus. But it was enough to give him a picture of what was occurring. Not even the static in the background could distract him.

There in the main square of Junon and surrounding the fountain was a mob of children, artfully arranged in perfect lines. Stalking back and forth behind the kids were two men that Reeve didn’t immediately know, but could recognize as being two of the three silver-haired men. Neither was Kadaj; he knew that for certain.

In front of the children was a growing crowd of adults, all with anger and fear mixed into their expressions. From the muffled sound of the video, Reeve could discern that they were yelling. They were none too happy about whatever the two brothers were doing, though Reeve himself couldn’t fathom their purpose.

The female anchor continued her narration, “It has been confirmed that these are the missing children, though it remains unclear just what they are doing. The two men visible in the background also remain unidentified. Angry parents-”

With a click, Reeve cut off the sound of her voice with a firm mute. He didn’t need their interpretations. He returned his attention to Sion, tone tight with fury.

“Thank you, Sion. Keep working on that sample.”

A brief pause before Sion exhaled. “Yes, sir,” he replied simply, and hung up without another word.

Reeve sighed, rubbed his fingers briefly over his forehead, and then reached for the button to the intercom. “Zack, Elena, and Archer, please come to my office,” he announced, knowing that the trio had to be somewhere near by. Most likely within a few floors of his office.

Still perched on his desk, Reno made a noise in his throat that his husband couldn’t quite interpret. “What are they doing?” he asked, watching the screen intently. His eyebrow twitched and Reeve could almost guess what he was thinking.

Most of the children were ‘slum rats,’ abandoned or orphaned after the Chaos War. They had learned to band together and survive together. Of course, they had learned where to go for help when they needed it, but for the most part they depended on one another. They were a reminder of Reno’s own childhood and he was furious that they were obviously being manipulated in some way.

The children were being placed around the fountain in some sort of arrangement. A wide circle and then a smaller inner circle, all facing out towards the growing crowd. But their expressions were blank, and their gazes glassy-eyed. They didn’t move or twitch as the brothers moved them around, didn’t seem to care.

“I don’t know,” Reeve finally answered, and felt frustrated for that lack of explanation. “But I aim to find out.”

The moment the three he called for arrived, he was going to send them down there. He knew that Zack and Elena were itching for revenge, the both of them training hard since they had healed from their first encounter with the brothers, and Archer needed the distraction in a bad way. It would be something to keep him occupied, rather than pacing back and forth in the corridor outside of Reeve’s office on the off-chance that Kadaj would call again.

Reeve, however, knew that the bigger question lay in Kadaj’s location. The youngest male was nowhere to be seen, though he was obviously the conductor of the madness. He was certain that Kadaj had something larger planned and had the feeling it would involve him in some way. After all, Reeve knew the location of Jenova, Kadaj’s prime directive.

He had only to wait for the madman to come.

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