[Shattered] Children 27

Chapter Eighteen: Second String

“It’s too fuckin’ quiet,” Cid muttered, his voice echoing forlornly in the abandoned hallways. “And it’s like a damn ice box in here.”

Vincent shook his head. “Eloquent as always, captain. They are in mourning.”

“Yeah, well, they didn’t have to make it so fuckin’ obvious,” Cid retorted, rubbing his hands over his arms.

One hand lifted to his forehead, only to remember that he – technically – had given up that habit. He covered up the aborted motion by scratching under his goggles.

“Where the hell is everyone?”

His steps sufficiently muffled, their approach was marked by the almost violent thud of Cid’s military-style boots. “Scattered to the four winds. Elena and Marlene’s death hit everyone particularly hard.”

“Bunch of bullshit is what it is,” Cid muttered with a sigh, frowning deeply. “I’m getting too fucking old for this.”

Vincent’s lips twitched. “Finally admitting your age?”

An elbow jabbed him in the side, digging right between two ribs. “Oy. I’m still younger than you, Mr. Slept-In-A-Coffin-For-Thirty-Years.”

“Not by choice.”

“Bah, excuses, excuses.” The blond waved a dismissive hand, only to point one finger at his taller lover. “The point is, I want a vacation. Another one.”

“Hoping to find another piece of inexplicable machinery?”

Cid rolled his eyes and dug a hand into his pocket, pulling out a small box of toothpicks. One was immediately placed between his lips; a counter-measure against his cigarette needs. Vincent suspected that his lover simply had an oral fetish that needed to be assuaged and that it wasn’t about nicotine at all.

Not that Vincent hadn’t capitalized on said fetish many, many times before.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get that lucky again,” Cid muttered, chomping down on the carved wood. “But my Valenwind… she sure is a beaut.”

Vincent was only half-listening to his mumbles, his thoughts suddenly taking an entirely different course than their current conversation. It had been a good week or so – a tense, battling, bloody week – since he’d really managed to spend any solitary time with Cid. And while it didn’t seem to be bothering his lover much – either that or Cid hid it really well – thoughts of toothpicks and oral fetishes had only reminded Vincent of that fact.

He tracked his gaze around as Cid managed to snag one of the WRO’s few visible pencil-pushers and grill him for information regarding the whereabouts of their friends. The building really was pretty deserted, though Vincent suspected that would change over the course of the next few weeks. The residents of Gaia were nothing if not sturdy, capable of bouncing back from any calamity.

They would mourn. They would grow angry. And they would stop to take a breath again. And then they would rebuild. Better, higher, stronger. The people of Gaia were resilient.

“-cent, are ya even listenin’ to me?”

Blinking, Vincent looked at Cid who had a distinct expression of disgruntlement. The toothpick shifted from one corner of the mouth to the other. “Brooding again?” Cid demanded on the end of a grunt.

“Just thinking,” Vincent returned, noticing that Cid’s prey was making a quick getaway, no doubt happy to be free from the madman. “What did he say?”

Cid shrugged, flicking a hand through his hair, flecked with grey but only making him look more attractive. “Scattered about. Reeve and his boytoy are holed up in their apartment, not going there. Barret had a hissy fit so he’s brooding somewhere. Archer and Reis for some reason I don’t even want to contemplate are in the detention hall.”

Vincent’s brow furrowed in confusion before clarity dawned. “With Kadaj and Yazoo, I imagine,” he commented quietly, a small smile tugging at his lips.

Cid stared at him. “How do ya know these things? It’s fuckin’ ridiculous.”

“I watch,” Vincent replied, and his smile widened when he found an open doorway to an unoccupied room. He paused to investigate, Cid in the middle of muttering to himself and stopping without questioning why. “Did they say anything about Sephiroth?”

“Why? Ya worried ’bout him? Not like anythin’ can take that brat down. He’s indestructible.”

“Everyone has a weakness,” Vincent murmured, pleased by his discovery.

It looked like an office, one that had never been used. No name decorated the plate, and it lacked the paper mess of an office in use. Everything looked new and untouched, and the couch in the waiting area was of particular invite. Of course, the desk and chair weren’t too bad either.

Cid snorted and spat out his mangled toothpick, his aim managing to land it in a nearby trash can. “Well, if yer that curious, then Sephiroth and his boytoy disappeared some time ago and I’m not going after them. Yer more than welcome to.”

Shaking his head, Vincent stepped into the office. “No, if they are together then there is no reason for me to be present,” he responded.

He had briefly worried about Sephiroth, but it seemed that concern was unfounded. Sephiroth was strong, perhaps much stronger than Vincent himself had been. He pulled himself together and fought against his demons, even if he had to do it alone. Sephiroth didn’t need someone worrying over him, especially not Vincent.

“And here I thought that was jes lingerin’ feelings of fatherhood tryin’ to catch up to ya.”

Vincent paused, a chuckle escaping him. He turned, leaning against the desk. “Cid… are you jealous?”

“Jealous!” He spluttered, but Vincent noticed that the blond’s cheeks darkened anyways. It was really kinda cute. “Of a brat!”

He inclined his head, grabbing Cid’s hand and dragging the shorter man towards him. “So it seems,” Vincent murmured, glad that Cid had enough foresight to close the door to the office behind him. “Don’t worry, Chief. You’re still number one.”

The flush deepened, much to Vincent’s amusement. “I knew that,” Cid grumbled and his free hand skated up Vincent’s side, briefly skating over a spot where the Geostigma had once been. “So it’s really gone, huh?”

“Completely,” Vincent reassured him, slipping a knee between Cid’s legs, the silence of the office highlighting every slide of cloth and every breath.

The pilot rolled his eyes, though he didn’t refuse the embrace. “Everybody’s grievin’ and you wanna do this now?”

“What better time to remind us what we have to live for?” Vincent posed, staring pointedly at a few spots of blood on his lover’s shirt. The wounds had been healed, but he could still remember the stark reality that had been there.

Defeating the two brothers had been no easy victory.

“And now you wanna get sentimental.”

“Call it a curse of old age.”

Cid rolled his eyes and tangled his fingers in Vincent’s hair, suddenly dragging him down for a kiss. Stubble scratched at Vincent’s skin, but he hardly noticed, their bodies molded together. It became obvious that Cid was only protesting for the sake of, the length pressing against Vincent’s upper thigh self-explanatory.

Vincent curled his arm around Cid, exploring fingers finding the gap between shirt and waistband and slipping beneath cotton. His hand splayed across Cid’s back, moving upwards, hoping to convey his intent.

It worked as Cid pulled back from the kiss, licking across his lips. “Sentimental ain’t so bad sometimes,” he commented, and before Vincent could get another word in, Cid kissed him again.

“Sephiroth’s worried about you.”

Zack paused in the midst of shoving things into a locker, closing the door and looking beyond it. Aeris was standing there, arms crossed over her chest as she leaned against the wall, watching. Her eyes conveyed sympathy as she tracked his ragged expression.

Fully closing the metal door, Zack clicked the lock into place. “That guy… he should worry about himself,” he murmured, lifting the towel over his shoulders and rubbing it over his head.

Three hours of sword play. More hours of working out and strength exercises. Twenty minutes in the shooting range before it became too much. Zack still felt keyed up and ready for action, despite the fatigue that he knew he should be feeling. But he didn’t want to close his eyes.

“Sephiroth is doing fine,” Aeris returned, moving a step closer and sitting down on the bench in front of him. She swiveled her legs around, almost resembling a school girl as she straddled the bench. “You’re the one who’s not.”

Rubbing water droplets from his skin, Zack turned away from her, unable to meet Aeris’ knowing eyes. “Where’s Midori?”

“My mother is looking after her for the moment. I had to come take care of another child.”

He just knew she was smiling. Aeris had always enjoyed teasing him like that when they had dated those countless years ago.

Of course, Elena liked to tease him, too.

Zack sighed, his hands dropping from the towel as he left it draped around his neck. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, I won’t tell you that I’m sorry. Or that it’ll get better. Or that you should try being happy because that’s what she would have wanted. Hephaestion knows I didn’t want to hear it either.”

He heard her hand pat the bench. “But I will ask if you’ll sit with me.”

“It’s different with you and Cloud,” Zack muttered, but he obeyed anyways. He’d learned it was better to do so when a woman made a demand. “You loved him.”

The moment he sat, Aeris grabbed his arms, pulling him backwards into her embrace. He was surrounded by the soft, sweet scent of honeysuckle and Zack closed his eyes, a pang of sorrow rushing through him. There was a lump in his throat no amount of swallowing could pass.

Cushioned against her front, he felt the rumble of her words as she gently set her cheek against the top of his damp hair. “You didn’t love Elena?”

“I don’t know,” Zack answered, allowing himself to soak in her comfort like one would a hot, steaming bath. “I cared for her a lot. But love? Do I even know what that means?”

“You can’t blame yourself for not caring as much as you think you should,” Aeris murmured soothingly. “Otherwise, you would just be lying.”

There was a tightening in his chest no amount of breathing would ease. “I should have,” he returned, spitting back the same he had thrown at Sephiroth.

Zack felt guilty for that, pushing away his best friend when Sephiroth had only wanted to help. But there was a strange part of him that didn’t want to show his weakness to Sephiroth because he was so used to being the strong one that never fell apart. He was always the one who smiled and laughed, who forgave.

Who picked up the pieces and put them back together again.

“There’s no such thing as ‘should’,” Aeris retorted softly, her arms a warm comfort.

He remembered this from long ago, the soft smell of flowers that always surrounded her. The general feeling of peace that she exuded. Zack had remembered even then thinking that she was too pure for someone like him. But he relished in that purity, bathed in it as though it would heal something broken inside of him.

Elena wasn’t pure at all. She was a ShinRa employee through and through, just like him. Perhaps even worse since she was Turk. She had seen just as much as Zack, and again, probably worser things. She smelled of blood and smoke and thunder. And it was no better, no worse. It was Elena and that was all that mattered to him.

She was spitfire and passion and though they didn’t need each other – not like their best friends needed them – they had each other and that was what mattered. It was comfort and familiarity and yes, sex, but more than that, too.

But love?

The heat behind his eyes wasn’t going away. And the more Zack thought about her – blue eyes and blond hair and quiet gasps in the night and smirking lips – the tighter his chest grew. He squeezed his eyes, but they came out anyway, sliding one by one down his cheek.

What happened to being strong?

“It’s not a weakness,” Aeris murmured, and it took that long for Zack to realize that he’d said the last aloud.

He didn’t respond; he didn’t have the words. He sucked in a breath, drew his bottom lip between his teeth, but once they started, the tears wouldn’t stop. They came, like opening a floodgate, dampening his cheeks and sliding down the sides of his face. Into his ears and down his neck, eventually caught by the towel.

He missed her. By Kami, he missed her.

It had only been a day or so. Perhaps more. But her absence was already felt in his life. He felt it so acutely, as though she had been gone for weeks or months. And maybe that was because they rarely found time for just one another. Zack didn’t know. But there was this hole inside of him where all his regrets about what he never managed to do or say echoed loudly.

“All the time in the world,” he managed, cursing himself inwardly. “But really, no time at all.”

Aeris leaned over him, her face pressed against his, heedless of his tears. She shushed him, silently giving him permission to cry. And Zack gratefully heeded the approval.

He wept.

They were here because Reeve had called them. And though he was only president of the WRO, he carried a sense of command and most of them were soldiers. So on they came, trudging along, a motley group of heroes.

Sephiroth was among them, though his own emotions felt pulled through a wringer. Judging by the expressions of his friends – his family – they felt the same way. But Reeve had a point. They couldn’t force those boys to sit in confinement forever. A decision had to be made and it wasn’t fair to make Reeve take responsibility for that alone.

Though it wasn’t exactly a merry bunch of heroes that gathered in the conference room. They trudged inside, dropping into their seats with a complete lack of enthusiasm. Several were missing – by choice – and one normally occupied seat was all the more obvious for its lack of resident.

A single glance at the chair was all it took to spiral the mood in the room further into sorrow.

Sephiroth could practically taste the gloom on his tongue. He winced, feeling cloaked by the desperate emotion. He understood the necessity of the meeting, but it still felt too soon to him. They all looked exhausted, as though they wanted nothing more to do with war and politics. And Yuffie and Nanaki were noticeable, if only for their absence.

Tseng – in particular – was tense, sitting stiffly in his seat with a severe expression. Sephiroth hadn’t had chance to talk to his lover before this meeting, Tseng having disappeared a few hours prior without explanation. Not that they required intimate knowledge of each other’s whereabouts at any time of the day. He suspected it had something to do with a request from Reeve; Sephiroth didn’t ask and Tseng didn’t volunteer.

His eyes wandered to the window as the seats were filled. It was grey just beyond the half-drawn blinds. A grey, gloomy morning. Sephiroth suspected it would rain today. Those darker clouds looked to mean a storm.

“All right, Reeve. Get this party started,” Cid said gruffly. “Some of us got work to do.”

Though lacking tact as always, Cid’s demand cut through the low murmur of conversation and effectively called the meeting to order. Internally, Sephiroth was grateful that he was there to speed business along. He couldn’t deny that he wanted nothing more than to finish his own responsibilities and crawl into bed, to sleep forever if possible.

The president cut his eyes at the pilot, repressing a sigh. “This is work as well,” he reminded Cid before turning to the others. “I would have put this off longer but I felt the matter needed to be dealt with sooner rather than later.”

“We understand,” Vincent assured him, while his lover snorted, but wisely refrained from commenting. “Just explain. Cid is right in one thing: we are all tired.”

“It’s about Kadaj and his brothers, isn’t it?” Aeris questioned softly, her presence surprising Sephiroth because – admittedly – she had been left a little out of the loop as of late. Mostly in deference to her need to care for the children, including her own.

Reeve nodded slowly, reluctance seeping into his expression. “They have submitted without complaint to imprisonment for the better part of a week. And though they have committed several crimes, it is unfair to force it without making some sort of decision.”

“And you are reluctant to execute them,” Sephiroth stated with sudden understanding, otherwise Reeve would have done it already. But he knew the president, just as he knew those surrounding him. They would not kill in such a manner.

Perhaps Reno would be capable of such a thing if ordered to do so. Tseng, yes. Sephiroth himself and Zack as well. If such an action were demanded of them. But the others were softer, less militarily inclined. Sephiroth already knew where this meeting was headed, not that he was against Reeve’s probable suggestion to free them.

Their situation mimicked his own in too many ways for his comfort. He would be hypocritical if he tried to judge those three boys for their actions.

Reeve shifted, remarkably composed for the tension rising in stifling degrees around the table. “I would prefer not to invite more death,” he admitted. “Though I will not make this decision alone.”

“Let’s skip past the point of what they’ve done, everyone knows that,” Archer suggested, a strange look in his eyes. Only vaguely did Sephiroth remember that he seemed to have some connection to the one of the brothers. “What do you want to do?”

“They’re dangerous,” Reno retorted, lazily dancing a gil over his knuckles, as though bored with the conversation. But it was clear he was paying close attention. Apparently, husband and husband weren’t entirely in agreement. “That can’t be denied.”

“I’m not so sure,” Reeve began slowly, and when several incredulous looks turned his way, he held up a hand, continuing, “I’m not denying their abilities as they were altered much like Sephiroth. They are strong, and were clearly not completely within their own minds. Were being the operative word here.”

Cid arched one brow, pulling a toothpick out of nowhere and jamming it between his lips. “Who’s to say they’re not still plum-fuckin’ nuts?”

As though expecting the question Reeve turned towards the Wutaiian, fully composed. “Tseng?”

There was a moment of hesitation before Tseng inclined his head, shifting in obvious discomfort. “There is no trace of Jenova within them.”

The president nodded, gesturing vaguely. “That’s one point in their favor,” he murmured, rubbing fingers across his chin.

Sephiroth’s brow furrowed, his eyes darting between the two men as understanding grew inside of him. “You had him invade their minds?” he demanded, voice coming out an annoyed hiss. His fingers curled into fists.

Tseng winced at the term. “Not exactly,” he corrected quietly, the reason for his discomfit suddenly much more obvious. “I asked for their permission first. They agreed.”

“Like they had a choice,” Sephiroth retorted sharply, fighting back a stab of betrayal. “Those boys aren’t stupid. They know what it takes to be given freedom.”

Reeve’s fingers tapped against the table, the others in the room holding their breath at the discussion that bounced between the three men. “And what you have me do? Loose those three boys back on the world without taking every precaution?” He shook his head, expression firm. “I am not subjecting the people – my daughter – to that risk.”

Sephiroth resisted the urge to bang his fist on the table as it would do nothing but provide an immature expression of his anger, even as he sat forward in his chair. “You’ve no idea what it’s like to have someone invade your mind,” he snarled, remembering all too well Jenova’s poisonous fingers, her sibilant whispers, her pressing demands…

No, he would never understand.

The president flinched, and swallowed thickly, sharing a brief glance with his lover. “On the contrary,” he argued, significantly more softer than before. “I do, courtesy of Kadaj. I don’t know what he intended, but that glimpse into madness is more than I plan to ever suffer again.”

Uneasy silence slipped into the conference room, anger briefly darkening Reno’s face as he recalled the instance in the office where Kadaj had attacked Reeve. He still bore a grudge for that. And it was never good to let a former Turk carry a grudge. They knew all the particularly nasty tortures. Or at least, the more humiliating ones.

Vincent was the one to break the quiet. “Thanks to their cooperation, we can come to an agreement,” he said with a pointed look towards Reeve. “Is that not what you were implying?”

The president inclined his head. “Correct. I propose we release them into our custody. That way, my concerns for the people will be assuaged, and they will have a measure of freedom. Despite my reservations, I do feel uneasy about limiting them to a life of confinement.”

“Babysitting,” Cid muttered with disgust, kicking out his foot. He chewed on his toothpick with a disgruntled expression. “S’what it sounds like ta me.”

Amusement curled Reeve’s lips. “Precisely. Reno and I will look after Yazoo. For Reis’ sake since she has pleaded on his behalf.”

“And I will watch over Loz,” Vincent inserted, despite his lover’s wide-eyed look and prompt disagreement.

As they argued quietly amongst themselves, with Valentine clearly coming out the victor, Archer was quick to volunteer himself. “And I will take Kadaj,” he announced.

Reno rolled his eyes, leaning back in his chair. “Yeah, I’m sure you will,” he muttered, with a cutting look towards the engineer.

Red flushed Archer’s cheeks. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded,” he returned.

“Is he even qualified?” Reno added, displaying an unusual amount of force in this matter.

The engineer drew pack a pace, looking to launch himself from his chair and only barely restraining him. “What the hell-”

Surprisingly, it was Zack to cut into the conversation. “He will be if I help, too,” Zack inserted quietly, surprising Sephiroth with both the offer and the words. He hadn’t spoken much and Sephiroth cut a glance at him, silently apologizing for being unable to help his best friend.

Zack didn’t seem to notice, and Sephiroth lost the chance to attract his attention when Archer grew more agitated with increasing accusation.

“He’s not a child!”

Reno snorted. “Yeah, keep telling yourself that,” he muttered, leaning back in his chair with a dangerous air about him.

Reeve shot both his husband and Archer a warning look, the face of the president formidable. “Enough! This is neither the time nor the place for that particular discussion.”

Which, of course, implied that it would be continued at a later date. Sephiroth had a feeling it wouldn’t involve everyone in their group, not that it was the sort of thing that should be debated at all. Honestly, that was the one thing he did hate. Their propensity to stick their noses in everyone else’s business.

“Oh no. I think now is the perfect time for this,” Reno countered, a strangely hostile note in his tone. Of all people to disagree, Sephiroth wouldn’t have expected it to be the red-haired Turk who had less than stellar morals…

Archer twisted his jaw, the flush in his face deepening with increasing anger. “My personal life is not up for debate.”

“Archer, he’s a child,” Reeve pressed, resigned to the fact that they seemed determined to discuss this here and now, rather than in private as he had originally intended. “You’re over twice his age!”

Archer glared, shoulders bristling. “You’re one to talk,” he growled, his eyes cutting from president to Turk. “Reno was the same age when you two met.”

“And the difference between us then was only ten years,” Reeve countered, though he paled in remembrance. But then, it had been hard to think of Reno as a child, Reno having been forced to grow up quickly on the streets. “Are you that desperate-”

Desperate!” Archer repeated, dangerously approaching a shriek.

All other matters were apparently forgotten as the other members of the group watched this heated discourse between the three men, two of them close to being best friends. Sephiroth himself had no opinion as he didn’t think it would matter. But to him, Kadaj was no more a child than anyone in this room.

Archer hauled himself to his feet, violet eyes blazing. “What kind of person do you think I am?” he demanded. “You have no idea of the agony I faced over this! You think it was easy?”

“And yet you couldn’t say no,” Reeve retorted.

A bevy of emotions flickered over the engineer’s face, his fingers turning white-knuckled over the table. Archer twitched, and then stilled, his entire body drawing eerily still.

“Fine,” he forced out through gritted teeth. “I don’t expect you to understand. And I’m not going to bother to try either. I’m done here.”

With that, Archer whirled away from the table and stormed from the room, letting the door slam shut behind him with a loud, defining bang.

Reeve flinched and sighed, lifting a hand to rub it across his forehead, looking very much the defeated man.

“Well, that went slightly less than well,” Cid muttered, chomping down on his toothpick and spraying bits of wood across the tabletop.

Amber eyes tossed him a glare. “I didn’t see you making an effort to disagree,” Reeve retorted.

The pilot shrugged, leaning back in his seat and propping a boot on the edge of the table. “Cause I couldn’t care less what Archer chooses to do. He’s a grown-ass man. And as far as I can tell, so is Kadaj. Ain’t nothin’ child-like bout a brat like that. So I don’t know what you think you’re protectin’.”

“You should be more worried about Archer than Kadaj,” Vincent inserted, tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear. “He’s the one who has the most to lose.”

Reeve let out a slow breath. “All that is a moot point anyways. He’s not going to listen to anything we say.”

“Then that’s his decision to make. It’s his life, not ours,” Tseng commented. “We have far more important things to worry about. Such as the fate of the three brothers. Are we agreed on allowing their freedom?”

“I don’t see why we gotta care about a bunch of murderers!” Barret snarled, rising to his feet with a fist pounding the tabletop. “They killed Marlene! You just gonna let ’em get away with that?”

His words rang through the room, reminding everyone of the pall of gloom that still lingered. A week had passed, but it was not enough to ease the thick grief. And Barret had a valid point. There were too many in the room who should wish for the deaths of the three brothers, rather than their freedom.

“Shall we become murderers as well?” Reeve countered, his voice strained. “We all loved Marlene, Barret, but even you should know that we would be no better by executing them, because that is what you are asking for, an outright execution.”

“Imprisoning them forever works jes fine, too,” the gunman retorted, crossing his arms over his beefy chest. “I don’t want them loose in the world, decidin’ to go all freaky just ’cause Mama comes callin’ again.”

Sephiroth wanted to argue, to rise to his feet and defend those three boys, but the words would mean nothing coming from him. Barret despised and blamed Sephiroth as much as he blamed Kadaj and his brothers. His words would only increase Barret’s ire, and even Sephiroth knew that the man had a valid point. They had killed.

But then, so had Sephiroth. So had half the people sitting in this room. Reno had destroyed the entire sector five plate in Midgar on ShinRa’s orders. Valentine had been an assassin for the Turks. Zack and Sephiroth were SOLDIERs, with numerous Wutaiian deaths under their belts. Even Archer and Cid had done a stint in the army and air force respectively

None of them were blameless or innocent. And Sephiroth knew for a fact that Barret had probably killed someone before, too. He was the original mastermind behind Avalanche after all. How many had died when he destroyed the reactor? Had he ever stopped to consider that?

Oh sure, it was history, but that didn’t mean it should be discounted. If Barret wanted to start pointing fingers at murderers, he needed to start with himself.

Fortunately for Sephiroth, someone else understood the very same points he had been debating.

“Barret, have you even looked around this table?” Aeris said quietly. “Have you even seen who you are surrounded by? Have you looked at yourself?”

The large man paused, blinking in confusion. “What’re you-”

“How many people do you think I’ve killed?” Reno interjected, strange to hear it from him, who had every reason to hate the brothers. “Or Tseng? Or Reeve even? Do you think that even I can count them anymore?” A haunted look entered his blue eyes, shadowed by memories of the past. “We’re all murderers in one way or another. And look where it’s gotten us.”

Barret blanched, a sizable feat considering his skin tone, and backtracked a step. “But-”

“I should feel the same as you,” a voice inserted softly, startling everyone because Zack had been mostly silent throughout the extent of the meeting. “Because of them, Elena was killed. So I should hate them just as much. I should want nothing more than their deaths.”

Zack paused to catch his breath, letting his words sink in. Sephiroth looked to his best friend worriedly, but Zack’s eyes burned with sorrow and determination both. Aeris’ kindness had indeed helped to ease his pain.

His hands clenched slowly, shoulders slumping. “But I am just as guilty as they,” Zack continued, and he looked up, meeting Barret’s eyes evenly. “And so are you.”

Barret spluttered, words lost to him at Zack’s soft accusation. He twisted his jaw, a proper response escaping him.

Aeris sighed, leaning back in her chair. “We could sit here and argue all night. We could place blame and demand justice and grow angrier in grief. But it will get us nowhere. The cycle must end. Can’t you see that?” Jade eyes gazed imploringly around the table, beseeching Barret thoroughly.

The gunarmed man muttered a curse, dropping back into his seat. “That’s not fair, Aeris. You can’t look at me like that.” He covered his face with his palm, looking defeated. “Just what am I ‘sposed ta tell Marlene, huh? How am I ‘sposed ta face Dyne?”

“That is something you will have to solve for yourself,” Reeve said, though he was not without sympathy for the grieving man. “But I do know that demanding blood isn’t the best option for any of us.”

Barret slumped, letting the action for itself. He offered no other comment.

“So… we’re letting them go,” Reno said slowly, voice approaching a drawl. “That’s what your gettin’ at, yo?”

“Do you see any other option?” Tseng asked pointedly, and no one had anything else to say. “We won’t kill them. We can’t lock them up indefinitely. There’s no choice but to release them into our custody.”

Vincent inclined his head, grey eyes solid and firm. “As much as we wish to hate them, I can’t find it in me to do so. I pity them more than anything.”

It’s not their fault. So don’t hate them, Mr. Sephiroth. They just wanted to be loved like anyone else. And they need someone to protect them.”

Marlene’s words rang in the back of his mind. Sephiroth wished he wasn’t the only one to have heard them.

“That damn Hojo’s a piece of work,” Cid muttered darkly, lips twisting into a scowl. He held no love for the mad scientist. There wasn’t anyone in the room who would disagree.

“If it comes down to it, we’ll just take them down again,” Reno agreed, though the gaze he exchanged with Reeve proved the conversation wasn’t over.

Tseng inclined his head. “Indeed. It is the only thing we can do.”

He spoke with a sense of finality that there was no choice but to settle the matter as concluded.

“There is one more matter requiring our attention,” Reeve said quietly, gathering their attention just as Cid began to rise, thinking it over. The pilot dropped back into his seat with a sullen look.

“It has been several days,” Reeve continued, “I know this is difficult for everyone so I arranged everything myself.”

“The funeral,” Tseng realized aloud, proving that he had not been one of the president’s conspirators. No, likely Reeve had sought Valentine’s help, or Highwind’s, wanting someone who wasn’t as emotionally involved.

Or perhaps this explained Nanaki and Yuffie’s absence.

Reeve nodded, rubbing fingers briefly over his face, highlighting his fatigue. Sephiroth couldn’t help but wonder if the president had even bothered to rest yet. Knowing Reeve, that was unlikely. He wouldn’t allow it until everything had been solved. Or Reno knocked him over the head and forced it. Whichever came first.

Sephiroth highly suspected it would be the latter. And tonight, if Reno’s concerned look was any indication.

“We must say goodbye,” the president explained. “I’ve set it for tomorrow afternoon, should the weather hold, in Kalm.”

“By Cloud,” Aeris murmured, taking in a slow breath. “That’s a good idea, Reeve. Thank you.”

“I took the liberty of purchasing the entire plot,” Reeve continued, his eyes tracking over all of them. “For the far-away future.”

Well, they all hoped it was far away. With Gaia constantly stricken with strife, it was difficult to say how long this peace would last. Personally, Sephiroth hoped it never ended. He was tired of battle and blood and pain and watching grief take over the lives of those who meant most to him.

“Always looking to the future, that’s Reeve for ya,” Cid inserted, and rose to his feet with a languid stretch, shattering the lightly-tense atmosphere. “Was that all, Mr. President? ‘Cause frankly, all of us look to be asleep in our chairs.”

A quick glance around only proved the captain’s point. Zack looked to have been pulled out of bed, judging from the dark circles under his eyes, and Reeve himself seemed no better. Reno lacked his spark of energy and Sephiroth himself wouldn’t mind a night’s sleep without the emotional strain that accompanied the last few.

Reeve waved a hand. “Yes, Cid, that’s all. You’re free to go.” A touch of amusement curled his lips.

Sephiroth stood with the others, just as relieved that business was concluded. He hadn’t gotten two steps out the door before Tseng appeared at his side, something hesitant in his eyes. Which was unusual. Tseng rarely hesitated about anything.

“I didn’t say anything because I knew you would object,” he explained, diving into conversation without so much as an acknowledgment.

“I’m not angry,” Sephiroth assured him, though admittedly, he had been.

Unfortunately, he could understand their worry. Once upon a time, he had been infected with madness as well. Once upon a time, he hadn’t been trusted. He shouldn’t fault them for trying to ensure that the three boys weren’t a threat. And the fact that permission had been sought was a point in their favor.

Still, it bothered Sephiroth. But he wasn’t angry.

Tseng looked at him, silver eyes solidly assessing. “You aren’t exactly pleased either.”

“It’s not something I’d like to argue about,” Sephiroth retorted. His eyebrow twitched. “It’s my own personal demons.”

Tseng wasn’t quite convinced, but he was the one who could sense tiny nuances in emotions, not Sephiroth. Sooner or later he would understand.

He inclined his head. “Very well.” He paused in the hallway, causing Sephiroth to pause as well. “I have to discuss deployment with Reeve. But… dinner?”

They almost sounded like a real couple. And that thought made Sephiroth smile just a tad. He nodded. “Yes. Dinner is fine. Eight?”

“Sounds good.” Tseng turned as if to leave before hesitating and shifting back towards Sephiroth.

The former General had no warning save for a faint gleam in silver eyes before Tseng grabbed him. A mouth fell over his, lips pressing urgently, and a tongue quickly followed. Sephiroth’s back hit the wall, an armful of Tseng nearly climbing into his hold, before it was over as swiftly as it began.

Tseng drew back, ever the picture of composure, tucking a stray lock of hair behind his ear. “Tonight,” he said again, and turned to stride down the hall.

Leaving Sephiroth to stare after him in stunned disbelief, his lips tingling and his body heated with no relief in sight.

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