Disclaimer: Don't own, don't sue.

Plot Synopsis: Genesis awakens, redeemed in the eyes of his Goddess, and is freed from his long slumber. His awakening stirs another. Sephiroth/Genesis. Sephiroth's POV(mostly).

Author's Note: This chapter: Seph, Gen, and Angeal in Wutai. Crimson, Rufus, Weiss, and Nero back in Midgar. I apologize for the time it took to get this published, but it's the only version that had any readable content at all! Hopefully, it was worth the wait=)

Author's Note II: My Wutaian, or Japanese, is nearly non-existent. I spent a great deal of time researching the terms I used, and I'm fairly sure I used them in the right context. That said, I've put any conversations in Wutaian in italics, as Japanese sentence structure still confuses me. I'm still without a beta as well, so I hope you'll excuse any mistakes you find.


Final Fantasy VII: Angelic Threnody

Chapter 72

'Ripples form on the water's surface. The wandering soul knows no rest.' – Loveless, ACT I

The sun rose high over the city of Edo, bathing Wutai's proud capital in golden rays of radiant warmth. Its light glinted dazzlingly off of the multi-colored ishidatami stones that paved the city's streets, sending shimmering waves of pure heat dancing in the air above them. Towering sakura trees were strategically placed throughout the area, their smooth pink buds still tightly closed, but no less beautiful for their lack of bloom. A Wutaian uguisu peaked out from the arching branches of one such tree, its sweet song lending to the aura of mystery and grandeur that seemed to permeated this lovely, ancient city. Pagoda-style buildings lined either side of the street, their traditional red-tiled roofs providing shade for the populace as they gathered to watch what was a most impressive progression.

And it was impressive, Sephiroth was forced to admit. Lord Staniv had greeted them at the docks, clad in resplendent ceremonial bunkan sokauti, surrounded by what amounted to a small army of samurai warriors. From the polished metal of their ornate kabuto helmets, to the understated blue-gray katabira tunics, the Crescent Unit carried themselves with an air of stolid dignity that would make their ancestors proud.

Their chosen weapon, however, was another matter altogether. The gun-lances were graceless modern constructs, lacking the innate beauty of the more traditional katana, and reminding him too strongly of the gunblades that had proved to be such a disaster for his own men. He understood the change, one implemented to fight a more advanced enemy, but the gun-hybrids had always seemed out of place in the hands of these tradition-oriented warriors.

One of Lord Staniv's aides, a slender, willowy man with a traditional topknot and a surprisingly pleasant voice, droned on endlessly as he sought to fill a conversational gap that his lord had created. Staniv had been only as polite as custom dictated, but not even Sephiroth could miss the grudging tone with which he had spoken. He'd been grateful when the Wutaian man had fallen silent—trading pointless niceties was not one of his strengths—but Staniv's barely concealed hostility did not bode well for this part of Sephiroth's mission.

Sephiroth could only hope that the other man's attitude did not reflect Lord Godo's. More bloodshed would only devastate Wutai, and without Sephiroth and his lieutenants there to defend it, Shinra as well. And while Sephiroth might hate the company that had both raised and betrayed him, he bore his former SOLDIERs no ill will. He had no wish to spill their blood, but never again would he allow the company to shed his. If he and his family were going to live in this beautiful foreign land, a peaceful solution must be obtained. There was simply no other solution.

It was odd, he mused, that his last official assignment as an agent of Shinra would be one negotiating peace, instead of waging bloody war in their name. He'd been trained in the art of warfare before he'd been old enough to even hold a sword. It was what he knew—at one time, all he knew—and now he was expected to broker a peace that would heal two wounded countries. The irony was not lost on him.

As the crested the final bridge, the Wutaian Imperial Palace finally came into view. Easily six stories tall, with smaller but no less impressive buildings branching out from either side of it, the Kyūden was a truly magnificent sight to behold. Designed to resemble a sacred pagoda, it featured beautiful tiered roofs and a striking outer facade crafted from lacquered wood. The tasōtō was a fitting residence for the Five Gods of Wutai, and the Imperial rulers who dwelled within.

"Magnificent, isn't it?" Genesis murmured at his side, unknowing echoing Sephiroth's thoughts as he tipped his fiery head back to gaze at the palace with admiring blue eyes. "We don't have anything back in Banora that compares to this."

Sephiroth thought of Gaia's shrine, with its underground stream and the striking natural rock formations which surrounded The Planet's likeness, and was forced to disagree. While Wutai was a lovely city steeped in tradition and built on pride, it could not compare to the stunning simplicity of the Ancients' underground abode. He refrained from voicing the thought aloud, however, unwilling to chance insulting their proud hosts in such a way.

"I have always found it most impressive," he agreed blandly, keeping his eyes on the palace as they began the trek through the sacred gardens that surrounded the building's exterior. He could hear the boys behind them, conversing in surprisingly quiet tones, as they themselves experienced the wonder that was Edo for the first true time in their lives. It was a reminder—a wholly unnecessary one—of why he'd chosen to settle here. It would be good for his remnants to see a different side of the Wutaian people, one not steeped in blood and strife, as whatever memories they'd gleaned from Sephiroth surely were. And as they were far away from Shinra and Rufus' machinations, they would finally be able to learn what it was to live a "normal" life. It was a lesson which he himself looked forward to with great anticipation.

"Well, at least the boys seem to be enjoying themselves," Angeal said from his left, a faint trace of affectionate exasperation lacing his rich voice as he unknowingly echoed Sephiroth's thoughts. "Provided that they behave themselves while we're here, this shouldn't go too badly."

"They understand the importance of our mission here," Sephiroth assured him quietly, a faint smile curving his lips as three voices chimed in emphatic agreement in his head. "So long as Godo doesn't decide to disarm us, all should be well."

Midnight eyes widened briefly at the thought of anyone trying to take Kadaj's beloved Souba away from him. "We'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen," he said quickly, much to Genesis' amusement.

The older man let out a soft laugh and slanted a fond glance over his black-pauldroned shoulder. Kadaj caught his perusal and scowled before sticking his tongue out, and Genesis laughed again. "I don't think anybody would stupid enough to try that," he commented humorously. "Not if they want to keep their hands, at any rate."

"He does have a thing for choppin' off body parts, yo," Reno inserted unhelpfully from the back.

"Pfftt!" Kadaj's voice sounded next, raised just enough to display his disdain—and his outrage—with the conversation. "That bitch deserved it. And it wasn't her hands—it was her head! Get it right, you sorry excuse for a Turk!"

Staniv's assistant faltered in his enthusiastic description of the palace's original complex, his slanted brown eyes widening dramatically as he half-turned to stare at Kadaj with disbelief, and Sephiroth hastily stepped in to offer an explanation for the boy's bloodthirsty proclamations. "As you may have heard, my brothers were recently kidnapped," he offered in Wutaian. "It was an. . .unpleasant experience for all involved."

The young man blinked daintily, the only sign of his surprise at the explanation, while Lord Staniv half-turned and made a graceful sweeping gesture with one hand. "We rejoice that you were reunited with your family, Great General," the Wutaian man murmured understandingly, although it was clear to Sephiroth that Rufus' fabrication had not yet made it to the shores of Wutai. Dark, tilted eyes met and held his own briefly, a flat expression lurking in their obsidian depths. "No one knows the value of family better than Leviathan's chosen."

The words were subtle, as far as warnings went, but Sephiroth had no trouble recognizing them for what they were. He inclined his silver head and thanked the other man for his concern, waiting until he had turned away to shoot a dark look over his shoulder. Reno cringed and offered him an almost comically apologetic expression, while Kadaj merely waved him away and turned back to his brothers. He heard their previous quiet conversation resume and breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The Wutaian people already believed them to be heartless, bloodthirsty monsters. There was no reason to reinforce that belief with truth.

He traded a quick glance with Angeal, whose deep blue eyes held both amusement and consternation, before leveling a forbidding look onto the beautiful troublemaker at his side. Genesis had the good grace to look embarrassed as he shrugged and crossed red-clad arms over his chest. "It won't happen, again," he said somewhat stiffly, and Sephiroth's expression softened fractionally. "Thank you, General Rhapsodos."

The other man looked startled before a slow smile spread its way across his handsome face. As long as Sephiroth wasn't mad at him for his little faux pas, he didn't give a fuck what Staniv or his effeminate little aide thought of him. "You're welcome," the smile deepened, "General Sephiroth."

Sephiroth returned the smile with one of his own, the not-so-innocent smile that Genesis so enjoyed, before schooling his expression to reveal absolutely nothing. He heard the older man snicker as he too faced front, and something inside of Sephiroth eased at the darkness inherent in that wholly beloved sound.

"No flirting!" Angeal hissed warningly, keeping his own gaze trained straight ahead of him. "We're here as diplomatic ambassadors, not tourists."

Genesis released a quiet, yet wholly dramatic sigh. "More's the pity," he replied with genuine regret. "Wutai is the perfect place for a romantic getaway."

"Hhmm," Sephiroth hummed noncommittally at his side, even as he slanted his passionate lover a heated glance. "I would have to agree. I can see why so many lovers have been drawn to this. . .quixotic setting."

Angeal watched Staniv's back stiffen as his aide translated their hushed words and shot both of his friends a warning look. He wasn't surprised by Genesis' lack of decorum—Genesis had never tried to hide what he was—but he was surprised that Sephiroth was not only letting him get away with it, but was actually contributing to the totally inappropriate conversation. Their relationship might not be the secret that it had once been, but there were still those who wouldn't approve of it. Lord Staniv appeared to one of them, and Angeal could only pray that Emperor Godo wasn't, or they were going to have problems negotiating any type of settlement with the Wutaians.

Genesis only grinned at his best friend's worried expression and settled back into the more sedate pace the Wutaians had set. He wasn't the least bit worried that he might have insulted Lord Staniv. Considering the pretty little girly-man who walked much closer to his lord than was acceptable in Wutaian culture, Genesis thought it would be highly hypocritical of the man to cast any stones at them.

Besides, Edo was lovely, romantic city, and he wanted Sephiroth to be able to view Wutai as something besides a blood-soaked nightmare. It was the same reason he always insisted on eating Wutaian food with him, and why he'd gone to such great lengths to decorate the younger man's office with Wutaian furnishings. He wanted Sephiroth to move past what had happened during the war. He wanted the man he loved to do more than just reside here; he wanted him to be happy here.

He glanced at the younger man, who sent him a small, discrete smile before looking away, and had to fight an almost overwhelming urge to reach for his hand. He had become so used to being able to reach out and simply touch Sephiroth whenever he wanted that it was nearly impossible for him not to. Sadly, it seemed that the other man had been right when he'd teased him about not being able to keep his hands to himself.

Genesis stifled a sigh of longing and reminded himself that they'd be alone soon enough. Sure, Godo would probably put guards outside their rooms, but that wouldn't stop him from taking his duffel bag and marching straight to Sephiroth's bedroom. After all, it wasn't like he cared what any of these people thought of him. He wouldn't be spending anytime in his own room if he could help it, and the Wutaians would just have to deal with it. Period. End of argument.

Which they would, Genesis thought, fully conscious of his own arrogance as he did so. Sephiroth might be resigned to being separated for the duration of the "negotiations", but there was no way in hell that he was going to leave the younger man all by himself. Sephiroth tended to think too hard when he wasn't around, to brood about things that couldn't be changed or controlled, and Genesis would be damned if he'd let him do that to himself. Sephiroth had been through too much—more than Genesis would ever have believed possibleand he'd gone through all of it alone. He'd make sure that Sephiroth was never alone again, no matter who he had to offend to do it. Godo, Staniv, and all the other little "Gods" could kiss his lily-white ass if they thought otherwise!

Genesis nodded to himself and straightened his stance, hiding a wince as his shoulders and back protested the movement. He didn't let himself think about the cause of the pain—the word "degradation" was not echoing through his mind like a gunshot!—all of his attention focused on getting Sephiroth alone and being able to indulge his need to touch the other man.

They finally entered the palace, and Staniv's aide—Yoshinaro Something-or-other—offered to give them a tour of the beautiful and vast royal complex. When Sephiroth readily—and solemnly—agreed, Genesis nearly howled with frustration. Damn it all, he wanted to be alone with the man he loved!

It was only sheer willpower that kept his mouth firmly closed, and if his pale blue eyes were flashing like the summer sky during a surprise lightning storm. . .well, that really couldn't be helped. The effeminate little assistant was only doing his job, and Sephiroth was focused on trying to make sure that the negotiations went smoothly. Considering his aversion for all things Wutaian, Genesis highly doubted that he wanted to be paraded around through the royal palace like a prized stallion. He'd had enough of that with Shinra!

'This is different, Genesis.' Sephiroth's voice, the dark, smooth velvet of it, sounded in his mind, and he realized that the other man had picked up on his thoughts. He sent the other man a half-defiant, half-embarrassed look and snapped, 'No, it's not. And I haven't been able to touch you all afternoon. Damn it, Sephiroth, I-I miss you.'

Those cold, perfect patrician features softened at the heartfelt admission. 'As I do you, kitten. But,' that beautiful voice hardened perceptively, 'I am loathe to do anything that might jeopardize these talks. If Godo wishes to flaunt our presence here—whether as a warning to dissidents or to celebrate what he considers a victory—we must allow him to do so.'

Genesis' lips twisted unhappily at that. 'You're not a show-pony, Sephiroth.' When the younger man merely gazed at him with opaque green eyes, he sighed with frustration and looked away. 'If you think this will help, I won't go against you, but I want you to know that I DO NOT LIKE IT. Understood?'

'Yes,' a faint smile curved sensual pink lips, 'kitten. As always, you have made your feelings perfectly clear.'

'Good.' Genesis tossed his fiery head and sent a pointed glance at the back of Staniv's head. 'Now, why don't you punish Staniv by making him do some of the talking? It's the least he deserves for making his poor little boy-toy here cover for his appalling lack of manners.'

Those gorgeous silver-green eyes went wide as a choked sound that could have been a laugh escaped those sensual bow lips. It immediately drew the attention of said boy-toy, and Genesis his a smile of his own as he quickly stepped forward and aimed a charming smile at the young Wutaian man. "I was hoping that Lord Staniv," he switched a questioning gaze to the man in question, "could tell us what it's like to live in a structure that boasts such a rich and illustrious history?"

Staniv came to a sudden stop, his back and shoulders becoming ramrod stiff. His head came up proudly as he slowly—reluctantly—turned to face them. His aide stopped in mid-translation, eyeing his lord warily before remembering to lower his gaze in a properly respectful manner. Tilted black eyes narrowed ever so slightly as Staniv focused on Genesis and looked down his nose at him. Which was quite the feet, Genesis had to admit, considering that the man was half a foot shorter than anyone present. But somehow, the Wutaian nobleman managed to pull it off.

He turned to Yoshinaru and rattled off the lamest excuse that Genesis had ever heard—something about preparations for a feast in honor of their most venerable guests—and then he was gone. He swept out of the room as quickly as etiquette would allow, leaving poor little Yoshinaru gazing after with a surprised expression. Apparently, lowering himself to talk to anyone other than the great General Sephiroth was out of the question.

Yoshinaru cast a quick, almost panicked glance at Sephiroth, and Genesis felt a pang of reluctant sympathy for him. Sephiroth obviously wasn't the only one with less than fond memories of the Wutaian War, and the young man looked like he was on the verge of hyperventilating at the thought of conversing directly with the infamous Silver Demon. Genesis opened his mouth to give the abandoned aide an out, only to have Kadaj beat him to it. The youngest boy slipped away from his brothers and Cloud and made his way to the front of the group. He set a tiny black-gloved hand on Sephiroth's arm and gazed up his father with wide, deceptively vulnerable silver-green eyes.

"Brother,"he surprised Genesis by speaking in near-perfect Wutaian, "I'm getting really tired. Can we go to our rooms, now?"

He blinked up at Sephiroth, all cherubic innocence, and it was all Genesis could do not to burst out laughing. Manipulative little shit, he thought with affection. Just as he had with Genesis' mother back in Banora, he was using his innate charm and deceptively innocent appearance to take control of the situation. Genesis watched as Sephiroth's own expression gentled, betraying loving exasperation, and knew that the palace tour had just been canceled. After all, there was nothing more important to Sephiroth than his children's happiness.

The other man cast a quick glance his way, an eloquent expression buried in the depths of his brilliant green eyes, and Genesis couldn't halt the smile that sprang to his lips in response. Sephiroth knew what the little brat was up to and he didn't care! Finally, they would have a chance to be alone, and it was all thanks to Kadaj.

He sent his youngest stepson an approving smile, one which Kadaj returned just a bit too smugly, but he wasn't about to call the boy on it. The kid's deviousness was working in his favor right now, so he'd let it slide.

Sephiroth caught the smug smiles that the two exchanged and considered reprimanding the boy for it, but then thought better of it. While it was true that they didn't dare risk offending Lord Godo, he had not looked forward to the attention they would undoubtedly garner during their "tour" of the royal palace. He gazed down at the youngest of his remnants, silently marveling at the deceivingly earnest expression that didn't quite hide the satisfaction in his pale green eyes, and nodded once.

"Of course, we can rest, little one," he told the younger man a warm, affectionate voice. Kadaj's smile was brilliant as he threw his arms around Sephiroth's waist, and Sephiroth wound his arms around him and hugged him tightly in return.

He lifted his head and turned to Yoshinaru with an appropriately remorseful expression. "I'm afraid that my brother has been fatigued by the long journey,"he explained, taking his example from Kadaj himself as he lied without compunction. "Would it be possible to postpone our tour of your most noble palace until after we have rested?"

The young Wutaian nobleman looked relieved even as he offered a low bow. "Of course, Great General."Yoshinaru straightened and gestured towards the open archway with one slim, graceful hand. "If you will come with me, I will show you to your chambers."

"That would be much appreciated,"Sephiroth returned simply, releasing Kadaj and taking a step back. "Thank you."

'Oh, thank The Gods!' Genesis' voice sounded in his mind, both fervent and eager, as they began the trek to the guest wing. 'And if you think I'm staying in my own damned room and sleeping alone, you've got another thing coming!'

"I would never dare suggest such a thing,' Sephiroth replied, straight-faced, as he fell into step beside him. 'You got your wish, kitten. I will not be paraded through the royal palace like a prized stallion after all.'

' Nope,' Genesis brought up a red-gloved hand to smother a totally inappropriate laugh, 'just our bedroom. Think you can handle it, moonbeam?'

When Sephiroth did nothing more than turn his head and slant him another less-than-innocent smile, it took all of Genesis' meager self-control to keep from tackling the other man to the floor and jumping that beautiful body right there and then. He was getting laid tonight and nothing was going to stop him.

Crimson walked slowly through the deserted theater, the thump of his low-heeled boots muffled by the thin, tasteful carpeting that covered the aisles. He made his way to the first row of seats, his eyes never leaving the empty, darkened stage as he lowered himself onto one of the cushioned seats. This had been one of his favorite haunts in the past, a place where he had been able to forget his worries and lose himself in the heroic epics he so adored. And although those epics meant little to him now, he couldn't help but feel nostalgic for the selfish, yet undeniably innocent young man he had once been.

He sank deeper into the seat, letting his head fall against the cushioned chair-back, lost in memories he could never escape. Only once had he been able to talk Sephiroth into coming to a show with him, and he had ended the evening by upbraiding the younger man for not appreciating the beauty and sophistication of Loveless. Sephiroth had taken the self-righteous tirade with his usual quiet stoicism, but even then, Crimson had known that he was hurting him with his angry words. He'd simply been too pissed off too care.

Gods, he'd been such a bastard back then, he thought with self-disgust. It wasn't like he hadn't known that Sephiroth disliked the theater when he'd forced him to go. He'd just wanted his quietly cynical lover to be a part of his world, to see and understand why Loveless was so important to him. That Sephiroth hadn't had infuriated him, and he'd convinced himself that it was because the younger man didn't truly care enough about him to try to understand him.

"To become the dew that quenches the land, to spare the sands, the seas, the skies, I offer thee this silent sacrifice."

That beautiful, broken voice washed over him, uttering the very words that he himself had written, absolving him of a guilt for which he could never be forgiven. Crimson gasped as pain pierced his heart, as sharp and piercing searing as the day he'd murdered his heart. The memory of slanted, catlike green eyes, losing their luminous glow as the life bled out of them, was one that would haunt him for the rest of his days.

He squeezed his own eyes shut and fought the painful memory back. That moment, more than any other in their shared past, had proven to him that it wasn't Sephiroth who was lacking but himself. Sephiroth loved him—had loved him from the very beginning—and he was the one who ruined them. First by betraying, and then killing, that love.

By killing him, Crimson reminded himself brutally. To this day, he didn't know why he had done it. Yes, he'd been angry, and yes, The Goddess had wanted Sephiroth dead, but that didn't explain why he'd been so fucking eager to do it. That he hadn't expected Sephiroth to let him murder him didn't excuse the fact that he had, indeed, murdered the man he loved.

Crimson shivered and quickly opened his eyes, focusing on the darkened pit where the orchestra usually sat during performances. While Sephiroth had hated the play, he had actually been quite taken with the music. Crimson could still remember watching the younger man, that glorious silver head tipped to one side, those brilliant silver-green eyes closed, an intensely absorbed expression shaping that stunningly beautiful face as Sephiroth simply sat there and listened. Crimson had been surprised to discover that his lover liked classical music—Sephiroth hadn't even owned a television, much less a stereo—and he was ashamed that he hadn't focused on that, instead of letting his disappointment with the younger man's unenthusiastic reaction to Loveless ruin their evening together.

He'd never understood why Sephiroth him let pull half of the shit that he had, but that such a strong, dominant personality had been so tolerant of his volatility should have been a clue. Sephiroth may not have been good at expressing his feelings verbally, but when they were alone, his actions had always made Crimson feel special—made him feel loved.

If only he hadn't been too stupid to see it, Crimson thought as remorse all but smothered him, and then forced himself to be honest. A part of him had suspected—no, had known—that Sephiroth was in love with him, but he'd been too much of a coward to just come out and ask the other man how he felt. Not simply because he'd been afraid of rejection—although The Goddess knew that he had been!—but because it would force him to face a truth he hadn't been capable of accepting.

His fascination with Sephiroth—both sexual and emotional—had spoken volumes about his own feelings. He'd been in love with the other man all along, and if Sephiroth hadn't been so damned bad at reading people, he'd have realized it. As it was, he'd kept the younger man in a tailspin for most of their relationship, unable to admit his feelings—hell, he'd felt threatened by them—or to even find the courage to ask Sephiroth about his own. Instead, he'd spent six years making life hell for the man he loved, and it had only gotten worse after he'd discovered the truth about himself and Jenova Project "G".

"No!" Crimson muttered sharply, slapping the padded arms of the seat and shoving himself to his feet. He was not going to think about Modeoheim, Nibelheim, or Banora anymore. What was done was done, and what wasn't, Sephiroth was undoing. There was no need to revisit those parts of the past like this, not when he'd promised himself that he wouldn't. He had a new family now, one that would demand all of his time and attention. He couldn't afford to keep indulging in these useless bouts of self-pity, not when he had Weiss and Nero to watch over.

He'd made a promise to Weiss, one that he intended to keep. He would never again desert the brothers that Gaia had given him. While he couldn't rejoin the world as the man he'd once been, he thought there might be a way for him to become a part of theirs as he was now. The Planet wouldn't be happy about it, but as long as he didn't let the entire world know just who—and what—he really was, it might be possible.

Crimson thought of Weiss' furious words the night before and knew that—arrogant or not—the young Tsviet had been right. He was clinging to the horrors of his past, hiding from his own perfidy behind his goddess' divine skirts. And for what, really? What was the worst she could do to him if he disappointed her? Imprison him? Kill him? Make his spirit cease to exist?

He snorted at the very thought of it. He was Gaia's darling, her "beautiful one", her little pet WEAPON. She wouldn't kill him anymore than she would herself. And even if she did. . .well, he'd been dead once before and it hadn't phased him. If anything, returning to The Planet might give him a chance get some damned rest, and for that reason alone, he was willing to take the chance.

Apparently, three years of slumber hadn't been enough for him.

Crimson grinned like the madman he had once been at the thought. Death—and the peace that came with it—or a chaotic life spent with Deepground. Surprisingly, the choice hadn't been as easy to make as one would expect. But pain in the ass or no, he owed Weiss The Immaculate, and he truly was fond of young Nero. And, he still wanted to meet Shelke and Azul, although he suspected he might have to kick the latter's ass if he was as difficult as Nero had intimated.

No matter, Crimson told himself confidently, it wasn't anything that he couldn't handle. Although, once he bestowed the gift of his own cells onto his Deepground brethren, Azul might not be quite as big a prick as he'd been before.

He thought of Azul's battle with Vincent Valentine and Chaos—yet another event that he had been forced to witness helplessly—and realized that it probably wouldn't make much of a difference. It hadn't made Weiss any easier to deal with then either, although he hadn't been quite as sadistic after his treatment. Nero hadn't seemed any different, but then he'd barely spoken to Crimson that day, and Crimson hadn't cared enough to reach out to him. He'd been too caught up in The Planet's rejection of him—not to mention his embarrassing, humiliating defeat at the hands of Angeal's puppy—to care about anything besides giving himself to his goddess and earning a place at her side.

'Redemption and completion are two very different states of being, my WEAPON. You will learn the difference soon enough, provided you have the strength to do so.'

Gaia's words resonated through his mind, reminding him that regardless of what he did now, his goddess was not done with him. He still didn't know what was left of his "trial", and at the moment, he didn't particularly care. If The Planet wasn't going to give him another mission, or bring him back to her cloyingly loving bosom, then he would begin forging his own fate. After all, Sephiroth wasn't the only one who could change the future.

With the reckless defiance of one who had nothing left to lose, Crimson closed his eyes and dissolved into the shadows. His second chance began now.

Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun, Tennō Heika, Lord Godo Kisaragi sat regally upon Wutai's fabled Chrysanthemum Throne. Carved from native cypress trees, encased in glittering gold and adorned with rich black velvet, the Wutaian imperial throne was truly an impressive sight to behold. But it was no more impressive than the man who currently graced it with his divine presence. Lord Godo was resplendent in his royal garb, clad in a shimmering blue haori which draped elegantly over a white nagajuban, or kimono, which was woven from the finest Wutaian silk. The royal blue half-coat was edged in midnight silk, secured at the waist by an ornate leather heko-obi, from which the hilts of two ceremonial katana protruded. Thick white tabis covered The Emperor's feet, which were encased in by surprisingly plain wooden getas, and rested on a hand-woven Wutaian rug which depicted an ancient battlefield. All in all, the Emperor of Wutai presented a grand, imposing figure to the seated assembly, one which was as deceptive as it was majestic.

Wutai was no longer the international power that it had once been. While it had yet to lose its national pride, it had all but lost the war with the gajins from the east, and was reeling from nearly a decade of conflict. Godo knew this as surely as he knew that the man sitting seiza-style on the other side of the low table before him was largely responsible for his country's fall.

The great General Sephiroth, Shinra's most powerful warrior, the dreaded Gin no Oni, returned his regard without expression. His unnatural bakeneko eyes all but radiated power, their pale jade depths betraying his employer's heresy as they glowed brilliantly into his own. There was no humility in that look, as would befit a supplicant appearing before the First God of Leviathan, but neither was their pride. In that pale, deceptively angelic gajin face, there was absolutely nothing, and that lack of emotion was a truly frightening thing to behold.

To The Demon's right sat his most trusted fukusho, a warrior second only to the Great General himself, Shinra's Scarlet General. Genesis Rhapsodos was the exact opposite of his dreaded taikun, as loquacious as Sephiroth was silent, the stolen brilliance of his sky-hued eyes marked by an arrogance that was unmatched. Godo had never liked this particular gajin, the one who had stripped his people of their divine right to possess sacred materia, the SOLDIER who had dared to upbraid him for refusing to send his warrior's onto Da Chao's blessed peaks. No, he did not like this man, and he resented being forced to treat with him once again.

A short, aborted movement from the Great General's left drew Godo's attention to the third member of Shinra Electric Power Company's "Holy Trinity". General Angeal Hewley was the only truly honorable foreigner that Godo knew. Where the Great General was cold and indifferent, and Rhapsodos wore his scorn for those he considered his lessers openly, Hewley always treated his Wutaian prisoners fairly, the only one to give them the respect that they deserved. He alone realized that, enemy or no, they still deserved to be treated like human beings.

Godo watched with caution as Hewley leaned close to The Silver Demon and murmured something he could not hear, and was surprised to see Sephiroth offer a slight smile as he dipped his silver head in obvious agreement. It was the first trace of emotion—faint though it was—that he had ever seen Shinra's Great General display, and he had to admit that it surprised him.

It was also enough to remind him that—honorable or not—Sephiroth was also a human being. Even though he had single-handedly decimated Godo's armies and brought Wutai to its collective knees, he was only a man. An unusual one, as his cat-demon eyes and abnormal silver hair attested, but a man all the same. Something which Godo had nearly forgotten during the long years of bloody conflict.

Godo looked down at the papers he held in his hand, an offering of peace from an enemy that had shown only aggression, and could not help but distrust it. Why would Shinra's President offer such generous terms when he had all but won the war? And was he truly supposed to believe that Shinra had sent his best warriors—mako-enhanced killing-machines all—to him as diplomats? Godo knew that he was a great many things, proud, stubborn and undeniably set in his ways, but he was not a stupid man. There was more to this than he knew, some hidden agenda that had yet to be revealed. But reveal it Sephiroth would, if he wanted the treaty's final codicil honored.

He lifted his head and surveyed the three men before him, hated Shinra SOLDIERs all, and passed the treaty back to Nubuo-san, who took it with a disdainful expression. Staniv did not want the foreigners here, and he refused to pretend otherwise. He had lost nearly all of his family in this conflict, and his bitterness had been more than earned. He was only as polite as custom dictated, and Godo would not ask him for more. It was time to question the Great General himself and ascertain the truth of this matter.

Sephiroth waited with carefully concealed impatience as Emperor Godo tucked his hands into the wide sleeves of his white kimono with slow, measured movements, studying he and his men with the most enigmatic of expressions. The feast had been a long, tedious affair, one fraught with polite murmurs and veiled hostility. The Wutaians did not want them here, and only their societal dictates had kept them from openly expressing their feelings.

He couldn't blame them for their hatred, but neither could he allow it to interfere with the negotiations. The Wutaians needed this peace, perhaps even more than he, and Lord Godo was smart enough to realize it. Which was why he had reigned in his impatience and forced himself to remain, seated and silent, while Lord Godo studied the treaty. It had taken more than two hours for the older man to peruse the contract that he, Genesis, and Angeal had written, much more than was necessary for even the slowest of readers. But the older man's caution was certainly understandable; Shinra had never dealt honorably with the Wutaians. But this time, Godo would find that his suspicions were unfounded. Rufus would hold to his end of this bargain, or retribution would come to him in the form of Masamune.

Sephiroth only hoped it would not come to that. This treaty weighed heavily in favor of the Wutaians, promising a complete and total withdrawl of Shinra troops from Wutaian land. In twelve months time, all lands and property would be returned to their rightful owners, an operation that would be overseen by Sephiroth himself. It also restored to the people the right to possess and use materia, so long as it was not wielded against the withdrawing forces. A non-encroachment clause had been included, another which Sephiroth and his men would personally enforce, should it ever become necessary. No Shinra executive or representative would be allowed on Wutaian soil without permission from The Emperor himself, no matter the circumstance, so long as Sephiroth and his party were allowed to remain in the country to enforce it.

It also asked for safe passage for Dr. Hollander and his scientific staff. The reason given was the continued monitoring of the SOLDIER Firsts' mako levels, something necessary for most SOLDIERs 2nd Class and above. While neither he or his men had any true need for such observation, the lie was necessary to ensure that Hollander and any of the supplies necessary for Genesis' treatments were not withheld from them. Settling here would do them no good if the degradation was allowed to ravage his love's body unchecked. They needed Hollander and they would have him, or they would conclude these negotiations and leave as quickly as they had come.

In addition, Sephiroth had chosen to include what few details Reno had given them in relation to the eventual elimination of mako-energy, and Shinra's return to fossil-fuel use. Sephiroth didn't know if that would make a difference to Lord Godo, but he'd wanted to be as honest as possible with the man in hopes of facilitating the peace process. And since it was Godo's refusal to let Shinra build mako reactors in his country that had triggered the company's aggression, perhaps this would make The Emperor see that Rufus was serious in his desire for peace.

The First God of Wutai cleared his throat quietly, delicately, and Sephiroth's senses sharpened in anticipation. "Your terms are very generous," Godo said at last, speaking slowly and clearly in the common tongue, so that his heavily accented words would not be misunderstood. "And while we appreciate that your most esteemed President is willing to endure the loss of his most powerful warriors, we must question his wisdom in doing so. Why would President Shinra consent to an agreement that is so. . .disadvantageous to his company?"

Sephiroth fought an inappropriate urge to smirk at the question, one which was far from unexpected. "President Rufus is not his father," he explained in a calm, quiet voice. "He understands that the longer this conflict drags on, the more it will drain the resources of both Shinra and Wutai. He does not share the former President's interest in expanding his empire. He is than content to rule over the territory that he already possesses. He does not wish for more."

Large, slanted black eyes flickered as the older man considered his words. "And you, most honorable General?" he questioned intently, that dark gaze meeting and holding Sephiroth's own with the uncharacteristic boldness that he had shown throughout the entire meeting. "Do you not wish to return to your homeland, to remain in your esteemed President's service?"

Sephiroth felt more than saw Genesis stir at his side, shifting in a minute movement that could be a sign of physical discomfort, or an unspoken protest to Godo's line of questioning. Either way, it was yet another reminder of why he had chosen to take this path, as unnecessary as all of the others. He wanted this peace, and soon enough, the Wutaian Emperor would see that as the truth it was.

"I have seen enough bloodshed, Kisaragi-tenno," he answered as honestly as he could, "as have my men. President Shinra has other warriors in his employ, SOLDIERs who will protect the company's interests in our stead. I, personally, have three younger brothers to care for, as I am sure you are aware. I can assure you that I—that we all—are most eager to resume our lives as private citizens."

He chose not to mention that he himself had never been one before. Lord Godo did not need to know how he had been raised, or what horrors had been visited upon him during his lifetime of servitude to Shinra, Inc., nor did he need additional information about the boys. Genesis had perpetuated Rufus' lie about the recent abduction of Sephiroth's "brothers", hoping to both garner sympathy and offer a believable explanation for the Wutaian Emperor. Godo and his council wereunderstandably suspicious of any Shinra representatives, and Genesis had hoped to "humanize" Sephiroth in Godo's eyes.

Personally, Sephiroth didn't care what Lord Godo thought of him, so long as he gave them permission to stay. Even with Rufus promising peace between them, Sephiroth knew better than to trust his word. He had changed his mind before, once safely ensconced in The President's chair, and Sephiroth feared that he would do so again. He wanted to know that they would be safe—that his children would be safe—and for that they must be as far away from Shinra Electric Power Company as was possible.

"Yes, we have heard of your brothers' most unfortunate ordeal," Lady Chekhov said demurely from her own seat. It wasn't nearly as ornate as the Chrysanthemum Throne, but it was carved from high-grade wood and gilded in gold, a sign of her importance in the Imperial hierarchy, as was its position. She sat at the bottom of the tiered steps that led to the throne, her placement on Godo's left revealing that she was ranked third, inferior only Lord Staniv and Godo himself.

She lifted a lacquered fan to her face and snapped it open, holding it before her face in a way that concealed her expression as she continued, "We were quite surprised to learn of their existence, Sefirosu-taishou, as we were led to believe that you were an orphan?"

Sephiroth inclined his silver hair in acknowledgement. He had prepared himself for this as well, though it truly had nothing to do with the negotiations. "Our parents died when we were very young, Chekhov-sama," he answered in a respectful tone. "My brothers have virtually no memory of them, and though I was all but a child myself when they passed, I am the only parental figure they have ever known. President Edgar felt it would be best to keep them out of the public eye, lest they be used against me by Shinra's enemies, and I agreed."

The expressions that flitted across the faces of all five of Wutai's "Gods" suggested that that was exactly what would have happened had they known, and Sephiroth was suddenly very grateful for the fighting skills that his memories—and Hojo's demented lessons—had given his remnants. They would never taken by anyone without their consent.

"We rejoice that these unknown enemies were not triumphant," Lord Gorky told him formally, the first words he had spoken since greeting them at the beginning of the audience. "You must have been quite relieved to be reunited with your loved ones, Sefirosu-taishou."

He lifted one hand and stroked one side of his long gray-brown mustache, a motion that indicated both boredom and cynicism, and Sephiroth suppressed a sigh. It was meant as an insult—albeit a subtle one—to someone he considered inferior to himself. Sephiroth hadn't realized that this particular Wutaian Lord was so arrogant, but that had little bearing on the situation at hand. He was here to secure a safe haven for he and his family, nothing more. If he had to "kiss ass"—as Genesis would put it—to that end, then he would do so. It was as simple as that.

He forced a small, perfunctory smile to his lips, even as Genesis spoke at his side. "We were all grateful to get them back unharmed," the other man said with a deceptively earnest expression. He laid one hand over his heart dramatically—a bit too dramatically, in Sephiroth's opinion—and added, "Sephiroth's brothers are like our very own siblings. We would do anything to protect them, Lord Gorky—anything."

Sephiroth's smile warmed slightly at his lover's impassioned words. So much for subtlety, he thought with amused gratitude. Genesis was making it glaringly clear that, should any Wutaian faction be tempted to seize the boys and use them for leverage, it would result in their complete and total annihilation at the hands of all of Shinra's Firsts.

'My fierce kitten,' he sent the thought along the neural pathway that they had all come to share, 'thank you.'

Pale blue eyes pulsed and glowed with satisfaction as Genesis slid him a sidelong glance. 'You can thank me later,' he returned in a silken purr which left very little to the imagination, 'For now, I'll settle for you ending this little tête à tête just as soon as is humanly possible. I'd forgotten how damned boring the Wutaians could be when on a rant.'

Sephiroth felt his lips twitch and hastily rearranged his expression. He leveled solemn green eyes on Lord Godo, knowing that his was the only opinion which counted. The older man opened his mouth to speak, but much to Sephiroth's surprise, it was not The Wutaian Emperor's voice which sounded. Instead, Lady Shake chose that moment to insert herself into the negotiations. She released a great sigh and inched forward on her chair, setting her rather plump hands together in her lap as she prepared to speak. Sephiroth remained silent, waiting for her to voice her own thoughts aloud, and hoped that she would not exacerbate an already tense situation. It was a well known fact that she despised all foreigners.

"You must understand our concerns," she began in a soft voice which belied her robust appearance. "We have treated with Shinra before, and each time your President has gone back on his word. You say that his son, this Rufus, is an honorable man, yet he sent you with an offer of peace. Why did he not come himself? And we are expected to simply trust that he will keep his word?"

"I understand your skepticism, Shake-sama, but—" Sephiroth began, only to be cut off as Lord Staniv joined the verbal fray, "And you, Gin no Oni," jet-black eyes narrowed on his own, "you expect us to believe that you wish to retire from public life? You, who have handed our people their greatest losses? You, whose lust for blood has decimated an entire generation of Wutaian youth? Pah!"

He made a disgusted sound and threw one up arm dismissively, and Angeal had had enough. He leaned forward, setting both forearms on the table as he leveled a forbidding look at him. "We are soldiers, Lord Staniv, nothing more, nothing less. Like your own samurai, we," he made a gesture that encompassed all three of them, "followed the orders we were given. Yet, you have chosen to focus your ire solely on Sephiroth, simply because he was the most effective of us? That is hardly fair of you."

"Fair?" Lord Staniv looked down his rather broad nose at them all. "Our samurai are noble warriors! You Shinra dogs are the ones who lack honor! What is fair about forcing us to play host to the demon that nearly destroyed them—nearly destroyed us?"

Genesis, who had done his very best to let Sephiroth do the bulk of the negotiating, felt his own temper spark dangerously. How dare this asshole call Sephiroth a demon?! he raged silently. What did a spoiled, pampered Wutaian nobleman know about fighting a war? Genesis didn't remember ever seeing him on the battlefield! He couldn't possibly understand what it was like, to know that only your sword and your wits stood between you and a violent, painful death. And to insult Sephiroth, who had suffered so much because of his time in Wutai. . .well, it was just too much, and he was not going to let him get away with it.

"Lord Staniv, you seem to have a rather skewed view of war." None of his fury was apparent in his expression as he lifted his chin and sent him a haughty look. "We are not demons, not any more than any of your soldiers are. Were the samurai not following orders when they surrounded General Sephiroth's tent and set it on fire with him inside? What about when a Wutaian assassin slipped into the barracks at Fort Verdot and tried to murder him, hhmmm? Or do you not remember those little incidents?"

Staniv flushed a rather unbecoming shade of magenta, and Sephiroth quickly moved to regain control of the situation. "Such things happen during prolonged conflicts," he said swiftly, slanting a warning look Genesis' way as he continued, "as both General Rhapsodos and Lord Staniv are well aware. While the experiences were far from pleasant, they are in the past, and dwelling on them will only stymie the peace process now."

He turned back to Lord Godo and spread both gloved hands in a gesture of appeal, forcing himself not to hide his emotions as he added, "Do you not agree, Kisaragi-tonno?"

That was when Godo realized that Sephiroth was serious, that he truly wanted to end this war, as he swallowed his great pride and allowed himself to be insulted. "Yes, I do, Sefirosu-taishou." He set his hands on the arms of his throne and pushed himself to his feet. He had a great deal to think about this night. "I believe that this is a discussion best left for another time," he gestured for his courtiers to rise from their own seats. "We can resume negotiations tomorrow, once tempers have had a chance to cool."

"That is acceptable, " Sephiroth returned with what Godo was suddenly sure was an unconscious arrogance. He nodded and offered a slight bow, dismissing the three SOLDIERs with a regal command. Sephiroth returned the bow and withdrew, turning on his heel with a swish of shiny silver hair. Both Rhapsodos and Hewley did the same, showing the proper respect for one of his station, as befitted ambassadors of peace.

And if the Scarlet General's pale eyes flashed forbiddingly as he turned away. . .well, that was easy enough to overlook. After the way that his own council had breached protocol and verbally attacked their foreign guests, Godo was only grateful that Sephiroth's fukusho hadn't lost his infamous temper and unleashed a barrage of fire-magic in his throne room!

He waited until the guards had closed both of the double doors to eye each one of his councilors—his friends—with disappointment. Each one dropped their eyes with a look of shame, although the barest hint of defiance broke through Nubuo's stony countenance. Godo uttered a quiet sigh and turned away, gesturing sharply for them to follow. They trailed along in his wake like chastised children, and Godo realized that that wasn't too far from the truth. He was the father of this country and its citizens—even those he counted as friends. And come tomorrow, he would make sure that those friends knew never to be so bold again.

Rufus stared hard at the computer screen, wishing that his eyes were playing tricks on him, and knowing that they weren't. Right there on the screen, in living—if somewhat pixilated—color, was none other than Genesis Rhapsodos. As though frozen in time, he sat on the sofa in his own apartment, one arm suspended in mid-wave, something that resembled a grimace stretched across his handsome face. And as Rufus reached for the mouse and rewound the security footage for the umpteenth time, he knew that he was now in serious fucking trouble.

He reached the beginning of the section, where the shadows on the wall had concealed a man who—by all rights—should not exist, and clicked "Play". He leaned back in his chair and watched as Rhapsodos, dressed in a bizarre black ensemble that would have done General Sephiroth proud, stepped out of a darkened section of the wall—right in front of the one camera that Weiss hadn't managed to destroy—and shook his silver-blond head in denial.

General Rhapsodos was with Sephiroth in Wutai—Tseng had called Reno himself and confirmed it—and yet, there he was. Arguing with Weiss The Immaculate, if his furious expression was anything to go by, and surging angrily back into the darkened corner before disappearing in a black-and-crimson blur.

Rufus rewound the footage one more time, this time pausing it just after Rhapsodos emerged from the shadows. "How is this possible?" he threw the question out in a low, disturbed voice. "How can he be here when I know damn good and well that he's in Wutai?!"

A silent exhalation of breath—the closest Tseng would ever come to a sigh in his presence—sounded at his back. "You know how," he returned simply, and Rufus fought an urge to glare at him because Tseng was right—he did know. He just didn't want to believe it.

"But how did he get here?" Rufus snapped edgily, swiveling around his in chair and nailing his most loyal Turk under a steely stare. "And what the hell was doing talking to Weiss, of all people?"

If Tseng had been an ordinary man, Rufus knew that he would have shrugged at the question. As it was, he shifted his weight and looked down at his young charge with opaque obsidian eyes. "If what Reno has told us is correct, General Rhapsodos is tied to Deep Ground. His cells were used in the creation of the Tsviets."

Rufus raked an agitated hand through his hair, his thoughts tumbling chaotically through his head. This Genesis Rhapsodos—a.k.a. Crimson WEAPON—had been the one to end the world after supposedly killing General Sephiroth. Privately, Rufus doubted that anyone could defeat Sephiroth—not Cloud Strife and certainly not this former SOLDIER First—but Reno said it had happened, and he had been right about everything else so far.

"So, in other words," he began caustically, "we've got an insane former SOLDIER who is now one of The Planet's guardian WEAPONs, running around the tower unchecked and having clandestine meetings with Shinra's biggest threat."

He paused for moment before laughing humorlessly. "Reno was right," he stated bitterly. "We are screwed."

Tseng concealed a pang of pity for his young charge. Rufus was doing his best to deal with an untenable situation, facing opposition from nearly every side, while trying to raise two young children when he was little more than a child himself. The stress had—and was—taking its toll, but Tseng knew that Rufus was stronger than he believed himself to be, and it was time to remind him of that strength. "This is not necessarily an unfavorable turn of events, sir."

Rufus lifted one flaxen brow in obvious skepticism. "You heard their conversation," he reminded the younger man gently. "Weiss demanded that he put Sephiroth behind him and join Deep Ground publicly. You also heard General Rhapsodos' response."

A small smirk found its way onto Rufus' lips at that. "He basically told him to go pound sand," he said with another, more genuine laugh.

"Precisely," Tseng said, "which is why I think his presence here might be just what we've been waiting for."

A cunning light came into those pale blue-gray eyes, even as Rufus' expression betrayed a cynicism out of place on such a youthful face. "He calls Weiss brother, Tseng, and I got the distinct impression that they don't trust each other. And in light of this Rhapsodos' history with the company, I sincerely doubt he'd be willing to help us."

The older man inclined his dark head in acknowledgement words, even as he voiced his disagreement. "Weiss may not trust him, but he considers him one of his own. He also believes that Rhapsodos is the strongest of the Tsviets," Tseng reminded him calmly. "If that's the case, then he might be the only one able to bring Weiss to heel. He didn't seem to be bitter about the SOLDIER program, either. He admitted that he still sees himself as SOLDIER. We can capitalize on that."

Rufus snorted at that. "What about Hollander?" he questioned scornfully. "Do you honestly think that he doesn't hate him with a passion? I know that I would, were I in his shoes, and we can't afford another loss like Hojo."

Deep black eyes gleamed shrewdly as they met and held his own. "Dr. Hollander will be leaving for Wutai shortly, will he not?"

"Yes, he will," Rufus murmured thoughtfully. He glanced up at the man who had all but raised him and smiled slowly. "You're a genius, Tseng. I don't know what I'd do without you."

A slow blink was the only sign of Tseng's surprise before he offered a low bow. "Thank you, sir."

Rufus's smirk widened as he turned back to his desk and studied the screen once more. "Call Weiss," he ordered in a strong, sure voice. "I think it's time I had a little 'talk' with Deep Ground's Emperor."

Crimson yawned and shifted against the wall he was currently holding up, fully ensconced in the shadows that he had quickly become so at home in. He watched, thoroughly bored, as little Rufus Shinra traded veiled—and not so veiled—barbs with his brother. Weiss was arrogant as only he could be, caustic and mocking by turn, while poor Nero looked on with worried crimson eyes. He wasn't surprised to discover that Rufus was having the two Tsviets watched—stupid, Rufus wasn't—but he was surprised to learn that the little prick had somehow found a way to film him during his last visit to the tower.

Which was what he and Weiss were currently arguing about, Crimson thought with a shake of his fiery head. Rufus was demanding to know why he hadn't been informed of Deep Ground's newest member—even though Crimson was sure he was smart enough to have figured that out on his own—and Weiss was responding by telling him that it was none of his concern, and that was going over like the proverbial lead balloon.

Crimson sighed to himself and wished Weiss would stop being difficult and just tell the little shit what he wanted to know. Rufus might be young but he was The President of Shinra, Inc., and he wasn't doing a half-bad job of it, from what little Crimson had seen. Sure, Sephiroth and the others Firsts—his past self included—were gone, but there was no way in hell that Rufus would have been able to convince Sephiroth to stay. Old man Shinra—and a bastard named Hojo—had made that an impossibility.

He was well aware of what Rufus had done during the Geostigma epidemic, and while he questioned the methods used, Crimson couldn't deny that the boy had meant well. He'd wanted to find a cure, and not just for himself, much to Crimson's surprise. He actually felt guilty for all the shit his father had pulled, and he'd been trying to atone for it. In a way, he still was, and Crimson believed that he should be given the chance to do so.

Crimson heard Weiss's voice rise in anger and hastily pulled his attention back to his surroundings. Deep Ground's "Emperor" was leaning over Rufus' desk, both hands splayed wide across its metallic surface, all but towering over the kid as he continued to bellow at the top of his lungs. Tseng and Rude, the two Turks guarding him, were quickly rounding either side of the massive desk, prepared to step in and get themselves to killed to protect their president. Even Nero looked alarmed as he moved to stand beside his brother, his tone designed to soothe as he did his best to calm the other's rage.

Weiss finally pulled back, not even trying to hide his disgusted expression as he turned away from Rufus, and Crimson rolled his eyes. Weiss had all the subtlety of a Bandersnatch, even if he was slightly more intelligent.

Grinning at his own joke, he waited until Weiss had stomped all the way to the eastern staircase to make his presence known. He stepped coalesced out of Weiss' own shadow, materializing on the stairs below him, effectively—and dramatically—putting a halt to his grand exit. Crimson ignored the two startled Turks as they drew their guns and aimed past Weiss at him, leveling a stern look at the most difficult of his siblings.

"Weiss, get your ass back in there and stop being unreasonable!" he ordered arrogantly, ignoring the incensed look the eldest of his brothers aimed down at him. "Now, brother."

Pale hands clenched and unclenched at Weiss' side, while pale silver-blue eyes glimmered furiously with the force of his rage, but he remained where he was. "You're so godsdamned stubborn," Crimson muttered with exasperation. "Fine, have it your way, then."

He shifted to his left and pitched his voice so that it would heard across the vast expanse of the ridiculously oversized room. "And you," he shook one black-gloved finger at Rufus over Weiss' shoulder, "stop being such a little bitch. Baiting Weiss isn't going get you anywhere, I promise you."

Instead of the outraged anger he expected, Rufus Shinra merely smirked at him across the room. He showed none of the of the surprise that his own Turks had, and absolutely no fear. "Crimson WEAPON, I presume?"

Crimson nearly burst out laughing at the arrogant drawl the little shit's voice had become. "In the flesh," he answered, his grin widening as he added, "Could you ask your little pet assassins to ditch the guns? Getting shot won't kill me or my brother, but it will most certainly put us in a foul mood."

Pale blue eyes flicked from him to Weiss and back again. "We wouldn't want that, now would we?" Rufus returned facetiously. He called Tseng's name, and that was all it took. Both Tseng and Rude holstered their weapons, although they didn't resume their previous positions. They stayed exactly where they were, and Rufus shrugged eloquently, as if to say, "What can I do?"

The glow in Crimson's eyes deepened as his own amusement grew. If nothing else, at least he wasn't bored anymore. He purposely kept his gaze on Rufus as he stepped up and passed Weiss without another word. He strode passed the Turks and approached the great desk, nodding once at Rufus as he dropped into Weiss' abandoned chair. He crossed one leg over the other and leveled a fond smile at Nero, who was still hovering uncertainly before the metal monstrosity, and waved him back to his own seat. "Sit, brother," he encouraged warmly. "No one's going anywhere until we hammer this out."

Nero stared at him for a long moment before flicking a questioning glance at his brother. Weiss looked positively irate even as his head dipped curtly. The motion caused his thick platinum spikes to sway in a comical way, and it was all Crimson could do not to burst out laughing as he watched.

Asshole, he thought with barbed affection. Aloud, he only said, "You, too, Weiss. I have the feeling we're going to be here for a while."

Weiss The Immaculate sneered in his direction as he stomped back to them, his expression promising retribution even as he came to a halt at Crimson's side. "And here I thought that you feared the consequences of revealing yourself to the world," he commented mockingly. "What happened? Did those fair skirts finally lose their divine appeal?"

Sarcasm, thy name is Weiss, Crimson thought with a combination of irritation and amusement. "I'm willing to take the risk if your are, although there will be," he paused for effect, "conditions to my return—if you truly want me to stay, that is."

Weiss stared down at him with a hard expression, distrust swirling in the brilliant depths of his eyes. Crimson tipped his head back and returned his gaze evenly, his only concession to his own tattered pride one arrogantly raised eyebrow, as he waited for the younger man to respond. Those pale, silvery eyes flickered luminously as Weiss continued to regard him in silence, and Crimson heaved a wholly dramatic sigh.

"Anytime now, brother," he told the younger man exaggerated patience. "We're all waiting on you."

Weiss' face creased into his habitual scowl as he grabbed one of the padded metal chairs and set it—pointedly—beside Nero's. Crimson chuckled at the snub and cast an eloquent glance Rufus' way. "You see what I have to put up with?" he questioned rhetorically. "What was was my goddess thinking when she sent me to these two?"

One flaxen brow crept upwards as Rufus watched Weiss shoot Genesis Rhapsodos a dark, dangerous—but more importantly, silent—look and thought, What he wouldn't give for that ability! Aloud, he merely said, "I've found Nero to be quite agreeable, myself."

"Nero has never been a problem," Crimson concurred with a warm glance in the young Tsviet's direction. His gaze drifted to Weiss, and his expression turned rueful. "Weiss, on the other hand, can be a tad bit. . .stubborn at times."

"I had noticed that, actually." Rufus was smiling—a shark's smile, if Crimson had ever seen one—as Tseng and Rude rounded the desk and took up protective positions on either side of him. "Now, you were saying something about your return being conditional?"

Back to business, Crimson thought with a pang of regret. And he'd so enjoyed teasing Weiss. He sighed lightly and let his smile fade, giving the subject the solemnity it deserved. "As of now, I am without duty," he began. "Sephiroth has been redeemed, The Planet is free of The Calamity's taint, and my brothers have been spared horrific fates. The Goddess has given me no further instructions, nor has she chosen to take me back to her. As it is she who first guided me to Deep Ground, I feel that my duty and loyalty must be to them. However. . ."

He paused, his handsome features taking on a pensive cast. "I can't allow my identity to be made known. Publicly, I cannot exist. But I can give my brethren my support, as well as my assistance in ruling Deep Ground, as they learn to exist in a world that has no true need of them. To that end, I—"

"How can you say that the world has no need of us?" Weiss cut in, incredulous. "We are Deep Ground. We are superior beings created to rule over the human rabble! That is our purpose!"

"And the last being who thought that way is rotting away in the depths of outer space even as we speak," Crimson reminded him in a deceptively lazy tone. "Hojo's intention may have been to create gods in human form, but you are not perfect, Weiss."

"Are you implying that you are?!"

Weiss sneered his opinion of that, and Crimson shook his head regretfully. "I may be the most powerful being in existence, but perfection eludes even I. It is an impossible state for any Gaia-born being to reach, brother, and we are no different."

Rufus' pale eyes narrowed as he glanced from one "brother" to the other. "It was my understanding that you'd become a WEAPON," he said in a deceptively light tone. "I would have thought that you would be more than merely 'powerful'."

Crimson inclined his auburn head in regal acknowledgement. "I am the most powerful being on The Planet," he stated matter-of-factly, "but that does not make me perfect. Far from it," he added in a murmur.

"You may not be perfect, brother, but as Weiss says, you are the strongest of us," Nero reminded him with a cautious, yet earnest, expression. "But if what you say is true, and we are not to rule the humans, what role are we to play in this world?"

"We are to be its champions," Crimson told him simply.


Weiss voice rang through the room, and Nero's unusual ruby eyes widened fractionally at the icy rage in that one word. "Brother?" he questioned hesitantly.

Weiss ignored him, a harsh look dominating the bold landscape of his face, his diamond-hard gaze never leaving his "brother's" handsome, deceitful face. "We are not WEAPONs," he denied, his deep voice colder than either man had ever heard it. "We are Tsviets—warriors to our last drop of blood. We were created to rule this world, and rule it we will."

Crimson met and held those glacial blue eyes with his own. "Then, you will have to go through me to do it," he stated with a regret so genuine that it was terrifying.

"So be it," Weiss responded with an equally disturbing fatalism. "I refuse to become a slave to a being that has already allowed us to be used and discarded as though were nothing more than genetic trash! We are free now and we will remain that way!"

Uncertainty flitted across Nero's fine, faintly Wutaian features as he looked away from them both, and Crimson felt a tug in the vicinity where his heart had once resided. He had been honest with Nero about the circumstances surrounding both of his deaths, and to say that the truth had unnerved him would be an understatement.

"Weiss. . ." Crimson sighed again and focused on the other man, "I don't blame you for your bitterness, but The Planet did give you a second chance. Gaia felt that you and Nero could be redeemed, that your past sins could be forgiven. It's the reason she sent me to you."

"And how long will it be before she deems us unworthy?" Weiss demanded, anger and something more. . .vital vying for possession of his expression. "General Sephiroth failed his trial and was punished for eight long years for that aggrievous offense."

Heavy sarcasm all but dripped from his words, and Crimson flinched at both his tone and his words. Weiss saw the minute motion and smiled thinly. He felt little sympathy for the man who had betrayed so many in service to his "goddess". Genesis Rhapsodos had created his bed, it time for him to lie in it—alone, if need be.

"Your goddess is the one who allowed all of us to be created," he continued coldly. "That very being same allowed us to be kept under The Restrictor's thumb and at Professor Hojo's mercy. It is her fault that Nero died—"

Weiss broke off, a muscle jumping in his jaw as he remembered how his brother had met his end. He glanced down at his hands, pale and white despite the blood staining them, and curled his fingers tightly. "If not for The Planet, Nero would not have suffered as he did at the end." His deep voice roughened as he struggled to keep his emotions in check. "Omega should have put an end to it—I should have ended it. Instead, I fell to Omega's squire, to a being that had been created to help with its ascension, as it chose to defy its maker instead."

He paused and slowly lifted his head, ignoring Rufus Shinra and his apprehensive expression as he pinned Crimson beneath a blazing ice-blue stare. "We are Deep Ground—brother," he all but spat the familial epithet as he rose to his full six-foot-two-inch-height and stared down at the older man with a frighteningly determined expression. "If you wish to join us, you will do so as a Tsviet, not a WEAPON. Deep Ground will become your home, and we your family. You need only to denounce your role as The Planet's protector and take your place within our ranks to make it so."

Crimson gazed up at the younger man with a distant expression that that belied the sudden fear churning through him. He could feel the vibrations of Gaia's anger even now, the scorching flames of white-hot rage that thrummed through his enhanced body in an acidic current. It was a warning, one that even he was smart enough to heed. "You don't understand the position I'm in, Wei—"

"I understand that you're still running scared," Weiss cut in callously, resolutely. "No man can serve two masters, not even you. This is the way it must be. Make your choice, Crimson WEAPON."

That ice-cold gaze never left his own, and frustration surged through him at his sibling's inescapable implacability. Did Weiss truly not understand that Crimson had courted Gaia's by simply returning to him?

"I have chosen, Weiss," he assured the younger man, his rich voice atypically quiet as he raked a hand through his overlong hair. "I would not have returned to you otherwise."

"You have returned as a WEAPON, not as a Tsviet," Weiss snapped again, irritated with their brother's continued lack of comprehension. "I have no need of planetary guardians in Deep Ground. What I need is the Tsviet that I know you to be—but only once you have discarded your role as The Planet's champion and sworn your loyalty to Deep Ground."

To me.

The words hovered in the air between them, no less powerful for being unspoken. As his Goddess' rage roiled and burned a searing path through his spiritual being, Crimson felt his own resolve begin to waver. For all of his mutinous thoughts, all of his rebellious intentions, a part of him he had been seeking a solution which would allow him to be with his new family without completely alienating the deity he served. Now, Weiss was taking that option away from him, forcing him to make a choice that could destroy them all.

Rufus and his Turks were forgotten as Crimson's own personal drama continued to play out before him. He rose from his chair slowly, lifting his chin and facing Weiss The Immaculate with a pride that had long since abandoned him. "Then, you are prepared to pay the price for my loyalty?" he asked very cool, very soft voice.

Weiss scowled at the unexpected question. "And what 'price' would that be?" he queried acerbically.

A sharp smile curved rose-colored lips as Crimson took a small, gliding step towards him. "I am The Planet's favorite," he replied in that same soft, dangerous voice, "her chosen champion. In nearly nine years of service, I have seen my parents murdered, my hometown razed, my best friend dead, my lover ruined, the world utterly and completely annihilated. Even you and Nero were not spared. Everything and everyone I have ever loved has perished—some at my own hands—and yet, I am still here."

Crimson paused then, watching as comprehension finally dawned on those boldly handsome features. "Now, do you see?" he questioned gently. "Do you understand why I am hesitant to break faith with my goddess?"

Weiss remained silent for a long, emotion-fraught moment. "I do," he said at last, taking a step back and dropping a hand on his brother's shoulder. Nero looked up at him with an anxiety he couldn't quite conceal, and Weiss squeezed gently to reassure him. He looked back to Crimson and nodded his silver-blond head slowly. "I understand your fear all too well, brother."

Crimson let out a relieved breath, only to have his hopes dashed by Weiss' next words, "But it is a fear must be banished."

Crimson shook his head slowly, sadly, despair all but smothering him as he squeezed his eyes shut. Weiss was even more unyielding than he when it came it came to the question of loyalty. The Gods knew that Crimson couldn't blame him after everything he'd been through, but his inflexibility was going to cost all of them their lives if he weren't very, very careful.

He felt a firm, solid weight on his own shoulder and his eyes sprang open in surprise. Weiss stood directly before him, an unwilling empathy filling his icy eyes, and the weight was his hand as he offered Crimson the same comfort he had Nero. "Weiss. . ."

Weiss shook his silvery head and sighed heavily. "Should The Planet chooses to retaliate, Deep Ground will be here to protect you," he told the older man gravely. "If she somehow manages to take you from us, we will move Heaven and Earth," Crimson smiled unwillingly at what he was sure was an unintentional play on words, "to find you and bring you back to us. If she harms you, we will heal you and fight her to assure your safety."

He hesitated then, a faint grimace chasing itself across his sharp features, as he added, "And if she threatens those you leave behind, we will fight for them as well," in reluctant murmur.

Nothing could have stunned Crimson more. His lips parted with a shaky rush of sound, even as his sky-bright eyes narrowed with suspicion. "You demanded that I forget Sephiroth," he pointed out warily. "You wanted me to turn my back on my former life and live as one of you. Why would you change your mind about that, now?"

The suspicion lacing his smooth, cultured voice drew a dark scowl from Deep Ground's leader. He made an irritated sound and stepped away, his hand falling to his side as he cast a meaningful look at his younger brother. Nero's normally expressionless features betrayed an excitement that Crimson didn't understand as he rose from his seat with inhuman grace. "Brother, what you don't understand is that once you swear allegiance to Deep Ground, your cause becomes our own."

When their elder brother did nothing more than blink uncomprehendingly in response, Nero offered a shy, rather sweet smile and explained, "Your repudiation of General Sephiroth only means that you promise to place us before him in your life. It does not mean that you must abandon him completely, simply that you will not forsake your duty to us in your fervor to protect him."

Pale blue eyes, pulsing with a combination of madness and power, flicked from he to Weiss with confusion. "You said that I had to forget him," he repeated roughly. "Sephiroth was—is—an intricate part of my life. Whether he's with me or not, he will always be important to me. You need to understand that, Weiss."

"I never said that you must forsake him completely," Weiss argued brusquely, though he was obviously displeased with the concession that he himself had made. "If the Great General ever has need of you, we will be there to help you protect him, but only so long as you dedicate yourself to Deep Ground. We must come first, or you can go back to your all-important goddess and spend the rest your life fighting her for control of it. The choice is yours."

Which meant that it was time for him to take the leap and fully commit himself to his new family. "Weiss. . ." he sighed and offered a crooked smile. "You realize there's a good chance that she'll kill you once I do this?"

Weiss grunted, supremely unimpressed. "She can try," he said bluntly. "As I will never again consent to join with Omega, she will have a very hard time finding a method that would prove successful. Your Goddess will find me very hard to kill."

Crimson studied for a long, intense moment before smiling widely. "Yes, I imagine she will," he allowed with a chuckle. "Gods, you're as stubborn as you are fearless, brother. I'll pray that your arrogance doesn't cost you your life."

"It won't—brother," the younger man returned with confidently, smiling the first genuine smile that Crimson had ever seen from him. "Now, as for the rest. . ."

He flicked a meaningful glance at Rufus, who was watching them with unveiled interest, and Crimson laughed again. "Ah, yes, my 'conditions'," he drawled condescendingly, not the least embarrassed that Shinra's new "president" had witnessed their little familial squabble. Crimson was sure he'd be seeing much more of it in the months and years to come.

"Well," he began, casually dropping back into his seat, "so long as my existence is revealed only to Deep Ground and not the whole of Shinra, I don't foresee any problems there. Although, I will have to borrow Dr. Hollander long enough to perform a little 'experiment' of my own."

Rufus sat back in his chair and rested his joined hands across his stomach, keeping his expression pleasant even as his earlier worries returned in full force. "I'm afraid that I can't accommodate you in that," he refused in a deceptively casual tone. "After Professor Hojo's...unfortunate accident, there is no one else qualified to oversee the health of my SOLDIERs."

Accident, indeed, Crimson thought with rush of dark amusement, but he didn't bother to argue the point. Rufus was obviously worried that he planned to kill the old coot, but what he couldn't know what that Crimson had no intention of letting any harm come to Hollander. Sephiroth still needed the scientist's help to cure Crimson's past self of his degradation—or he would, once the disease made itself known—and he wouldn't rob the other man of that, no matter how much he might want to watch the life drain from the old man's eyes.

And as much as he despised Hollander, he didn't want to be anywhere near him. It galled him to admit it—even to himself— but a part of him still feared the man who been able to manipulate him so expertly. He knew himself well enough to know that if he were ever presented with the opportunity, he would fall prey to temptation and thrust Rapier through the stone which passed for old hack's heart. No, it was better that he keep his distance, and so, Dr. Hollander was—regrettably—safe from Crimson's wrath.

"Professor Rayleigh, then," he countered smoothly. Rufus' aristocratic features suddenly sharpened with suspicion, and Crimson had to suppress another bout of laughter. "Oh, I know all about your ties to AVALANCHE," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand, "and I could care less. Rayleigh is the only scientist on Shinra's staff who's worked with both Hojo and Hollander, and she's studied Professor Gast's work extensively. She may be the only other researcher alive capable of giving me what I need, so I'll take her in Hollander's stead."

Blue-gray eyes narrowed slightly as Rufus considered his words. Did he dare trust this man, who had once sworn vengeance on all who served under the Shinra banner? "Reno spoke of a genetic anomaly," he said at length, "one which all the members of Deep Ground shared in the—in your—past?"

It was more a statement than a question, but Crimson answered it anyway. "My cells were enough to cure my brethren before, and they will be enough do so now," he explained magnanimously. "I can give Professor Rayleigh a base from which to develop the necessary genetic structural modifications, but I'm no scientist. I'll need her expertise—as well as any records you've found on Deep Ground—to complete the formula."

Rufus nodded slowly and cast a veiled look at Tseng. The Wutaian man inclined his head and turned away, pulling his PHS out of his blazer as he did so, and Rufus felt a faint glimmer of hope. "You'll have what you need, Crimson," he assured the former SOLDIER simply, "so long as you agree not to work against me or my company."

Crimson shook his fiery head negatively, grimacing as his hair slid into his face with the movement. "I bear no grudge against this incarnation of Shinra," he answered honestly. "In my past, you tried to right your father's wrongs. You weren't very successful," he added with a rueful shrug, "but at least you tried. That goes a long way in my book."

The younger man uttered a quiet sigh. "I guess that's good to know," he muttered under his breath.

Crimson heard the nearly inaudible mumble and smiled winningly. "Be grateful you don't have your memories," he told him with dryly. "The world was a very dark place for a very long time."

Weiss grunted rudely before Rufus could even begin to form a response to that. "The world has always been dark," he stated flatly. "Only those who live their lives in ignorance believe otherwise."

"And on that cheerful note," Crimson gripped the arms of his chair and pushed himself to his feet, "I think it's time that I meet the rest of my brethren. Weiss, you'll arrange it?"

The younger man nodded decisively, a very satisfied expression shaping his handsome face. "You'll be introduced as Rosso's successor," he informed Crimson loftily. "You will carry on her legacy by taking her epithet as your own."

Crimson raised one auburn brow in question, and Weiss' smile deepened into a smirk. "You will be known as Crimson and nothing more. Just as you wished," he added pointedly.

"What I said was that my name is Crimson WEAPON now," Crimson retuned archly, "but that's neither here nor there. Crimson alone suits me well enough."

"As you are no longer a WEAPON, it should," Weiss shot right back. He stood and made a sharp gesture with one gloveless hand, and Nero rose to his feet in response to the silent command. "As your former quarters are no longer inhabited, you may reside there, unless you wish to be housed with Nero and I?"

The last part of his sentence was uttered with such obvious reluctance that Crimson was hard-pressed to suppress more insane laughter. What he couldn't help was the slightly maddened grin that spread across his face as he shook his head negatively. The last thing he wanted was to be stuck with Weiss the Difficult twenty-four-seven. They'd end up killing each other!

"No, thank you, brother," he said with just a touch of dryness. "I'd rather live alone, if it's all the same to you."

Relief flashed through the other man's silver-blue eyes, and then was gone. "We'll leave you to negotiate compensatory terms with Rufus, then," he said briskly. "We'll be in the former President's 'suite' if you have need of us."

With that, Weiss the Immaculate turned on his booted heel and strode out of the room. Nero hurried to follow with a quiet whisper of downy feathers, pausing just long enough to flash an animated smile Crimson's way. "Welcome to the family, brother."

Crimson watched as the normally somber young man all but bounced as he glided from the room and felt a rush of affection. He was ever so fond of Nero the Sable. "Well, that went much better than I had expected," he commented to no one in particular.

Rufus let out a short laugh and shook his own head. "If that was 'better' I'd hate to see worse," he remarked wryly. "You handled Weiss remarkably well, much better than I've been able to."

Crimson turned back to him, cocking his red head to one side as he considered the young businessman before him. "You're not a warrior," he told him plainly. "Weiss only respects physical strength. Had you been a fighter, he would've paid you more heed."

"Had I been a fighter, he would've taken my company along with my head," Rufus rejoined smartly.

"Possibly," Crimson replied, the laughter breaking free at the thought of little Rufus Shinra wielding anything bigger than a handgun. "Although—had you been a fighter—you might have managed to stave him off."

Rufus' lips twisted into a self-deprecating smile. "I've seen Weiss fight. He would've bested me in minutes."

"Yes, he would have," Crimson agreed with another laugh. "Luckily, Nero took a liking to you. Otherwise, I very much doubt that Weiss would've stayed his hand this long."

The younger man nodded his flaxen head in silent acknowledgment and, a little unnerved by that mad laughter, decided that it was time to change the subject. "We should discuss the terms of your new contract with Shinra," he began, only to fall silent as Crimson waved his words away with one black-gloved hand.

"I have no need of gil," the former SOLDIER told him seriously. "I won't be rejoining the world, Rufus. So long as you intend to feed, house, and clothe me, I'll be content. I need nothing more."

Nothing he said could have surprised Rufus more. The Genesis Rhapsodos that he knew was a wealthy, materialistic man who loved the finer things in life. He blinked and said, "Surely, you'll want some sort of compensation for your work, General Rhapsodos—"

"My name is Crimson," the other man cut in, his aristocratic features hardening dramatically. "The man that I once was no longer exists. Sephiroth and I have seen to that," he added rawly.

An unsettling combination of grief and rage flashed through those pale blue iris', and Rufus found himself tensing warily. "Of course," he forced himself to murmur understandingly. He wasn't quite sure what the older man meant by his words, but he thought it was better that he didn't know. Whatever had passed between Sephiroth and this man had been dark enough to herald the end of the world. In light of that, the subject was better left untouched.

"Well, Crimson," none of his wariness showed as he straightened in his chair and flashed his patented smirk, "if you change your mind, you know where to find me. For now, I have work to do. I'll have Hojo's records on Deep Ground sent to your apartment just as soon as they're delivered."

Crimson drew a deep, audibly sharp breath and visibly shook himself out of whatever personal hell he'd been immersed in. "And when can I expect to speak with Professor Rayleigh?" he questioned in a voice which trembled.

Rufus pretended not to notice the other man's distress. "Just as soon as she's had a chance to familiarize herself with the Deep Ground project," he answered smoothly. "I'll pull her from her current duties and order her to concentrate solely on Hojo's work. It should expedite the process."

The former SOLDIER-turned-WEAPON-turned-Tsviet nodded his understanding and slowly turned away. He paused just long enough to throw, "Thank you, Mr. President," over his shoulder before making his way out of the room.

Rufus waited until he was sure that the enhanced man was out of earshot to let out a relieved breath. Crimson WEAPON might be the most powerful being on The Planet, as he himself claimed, but Rufus wasn't completely certain that he was sane. The man had always been temperamental, but the mood-shifts he'd displayed today went far beyond what was considered normal, even for Genesis Rhapsodos.

Still, he'd been able to handle Weiss—to control him—and that was an ability that Rufus lacked. Already he'd been able to make Weiss rethink his plans to conquer the world, which the bloodthirsty Tsviet had been dead-set upon. With Crimson now in his employ, Rufus just might be able to follow through with his plans to integrate Deep Ground into SOLDIER. And once that was done, Weiss would no longer be a threat to him, and he would finally be able to bring Reno home.

A rush of excitement surged through him at the thought of seeing the cocky, irreverent Turk again, and Rufus quickly forced it back. It could months before he reached his goal of a unified Shinra/Deep Ground army, and he couldn't afford to let himself be distracted by his longing for his estranged lover. That Reno might not forgive him was a thought that was never far from his mind, especially after the way he'd dismissed the older man during their last conversation. Reno believed that Rufus had rejected him, and as much as Rufus knew it hurt him, this was the way it had to be. At least, for now.

But once it was safe, he would Heaven and Earth—to use Weiss' own words—to bring Reno back to Midgar, where he belonged. It was only a matter of time, something that he might actually have in abundance now, thanks to Crimson WEAPON.

Shaking his pale head at the irony of it all, Rufus picked up the phone and dialed the extension to the Science Department. It was time roll the proverbial dice, and introduce a new player into this game of life and death. He hoped she was up to the challenge.

Lord Godo nodded at the two samurai who fell into step on either side of him, praying to Leviathan that he wasn't about to make a terrible mistake. He had waited until well past midnight to do this, and he had told no one of his plans. His council would have protested this plan of action, Nobuo-san the most vehemently, and he would have been right to do so. But Godo was convinced that this was the only way to truly ascertain The Great General's intentions, and so he would follow this path until it took him to whatever conclusion awaited him.

He walked the familiar halls of his palace, following the polished wooden floors until he reached the Chuto Shion. It was the main building of the guest quarters, equipped with all of the modern luxuries that these foreigners seemed unable to live without. Two Furui Shoins, traditional buildings that his Wutaian supplicants used when seeking an audience with their ruler, flanked the L-shaped structure on both sides. Normally, the lights of dozens of candles shined through the slatted window coverings of those two shions, but tonight, the only lights came from the middle building, where his gajin guests rested following their less than productive peace negotiations.

Which was why he was here, Godo reminded himself tiredly, instead of curled up on his bed with a good book and a glass of saki. He believed that General Sephiroth was serious in his desire to broker peace between their two empires. He wanted a chance to talk with The Great General alone, without any outside interference. If Sephiroth played him false and took his life, then his questions would be answered, and Wutai would be destroyed in the conflict that followed.

But if his suspicions were right, both he and his country would be spared the horrors of a life lived under the yoke of a foreign power. For that chance alone, he was willing to risk his life and his country.

Thank Leviathan that Yuffie had heeded his warnings and kept her distance from their gajin guests, Godo thought with relief. His daughter was only eleven, but she was already displaying the same headstrong determination that her mother once had. She was his only child, heir to his throne and future Empress of Leviathan's chosen, but she lacked the decorum that befitted one of her station. She defied convention by eschewing the proper garb for a princess, choosing to flit around in a shinobi's uniform instead. She was undeniably talented, even at her young age, but she was far too reckless for Godo's peace of mind.

He came to General Sephiroth's quarters, to the foreign-style door with its shiny golden knob, and pushed thoughts of his willful child away. He uttered a quiet command to the two warriors accompanying him, and they took up protective stances on either side of the door. They would make sure that he and The General were not disturbed as they spoke. They would also do their very best to protect him should Sephiroth should prove himself false.

Godo heard a man's voice, raised in a high peal of laughter, and his interest was immediately piqued. While the door muffled the infectious sound, he could hear enough to be sure that it was not The Great General's voice that he heard. In fact, it sounded suspiciously like that of General Rhapsodos, which begged the question: Why was Sephiroth's second-in-command in his private chambers at this time of night?

Intrigued despite himself, Godo checked an urge to smooth his plain green haori—he'd deliberately dressed down for this impromptu visit—and pushed the door open. Much to his astonishment, he saw General Rhapsodos sprawled out on the low, Western-style sofa, wearing nothing more than a pair of pair of loose scarlet trousers and a smile. He was holding his hands over his face and laughing as he evaded what appeared to be a piece of shrimp, held securely between two chopsticks as droplets of sauce rained down upon him.

And holding those chopsticks was none other than The Great General Sephiroth himself. He was in a similar state of undress, and Godo was amazed to see a wide, open smile curving his lips as he wiggled the chopsticks threateningly over his subordinate's face. Rhapsodos shrieked loudly and reached up to push against his hands, and General Sephiroth released a low, wicked chuckle that was so sexual in nature that Godo nearly stepped right back out the door again.

He felt an embarrassed flush climb into his face and hastily—discreetly—cleared his throat. Two pale faces whipped in his direction, one set of glowing eyes going wide with surprise, the other latching onto his own with no visible emotion. "Kisaragi-tenno," Sephiroth greeted in the same deep, toneless voice Godo had always heard from him as he righted himself. "We were not expecting visitors so late."

"Forgive me for intruding, Sefirosu-taishou," he returned awkwardly. "I had thought to find you alone. I had hoped to continue our discussion in a more. . .informal setting."

"Ah." Those icy, impassive features thawed fractionally as Sephiroth set the chopsticks in a bowl on the western-style table before and calmly reached for a vibrant scarlet bathing yukata lying on the sofa beside him. He passed it to General Rhapsodos, who took it with an embarrassed blush, and glanced back at Godo with a mildly curious expression. "Please, have a seat, Lord Godo. I'm afraid that we have little to offer you in the way of refreshment, but feel free to sample anything you'd like."

He gestured towards the dishes strewn across the table's surface, and Godo had to fight the urge to blush anew. "No, thank you, General," he answered in heavily-accented Common. "I have already eaten."

He glanced towards a deceptively delicate-looking chair patterned to resemble cherry blossoms and gingerly lowered himself onto it. He set his hands on his knees and waited as Sephiroth handed a silk napkin to his companion and then reached over the arm of the couch. He retrieved a swath of night-black material from the floor and pulled it over his head. A casual shirt with a rounded collar and no visible buttons was pulled over his bare chest, while an obviously discomfited General Rhapsodos did his best to clean his face and hands.

Godo felt his lips twitch in unexpected humor and hastily schooled his features to blandness. It wouldn't do to laugh at General Sephiroth's. . .fukusho when Godo's own lack of etiquette had created this embarrassing situation. But he had to admit that this was the last thing he'd expected when he'd made the decision to confront General Sephiroth alone.

He waited until both men were gazing at him politely to speak. "I wish to ask you to reveal the true reason for you request to remain in my country," he said with abnormal bluntness. "I know it is not merely to enforce the terms of the treaty, nor is it a simple wish to retire from public life. There is more to this, and I would know exactly what I am agreeing to before I sign such an important document."

Sephiroth traded an unreadable glance with Genesis, who gazed at him for a long moment before inclining his fiery head in apparent. The silent communication had lasted only seconds, yet Godo couldn't shake the sense that they had actually spoken to one another. A ridiculous notion, he knew, yet it was one which persisted.

He reminded himself that Sephiroth was not a demon in truth. For all of his seemingly unnatural, inhuman abilities, he was only a man. He and Rhapsodos had been comrades—and apparently more—for years. They knew each other well enough to communicate without words, but Sephiroth could not speak to another with his mind, and it was ludicrous of him to even think otherwise.

Sephiroth's neutral expression faded as though it had never been, replaced by a weariness that was out of place on a face that had only ever shown strength. "We spoke of my brothers earlier this evening," he began, his too-deep voice low and somber, "and their abduction at the hands of an unknown enemy."

He paused, and somehow, Godo knew what was coming. "Or perhaps, not so unknown?" he questioned quietly.

The Silver General nodded slowly, sending long streams of pale silver hair streaming over his chest and shoulders. "For most of my life, I believed myself to be an orphan, as I was told by my. . .handlers. Shortly before President Edgar was overthrown, I learned differently."

Genesis reached out to grasp his hand, and Sephiroth clasped it with a gratitude that even Godo could see. "I spent month searching for the boys, but I was ultimately unsuccessful. It wasn't until I chose to support Vice President Rufus in his bid for The President's Chair that I was able to discover where they were being held."

He met Godo's gaze evenly, the iron will that had so devastated the Wutaian people all but blazing from the pale green depths of his catlike eyes. "I made plans to retrieve my brothers, and Rufus decided that he needed bargaining power. He was in the process of having them moved to an undisclosed location when I found them."

"When we found them," Genesis corrected him gently. Sephiroth smiled briefly in acknowledgement, and Genesis turned back to Godo with a smile of his own. "You see, Lord Godo, we might work for Shinra, but our loyalty is to each other—to Sephiroth. When he told us that he needed our help to find the boys, we didn't hesitate. We deserted Shinra without a second thought. We abandoned the company, our family, our lives to follow him into the unknown, and we'd do it again," he finished passionately.

Godo felt the first twinge of respect for Rhapsodos then, as he essentially told him that no matter what oaths might be made to him, the SOLDIERs' allegiance would always be to The Great General. It was the truth he had asked for, and though it wasn't quite what he'd expected to hear, it was more than he'd expected to be given.

He focused on General Sephiroth with wise black eyes. "You wish to remain in my country for them—for your brothers," he deduced simply.

"Yes, Lord Godo, I do." Sephiroth let out a relieved breath, grateful that Genesis' impassioned speech hadn't offended the Wutaian Emperor. Loyalty was important to the Wutaians, an integral part of their vast cultural heritage. In the past, battles had been fought and wars waged simply because one nobleman had impugned the integrity of another. And Genesis had just made it clear that their loyalty would never belong to Wutai. They were lucky Godo hadn't declared them enemies of the state and tossed them out on their collective rears immediately.

"And this Rufus, who played you false when it came to the truth of your family, is who you would have me treat with?" Godo asked with a very real skepticism. "If you, the most powerful of his warriors, could not trust him, how can you expect me to?"

"Rufus is young, but he truly does not wish for this conflict to continue," Sephiroth answered with what he truly believed to be the truth. "He made a miscalculation with me, thinking that he could force me to remain in his employ by keeping my siblings from me, but he has potential as a ruler, Lord Godo. I would not have put him in The President's Chair had I not believed that."

"And," Genesis' aristocratic features took on a smug, haughty cast as he chimed in, "you will have The Great General Sephiroth here—in your country—to assure that the new president keeps every one of his promises."

"Trust me, Lord Godo," he leaned back into the cushions with his patented smirk, "with Sephiroth at your side, your country will never fall to a foreign aggressor—or an internal one, for that matter—ever again."

Sephiroth cursed the color he could feel rushing into his face even as he sent his lover an exasperated look. "You give me too much credit, Genesis."

Genesis made a dismissive gesture with one slender hand, though the look in his sky-bright eyes was one of admiration. "I only give you your due, Sephiroth, nothing more," he said with conviction. "You are the best, after all."

The Great General looked so embarrassed by the other SOLDIER's praise that Godo took pity on him. "And your scientist?" he asked in a quick change of subject. "Is this Shinra doctor truly necessary to continued health of you and your men?"

The embarrassment was gone as Sephiroth's patrician features dropped into solemn lines once again. "He is," the other man answered simply. "Without Dr. Hollander here to monitor us, our mako levels could become dangerously unstable. And while that might seem like divine justice to you," Godo flushed guiltily as The General correctly guessed his thoughts, "we would be of no use to you if we were to become. . .ill."

It was more than he had ever dared hope for, Godo thought with the first stirrings of hope. To have a warrior of General Sephiroth's caliber working for his people instead of against them. . .it would be a great thing for his country.

He reminded himself that even though General Sephiroth appeared to be sincere, there was always the chance that he was simply a superb actor. These negotiations could be nothing more than an elaborate trap, one meant to trick him into lowering his defenses and leaving his country vulnerable to a full-scale invasion.

But, he didn't truly believe that. General Sephiroth had displayed nothing but honesty in these negotiations, and he had answered all of Godo's questions without hesitation. Godo was already leaning towards signing the treaty, but he needed just a little more time to observe his foreign "guests" and determine their honesty once and for all.

"I would very much like to meet your family, Sefirosu-taishou." The switch back to more official titles was enough to tell Sephiroth that the meeting was at an end. "We can share a late repast in the garden tomorrow, if that is acceptable to you?"

Sephiroth smiled faintly at what was in essence a command. "It would be an honor to present my family to you, Kisaragi-tenno," he returned formally.

"Then, it will be done." Godo stood and bowed at the waist, not too deeply, but with considerably more respect than he had previously shown. "May your dreams be sweet, Sefirosu-taishou."

Sephiroth and Genesis rose and returned the bow, appearing regal and powerful even this informal setting. "Yours as well, Kisaragi-tenno."

Godo left the room and closed the door quietly behind him, pausing just a moment as he heard a high peal of masculine laughter. It ended abruptly, and Godo smiled to himself as he stepped into the hall. His samurai instantly took their places on either side of him, and his smile grew. Soon the future of his country would be decided, and for the first time in nearly ten years, he had hope that it would survive. And it was all thanks to Shinra's Gin no Oni. The hand of Leviathan was at work here, and His will was truly a wondrous thing.

Japanese translations:

Ishidatami = Japanese paving stones

sakura = Cherry Blossom Trees

uguisu = songbird

bunkan sokauti = the formal court wear of the civil official

katabira (hitoe) = unlined kimono

Kyūden = main building of the Imperial Palace

Tasōtō = multi-story pagoda

Haori = sleeveless outer kimono

Bakeneko = cat-demon

Gin no Oni = The Silver Demon

Fukusho = second-in-command

Taikun = supreme commander

Gajin = foreigner

Chuto Shion = Middle Shion (building)

Furui Shoin = Old Shion (building)

Shinobi = ninja

Tennō Heika = His Majesty the heavenly sovereign

Godo-tenno = Lord Godo

Kisaragi-teno = Lord Kisaragi

Sefirosu-taishou = General Sephiroth.

Staniv-kyo = Lord Staniv

Shake-sama = Lady Shake

Gorkii-kyo = Lord Gorkii

Chekhov-sama = Lady Chekhov