Sometimes, Sheena had to admit, the best plans were the ones that she came up with on the fly. Consider the current situation:
After being chased through the ranch by a horde of Desians, she'd come to her senses before Raine and realized that they needed numbers and that they needed a diversion. There was really only one source to provide that: the ranch prisoners. By complete luck, they'd managed to force themselves into the holding pens, overpower the guards, and get the lock open in not much time at all. (And…it was all because Colette had tripped that one time.)
It was a little low, sure, using defenseless humans against Desians, but once again, all of them had underestimated the potential of the human being when incredibly angry – and also the potential of the human being when confronted by the Chosen One. The ninja had to admit: even though she was supposed to kill the girl, Colette could still manage to be pretty damn useful – when she wasn't accidentally pressing intercom switches.
So the prisoners had been enough to give them all their second wind back, and with the last of her Guardians to aid them, they'd beaten back the Desians and given them the ass-kicking that they'd always deserved.
Now it was time to complete Part Two of their mission and find Lloyd or Kratos – or both of them at the same time.
"Alright," Sheena snarled as she adjusted her grip on the Desian's collar, "where are they?"
She'd deliberately left one of the scum alive for information, and now she was employing the part of Mizuho's ninja arts that was even more rarely shown to the public because of its ethical ambiguity: interrogation. Colette was thankfully engaged in delivering some sort of inspirational, divine message to the now-freed prisoners; otherwise, Sheena knew she would never have been able to get away with this.
"I – I don't know…"
"Where are they?" Sheena yelled as she shook him violently. She whipped out a card and held it against the man's cheek, right below his eye. "Tell me," she ordered again.
The Desian tried to inch as far away as possible as he could from the card. "I can't…"
Sheena sighed. "Look. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Chances are that your precious Cardinal's been killed." She watched him carefully, waiting for a reaction. "What, you don't believe me? Think about it. He hasn't said anything to the Chosen, has he? No message of victory, no gloating…nothing. You'd think he would by now. You'd think.
"And if he's dead, where does that put your orders? In the trash, that's where. So you can stick to trash and lose an eye…or two, or you can tell me and be guaranteed your life, health, and a ticket out of this place."
To back up her words, she let a little mana seep into the card and let him watch an arc of lightning lazily trace its way around the length of the card. "Well?"
"F-Fine I'll tell you…they're in one of the specimen halls in the labs. The largest one. That's…that's all I know."
"That'll do." Without warning, Sheena cracked his head against the nearby wall and watched him slide down limply to the floor. "Sorry. I forgot to mention the headache."
Then she walked out of the shadows back into the prisoners' rooms. "So, we all wrapped up here? I know where we gotta go."
Kvar carefully weighed the situation before him. Lord Aurion would be able to reach him in less than a second; he knew well the capacities of an angel. He could remove his son's Exsphere in less time, though. It would be enough of a distraction – the angel would surely rush to his son's aid rather than commit to killing Kvar first – for him to make his escape and discover if his mostly incompetent staff had managed to kill the rest of their unwelcome visitors or not.
On the other hand…what if Kratos actually killed him? While it would certainly be a disappointment, he wouldn't be leaving without a nice parting gift, per se. It was a rather satisfying outcome, strange as it was to admit it. The Seraph had done him the disservice of nearly ruining his career more than a decade ago; Kvar was in fact quite keen on returning the favor. His only regret, of course, would be that he would be absent for the rest of the show that would swiftly follow: Aurion striking down his own son, crumpling to the floor in a distraught and utterly broken mess, perhaps taking his own life some time after – now wouldn't that be a profound way to end it all?
"Yes, I do like that," Kvar whispered as his lips curved into a vicious grin.
Not more than ten steps away, Kratos Aurion flinched.
"Do you remember what I said earlier, Lord Aurion, about having you cross the line between hatred and madness?"
"I think now would be a good time to cement that little fording. I grow weary of this wasteful game, myself."
"No…" Aurion's voice cracked, and Kvar realized then that he had won.
"Oh yes." He took one more moment to imprint this feeling of wildly uncontrollable glee in his memory forever and then took the plunge. His fingers tightened around the orb, dug into flesh; Aurion howled.
Time slowed almost to a standstill. Kvar's fingers dug into clammy flesh as deep as they could go. He could feel the cold, smooth surface of the Exsphere lightly hitting his palm as he tugged upward…
And then a hand grabbed his wrist. "What the hell are you doing?"
Kvar looked down in disbelief into the eyes of one thoroughly awake and thoroughly pissed Lloyd Aurion. "How…?"
"I said, 'Let go.'" Lloyd gave a sharp twist with his hand, and there was a loud crack. Seconds later, Kvar was careening backwards from the boy, screaming and clutching his hand, now bent at a strange angle.
Kratos wasted no time: in six steps he was there, sword flashing. All it took was one swift stroke to divest Kvar's head from his neck, and the corpse collapsed to the ground, blood streaming from the stump. Truth be told, it was a fairly anticlimactic ending to the Aurion family's bloody history with Kvar—no last, gasped out curses; no prolonged suffering—but it made absolutely sure that the Cardinal was dead; the last thing Kratos wanted was for Kvar to get his second wind and his gods-given miracle to expire.
Father and son stared at each other for a while, both unable to believe the turn of events.
"He woke it up. Y'know, stress always produces the greatest growth results." Oh, the double-edged glory of the Exsphere. Always managing the impossible. Lloyd cracked a thin smile. "Glad I could help."
And then he fainted.
Usually, Kratos was fast, but the speed he'd put on in order to catch Lloyd before his son hit the ground had broken records. He hadn't bothered to try to wake Lloyd back up; no, the first order of business was definitely the Exsphere. The boy could sleep for now; he surely deserved it after what he'd done.
The bloody marks around the crystal made it clear that perhaps even a second more and history would have truly repeated itself. It had truly been a miracle that Lloyd had come out unscathed where his mother had not, and Kratos let out possibly his greatest sigh of relief ever as he realized that for once, fate and luck had ruled in his favor. So, so close: Lloyd would never hear of the way that his father's heart had nearly stopped dead, of the sense of utter despair and resignation that had nearly overwhelmed him.
It came out in spurts: softly at first, and then gradually building until he couldn't hold back any longer and simply sat there laughing helplessly with Lloyd tucked up against his chest. It was utterly ridiculous: he was the one with thousands of years' worth of battle experience under his belt, yet in the end who had he been forced to rely on? His teenage son…and a fox. Sometimes, Kratos thought, he didn't even know why he bothered to try.
"Yay!" Of course, the little fox-thing had to ruin the moment. "You did it, you did it!" It danced next to him with all of its tails waving about furiously.
"Not me, hardly," Kratos managed, gasping for breath as he tried to gather up the last shreds of his dignity. "I just watched…"
"You would have been sleeping instead if it weren't for me," Corrine said proudly, and was rewarded by Kratos reaching down and scratching him behind the ears.
"Yes, thank you…?"
"Corrine," Kratos repeated firmly.
"There you are!" Sheena burst into the room, followed by the rest of the gang. Kratos hastily dispelled his wings. "Sorry we're late; we got held up by some other business."
Colette and Genis peeked out behind Raine. "We saved all the prisoners!" the Chosen announced. "They're all waiting outside. We have to go soon since Professor Sage pressed the self-destruct button." She smiled as if pressing such a button was equivalent to serving everyone lemonade on a hot day.
Kratos stood up with his son still in his arms, and Corrine watched as his face rearranged itself into a far colder, flatter expression. "We'd best be off, then." He walked past the rest of the assembled group without any sort of greeting and waved off Raine as she attempted to approach him.
Corrine pawed at Sheena's boot until the ninja looked down. "He was laughing earlier," the fox whispered before disappearing in a puff of smoke.
Sheena looked back at the retreating figure. "You're kidding."
When Lloyd came to, he noticed two things immediately. One was that he wasn't inside the ranch anymore; this was made obvious by the lack of metal, Kvar, and white in general. He couldn't be in Luin, though; the whole place had been almost completely burned to the ground – a fact which still caused him a twinge of guilt. Sure, the town had already been alight by the time he'd gotten there, but – as with all hero types – he couldn't help but believe that if he had been stronger, things might have been different.
The second thing he noticed was his father sitting nearby with his long legs stretched out in front of him and his feet resting on a table that had been pulled closer. Kratos's chin was touching his chest; it looked like he was asleep. Lloyd knew better, though. Yes, sometimes his father needed rest, but he was never actually sleeping. Angels did not sleep.
But there was always the slim chance…just to test, Lloyd cleared his throat softly. Kratos's eyes flew open.
"You're awake." He didn't sound startled at all, as if he was just confirming something he'd already known.
"Yeah." Lloyd coughed and tried to clear his throat more thoroughly; his voice was all scratchy and gross.
Lloyd did not miss the way his father's eyes glanced down at his chest. He knew it was there. The Exsphere seemed to open a whole new chasm between them. Either there would be too many words as he tried to explain why he'd gone alone into a Desian-filled, burning village, or there would be too few as Kratos tried to downplay the whole event and postpone what Lloyd knew would be another one of his episodes of crippling depression.
"What do you think?" Lloyd smiled in an attempt to alleviate the tension. "I got a rock sitting on me."
His father made a vague noise of acknowledgement. "That you are your usual animated self sounds promising."
"Oh come on." Lloyd couldn't resist. "What, did you think the instant I got one of these things I'd turn into you?"
Bad move. Kratos visibly flinched.
"O-okay, um, well, what I meant was…er…you know what? To hell with this." Lloyd straightened up. "Dad, I'm sorry. I mean, you had to come after me and now the Chosen's probably off schedule and Yggdrasil is gonna murder me and…why are you looking at me like that?"
Kratos shook his head, trying to dismiss the small smile that had crept to his face. Oh, there was so much that Lloyd had yet to learn – mainly that the Chosen would likely be departing his company very soon. "I'm proud of you for not blaming this whole thing on Yuan."
"Yuan!" Lloyd jumped. "Oh, wow, I totally forgot about him!" He slapped a hand to his forehead. "I just…" He looked back at Kratos. "Don't kill him, okay? It was totally my fault."
Kratos only stared at his son for a moment before patting him gently on the shoulder and saying, "I'm glad you're alright." Then he stood up and left.
Lloyd watched him go. "Glad to see you too," he whispered.
Back in his base in the middle of a frozen wasteland, Yuan sneezed violently and then let out a string of curses as the movement aggravated his still-healing injuries. Leaning heavily against the nearest wall, the Renegade leader pressed a hand to his chest, willing the pain to pass. These cursed bruised ribs…damn Yggdrasil. It was a good thing no one else happened to be passing down the hall at this moment; Yuan knew that some of them – Botta especially – would be moved to assist him in some horrifyingly pitying manner that he hated.
Exhaling slowly, Yuan straightened up and made his way into the communications room. There was an urgent message awaiting him.
"Well?" he snapped as soon as he entered, fixing the room with an irate glare. "Where is he?"
"Line ten, sir!" someone shouted, and Yuan muttered a brief thank you before sitting down in a padded chair in the center of the room and pressing a button on the panel next to him.
"Well, Wilder, what are they up to now?" he sat back and adopted a devil-may-care posture that didn't agree with his ribs. But this appearance was needed.
"Nothin' much," said Zelos.
Yuan stifled a groan. Even though having the Chosen of Tethe'alla as an informant was certainly a windfall, sometimes the boy could be aggravating, especially when it was obvious that he was waiting for some kind of reward. "Then why bother to check in?" he asked testily.
"Just to, uh…let you know what's going on – er, what's not going on." Zelos had a strand of his red hair wrapped tightly around his finger.
"You're playing with your hair," Yuan said flatly, pointing a finger at the minute movement. "And you seem a lot tenser than usual." He straightened up and leaned toward the projection on the wall. "Tell me what's really going on."
"I am?" Zelos laughed. "Hey, man, I'm just sitting here with nothing else to do other than stare at your ugly mug for the next, what, ten minutes? 'Course I'm gonna do some fidgeting."
Yuan rolled his eyes. "If you're going to be that way, Wilder, I'll end our little deal here and now. You can stay the Chosen for the rest of your life; it makes no difference to me."
"Yeah? I'll just take my stuff to Cruxis then. Bet they'd give me this deal and more if I told them all the shit I knew about you and your little Renegade act—"
Yuan shot up angrily and ignored his protesting side. "Like hell you will, Wilder. You don't have the guts to tell them you originally double-crossed Cruxis," he hissed.
"Watch me," Zelos dared.
Yuan's eyes narrowed. "I'll kill you myself, you—"
"A-hem…" Botta stepped in way of the conversation. "I must apologize, Master Zelos. You've just…" He looked back at Yuan and gave him a stern look that said, 'you-twit-we'll-talk-later'. "…caught Lord Yuan at a bad time. Are you sure there is nothing of particular value that you wish to tell us?"
The half-elf watched as Zelos relaxed. Unlike Yuan, who had never exactly developed the ability to treat idiots as if they were actually geniuses, Botta knew how treat their information source. Zelos Wilder did not like feeling threatened; one had to make him comfortable and necessary before he would start revealing things.
"Well…I mean, if we're talking about Cruxis…"
"Of course we are, you absolute—mmpgh!" Botta's large hand slapped itself over Yuan's mouth before the other could ruin the fragile balance.
"Continue," he said calmly.
"…well, they contacted me recently," Zelos said lamely.
Yuan grabbed Botta's hand by the wrist and forced it away from his mouth. "What did they want?" he demanded. Already his head was spinning. Why would Yggdrasil possibly contact Zelos? The Chosen, by most appearances, was largely unaware of world affairs – let alone Cruxis' affairs. Unless…unless Yggdrasil already suspected Zelos of knowing more than he let on. Unless Yggdrasil had figured out to whom Zelos currently owed his tentative allegiances…
"They asked me if I knew anything about you, about the Renegades," Zelos said in one breath. "I didn't tell 'em anything, though – said I was the Chosen, not some crazy rebel." He laughed.
"Huh…" Yuan's brow creased. In a way, this was good: Zelos had gotten Cruxis off of his tail and alerted him to their greater plans: a search for him. Well, he'd been expecting that for sure, ever since he'd warped Lloyd and himself out of there. It was about time.
"Thank you for letting me know this," he said, finally looking back up at the screen. "You're dismissed."
"Aw, no apology?" Zelos smirked. "I did give you something, didn't I?"
Yuan scowled, but relented. "Sorry," he said shortly. "Now get out of my face."
"Just say the word." The screen faded to black as the Chosen cut the connection.
A/N: Well, I didn't kill Lloyd...couldn't bring myself to, haha.
Anyway, can you believe it's been nearly two years since I've updated this thing? You probably all thought I had forgotten about it. (To be honest, I was going to give it up, but then I reread some of the old chapters and realized how bloody brilliant this all was, and how I needed to finish it Or Else.) I wrote out this chapter ages ago, actually, but somehow forgot to upload it until now.
Um. I also have no idea when the next chapter is coming, but I can promise you that it will be coming. Some day.