It takes Albel four days to wake up. By that point Cliff is a nervous wreck, although he looks better than he feels due to Mirage putting sleeping pills in his coffee. It's something she's done many a time, particularly when she feels he's been overworking himself, so he probably should have been a little suspicious when she handed him the mug. Unfortunately, he had been way too exhausted to really think the situation through until it was too late, which meant he had not remembered that key fact until he found himself pulling his face out of a puddle of drool on Albel's bed.

His first reaction upon awakening was to be angry, but he had not even been able to manage that. It might have been that despite the sleep he was still simply too tired to muster up any righteous fury, but he figures that he was probably just coherent enough to think the situation through reasonably and realize that Mirage was just helping him out. Being awake and slightly twitchy was doing favors to no one including himself, and Cliff couldn't really blame Mirage for doing something he would have done if it had been anyone else. He wasn't grateful but he could see her point, and so he had kept his mouth shut the next time she had come up with Maria to check on Albel. For her part, Mirage had not offered him any more drinks, and that was pretty much that.

Although if he is to be honest, Cliff would have to admit that he was almost wishing Mirage would drug him again when Albel's eyes suddenly open and focus on him. Most people would have gone about it a little more slowly, maybe blinking a few times, but it seems that being out of commission for four days forces Albel to react quickly, as if to make up for lost time.

And although he has been waiting for this moment for what seems like an eternity—only four days, yes, he knows, but still—Cliff finds that he has no idea what to say except the obvious, "Hey. So you're awake."

"So it would seem," Albel replies in a voice that sounds like his mouth is full of cotton. Considering how long he's been asleep, it's not exactly surprising, and it's probably why Albel says nothing else. Instead, he just stares back up at him, as if waiting for him to speak.

Which is slightly problematic, as Cliff is still failing to come up with anything vaguely intelligent to say. It's ironic, considering how Cliff had come up with a number of increasingly romantic scenarios as he had waited for Albel to wake up, but now that the time has actually come he finds himself frozen and incapable of any coherent action. He almost wishes that one of the others were here to rescue him, but they're all up at the castle dealing with the aftermath of the destruction. They had come to visit from time to time, of course, but they rarely lingered long, as if knowing he preferred to be alone. It's too late to take back that sentiment, and after a moment he finally says, "You've been asleep for the past four days."

Albel tilts his head slightly at that news, but stays quiet. To fill up the awkward silence Cliff finds himself rambling, most of it vastly incoherent. "You had a lot of injuries, you know. Blood loss, broken bones… um, and some other stuff. Even with our more advanced technology it was a close call, but you're going to be okay. It might just take a while… well, how are you feeling now? You've been healing really well but you're probably still going to be in some pain, although-"

"What happened?" Albel cuts him off quietly as he sits up. He sounds tired, and if it was anyone else, Cliff would have suggested for him to go back to sleep. He knows better than to say any such thing right now though, 'specially since he knows it'll be impossible for Albel to get any sleep without knowing exactly what's going on.

"Well… the war's over. They're doing peace talks up at the castle, although I guess they're not as much peace talks as reconstruction plans, but-"

"That's not what I want to know."

He chuckles grimly, having known that it wouldn't work. Not with Albel, anyway. "Well, can't blame a guy for trying, right? You know, you just woke up and… maybe it'll be better if…."

His voice trails off when Albel glares—nowhere near as potent as a typical Albel Nox snarl-glare, but considering the circumstances it clearly gets the point across—at him. Yeah, definitely shouldn't have bothered with trying to dodge the question, but he isn't sure how to tell Albel what needs to be said. Hell, he hasn't even completely accepted it himself, and he's had little else to do for the past few days except accept it. It goes without saying that he had been hoping to put off this situation a little longer, but it seems that Albel has no interest in playing such games.

Cliff leans back in his chair, although he doesn't break eye contact with Albel as he asks, "How much do you remember? About Romero, I mean."

Albel looks discomforted by the question, as if it pains him to think about what happened. "He did something. I don't know what. He said something… something about a life for a life, but… I don't understand what that's about," he finishes abruptly.

"You killed him," Cliff reminds him.

"But he didn't stay dead," Albel replies, sounding more than slightly irked by the fact.

Cliff smiles dryly, "He's a creation of the gods. Guess he had a few tricks up his sleeve that we didn't know about, but that didn't change the fact that he died. But being the king of the dead, he couldn't just die. He could take a life to replace the one he lost. That's what he meant."

Albel's face remains perfectly blank as he shrugs, the movement stiff, "Except neither of us are dead."

"Yeah, well…" Cliff pauses, unsure of how to continue. This is the moment that he had been hoping to avoid, although he knows that is simply impossible. But he doesn't know how Albel would react. Hell, he had barely known how to react when Romero had explained exactly what had happened, after he had thrown Albel away like a rag doll. He still remembers the sickening crash Albel had made when he hit the ground, although his attention had been split on the limp body and the king of the dead. Or perhaps more accurately, what Romero had pulled out of Albel. "That… thing he did to you. He did take a life."

"I would have taken his, but this will suffice. A life that is being lived is difficult for me to use. An unborn child, on the other hand, has yet to make use of its life, making it easier for me to restore what has been taken from me." At that point Romero had looked at him, something like anger flashing in those empty eyes. "Make no mistake. If I could have, I would have taken the life of the one who killed me. Or I might have taken yours, the one who helped him. But this is the most pragmatic choice for me to make, regardless of any petty sentiment for revenge. It is ironic though, that the child given to him by the person he hates would save his life."

From the look in Albel's eyes, he knows that he does not need to say what Romero had told him after Albel had passed out—that he has gone far enough. Albel is paler than he already is and he looks sick, almost like he wants to vomit. But before Cliff can get up and go to him, he turns away quickly, hands clenching the blankets as he shakes. In fear or fury or revulsion, Cliff simply cannot tell.

"I'm sorry," Cliff says, even though he knows it isn't enough. Nowhere near enough. But what else can he say right now? What else can he do? "I didn't want to-"

"Stop," Albel interrupts, still sounding as if he needs to hurl, but he still does not look over at Cliff. "Don't say anything. Do not say anything else. I don't want to… I can't…."

Albel won't cry, not even now. He may sound like he wants to, but he won't. And although he knows it isn't the best idea he's ever had, not even close, Cliff does stand up at this. He isn't the mushy type, really he isn't, but there's something about the situation here that seems to… warrant him reaching over to Albel, ignoring the automatic recoil in order to embrace him, although how much of this is for his sake or Albel's he really isn't sure. But as the shaking slowly subsides, he realizes that it probably doesn't matter what his motivation is as long as he can be there for Albel. Even if the guy claims that it isn't necessary, it doesn't change the fact that this is what Cliff wants to do, not something he needs to do. Because Albel is important to him, even if their relationship doesn't really make sense, even if nothing can ever be the same again. Considering what has happened to Albel, it seems impossible that things could not change, and the very fact that Albel is allowing him to do this—not pushing him away, not chewing him out, not saying anything in fact but instead just staring at the wall as if slightly deadened by this all—shows how very different things will always be.

He doesn't know how long they're like that, in an awkward embrace, when Albel suddenly says with no warning, "When you leave, I'm going with you."

Cliff stares. He can't help it, although luckily Albel cannot see his slack-jawed gape of surprise since he still has not turned to face him. After a moment, he stammers, "I don't… I don't know when I'll be able to come back here. The next time. You might be stuck with me for a long time, and-"

"I don't care. I just need to get away from this place. I can't stand to be here anymore."

He has nothing to say in response to that, although he knows he shouldn't be surprised. Nowhere on Elicoor II is safe, not with Romero roaming about. It seemed that at the precise moment Albel had killed Romero, Vox's army of dead had also returned to the state they should have been if Romero had not interfered—namely, they had turned to dust, effectively ending the war since there was no one to fight anymore. The fact that they had not come back after Romero had used the life of… Vox's child in order to sustain his seems to be an indication that Romero's full strength had not returned, although Romero had indicated as much when he had disappeared. Although alive, he had been weakened, and it would take some time for him to recover his strength. But once he did, who knows what would happen? Albel would not be safe here, but then, Cliff knows that really has absolutely nothing to do with it, especially considering how Albel has yet to know anything of this current situation with Vox and his men returning to their grave and the inferences one could make from such development.

Besides, danger, Albel can deal with. He has for so very long, and he would most likely consider it a weakness to do anything else. But more than that, more than any person can be expected to bear is the memory of Vox and what has been done to him. It is already enough of a reminder, the female body that he is still trapped in, without being here as well. Although Albel did not really seem to dwell on it, his outburst prior to their encounter with Romero and his reaction now at discovering that he had been… pregnant with Vox's child is enough to show that it had affected him. The battle with Romero had given him something else to think about for a time, but now that it was over with, Albel has nothing left except the ugly memories of what had happened before. There are no more distractions now, nothing to keep him from remembering. And while this may be escapist, running away from reality, can anyone really blame him?

"I understand," he says. "I'll be happy to have you come with me."

At this point, Albel should have made a sarcastic or biting remark about Cliff's feelings having nothing to do with this situation. Which they probably don't. But Albel says nothing, instead continuing to stare at the wall although his body does relax slightly into the embrace. It's not much, but it's something, and it's so terribly out of character that it seems to make Cliff feel even worse about the whole thing. This isn't what he wanted, when he had decided to come down to Elicoor II. He doesn't want to see Albel like this. He's not… broken, but he isn't the same either. And it's not that Cliff needs him to be the same, but it's more that… it's because Albel has been hurt so badly. Not physically but emotionally, and considering how Albel has never been the most mentally stable guy around, that's really saying something. He had been getting better too, during their journey, and Cliff really doesn't know what to do.

But that's just something he'll have to figure out. There's not much point in worrying about it right now, as long as he knows that he will do something. He can't stand to see Albel like this, and although he knows Albel will probably return to his more sharp-tongued and anger management issues-self once the shock has worn off, there will always be… this underlying every aspect of his life. For how long, he doesn't know, but then it probably shouldn't matter. 'Cause he'll deal with it. After all, he's handled diplomatic matters more tangled up than Albel's hair after four days of non-brushing (and that's seriously saying a lot, considering the state it's in right now), battled the creator of the universe, fought a creation of the gods, and dragged Albel back from the very depths of hell, all within the past year. Three of them in the past month, even.

This isn't to say that getting through this will be easy because he knows it won't, but he has a hunch that after everything else, they'll manage to get through it somehow.

For now though, after everything that has happened, all he can… all he wants to do is hold Albel in his arms and just be grateful that they will even have this chance at all.


End Notes:

The title for this fic was supposed to be explained earlier, where Cliff would swear that he'd do anything for Albel, including dragging him back from hell. Unfortunately, it didn't get into this fic until… oh, the last chapter, when it really should have gotten in earlier. Oops. But seriously, this title doesn't actually have anything to do with dressing in drag; that was pretty accidental.

I don't have too many people to thank for this fic, but the few I do are exceptionally lovely. One is my friend Pinkangelsakura who, while not exceptionally lovely, did introduce me to this game (as well as getting me that cute pink kitty jacket that I was eyeing at AX, mwaha). The other is the darling Sahara Storm, who gave me all the feedback and love I needed for this story, and pushed me to make it better that it probably would have been otherwise.

I do rather love this fic. It's such a cracky concept, I know, but it accomplished things that I didn't really anticipate. I know I love a fic when the characters are able to do their own thing and develop their own stories without too much prodding from me, and especially when I can learn a thing or two about the characters in the process of the writing. That is what I love about fanficcing; maybe it's your own interpretation, but it's interesting to see how far you can go while still remaining true to the canon. I guess I can only wish that some people liked this fic nearly as much as I loved writing it. Sure, it gave me hell at times, but it was worth it.

Anyhow, not too many fics planned for Star Ocean now. There's one I definitely plan on writing (involving pirates, Albel in a dress, and appropriate amounts of ravishing) but for the most part I've moved onto Kingdom Hearts.

August 11, 2007