Spiritua Masquerade: After way too long, here's another. =/ I had more, but my dang crashing computer wiped it twice, so I said 'screw it' and ended the chapter where I did. :D So anyway, enjoy!


Chapter Eight

(The Different ????'s PoV)

It... failed?

I was so certain, though...

Has it been that long? Impossible. I am far too powerful for it to have been that long. Long enough for priorities to shift, for things that surely should have caused strife, division...

I can speak to him. I can speak to him, and he listens. I will keep that in mind. My mind, his mind... Is there division? There must be, else he would know as much about myself as I have learned about him. Have always known about him.

It's funny... He hasn't challenged me since I interrupted his disgusting display of affection. As if he has forgotten I exist. Or he denies it? But what would be the purpose to that? Would he not seek something to blame besides himself?

Somehow, they are reunited, despite it.

So I can speak. But what could I say that would make a difference, at this point?

No. For now, I shall observe.

He has to sleep sometime.

--------------------

(Kratos's PoV)

Everyone was there. I mean, I expected it, but... It was still a shock. From his childhood best friend, Genis, to the corporate president, Duke Regal Bryant. It made Lloyd's death more... real. My son's death. My son died before he was twenty. It had never occurred to me that I would outlive him, despite that it had always been fact. Some part of me refused to acknowledge it. Refused to believe it.

Before I could congratulate Lloyd for the won spar, what appeared to be a deep blue and black blur hurled at him from the side. In a split second, my son was in a fierce arm-lock with a thick blade pressed dangerously against his own throat.

"You're dead," the bluenette hissed in Lloyd's ear, his eyes narrowed slightly. Lloyd's own hazel eyes rounded at this statement, and he gazed at me in bewilderment, hands gripping his swords so tight that his knuckles were turning white, though his blades were no longer mock-'threatening my life'. We lingered there a moment, Yuan's gaze fierce, and Lloyd's equally alarmed, before I caught a spark of amusement in the eyes of my companion.

A moment later, he relaxed, releasing my son roughly to one side, and planting himself on the ground beside me.

My hands curled into fists, so tightly the knuckles paled and my entire lower arm was shaking with tension. Yuan. Yuan had told him then, but it had all been in play. I felt a streak of anger flare up toward the bluenette for even joking such a thing, for hold a blade anywhere near my son, and for a few seconds' time, it would have been worth revealing myself to march down and punch him in the jaw again.

"Peace, Kratos," I breathed, my eyes closing for a moment, and I tilted my head back slightly as I drew a deep breath. My hands unclenched, gripping the blades of Spatha and Flamberge. Flamberge... It had once been Lloyd's sword, but he had left it on Anna's grave once his journey was complete. As if he knew I'd return. I slowly, silently, drew the sword, running my fingers down its razor-sharp edge. It was a fine sword, despite its age and wear. And despite all that I'd used it for, it was Lloyd's, truly.

I should have buried it with him. I knew that now. It would have been the right thing to do. Or rather, to have Yuan have it buried with him. Goddess, I hated having to have such a string of association to my own son.

There were so many things I should have done.

I should have tried to resurrect him. I didn't think of it at the time, I was so shocked that he was dead, but... How many bodies have I seen? How many bodies have I strewn across the fields and mountains and streets of Aselia? But I... Something happened to me, something... I ran, I threatened Yuan and fled the scene. Could I have brought him back? Those wounds... And he was just hanging there...

I felt myself shudder and my knees buckle, and soon, the moisture of the shadowed forest floor was seeping through the knees of my pants. One hand slowly lowered to the ground, to lift myself back to my feet the moment I hit the ground. I hadn't meant to drop. It was involuntary, just like my flight from the scene of my son's massacre. But my knees still shook slightly as I rose again, despite my seraph strength and precision.

I should have buried Flamberge with him. I should have tried to resurrect him. I should have spent more time with him. I should have told him the moment I returned. I never should have left to begin with. I should have stayed with him when I-... When we lost Anna. But I thought we had time. I knew we had time. But I was wrong. I was confused, alone...

I should have done so many things. Where had this clarity been at the time?

Flamberge was still in my hand. In a flash of frustration, I drove it point-first deep into the dirt.

I heard a muffled wail, and found myself glancing to the one from whom it had risen. It was the Chosen; of course it was her. She loved him. She had always loved him, more even than I did. How would she feel if she knew that I might have been able to save him?

Yuan didn't belong down there. Colette was the only one who understood his presence, and she was bad enough off as it was. The others seemed confused, or, in the case of Tethe'alla's poster-child, accusing. Accusing Yuan, just as I had. And why was he down there? Because of me. Because of some half-baked loyalty to a guy he thought he knew. I mean, it had to be half-baked. Nobody who truly thought it through would feel for me as he claims to. I am... not a monster, perhaps, but I am... useless. I couldn't save Martel for Yuan, I couldn't save any of the Chosen for Mithos, I couldn't save Anna... for Lloyd. And I couldn't save Lloyd for Aselia.

I found myself wondering if Derris-Kharlan was still local. I had returned for Lloyd, and now... Now, Lloyd was dead. Irreversibly dead. So what was my purpose here? I didn't belong. I looked down at his friends, all mourning over my son, and I knew that in retrospect, they knew him better than I did, and it was my own fault. I'd thought we had more time... I was brainless enough to delude myself that he had time as I did. After all, he had wings, did he not? He had seraph powers, did he not?

Derris-Kharlan embodies 'time'. It never changes unless changed. Always alone, always drifting...

I don't belong in this world. I only ever did for Lloyd. I-...

Yuan.

My gaze came to rest on the bluenette, tense and out of place in his seat. I could almost feel his muscles strain my way, as if the moment he was released from his obligatory attendance, he would be back here with me. I'm uncertain of whether or not he realized, though; there have been times when I've suddenly become aware of the pull myself, as if he were emitting a field of gravity that I couldn't quite shake.

On the island, it was self-defense. Safety in numbers. Then, it was the simple joy of one another's company. Yet somehow, I felt no pull, now. The prospect of Derris-Kharlan pulled me now, solitude, the chance to be alone in my pain...

'...And may whoever was responsible be brought to justice.' The words drifted up from the service below, somehow managing to rise over Colette's poorly-concealed grief. Whoever was responsible. Justice.

Now things begin to make sense.

I must find whoever killed my son, whatever mad and horrible being had the power to so horribly massacre the Eternal Swordsman, and I must kill it myself. And if there was any justice left in this world, it would return the favor.

The service was over now. I didn't hide, despite the wandering gazes of the now freed mourners; I was a level above them, on this hill, and the forest here was dark. Yuan made a few curt goodbyes, which seem to raise more suspicion still with Zelos Wilder, and took up a brisk pace up the hill toward me. I watched him approach, emptying my eyes of decision, of resolve, because to have such peace of purpose so soon would be a sure sign of something ominous to come. He would be able to tell. He knew me far too well for my own good.

The moment he reached me, I wordlessly turned, reaching a hand to jerk Flamberge from the ground and slip it into its sheath as I strode off through the forest. I heard him slow in hesitation, then jog to catch up to me. Before he could, though, I pulled out my wings and took flight. It was abrupt, sure, but for some irrational reason, I didn't want him to catch me.

I didn't look behind me, but I knew he had taken flight as well. Why did he still follow me? Surely I had made it clear that I wanted to be left alone...

Then again, I had waited for him, had I not?

I didn't fly long. The House of Salvation was below, and we'd decided to stay one last night there. Landing, I strode through the door. As if to make up for yesterday, I made sure to nod relatively politely to the clerk. However, it was a different clerk today, so I needn't have bothered. As was to be expected, Yuan was right behind me.

In retrospect, cornering myself in the room in which we were staying wasn't my brightest idea. Then again, this was the second time in a row, so it may as well have been declared a habit.

But, with nowhere else to go, I found myself standing still in the center of our room, one hand on Flamberge (though I didn't realize it at the time), and my gaze on one of the nails in the floor. It took Yuan a surprising amount of time to enter the room, considering he'd been just behind me from the moment we left the burial. But when he did step in, it was almost tentative... For a moment. Then, he apparently swallowed whatever was causing him to hesitate, and he stepped around to stand directly in front of me.

Mostly due to the fact that there was now a fairly inappropriate area of pants in between myself and the nail I had been examining, I brought my eyes up to meet his. His brows were furrowed, an unfathomable look in his eyes. I couldn't tell whether he was upset, confused...

"I..." He started, then seemed to realize how uncertain he sounded, because he cleared his throat slightly and assumed a tone with more authority. "I've paid the front desk for an extra two nights." I opened my mouth to argue, but he continued before I could. "You need a few extra days to rest, recover. This was... unfathomably devastating for you, I know. You won't admit it, or at least, not now that I don't have you pinned in all directions, but I know."

"I need no such thing," I replied the moment he'd finished, in a voice like a shard of glass. He shifted closer, and I found myself shifting back to compensate, despite myself.

"Kratos, I... You know I had nothing to do with it, don't you?" His voice had softened, and was almost pleading now. I nodded once, but averted my gaze.

There was something so innately wrong with him being so yielding all the time. Pleading, desperation... This wasn't the Yuan I knew. And... it scared me.

"If you know it wasn't me, why do you keep trying to escape?"

"Escape? You're delusional," I found myself denying, though it sounded hollow even to me. In response, he took a step closer, one that would have brought our chests about three inches from touching, and once again, I instinctively compensated.

He opened his mouth, and I expected something along the lines of 'see? I told you,' but suddenly, his eyes narrowed, and he shut his mouth again, gaze scanning the room as if searching for danger. I tensed, sweeping the room myself, though I'd heard nothing, smelled nothing, sensed nothing. And, as expected, I found nothing. Yuan as well had quit searching the premises, but he'd stepped back away from me, a hand on his temple as if in a sort of pain.

"Yuan?" Concern. I was surprised to hear the concern in my voice, though I knew it should be there. I mean, of course I was concerned, but... expressive wasn't my strong point, at this particular point in time. Or ever, for that matter. No answer, so I took a step toward him, admittedly a small one. He didn't seem to realize I was addressing him.

Then his gaze snapped up to me, eyes narrowed in accusation. "You're having second thoughts."

"I'm what?" I stammered, shocked out of my shell for a moment.

"Having second thoughts," he replied, more confident in his words. "You thought you cared for me on the island because that kind of thing just happens when you depend on someone like that, but now that we're free, now that things are getting rough, you just want to be alone, to sink back into your depression and walk the world like an empty shell for another two decades before something happens to slap you back into the life you were supposed to live." He explained, accused more like, his head trouble forgotten. After a short intake of breath, he summarized: "You don't want me."

I blinked. I'll admit, I was totally shocked. Is that...? No, it was nothing like that!

"I don't know what gives you those ridiculous ideas," I argued, a little bit more fire to my voice now that I wasn't defending a lie.

"Well, let's see," he started, voice raising, clearly ready to argue his point. "Let's start with how you tried to kill me a couple of days back, and then, after I arranged everything and sat through an entire funeral for you, you essentially try to get rid of me the entire way here. Now, you're like... Like a machine. Or you were, for a few minutes there."

"I didn't try to-..." Pick your battles, Kratos... "Yuan, you can't possibly even begin to comprehend what I want, how I think, what I feel... Even I am not quite sure. What I do know is, I'm not having 'second thoughts', or whatever it was that you accused me of. Alright?"

"Then would you kindly explain why you won't let me near you?"

I hesitated now. My brow knit together, and I found my gaze shifting to the floor off to the side. "Take my word. No second thoughts," I replied simply, stepping around him to slide down in a long-awaited rest on the floor, back leaning heavily against the foot of the bed. My eyes slid closed, weary not from battle or heavy work, but from grief.

"Kratos?" His voice was alarmingly close. I allowed one eye to open a crack, to see him kneeling on one knee just beside me, his face not far from mine. "Whatever it is, tell me."

"I'm not having second thoughts," I reiterated, but my tone wasn't conclusive. Though I paused a moment, he was silent, awaiting the rest of my words. "However, I... I do feel that you should stay behind. Or rather, return to your Renegades early. I doubt they will object."

"What? Why in the hell would I do that?"

I shook my head in dismissal, turning it on its side against the foot of the bed, facing away from the bluenette. The next thing I knew, though, his fingers were slipping around my chin, then firmly pulling my head back around to face him. His eyes were expectant, demanding almost.

"Why do you want to get rid of me, Kratos?"

"It's the last thing I want," I clarified, almost grudgingly. "I... Yuan, I care for you. You know I do." His eyes warmed slightly, and his fingers released my chin, but he clearly wanted me to explain further. "Yuan, this will be dangerous. I don't want you in the middle of it."

"Right, as if things haven't gotten scaly before." I wasn't sure whether his pun was intentional or otherwise, but I knew he noticed it. Yuan always noticed that sort of thing.

"This, though... This is an entirely different sort of 'scaly'. This is the kind of scaly that can not only murder the savior of Aselia, but..."I shut my eyes now, a reflex to block out the pain, though my throat was tight, and I doubt I concealed it well in my voice. "...but has no qualms about maiming him and stringing him from a tree."

I felt Yuan's hand come to rest on my arm, and through its masked urgency, could tell how badly he wished to comfort me. Naturally, I pulled away slightly with a near inaudible 'hmph'. My head turned away again, eyes still closed. But I couldn't leave the explanation there.

"Yuan, I can rationalize your staying behind any way you need me to. Logically is simple. If I die, I die. If you die, I die. So that doubles my odds of ending up dead, and odds are against it being after I kill this thing. It's not as if I expect you to continue in vengeance without me... Lloyd was my son. This is my battle." I paused, allowing it to process as I formulated the rest of the words. "Emotionally, I don't want to see you get hurt. That very much ties in with 'physically', as physically, I am stronger than you are, which is enough to ensure you don't accompany me by force, if the need arises. Have I made my point distinct?"

"Excuse me?" Rather than answering my own question, this was his indignant reply. Closely followed by: "Stronger than I am, you say? I'm sorry to inform you, sir, that you're vastly mistaken."

In response, my left hand snatched the wrist attached to the 'comforting' hand on my right forearm, and I twisted it around so it was locked across his back. My gaze was on him now, just waiting for him to give in. He met my gaze over his shoulder (as he was now facing in the opposite direction, due to my armlock), but rather than defeat, a glint of defiance lit in his eyes.

In an instant, his heel had shot up behind him to catch me square in the chest. It pushed the air from my lungs, though I was silent with my gasped intake so as not to give him the satisfaction of hearing me choke. I grabbed his foot before he could land on it, and, still behind him, I rose to my feet. Yuan was off balance now, and he knew it. But this was strength we were challenging, not craftiness and technique, so I released his foot.

Yuan wasted no time in whirling to face me, and soon, we were locked in that battle of strength he'd challenged for, our forearms locked together like the horns of male deer, and to my surprise, his strength wasn't all that lacking.

"You're doing better than I thought," I admitted, and, though my voice was still flat, I could hear the beginnings of banter somewhere deep down. This seemed to egg him on, and he offered a cocky half-grin.

"Y'know. You may have ended up stronger overall," he offered casually in return, uplifted greatly by even the slightest lift in mood. "But me? I never said I didn't fight dirty." And in a Yuan-esque flash of movement and blue, he swept my nearest leg, and I found myself landing heavily on my back on the wooden floor once again, Yuan on top of me. He was breathing heavily, and his eyes were triumphant. I myself was breathing slightly harder as well, though true to habit, I tried to mask it.

Okay, I wasn't exactly accurate. Apparently, Yuan wasn't exactly on top of me. I know this because in a couple of moments of breathing and basking in his win, he shifted so that he was. And I was gazing into his eyes, almost involuntarily. He was... amazing. Could I stand to lose this? Or rather, in which way would I rather lose him? In leaving him behind as I journey for vengeance, or taking him with me and watching him die by the same hands that killed my son? I'm not sure if I could save even Yuan twice in a row like that...

He sighed, easing himself off of me to sit dejectedly on the floor by my chest. "That would have been fun, were you not... like this."

"Like what?" I asked, though I could hear it again.

"Like you're trying as hard as you can to die inside, but you refuse to let yourself admit it."

"Better me than you," I dismissed, but that seemed the wrong thing to say, judging by how he leaned over my head now, one hand on each side of my neck to hold him up, his gaze unfathomable yet again.

"Kratos, I'm not going to die, on the inside or the outside. I swear it."

I jerked semi-upright, onto my elbows for support, closing the distance between us in one jerky movement. "You'll swear no such thing, Yuan." And in a softer voice, "swearing it simply condemns you."

"What is it you're getting at? It's like you to speak in riddles, but they generally get explained long before now. I won't die. And it's not as if I'll let you go alone. I wouldn't be able to live with myself."

"You care for me," I replied, almost distantly, as I lowered myself back down to the floor. My gaze blurred and rested vaguely on the ceiling. "That as well just foretells your demise."

"Kratos, in clear and plain English, explain to me what in the hell you're trying to say, because it's getting old, this whole 'listening to you vent your angst and not being able to do a damn thing to fix it' deal," he warned, jaw tight. I was irritating him. He was endearing while irritated, in my general opinion, though it did nothing for me now. I was too far caught up in other things to notice much of anything, though I didn't quite realize it at the time.

"You cannot depend on me, Yuan. Anyone who has ever depended on me has died. Martel depended on me for protection, and you depended on me to protect her, and she died." For once he didn't flinch at her name. Yet now, it was all I could do not to flinch myself. "Each and every Chosen depended on me for guidance and protection, and each and every Chosen has died. Mithos depended on me to help him resurrect his sister, whose death was on my hands as it was, and Mithos as well died." I paused, closing my eyes now to shield whatever they held from his noticing. "Anna..."

"That wasn't your fault, Kratos. None of them were." But I could feel that it hurt him that I still spoke so painedly of Anna.

"That is why I worry for you, Yuan. She cared for me until I was revealed as the enemy, as you did. She was stubborn, unruly, fierce... But she soon started to care for me as well. As you were, and as you have. Then she... softened. The stubbornness was replaced by an unquestioning loyalty, the unruly replaced by a genuine love... It didn't bother me, though. It didn't bother me that I'd changed her, not until I had to kill her. Because she died begging me to kill her, just as she begged me to be careful each day, as she begged me not to do anything rash." Another pause, and this time my brow furrowed with thought. "That's... what unnerves me about us, Yuan. You are... different. Not at all the defiant git you used to be. Now that you trust me, care for me, you've softened as well. It's so familiar, Yuan..."

"Kratos, this is entirely different."

"Lloyd depended on me, as well. I missed it by a matter of minutes, Yuan... He was the last person alive who truly depended on me, trusted me to protect them. And I let him die, as well. So no, I cannot allow you to come with me."

"You think I'm not a defiant git? I'll show you a defiant git, if you try to leave me out of this. You know I'll follow you. You're fully aware that you can't get rid of me, aren't you?" A hint of a smirk crossed his face. I shook my head.

"This isn't your battle, Yuan."

"Any battle you fight is my battle as well, Kratos. You signed up for that when you pulled me back from the dead."

I sighed, shaking my head again, more weakly this time. I couldn't let him come. Not if I intended to let the final battle play out as I'd theorized. I wouldn't want to watch Yuan die that way, so I know with certainty that he shouldn't have to watch me do it.

But... what choice did I have?

"You'll obey my judgment, in battle and otherwise?" I stipulated, and he laughed a dry laugh.

"Have I ever done that?"

"...Fair enough, I suppose."

"So?" He prompted, waiting for my final confirmation.

I hesitated a few moments more.

"We're going to need a plan."


Spiritua: Read and review, guys! :D And sorry again for taking so long.