Another chapter is here!

artfully: lol

Enjoy!

"Scarlet has talked," Reno said, standing before Rufus Shinra in his office as he read his report. "We've got troops stationed outside of all the entrances and ready to breach. We've also gone ahead and relocated both her and the weapon she had been working on using the confiscated Huge Materia."

"Good. Make sure that her cell is as small and uncomfortable as possible," Rufus said. Though he wore an impassive expression as a mask, there was a barely-restrained fury in his voice.

He had outright declared that everything that was his father's was to be his, yet Heidegger and Scarlet had hidden an entire elite military force beneath his very feet. After he'd gone out of his way to simply relegate the man to working with their current military force, rather than fire him after that blunder in Costa del Sol. And the cost of that was, according to Agent Elena, several potential assets—and Tseng as well.

"Are the preparations for the breaching ready?"

"Yes, sir," Reno said. "We've also armed the most promising and experienced troops with the anti-SOLDIER armaments that we had on-hand. But, even if we catch them off-guard, we expect a lot of casualties in the process of retrieving Hojo and Heidegger. If we wait an hour or so, we can have the reinforcements from Junon join in the initial assault."

"We don't have that luxury," Rufus said. "Heidegger must pay for his treasonous—"

His decree was cut off as Dark Nation barked in alarm and darted past the desk towards the window. At the same time, Reno reached into his coat for his firearm and yelled, "Sir, get away from the window!"

Rufus turned and rose from his seat to the sight of two figures hovering outside of the window with jetpacks. The dark clothing with luminous blue streaks from where mako circulated matched the description given of the standard Deepground troops. And they both had shoulder-mounted RPGs, aimed straight at the office. He didn't get the chance to move before they opened fire.

In an instant, the wave of force and deafening roar of the explosion swallowed his senses. When the moment passed, Rufus found himself lying on the ground. The taste of iron in his mouth and the ringing in his head made it difficult for his wavering consciousness to piece together how he was still alive. He forced his head up, the world rocking on its axis, to see that Reno was still in one-piece as well as the Turk approached him.

"…Sir…ar…ou… okay…" Reno's voice was drowned out by the ringing as he helped Rufus onto his feet.

Rufus felt his lips move but couldn't hear himself speak while the ever-present ringing tolled away in his ears. However, he did notice the smell of ozone that permeated the room, along with the acrid smoke from everything around them burning. He turned towards the blown-out window to find Dark Nation there.

The guard hound had scorched patches of fur that gave way to burned flesh. A leg was missing, glass shrapnel was wedged deep in its flesh, and half its face was melted to the bone. The cost of blocking the two rockets as best it could to protect its master with its Barrier was steep indeed. Yet, with a full-throated howl that seemed to reach Rufus' ears through the annoying ringing, it released a Bolt spell with all of the power that it could muster.

The bluish-white bolt of serpentine lightning forked out into branches that caught the two aerial assailants. The electricity crawled over their frames and jetpacks, frying the internal circuitry and causing them fail with explosive results. They fell towards the ground in a smoking spiral as the injured hound collapsed in a pool of its own blood.

Rufus rose to his full height, despite one of his legs being numb, and then limped over to the guard hound. Dark Nation was breathing shallow breaths, laced with pained whimpers. He kneeled next to it and ran his fingers along its head a final time. "You did good, boy."

Dark Nation gave a final chuff and licked his palm before it laid its head down and closed its remaining eye. Its breathing stopped. The guard hound that served its master faithfully to the final moment passed away in peace, its duty fulfilled.

"Sir, we need to vacate the premises and regroup in Junon," Reno said. When Rufus took a look at him, he found that the Turk had pulled away a panel of the floor to reveal the escape hatch that had been installed during the renovation in private. Heidegger shouldn't know about it, meaning it would be their ticket to getting out unseen.

"Order the assault to begin," Rufus said as he made his way to the escape hatch. "If anyone gets into a position to kill Heidegger, have them take the shot. He doesn't deserve a cell."

[-oOo-]

The steady, resounding thump of boot soles on the catwalk followed Kunsel as he ran.

The ache that rippled through his ribcage worsened with every movement and breath he took, reminding him of the last time he'd tussled with behemoth of a man. The blow he received had cracked or fractured them at least, broken at worst, and it was as annoyance at best that would slow him down in a confrontation with the Cerulean Tsviet. As much as he wanted to retrieve what was stolen from Crimson's group and put an end to Hojo, he just wasn't capable of doing so as things stood.

So he fled out of the building with the information he had, navigating through the twists and turns of the city nestled beneath the ground. While he wasn't as strong as Azul was, Kunsel banked on the fact that he was at least fast enough to outmaneuver him as he ran with all the speed his SOLDIER enhancements could grant him. All he had to do was make it to the underground hangar from where they launched their aircrafts and break through it, so he could escape to inform the others.

"Priority Target is in Sector 5! I repeat, Priority Target is—" His gravity-enhanced blade swung down upon the blue-clad, helmeted trooper radioing in his location. "—Agh!"

Even as distant explosions and gunfire thundered repetitively, marking the start of a siege upon the city in the underbelly of Midgar, Hojo had gotten word out that he had infiltrated. In response, various Deepground troops were sent to take him out. Kunsel didn't even have time to get the blood off his blade before more heavy footfalls reached his ears.

He jumped over the red and white-painted railing that separated one platform from another as he continued on with his escape plan. Bullets smashed into the platform and walls as his pursuers opened fire from behind, sparks dancing around him from the hail of metal. Then the entrance to the monorail opened and brought with it another unit of four, three soldiers led by a single heavily-armored one armed with a blade.

They joined in with a spray of bullets of their own and several found his flesh, slamming into and bruising his skin as his enhancements strained under the higher-caliber rounds. But he endured them and flung an Ice spell at the four on the cart, letting the frost do its work to freeze over their visors. He then took a leap of faith from the catwalk to the moving railcar and brought down his spellblade as he descended. It wedged itself deeply into one of the luckless soldiers as he stuck the landing, flipped the switch to reverse the direction and velocity of the cart while the others worked to remove their helmets and regain their sight, and then swung his blade around to catch another.

The third tried to take aim with their rifle and blast him in the head at zero-range. Kunsel planted his boot into the soldier's chest, knocking him off the moving cart before his blade met that of the heavily-armored swordsman as they passed through the corridor and into the city proper along the rail threading it. Their blades crossed points several times as they worked to keep their balance while trying to kill one another.

A section of the building next to them exploded in a spray of stone, dust, and glass in the midst of their battle. Shrapnel tore at Kunsel's skin, sharp bits biting into the flesh but unable to pierce it. However, the distraction opened him up to an attack on his shoulder that ran with blood from the serrated blade.

The swordsman smirked at drawing first blood until the next building between them ruptured like the last, preceded by the sound of gunpowder igniting akin to heavy artillery that they couldn't ignore. They both looked to see that Azul was on a cart following them, a smirk on his face as he relished the hunt. Smoke was wafting up from the barrel of his cannon as he aimed to fire a third time, and it was clear he didn't care if he hit someone on his own side.

The former Second-Class kicked the swordsman into the line of fire and then leapt away as the third round was fired. One swordsman dead, one cart destroyed as he grabbed onto the ledge of a nearby building. Pulling himself up with a single motion, before the next round of heavy artillery punched a hole in him, Kunsel ran across the roof and bound to the next one to maintain the head start he had on Azul.

The pursuit only came to an end when he reached the final building that stood at the edge of city. Paved stone gave way to un-chiseled earth that stood to the side of one of the hangars that led to the wastelands surrounding Midgar, where a battle was being waged between the breaching forces of Shinra and the forces of Deepground. Machines of war were dispatched on both sides, streaks of light from their continuous gunfire joining that of the soldiers killing one another, while controlling the entryway that had been breached by an explosion that left warped metal surrounding it.

It was his way out, providing he could get to it. However, before he could formulate a plan to get there safely, he felt death crawling up his spine. Instinct turned his head upwards to see Azul descending with his hammer-end raised.

The building-shattering impact resulted in a tower of stone dust and rain of rubble while throwing Kunsel into the midst of the battlefield. He landed with a sloppy roll and got to his feet before the confusion of the abrupt attack wavered on both sides. Then Azul came down with another heavy swing of the hammer and the blow shook the earth around them as Kunsel jumped away and triggered his Summoning Materia. "Phoenix!"

The Summoning was released with a blinding, golden flare that rivaled a miniature sun. The light begot heat as it expanded the reach of its power. Iron and steel, flesh and bone, all surrounding the summoner and summoning was superheated and then turned to cinders. Those that were far enough to be spared instant death were instead blinded by the light and scorched by the heat, forced to scramble away before their flesh was peeled from the bone and turned to ashes.

While Kunsel moved to escape, there was one individual that refused to let him flee. Braving the brilliant light and radiant heat to strike him down, while shrouded in a Barrier, Azul charged for him. Phoenix moved to intercept, but it made no difference as the Cerulean Tsviet rammed both of them straight through the breach that he'd be trying to get through.

Kunsel was sent tumbling onto the ground outside, adorned with more fractures along his skeleton that threatened to snap like brittle twigs with enough pressure. Phoenix laid limp some distance away, wounded as well. That was when he heard the screams as Azul walked through the opening, batting aside the unfortunate Shinra troops that stood between him and his target.

"There is no longer a place for you to flee!" He roared as he backhanded the nearest soldier and swiped his hammer to knock the rest attacking him out of the way. "Now, face your end in battle!"

As he closed in with violent intentions, the drive to survive numbed the agony coursing through Kunsel's body in time with his elevated pulse. He had to beat him if he was going to get away. The resolve to do brought forth a fiery light that encompassed him, a Limit Break.

The battle-hungry Tsviet smiled. To pit his strength against that of others, to reach the pinnacle of what was possible, that was what he sought the most out of anything. He would prevail against his opponent's strongest attack and deliver the final blow.

Kunsel gathered air into his lungs. He poured strength into his sword-arm. Holding the blade behind him, Kunsel slid his foot forward as the light of the Limit Break swallowed his weapon whole from top to bottom.

Then, faster than the unenhanced eye could see, he swung the blade as though he was attempting to cut the man from shoulder to hip. A wave of energy fired from his sword in the form of a crescent blade. The first of the strikes meant to cut down his foe at a distance flared brightly as it sailed forward towards the Cerulean Tsviet.

Azul saw it coming. It was faster than he could dodge for certain. But he could tank it easily enough. It wouldn't even scratch his tempered skin.

The second wave followed as Kunsel swung a second time. The attack met the first in midflight and combined with it, forming a large cross. It easily possessed twice as much power than that which had came before it.

That elicited effort on his part to deal with, so a Barrier sprung into existence in front of Azul to intercept it. The Tsviet was certain it could weather that level of damage. Even if the defense gave out, the impact would be lessened and he could press forward.

Then, with a heavy exhale that shook his lungs, Kunsel strained his arm as he swung a third time. The act released a final wave of energy that surpassed the strength and speed of the first two. It was the desperate bid of a desperate warrior, a gamble of a lifetime that couldn't be matched.

The wave caught up to the cross and formed a six-pointed star that met the transparent defense. The impact released a shockwave as the Barrier held for a moment. Then it shattered like glasswork, leaving the Tsviet open for attack.

"RRRAGGH!" Azul's roar and figure were swallowed by the light of the technique as it slammed into him, before rupturing with a thunderous detonation that displaced the air and dust that shrouded them.

His energy spent, Kunsel fell to his knees. That took everything he had. He gasped for breath as he supported himself on his blade, heart thundering in his chest. Then a familiar voice rang out, stilling his heart and lungs for a pause.

"Not bad." From the dust Azul emerged, striding forward with his weapon in hand. The attack had done damage, tearing open his outfit and scarring his imposing chest with a wide mark from where it had been burned into him. "I will remember this strength for some time to come."

The former Second-Class forced himself to stand and ready his gravity-imbued blade to intercept the incoming hammer. He didn't have the strength in his legs to dodge, so it was all he could do. The clash of force was settled in a single moment, where the blade that had been made to put up with intensified gravity and super-human strength finally gave out.

It shattered into fragments, leaving less than six-inches of jagged steel at the base of the hilt as the hammer continued on and found its way into his chest. Blood forced itself up through his throat and out of his mouth with a horrible, sickening sound as he landed some distance away on the ground. His ribs had been destroyed under the weight of the blow, snapping after so much abuse to this point, which was the source of the sharp agony spreading through his chest every time he drew breath.

Phoenix rose with a shrill, indignant cry as it sensed its summoner's peril. Setting itself aflame with a golden flare to blind those around them, it used the distraction of light and heat to spear towards Kunsel. Plucking him up less than gingerly, it then rose into the air to spirit him away before he could pass out and cause it to dissipate.

The Cerulean Tsviet opened fire at the fleeing pair with his cannon to deny their efforts to escape; expending shot after shot. The Summoning shrieked as one of its wings was caught by a blast, sending it spiraling over the outskirts of Midgar. Distant gunfire reached Kunsel's ears as they fell, leaving him to think that the Shinra soldiers resumed their attack now that a clear enemy had been identified. The roar of a Behemoth spelled out their fate.

Phoenix twisted around so that it met the ground at an angle to protect the one that had allowed it to be reborn. A pained shriek left its beak as it struggled to maintain its form while it skirted along the lifeless earth, a dirt cloud trailing after it until it skid to a stop. A somber warble that could be mistaken for a dirge followed as it slowly fell apart into motes of light, leaving the former Second-Class to lay where he did.

Kunsel tried to rise. But he couldn't even drudge up the strength to do so. There was nothing left at this point. Not even the rumble of tires skidding to a stop nearby could stir his body into moving as hurried footsteps followed.

"Kunsel, can you hear me?" It was Reeve's voice, followed by his face as he crouched down to look at him. "Are you still alive?"

"El—" A bloodied cough wrenched itself out of his throat as he tried to say a name. He took a wheezing breath and tried again. "Elmyra?"

"She's safe. Arkham already has her and the others en route." He looked out into the distance for a second before trying to help him to the car. "We need to leave."

Reeve helped him into the passenger seat and then shut the door. Then he climbed into the driver seat and pushed down on the gas pedal. "There's a doctor in Kalm who has experience with patients that have SOLDIER enhancements. He'll see to it that you make it."

I have to tell the others what I've learned, Kunsel thought as he noted the pain in his chest and abdomen finally stopped, replaced by a dull numbness. Even as his racing pulse slowed steadily to a crawl in his chest, with each beat seemingly deepening and drawing out, Kunsel could only think that if they were going to be facing the Tsviets then they had to get better and fast.

Allowing Zack to die alone had been the first of his greatest regrets. The fate that befell Luxiere was another grand regret that haunted him. He couldn't help but constantly think that maybe he could've changed things if he'd made more of an effort. That maybe he could have changed their fates if he'd been more proactive.

That was part of the reason he had kept moving all this time, making the effort to keep helping them whenever he could. So that they could survive where his best friends didn't, and the people Zack entrusted his legacy and heart to could continue on. He couldn't do that if he was dead.

I should… probably apologize to Crimson too. He never did make peace with her over the fact that she lied to him either. But if things were going to get harder they couldn't let that hold them back.

Kunsel's head grew lighter as his breathing grew shallower. Even keeping his eyes opened was growing steadily harder. He tried to shake his head to stay awake, only to barely shift it to where he noticed that Reeve's mouth was moving, but he couldn't hear his voice.

He couldn't hear anything. It was as if the world had gone silent. He tried to move his lips next, but they felt as heavy as lead and words wouldn't form in his throat. That realization that dawned snuffed the hope that he'd felt mere seconds ago.

Not yet… Desperate to live, he tried to force his body to keep functioning. He tried to pour his determination and will to keep going into his dying heart, even as he felt his pulse grow fainter. Not before I can help them.

"…"

A voice, soft as a feather, on the fringes of his consciousness went unheard as he continued his fruitless struggle to deny death. Even as he felt his mind failing him with every passing second. Not before I can tell… them…

"...ay."

The voice, though louder than before, was drowning in the regret that was building within the former Second-Class SOLDIER. He didn't want to die. Not before he could accomplish anything he set out to do. Not… not… yet…

"Kunsel… it's okay."

…The world that faded into darkness brightened with a soft, pale-green light as the voice finally reached him loud and clear. It was one he hadn't heard in years. He swallowed the saliva pooling in his mouth as he attempted to say the name that hadn't left his mind for a second. However, the words refused to leave his throat.

"You've done everything you can."

A familiar figure appeared in front of him, eyes the color of the sky as clear and proud as the day they'd met. It was definitely that of the man he'd wanted to honor, not the attempt of his dying brain to cope with the inevitable. It was his idol, his role model, his friend, all tied into and tethered into a single person.

A shuddering breath left his mouth in lieu of the words he wanted to say to Zack this time. There were so many things that he had to tell him that happened over these last few months, let alone the years since they'd seen one another. There were things he wanted ask too, like if Zack would be proud of what he'd done to this point.

"Yeah, you did good. Just like a hero would."

Just hearing those words of assurance from him were enough to unshackle Kunsel. It freed him entirely of the regrets and doubts he had. Unburdened of the weight that pressed down on him, he felt as light as feather as Zack extended his hand for him to take.

"Come on. You've earned a break."

He grabbed the outstretched hand and let it pull him forward.

[-oOo-]

Aerith woke up to the sound of her own soft cries in the Tiny Bronco. Even while she slept the voices of the Planet could reach her should they need to. So when she heard the familiar voice calling her from within it, she couldn't help but shed tears after her worse fear had been realized.

A friend had been well and truly lost for her sake.

"What's wrong?" Tifa asked from next to her. The others, who had been debating on whether or not to wake her when she began crying, were watching carefully. "Did you have a bad dream? Or are you in pain?"

"We need to go to Kalm." She slowly wiped away the crystalline tears and wet trails they left. "That's… that's where Kunsel's body will be. I want to return it to the Planet myself."

Crimson's expression froze as she picked up the underlying meaning. Then she turned around in her seat to where Aerith couldn't see her face. Her voice was hollow as she said, "Cid."

The pilot understood without further elaboration. "Yeah, I'll get us there."

Their flight would be haunted by a solemn silence the duration of the trip.