Actions

Work Header

Syncopation

Chapter Text

“...”

Who was there?

“...!”

What was this voice? Where had he heard it before? For that matter, when was the last time he heard anything? Where was he? It was all so dark, he couldn’t see.

“Sync.”

His name, but who was that? He tried to move his body, and could feel his limbs waking up from a slumber, pins prickling his skin as blood pumped through his arms and legs. It hurt, but it was bearable, and he could soon begin to see again, stars and glitter the only thing he could see. That is, until the figure emerged from the shadows, a faint light illuminating their features.

It was that replica, except, he was so different. Long hair, long white cloak, and a sad gaze that seemed lifeless in nature.

“Who… What?” Sync’s voice faltered in his own throat, like he hadn’t spoke in forever.

“You’re actually awake… I’m so glad…” The man’s voice was like something of a combination of Luke and Asch. He wasn’t one or the other it seemed… though it seemed like there was more to it then just that. Sync could hardly even process what he was seeing, or rather hearing. It seemed like a strange dream rather than reality, but the more he spoke the less of a dream it seemed to be.

“Where… am I?” This attempt at a sentence was a little bit better. More cognizant.

“Your eyes don’t seem to be working yet, but we’re in Tataroo Valley, it’s currently night time.” Luke’s voice comes through more openly, and Sync picks up on it. “It’s been a long time since you’ve been awake, last. In fact, it’s been several years.”

Several years?

“I don’t… remember when I was last awake. Wait…” The memories were starting to come back once his eyes seemed to be working better. Seeing this man’s face up close, seeing how the flowers bloomed, seeing his own body covered in blood. Everything was starting to make sense.

“I… I died, didn’t I?”

The thought hurts him. And it hurts him even more to know that this was the third time being given a life he never wanted, never asked to be burdened with. It hurt so much.

“...Yes.”

Nothing made sense. Even as he looked upon this person for answers, all he could see was sadness mirroring right back at him. Clearly, there was no answer to be given, and yet he couldn’t stop from asking. There had to be more to this than surface value. There had to be a reason. There had to be!

“But… I’m alive again. How am I alive? Was I brought back to life?”

“Yes. I took your body from the planet storm and was able to piece it back together. It took a long time but you seemed the most receptive to the process.” Sync could barely understand what he was hearing. How had he even done that? Who was this man? What did any of this mean? It didn’t make sense.

All he knew was that he was alive again, through the meddling of this person , and he was furious.

“Why was I brought back? Why only me?!” Dread poured into Sync’s gut, his heart dropping and his eyes wide in bewilderment. To think, another chance at a life he never wanted, when there were so many of his comrades who would have given anything for a second chance. “This isn’t fair .” He could only scream in frustration, agony wailing into the night sky. It echoed into the valley.

“You were the only one I could save! The rest perished too long ago or were simply too exhausted to be saved. I’m sorry.” He can hear Asch’s angry growl mixed with Luke’s desperate plea. It’s horrifying to listen to and he can only look on, enraged and horrified. To think, this thing, this creature, would be the thing to revive him - disgusting.

“That doesn’t make it better! ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t cut it !” Sync is now sitting up fully, hands grasping at the man’s collar of his shirt. He pleads, angry, sobbing, upset. “I don’t deserve to live, and yet you couldn’t save Arietta…? Legretta …? Van ?!” He’s red hot by the end, knuckles white around the man’s collar. He’s so infuriated, yet so very empty. It hurts.

Even with the wind howling through the valley, Sync can still hear his own teeth chattering in rage, his heart pulsing in his ears.

“...It’s… I’m sorry, Sync.”

“...What a fucking joke.” Sync laughs to himself, a broken chuckle escaping his lips. “This is all too funny and yet I can’t even laugh… Pathetic.” He hangs his head low, eyes shut tight, fists tighter.

“...At least you can return.” The man offers, as if it’s some kind of consolation prize.

“Return to what? A world I was never invited into? A society that undoubtedly hates my very existence? Is that my reward for being brought back? Am I supposed to be happy ?” Sync can feel himself starting to lose his breath from yelling, voice choking from holding back tears. He can’t stand it. This is such an absolute joke, and yet there’s no punch line. Nothing truly funny. Except here he is, forced to live the same misery again and again because the gift of life is something the Gods want to keep regifting him.

“It’s… a world of your own making.” Is all the man says before standing up, a look of scorn on his face, or possibly jealousy. “A world without a true Score, a world with no set destiny. If that was your true goal, then… yes. I would say you should be happy.”

The thought made Sync’s mind go blank. His entire life’s mission… it had succeeded, regardless of his own failure.

“A world without a Score…? We won? Van was victorious?”

“...He perished, as well as your comrades. But just by us existing, the Score has been undone.” His head turns towards the sky and Sync can no longer see his face. “2 years ago, I emerged from the planet’s core. I was no longer just myself, or rather, I was all of myself. I am both Luke and Asch, combined into one using the power of Lorelei.” He spoke quietly. “I am Lusch, a product of all three entities.”

“Lusch…?” It barely made sense, and even speaking the word made Sync’s head spin.

It was absolutely ridiculous, and yet none of it contradicted itself yet.

“I was in the planet storm…? I died…? And yet somehow after all this time you’ve revived me?” Speaking slowly, if only to try and piece everything together in a way that made sense. “I died again , and yet somehow I’m still a living, walking corpse. Again . How fucking fitting.” He laughed lazily into his own hand, finally starting to find the morbid humor in the situation. Lusch couldn’t share his sentiment but said nothing to dissuade his thoughts.

“I don’t know what I can do for you, but I know that your brethren are waiting for you to return home in Daath.” Sync looks up only to see a sympathetic smile on Lusch’s sad-eyed face. “Anise and Florian are both waiting for you to come home. I can feel it, in their thoughts, in their hopes. I can tell, they want to see you again.”

The thought alone makes Sync’s stomach churn. Seeing either of them after everything he had done? A terrible idea.

“Is this a game you want me to play? Is that it?” Green eyes pierce Lusch’s soul, fire burning bright beneath them. “You want me to play this game of life and try to make something of myself, only for you to take it away again, is that it? You want to play God this badly? Well then, fine. I’ll go along. Except next time I die I better stay dead.”

“I-I accept. I won’t use my powers to interfere with you anymore.” His reply is sheepish, as if he wasn’t expecting this sort of response. Typical.

“...Good. I don’t need your help and I don’t want it.”

“At the very least, let me get you going in the right direction.” He hands Sync a small satchel full of what sounds like Gald. Sync looks at him with distaste but take it regardless.

“Tch.”

Despite the pain in his gut, Sync stands. Lusch extends a hand to help him to his feet but Sync refuses it, pushing him to the side as he gets up. It hurts, it hurts so damn much, but he pushes through it like some kind of masochistic idiot.

Lusch only stands to the side as he walks away, thinking aloud to himself, to the planet. He makes no effort to give chase, which Sync can only give the smallest of gratitude for.

“So here I am again, Auldrant. Unwanted, unneeded, and alive against my own will. What a joke.” He would have laughed at his own misery if not for the pain in his gut. “Do to me what you will.”

Truly, this was a cruel prank.

Chapter Text

Arriving in Daath had been only a small ordeal. Boat fair, new clothes, lots of staring at himself in the mirror to try and figure out if this was real or not. He decided to eventually slap himself to see if it hurt -it did- and left it at that.

The cathedral looked as it always did, if not a bit more weather-worn since he had last laid eyes on it. Outside, the town was as busy as ever, if not even more so. He slipped through the crowds with minimal effort, finding his small size and lanky new height to be an advantage in getting through the bustle of merchants and soldiers going to and fro. Truly it had been several years since he had been back, he barely got by without people giving him an alarmed second glance. It was like they had seen a ghost. He laughed internally at his own bad, morbid joke.

Inside, there was an air of familiarity that made him almost repulsed. Things had barely changed, except for some minor architectural upgrades they had done - likely in an effort to distance themselves from the old Order that Sync had helped create. Wonderful.

Walking into the primary worship hall of the cathedral, he found the sixth replica of Ion; Florian.

This was going to be fun.

“Ion.” He started, still uncertain of his voice, how it had aged without him realizing.

The boy seemed incredibly startled, interrupted from a prayer it would seem. Turning around, he too had the same shocked expression of every passerby that happened to recognize him.

“S-Sync?!” Was all he could say, hands going between trying to reach out with uncertainty and staying strict to his tuning fork emblem. “It’s been… It’s been so long. So many years. You’re not an apparition are you?” Sync offered his arm, to which Florian touched to denounce his superstitions. “You’re really alive. Just… How?”

“By the powers that be.” He scoffed, clearly not taking himself seriously. It wasn’t a lie though.

“I… I don’t know what to say. You’re alive, after all this time. Have you come to… see me?” It’s clear Florian is uncomfortable at the notion, but still tries to smile through it. He has nothing but bitter memories of Sync, so it’s not a surprise to either of them.

Sync walks past him, eyes fixed on the stained glass window, angry, fists balled.

“I didn’t ask for this life. Ever. I never once asked for this. Yet… Lorelei wants me to continue to stay alive. Through the medium of Van, through Lu-” He cuts himself off. “Through… that damned replica.” It feels better on the tongue than trying to address him by name.

“You know… The Order may be different, but it’s still your home if you’ve got nowhere else to go.” Florian offers, voice low, kind.

Sync feels himself swallow hard, trying to keep his rage contained.

“I don’t need your pity.” He finally turns to look at Florian and notices the stern look on his face. Good. He wasn’t going to let him just meekly offer anything out of the ‘kindness of his heart’ or whatever it was the Order did these days.

“It’s not pity. It’s simply an offer of employment.”

“Employment?”

“I’m in need of strong officers who can handle their own. From what you’ve done for the old Commandant, I take it you can handle something like that?” His ploy his paper thin but Sync can’t find it in him to be angry about something like this. Yes, he can handle his own. In fact, he can handle himself better than any of the other God General’s could. He was far more objective, far stronger than any of them could have hoped to be.

To be praised by the runner up of his own demise, though, it felt insulting, but he would leave it be.

There was a time and place for this argument and he was far too exhausted to be having it now.

“Fine. But don’t expect me to be accepting any of your pity or handouts. I’m not here for your acceptance and frankly I don’t want it.” Sync spoke honestly and harshly. Florian could only stare back with a stern look and a small nod.

“I’m well aware of that. And trust me, I’m only offering this to you as someone who knows your capabilities.” Florian offers a small laugh, almost amused by this. “You’re a bitter person, rude, hardly stable enough for this kind of position. But I know you can handle yourself under stress, which is why I’m even offering. That, and I know Anise would be upset if I hadn’t at least offered.”

The jab to his state of being hurts more than he expects but all he retorts with is a nasty glare.

“You still hate me don’t you?” It’s not so much a question as it is an observation.

“I can’t say I’m fond of you, but hopefully now that your mission has been more or less completed, you can find some sense of peace for yourself.” Sync can barely hold back the bitter laugh at his comment and earns himself an eye roll in response.

“I doubt it. There’s no peace on this planet for trash like myself.”

“...Regardless. You’re free to stay here as long as you need. I’ve left your room and the other God General’s rooms unaltered. It should be just like how you left it.” Florian comments, and Sync can feel himself getting more and more annoyed. “Maybe a bit more dust then before, but… you understand.”

“The key?”

“You can get it from the head of housing, he should be in his office, I assume you know how to get there?” Before Florian is done speaking, Sync is already walking off.

“I’ll find it on my own.”

“Alright. Good to have you back, Sync.” Florian stops him, trying to give the most honest, earnest compliment he can. It’s transparent at best and the discomfort on his face is as easy to read as the light of day. Clearly, this was nothing but bad news for the poor, defenseless Fon Master, but Sync couldn’t care less.

If anything, if his existence made those around him more miserable, the better.

“Don’t get into the habit of telling lies; you’re really bad at it.” He could only laugh, walking away with confidence that he hadn’t hardly known before. This kind of power, to just show up and take command of a situation, demand whatever he wanted on account of being dead again , it was rather refreshing if he had to be honest.

To think, all he had to die and suddenly people would bend to his every will. At least, the first time it didn’t seem to work too well, but this was different.

No Score, no meddlesome Replicas to hide his identity under, nothing telling him what to do or where to go. That horrible replica Lusch was right, this was a whole new world. And he was going to take every little thing he could. Not because he deserved it, but because everyone else on the miserable planet deserved even less.

Chapter Text

The beginning of his occupation and employment for the Order is awkward in all tenses of the word. New recruits don’t listen to his commands due to his young age with ‘where did this kid come from and who is he to tell us what to do?’ and old recruits scorn him for merely existing. To say the least, he’s had a long couple of weeks of wiping them all into shape and scraping some jaws under his heels.

Of course, Florian had given him more than an earful for being too harsh on the recruits, but Sync could only roll his eyes.

“If they can’t even handle my training, then what’s to say they’ll even survive a single battle.”

Florian silences after that and allows him to continue his training, and within another week they’ve already shaped up faster than he thought. It’s pleasant, to finally get the semblance of a fair fight.

It’s been a long day in the training grounds, but he’s finally decided to call it a day, heading back out of the cathedral. The day still has some light to it, not much though, and he decides that maybe he can get away with going to the market for something to eat. That is - until he sees them .

Smiles and grins and familiarity that he detests.

Anise Tatlin, wonderchild brat, and that pitiful servant who he had placed under a curse slot. Guy Cecil, was his name? It escapes him for the most part, but he’s pretty sure that was it.

For a split second, he considers running and going the long way around, just to avoid having to speak to them. He knows how annoying they are, and knows that it absolutely won’t end well for any of them.

“Sync?!” And then Anise spots him. It’s too late to run. Even if he tried, she would just spring after him and then he would have to listen to her for even longer.

If he just puts up with them, and gives cold, uncaring responses, maybe, just maybe , they’ll leave quickly.

Anise rushes up to him, eyes wide and mouth somewhat ajar.

“I heard rumors, but here you are! In the flesh!” She sounds somewhere between amazed and horrified and Sync can’t really blame her. “I would ask ‘how’ but honestly, some part of me knew I would end up seeing you again. You’re pretty tenacious, yknow.”

“I would say ‘nice to see you, too’ like any normal person, but frankly I don’t really care to see you.” He smirks into it and she puffs up her cheeks. Still a kid, it would seem.

“Boo! You’re just being mean!” It’s now that Guy finally catches up to her - having not ran up the stairs of the cathedral. “Tell him he’s being mean, Guy!”

“Hey, now. I don’t know anything about anything. How about we start over on a better foot, hmm?” The blonde is all smiles and sunshine, just like how he always was. Well, when he wasn’t writhing in pain from the curse slot or attempting to slaughter his friends in a rage-blinded frenzy. But, whatever. What did Sync know? “Sync, it’s a surprise to see you again, to say the least.”

“What can I say? The Powers That Be apparently want me to walk the earth in eternal misery as my punishment for being a Big Bad Man so many years ago. It’s a fair punishment, honest.” There’s a bit of tasteless sarcasm in there, and Guy and Anise only look at each other uncomfortably in response, trying their hardest to find humor in it. It’s funny, though.

“Yknow Sync, I had heard rumors that you had come back and all, but I didn’t actually believe it until now.” Anise states, arms behind her back, inspecting Sync with a keen eye. “I would say you’re much more handsome now. Wouldn’t you say so?”

“Much more mature, that’s for sure.” Guy offers, that sunshine smile still stuck on his face.

“I’m not here for your friendship, I’ll have you know. Just because my mission isn’t to murder you and your dumb friends doesn’t mean I have any intention of being buddy buddy with you.” This gets him a salty huff from Anise, not that he really cares. Fine, let her be angry. It was of very little consequence to him, unless of course it made her want to talk to him more. That could prove to be a headache.

“I know, I know. It’s not like you’re much fun to be around anyway. You’re so mean.” Anise puffs up her cheeks at him like she’s some prepubescent teenybopper. “Whatever, I’m only here to talk to Florian, anyway.”

“I’ll see you around!” Is all she says before bouncing off, a hop in her step.

“I suppose that’s my cue to follow her. Uh,” In some attempt at a conversation, Guy lingers behind. “I know you’re not exactly best friends with Anise, clearly, but try to go easy on her.”

“That was going easy.”

“Oh.” Guy stutters a bit. “Regardless, she’s been through a lot, you could do to be… I don’t know, a bit nicer?” The smile that was once sunshine on his face is now an exasperated, tired expression. Clearly, this isn’t a conversation he was looking forward to, or even planning on at all.

“If I act nicer will that get you to leave me alone?” Sync has just about had it with all of these goodie-two-shoe idiots trying to weasel their way into his business. Only been around for mere weeks and he can’t even get some damn peace or quiet.

“Sure.”

“Then yes. I’ll be nothing but rainbows and sunshine.”

“Ha… You’re impossible. Anyway, be seeing you around.” He gives a smirk, wink, and salute, and is jogging off towards where Anise disappeared to.

Sync can only kick himself in hindsight for agreeing to ‘be nicer’ to Anise, as if the girl wasn’t nothing but a walking migraine-giving-machine. Honestly, so noisy and obnoxious. But at the very least her older age seemed to mellow out her voice a bit, and she didn’t have nearly as much of a ‘cutesy’ attitude to her. Though that was the least of his worries.

Now that the two of them knew he was back, it was only a matter of time before the rest of that band of miscreants knew of his return.

To be fair, it wasn’t like he had anything better to do but to bicker with them, but that seemed like a whole lot of wasted air for no good reason. Though, did his existence even have a good reason? No. Not really.

He was still trash that had no right to exist.

...That didn’t make him any less hungry though.

He needed to get some food in him.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t long before Sync saw Guy once more. It was just outside of Daath, the forest that stood between the main city and the pier. Most people avoided cutting through it, knowing there were monsters inside, but for those who could handle their own in a fight it was a quick cut through. At least, it must have been considering that the two of them had chose the same day same path to cut through, effectively -but not literally- bumping into each other.

It didn’t help that Sync was already in a pissy mood.

“You again.” Sync scowled.

“Oh, Sync. Wasn’t expecting you here, but I guess you can handle yourself against monsters, huh? It would make sense that you would use  the same shortcut as me, haha.” On the opposite side of the small clearing, Guy isn’t smiles and sunshine like he was the last time.they spoke, but there’s a look of calm to him that pisses Sync off to no end.

It’s clear he doesn’t see him as a threat. That’s a mistake he won’t make twice.

“How about it, you want to go a round?” Sync taunts, eyes narrowing with a toothy smirk. He wasn’t sure what had gotten into him. Maybe it was just the lack of any real challenge since he had been resurrected. Maybe it was that he wanted to show Guy his place. Maybe it was just sheer boredom.

“What, like a fight? I haven’t had a good sparring match in awhile, I suppose it could be fun.”  It’s clear that Guy is perplexed, but isn’t opposed. He pulls taught on his gloves, tightening his grip on them and his sword.

Sync lowers his stance, fists tight, ready to pounce.

“Don’t think I’m going to go easy on you.” There’s a bit of humor to his voice, but in no way is Sync joking. This is going to be a real, honest fight. No two ways about it.

“Good. I wouldn’t expect you to.” He draws his sword.

In a flash, Sync strikes, fists bright with fonic artes pounding hard into Guy as he attempts to defend against the sudden barrage. Eventually he pushes hard enough to get Sync back a few feet and landed an arte of his own.

The slash stings, but Sync doesn’t hardly wince. He doesn’t have time if he’s going to get the upper hand.

“That all you got?” Another intense arte shoots out of Sync, and his extended boot barely misses the connection of Guy’s jaw. He curses to himself under his breath, scrambling against the bramble of the woods to find footing.

It wasn’t long before Sync was wailing another round of punches on Guy, and what he noticed as a result was nothing if not infuriating. The bastard wasn’t even fighting back. He was just rolling with the punches - literally- and only doing his best to feign off the attacks. Oh no, no, no, that was absolutely not how this fight was going to go. No way, no how. Sync was going to get a fair fight even if it killed him.

“Is that the best you’ve got?” He yells, another strong arte connecting to Guy, but the triumph doesn’t last for long.

His arm gets locked under Guy’s grasp, the blunt handle of his sword ramming straight into Sync’s gut.

It hurts.

He howls from the pain, feeling as if something had ruptured inside of him, his lungs and heart failing him.

For a second he pulls back, cradling his stomach in his hands before building up for another attack. A strong hit like that wasn’t nearly enough to get him to back down and the two of them both knew it. It would take a whole entire world of hurt to keep him down.

“Don’t think you’ve won just yet.” Sync can feel the fonons rushing through him as he lets out an arcane arte, a gust of power ramming into Guy and he can barely stabilize himself in time for it.

Just as he’s about to try and recover from the shock of his arte, Guy is already there, sword drawn ready to strike. He’s clearly haggard from the fight, but doesn’t give any indication of backing down. Good. Sync hadn’t expected him to just give up without a challenge.

That is, until he’s plagued by a flashback, a memory; one that he had repressed since he’d awoken.

A vision. Their last duel. Guy’s blade covered in his blood.

The scar on his face… it was his doing.

His eyes start to swim with rage, his vision blinded by blood and agony. The memory feels like it’s alive again, the bridge of his nose scalding under touch.

“What in the-” Guy stops his oncoming attack, caught off guard by the sudden, wild actions of the replica. If anything, he looks afraid. Not that Sync can exactly see, but if he had to describe him that would be his choice of word.

“You…” Sync starts, voice low, hands pulled up over his face clutching to the scar. “This scar… it was you that did this to me, right?”

“I-I think so.” The look of abject horror on Guy’s face is one that wouldn't be fast forgotten.

“You were the one that killed me. I should be thanking you, for ridding my existence from the planet. But no.” Sync channels an energy through him that he had not felt in so long. The power of the Fon Master, the thing that would theoretically rip his body into shreds if he tried to fully unleash it. “I’m stuck back here again. Alive. Miserable. Anticipating the moment I’ll die again, but this time I’m without a cause. I’m just a worthless existence of life, so come! End me!” The feeling of power is boiling over, his skin feels red hot, either from rage or an excess of energy he wasn’t sure anymore.

Without another word, he pounces, legs faster than Guy can even blink and he’s trying with all his might to block each kick as it comes. It doesn’t take long for Sync to exhaust his upper limit, and try as he might he can’t keep at the shrill speed he started at. He tries to keep up the pace, keep attacking, keep him busy, just long enough to get another arte ready.

And then, the ground falls up from under him.

Fighting in the cliffy hills of Daath’s continent was a dangerous game to play and this time Sync lost the bet.

He curses as he begins to fall, the impending sense of dread swallowing any other emotion whole. Fortunately, Guy is there to pick up the pieces. Sword struck firm into the ground, Guy grabs onto Sync by the waist, holding onto him as tight as he can.

“Y-you idiot! Now we’re both going to fall!” Sync screams, trying his best to not writhe out of Guy’s grasp.

“Not if you hold on tight!” Through clenched teeth, Guy manages to still sound confident. Though, by some miracle of strength, he succeeds.

Through sheer force of will alone he pulls Sync back up onto stable ground.

“You didn't have to help me.” Sync says after a long pause. This is so stupid. It shouldn't have worked out this way. To ask Guy for a fight, end up losing, and not only that but helped when he made a fatal error of his own undoing?

This was so… irritating .

He didn't need help. He didn't want it. If his lack of a plan lead to his own death then so fucking be it.

“Is that what you feel?” Guy asks, and Sync finally snaps back into reality.

He had been speaking his thoughts out loud the entire time. His face turns red with embarrassment and fury. What had gotten into him?

The swordsman seemed to have nothing but sheer concern in his eyes but Sync couldn't have cared less.

“Do you need help?” Guy extends a hand out to help him up, but Sync refuses. He pushes the hand away, gets up on his own, and continues to walk off in the initial direction he had been going before this embarrassment of an encounter. Guy gets up shortly after and begins to walk after him but stops short.

Soon, Sync can only hear his own footsteps. He had gotten far enough away to relax, if only just a moment.

Chapter Text

Weeks have passed since Sync last saw the living nuisance that was Guy Cecil. In fact, it had been weeks since he had seen any of his old nemeses. Ever so often he would see Anise in passing, but he didn’t dare speak to her of his own volition.

Talking to the brat was like an invitation for trouble, and he was most certainly trying to avoid that.

Holed up in his room, working on endless paperwork and the occasional report to read from his underlings, he hadn’t had much for company for a while. Good. That was exactly how he liked it. True solitude and peace, the one commodity he was always at a shortage of.

A knock resounded on his door.

“Sigh…” If he rolled his eyes any harder they may have popped out of his head.

Just as he was thinking how nice it was to be left alone for so long.

He gets up from his desk, opening the door only to find a helmeted soldier with a package in his hands, extended outwards toward Sync.

“A package for you, General Sync.” A man from the old Order, it would seem. Sync smiled grimly, taking the package from the terrified man’s hands. Upon inspection, it was a simple brown box with nothing more on it than a shipping address for Sync. Odd.

“Where was this delivered from? On top of that, is there no name for the sender?” He turned it over in his hands, and noticed there was a very distinct weight to it.

“I-I’m sorry, no.” Sync gave him a glance. “N-no, sir .” It was amusing seeing the underlings cower under his stare.

“Fine. Dismissed.” With a wave of his hand, the soldier immediately relaxed and attempted to retreat with as little attention to himself as possible. It was funny to watch, but there were more important things to worry about. This package… just what was it? He closed the door, setting the box carefully onto his desk. He uses a letter opener to remove the packaging, and inside finds something he hadn’t expected.

A small Fon machine.

It wasn’t extremely intricate, and had plenty of signs of wear. Who in the hell would even send something like this to him, though? Surely it wasn’t Anise or Florian, neither of them would have bothered with anything like this, and all of the officials that Sync had met with lately were far too hoity toity to send something as beat up as this.

And then the thought dawns on him; that idiot swordsman, Guy. Somewhere along the way Sync had learned of the man’s interest in Fon machinery, likely from Anise or that damn failed replica. Either way, to send something like this? What did it even do?

With a little bit of tinkering, Sync figured out the power mechanics for it - a small wind up function on the back of the machine.

It was a music box.

It was nothing if not a kind gesture, perhaps some form of apology for their previous tussle, and Sync couldn’t help the feeling of wanting to smash it into the floor. Of course, the music it produced was pleasant enough to listen to that he could withhold his own impulsiveness. If anything it was actually… kind of nice. It wasn’t often he got to hear music, let alone at his own convenience.

He tried his best to keep his face neutral, unimpressed, annoyed, but no matter what he did he couldn’t help the smile that crept onto it.

Resuming his paperwork, it was easy to slip into a pattern and before he knew it the stack was finished and the moon was already poking its head up.

“This late already?” He stretches out his stiff arms and legs.

The music box had long since gone silent, but he doesn’t wind it again. Instead, he leaves it be and reaches for his coat.

“I’ve been stuck in here all day… A walk should do me some good, right?” He bargains to himself. Realizing what he’s done, he can’t help but feel annoyed. Talking to himself like it’s some kind of way to have a conversation. Talk about pathetic. He really did need to go out, even if there wasn’t much of a night life to be seen around Daath.

This sort of thing wasn’t uncommon for him; a late night stroll to take his mind off of the bores and snores that was work. It was the closest thing to recreation he had besides beating the shit out of the new trainees.

Among the city is nothing out of the ordinary. An occasional drunk, the stationary soldiers keeping the peace, the merchants that kept going far past when was necessary. It was all so common place, but in a sense so was he. A figure that would blend into the nightlife like it was nothing. He liked the idea.

It wasn’t even too hot out yet, either, still a nice temperature from the winter months.

“Ha…” For once, he finds himself being able to relax.

And then he sees him , out of the corner of his eyes.

A high ponytail, wild brown hair, a posture that demands authority, and the emblem of an outfit he had not seen in years. In all intents and ideas, it was Van. In the blood? In the body? He couldn’t tell for certain.

All he knew is he had to follow, he had to make sure. Could he have also been revived by that abomination of a replica?

“Van?” He tries, but gets no response.

Rounding the corner as fast as he could, he sees the tail end of the man, walking from him faster than was humanly possible without running. Was he running? Sync couldn’t tell anymore. His pulse was racing in his head, his eyes tired. There’s nothing telling him if this is reality or just a dream, anymore, but he can’t help but to give chase.

Eventually, he starts running after the man, bumping into the occasional drunk, but he doesn’t care. He has to catch up.

He has to know .

“Van!” He calls out. Around him, the vendors and soldiers give him strange looks, but he doesn’t care, he keeps running after him.

The man doesn’t turn around, doesn’t even acknowledge he had spoke.

With another turn of another alley, he’s gone. No trace of his existence left, not a footprint or strand of hair, not even an eye witness considering the looks he got. Was he nothing more than a mirage?

Sync’s head hurts, and he clutches it.

This all had to just be an effect of that damn replica, toying with his perception and making him see apparitions. That had to be it. Either that or maybe it really was just his exhaustion from a long, boring day’s work catching up to him. It had to be something like that, there was no other way around it. He refused to believe anything else.

Even if there was a way for Van to have returned, for no one to have noticed? It was so unlikely. Impossible, even. There was no way he could have been back, it must have just been his eyes playing tricks on him.

That was it. It had to have been it. All he needed was to get some sleep and forget he saw anything. It would all fix itself by morning.

Chapter Text

Akzeriuth. The destroyed city that was once a prosperous miners town. Now, it was nothing but a relic of man's folly, an ode to arrogance.

For some reason unknown to Sync he had been instructed to investigate the town. Search for any inkling of life, any shred of hope. It was unlikely at best.

Sync walked through the town, soldiers in tow, his face covered in a mask to try and avoid as much miasma poisoning as he could. Of course, if they went deep into the mines it was unlikely the thin face mask would be of much help but Florian had insisted.

The town was quiet, eerily so, and even the briefest of scuffs and lightest of breezes could be heard clear as day. If it wasn't for the everpresent scent of death and miasma, Sync may have enjoyed to stay for longer.

“Sync.” He hears one of his subordinates call to him, but looking back neither of them are even close. In fact, neither of them seemed to even be paying attention to him.

It must have been his imagination, or maybe they were playing pranks. If that were the case they wouldn't be at it for long.

“Which one of you called for me?” Sync demands, and the two soldiers look at each other bewildered.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Neither did I.”

They seem to be telling the truth but Sync can't help but glower. Jokes like these weren't tolerated on or off the field, as far as Sync was concerned.

“Whoever it was, you better own up or-” he feels something brush past him, like the gust of someone rushing past him. But that wasn’t all - a feeling of something passing through him, straight into his soul. It filled him with dread, the same feeling as when he had seen him . No. That couldn’t be it. Here, of all places? There was no way.

He turns back around, ignoring the strange looks from his subordinates.

With little regard for his own safety, he rushes into the mines, ignoring the cries of his subordinates to not go. He doesn’t care. All he’s thinking about is confirming his suspicions of what that feeling meant. Sure enough, at the end of a long stretch of the mine is the dimly lit figure of the man he had hoped and dreaded to see.

Van.

Without a second thought he chased after him at full force. Behind him he can still hear the echoing pleas of his subordinates to come to his senses and come back out of the mine but he ignores it wholeheartedly. This is more important than anything else. To see his old Commandant again, to learn anything about the meaning of his existence, no matter how small and inconsequential, he had to do this.

He had to follow Van, even if it meant his own demise.

All he sees is the back of his head, the trail of his cape, never his face. The further in they go the harder.and harder it is for Sync to breathe. The miasma has gotten thicker than anticipated and far faster too. He can hardly function, but he continues to chase after the Commandant.

Eventually he realizes that he's being lead to the remains of the Sephiroth, but he can't find it in himself to continue on.

This is it.

“Van… what did you bring me here for?” Is all he can manage.

The Commandant finally turns around, and Sync feels his stomach drop at the sight of the hollow eyed man. He can't run anymore. He can't get away.

He's going to be eaten alive by this specter masquerading as his leader.

He braces for the impact.

It never comes. When he finally dares to open his eyes, he's no longer in the mines.

It's dark, and he can barely tell his surroundings. For a moment, he tries to move his body, but he’s too weak to really lift himself up, and there are too many needles and tubes stuck into his arms to really get very far. Looking around, he notices machines attached to the needles in his arms - now revealed to him to be IVs - and it’s upon this observation that he realizes he’s landed himself in a hospital.

Great.

Judging by the insignia and military influence on the hospital, he would guess he'd been taken to Kaitzur. Not exactly a faulty decision on his soldiers parts, but he curses at himself for his own incompetence.

“Letting myself get so worked up like that… talk about embarrassing.” He whispers to himself, ashamed at his own behavior.

It had been weeks since he had last seen this visage of Van, or what he thought could be him, but now he wasn't so sure. A specter that shows up only in the darkest of nights or the imagination of an overworked General. Either way was by no means good, but to think he would let it get to him like this. It was just… Embarrassing.

He can't help but bury his face in his hands.

From the other side of the room he can hear the door open, a figure stepping inside.

Looking up, he freezes.

“Lusch.”

Was this the reason for the visions? Was it a failed revival by means of this abomination? It had to be. What other reason could there possibly be?

“Are you the reason I'm here? Did you revive your old Master? Trying to lap up his attention like the dirty dog you are?” Hot venom spits from Sync’s mouth in the form of nasty, vile words. Lusch however seems more or less unaffected by the words. Either used to this treatment or admitting his guilt through action -or rather lack thereof.

“I… I didn’t do anything to or for Van.” Is all he says, voice sad but honest. It just pisses Sync off even more.

“I just wanted to come see if you were okay.” Lusch finally says, a faint smile on his lips, barely visible in the dim lighting.

“And who told you where to find me, hmm? Or for that matter how did you get in here?” They’re all completely valid questions, but Lusch only looks away in response. “I thought you said you weren’t going to interfere with my life anymore.”

“...” He looks away, as if ashamed of himself.

Sync just gets more annoyed at the lack of a response, but decides it’s not worth his time or effort to get angry. He should just sleep it off and pretend the bastard never came. That would be easier for everyone, after all.

A long silence draws on.

“I’m sorry.” Is all Lusch can manage to say.

Sync lets out a deep cough, his lungs rattling in his chest. It hurts, but Lusch doesn’t dare say anything out of concern. It’s not his place and he knows it.

“Are you even real? Is he even real? Is any of this…?” Sync doesn’t want to hear it, though, and clenches his eyes shut. Knuckles turn white as he grips into the cheap hospital bedding. The tension makes his veins pulse around the IVs, but he doesn’t care. The hurting helps to keep him grounded. If nothing else, the pain is real.

Lusch doesn’t answer, only gives him a forlorn look before leaving the way he came.

In the darkness, he’s left to his own thoughts, and he longs to hear the song of his music box once more.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t long before Sync had been transferred back to Daath. The hospitalization was to last at least another week, until they could be certain that he wasn’t a threat to his subordinates and also to himself. Most importantly, though, they had to make sure the miasma hadn’t worn on his health too much.

The doctors knew he wasn’t built to last, but he couldn’t care less. Go on, let him meet his maker again, it’ll be like greeting an old friend.

Anise had other sentiments, though. She couldn’t believe he had gone and been so reckless, especially with a small battalion under his command.

“You need to be more careful!” She whined.

“It’s not like you can go marching off to your own death without any concern in the world, you have a job to do!” She went on and on.

“What were you even doing down there?” She was beginning to get on his last nerves.

“It’s none of your business.” He spat back.

“Grah! Whatever! Do whatever you want! Don’t come crying to me when you get hurt, though!” She huffs and puffs her cheeks up like she used to do when she was younger and suddenly she looks like the same scared little kid Sync was so used to seeing. He remembers how he used to torment her and thinks briefly of doing the same thing, but he doesn’t even get the chance to before she’s storming out. Typical brat.

It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t matter.

The week passes in a slow, uneventful blur, days blending into other days blending into sleepless nights. It’s all so routine and he’s bored out of his mind by the end of it. When he’s finally sent home, fully discharged, he takes his time returning.

Twilight touches the town, giving it a beautiful orange glow. The wind isn’t too strong, in fact, it’s a beautiful day out. Regardless of how miserable and sickly Sync is, he can still appreciate the calm, gentle weather when it arrives. It’s nice. If anything, it’s one of the few things he takes joy in.

That is, until his time out is interrupted by nuisances.

Specifically the kind with blonde hair and sunshine smiles.

“Sync, long time no see.” Talking as if they’re acquaintances, Guy is nothing but excited to see the General. Sync simply does not understand.

“Yeah. I’d like to keep it that way.” It’s dry, but Guy still chuckles at it.

They both know he means it literally, but clearly Guy wants to imagine it’s more of a joke than it is. Whatever. It really was of no consequence as long as he fucked off and quick.

Fortunately, they had bumped into each other along an empty side road, no peering eyes to judge their interaction. Of course, Sync couldn't care less what people had to say about him, but it was nice not having to think about any of those polite pleasantries he was always scolded about for not having.

“Hey, I heard from Anise that you were in the hospital. Good to see you're doing better.” Sync can feel his gaze turn into a glare.

“She told you?” Is all he can manage, annoyed and exasperated.

“Yeah, said you went into Akz- that you got bad miasma poisoning.” Sync can hear the slip up plan as day, and the fact that it was a slip up and not just a simple fact of the matter annoys him even more. Yes he went into Akzeriuth. Yes he was a dumbass. Yes he paid the price for it.

Not exactly novel concept: that your actions have consequences. Though, that was something a certain replica didn't seem to understand.

“I did.”

Guy fiddles every so slightly with the hem of his shirt, clearly caught off guard by his forwardness. It wasn't exactly like the ordeal was a secret. Anise made sure of that.

“Ah. So, you're doing better now, I take it?” Guys starts, before getting distracted by his own thoughts. “Oh yeah, how did you like that music box I sent you? I found an old one in some scrap and fixed it up. I thought you might like-”

Sync interrupts him.

“Yes. I'm just fine and dandy. Yes. The music box is pleasant to listen to. No, I do not want to be friends. In fact, I would really prefer it if you fucked off with your intrusive questions and left me alone forever.” Sync is blunt and he can see the hurt on Guy’s face from his words.

“I'm just trying to-”

“I don't care.”

“Hey, there's no reason to be a dick.”

“Maybe not, but you know what? That's not going to stop me. Because let's face it, there's not much I'm good for, so I might as well make myself as mean and nasty as I can be.” Sync can see the look of distrust on Guy’s face, the same look Anise gave him when he had mocked the deceased For Master. He hadn't cared much then and now? Maybe slightly more. Maybe just an ounce more of care.

Not much though.

“I know you're saying that to put up a tough act, and I don't know if I’m really falling for it.” Guy says, acting as though he's certain.

“Yeah? Well guess what; you don't fucking know me.” He practically spits venom at the man, and his only response is a sad, knowing smile. It infuriates Sync to no end.

Without another word he storms off, and wants nothing more than to be home already.

Ha, calling it home like it meant anything.

A room in the cathedral, basic commodities, it was hardly special, it was hardly even decorated. But… it was still where he came 'home’ to.

And the thought of him silently hoping for Guy to stop him, to part with him any words saying contrary to what he spouted. It was pathetic. Truly, honestly pathetic.

All he wanted was to pass out on his bed and shove a pillow so hard into his face he passed out from it. Not exactly productive, not exactly sane, and by the time he arrived 'home’ he had expelled the thought from his mind immediately. It wasn't like him to do such drastic things to himself. He let outside forces take care of that for him.

“Putting on a tough act… what does he know?” Sync repeats to himself, mocking the swordsman as he spoke.

What did he know?

Getting dressed into more comfortable attire, he sits in his bed, cozy under his comforter, clutching tight to the music box.

He winds it up.

“...What do I even know about myself?”

He lets the soft plucking of the notes lull him to sleep. That night, he dreams of what he would call home. He dreams of a better life.

Chapter Text

The afternoon was humid in the cathedral. He had found himself nestled into the tucked away drawing room that was far from the main lobby, paperwork and legal gargin scattered across the table that he, Anise, and their accompanying guest of Jade Curtis of Malkuth, sat at. The three of them had been long at work on this paperwork, somehow managing to have been pulled in together.

Some kind of policy document about trade and taxes, the kind of thing Sync dreaded having to preside over. Unfortunately, he was the only acting general remaining in Daath for this week, the rest were to be stationed elsewhere. So here he was stuck, between a necromancer and a nuisance of a young girl.

At the very least, time seemed to go quickly while listening to the two of them.

It all sounded like a whine and drone when they spoke, something about this, something about that, and he couldn’t exactly follow on.

“Come on, Sync, we need you to stay focused, alright?” Anise chirps, and he can barely contain a glare in her direction.

“It’s alright, we’re near finished. If the young man needs some rest, he’s welcome to-” Jade tries to chime in, a devious smile across his lips.

“Not a chance. I’m here for a reason.” Sync snaps back, annoyed at the man’s accusation of laziness.

“Haha, that’s the spirit!” He chimes, and Sync has to physically restrain himself to not beat the hell out of the man. Though, considering how strong he is now, he isn’t exactly certain he’d be able to win in a one-on-one with the old coot. Regardless, he wouldn’t give in an ounce.

Thinking back to his one-on-one match with Guy, he’s still not sure why he had done it. To prove himself? Maybe. For the thrill of a decent fight? Sure. It was a fun little bought while it lasted, at least, for the most part.

The man’s infuriating smile, though…

‘Do you need help?’ Sync remembers his question like it was just yesterday, but it had been so many days, weeks. And yet, the memory stayed on repeat in his head.

It was so infuriating, or at least it should have been. In reality, he didn’t mind the thought.

He didn’t mind the idea of Guy helping him.

...What the actual fuck?

What was he thinking? Letting that man help him? Enjoying the idea of it? What in the hell was he thinking, acting like that? This was either some sick joke his tired mind was playing on him or he had most certainly lost it. Either that or being around Anise so often against his will was turning his brain into teenage girl mush. What a joke.

This was all absolutely ridiculous, and he would have to otherwise ignore the notion.

“Alright, Sync, sign here to finalize the document.” Anise hands him her pen and he accepts it gently.

Pressing his name into the document, he’s finally free from these idiots.

“Oh, Sync, we’re gonna get some food in town, did you want to tag along?” For a moment he doesn’t understand what he’s hearing. An invite? From the both of them? Seemed fake.

“Not really, we’ve already spent enough time together for one day.” He plays it coy, or at least tries to.

“It’s really no bother. Come, I insist.” Jade coos, his deceptive grin fooling possibly Anise but most certainly not Sync. He knew this man had a reason for this. Perhaps some way to divulge secrets that couldn’t be contained within the drawing room of Daath.

Something more sinister, more personal.

“I don’t know, I see enough of your group as it is.” Sync tries harder to avoid them.

“Our group?” Anise looks to Jade as if trying to find some answer from him. “Who have you been talking to? I mean, obviously me and Jade, for work, but Natalia is busy with her father’s work, and Guy’s over in Malkuth, isn’t he?”

“He’s in Malkuth?” Sync asks with a strange sense of urgency, and immediately regrets it. The two of them exchange a knowing look to each other, and he can feel his face heating up. He had said too much.

To think he kept coming all the way here from Malkuth, and for what? Certainly it wasn’t to see him, but even still… the thought still danced at the front of his mind.

Eugh, what was he thinking again?

“So you’ve been talking to Guy lately?”

“No, more like just bumping into him, constantly. I don’t know if he’s following me but if either of you see him tell him to mind his own business, would you?” Sync spits out as rude as he can, but the two don’t change their demeanor for a moment.

“See you around?” Anise asks, clearly trying badly to hide her devious grin.

Whatever she was planning, he wanted no part of it.

“Sure.” Is all he offers before walking off to his room.

By the time he’s back to his quarters, he can feel the embarrassment of his words truly taking their toll on him. He feels hot in the face, sick to his stomach, and more or less generally annoyed with everything.

He walks into his bathroom, turning on the sink to wash his face off. The water cools his nerves, his breathing calms. It’s all so stupid, but it’s nothing to worry about. So what if he had thought Guy to be something less annoying than the rest of that crew? So what if he had the most miniscule of interest in the man’s existence?

Looking up into the mirror, his thoughts stop.

The scar across his face, it was his fault. It was Guy’s fault.

He forgets he has it often, he avoids mirrors so as to never have to see his own reflection. Is it his own reflection? The face of Florian, of Ion, of his ‘brothers’, of his Original. It wasn’t his own face until he was marred like this. It was their face, all of them.

Running a finger across his scar, he smiles.

This makes this face his own.

This horrible gash, this memory of Hod, this memory of his own death. It’s all his own. He can’t help but let out a small laugh at the thought. This was all so ridiculous. Finding some kind of meaning to his existence in the form of deformation.

“Talk about ridiculous.” He can’t help but laugh at himself, but the smile won’t disappear from his face. It’s not a malicious smile. In fact, it’s almost sincere- not that he would ever admit it to himself.

That night he sleeps peacefully to the plucking of the music box.

Chapter Text

It had been almost three weeks since Sync had been discharged from the hospital. He still had to have a weekly check up with Daath’s residential doctor, but it wasn’t so bad. The man didn’t pry, and Sync behaved as well as he could. The more he behaved the faster the exam went, after all.

Long nights seemed to plague Sync as of late, ever since he was revived he found it hard to sleep before the moon was already high overhead. It wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the sheer lack of things to do around Daath at night.

Fortunately, the Librarian understood his plight and let him into the Library late after hours. How kind of her.

If anything, he found himself actually appreciating the time to himself, being able to read without disturbance. It was nice. Every night that week, he found himself in the same spot in the library, curled up into a book, enjoying the gentle silence that it had to offer.

“...” What was that?

He closes the book, swearing he heard a noise.

“... S… y… n… c.” His name? Had he heard someone call his name?

Surely no one could have known he was here at this hour. The library was closed and he wasn’t even supposed to have been in there. How would they have known to find him here? Unless the voice was Florian, he may have heard about him coming in here late at night, but surely he wouldn’t care enough to come find him.

There was no reason why anyone would be looking for him, especially here, especially at this hour. There was no way.

“S… y… n… c.” There it was again.

Against his better judgement, he set the book down onto the table, his instincts pushing him into a fighting stance. If there was someone looking for him they were about to regret finding him.

Poking his head around the library’s book cases, he doesn’t see anyone at first glance. Deeming it safe enough to continue, he approaches the door, waiting for a moment.

If there was anyone out there calling for him, they had stopped at his approach. Just great.

As quietly as he could, he pushes one door of the library open, just enough to peek through. From what he can see, there’s no one around. Wait… no one? Not even the night watch? He sucks in a breath as quietly as he can before slipping out the door. It shuts behind him just as quietly, and he sneaks his way out.

Even now, he sees no one in the lobby, a strange site especially for this hour. Where are the guards? Did something happen?

For a moment he considers that he may just be letting his imagination get the best of him, until he felt a tap on his shoulder.

Without a second thought, he whips around, slamming his palm into the chest of his would-be-assailant.

This was a mistake.

“Oof-!” It wasn’t an assailant at all. In fact, it was nothing more than a nuisance in the form of Guy Cecil. Again. How were the two always managing to bump into each other?

Sync could still feel his heart racing in his chest, eyes wide and breathing now wild with adrenaline.

“D-don’t sneak up on me like that!” Sync tries his best to keep his voice down, and it ends up coming out as a hushed yell. If anything, it’s still too loud for what would be appropriate for this time of night, but he can’t exactly control himself too well.

“I didn’t! You were wandering around looking scared out of your wits.” Guy says, clutching his chest. “On second thought, maybe I should have tried to call out or something, but it’s too late now. Gah, that really hurt, y’know...”

“I-I wasn’t scared or anything. I just thought I heard someone calling out to me.” As he’s describing this, he begins to realize how ridiculous it sounds. Whatever. “Were you calling out for me?”

“Huh? No, I didn’t say anything.” Guy looks puzzled, and Sync can feel his face heating up.

“Well if you were out here then you must have heard it, right?” He asks, frantically trying to validate that he had in fact heard something, someone, anything. It wasn’t just his imagination, he was sure of it!

“I didn’t hear anything, either.” Guy offers, meekly. “Sorry.”

“Fine. Whatever, it’s probably just because I’m tired.” He mutters, ruffling his hair back a little.

“You should probably get some sleep then.”

“Yeah I should… Wait a second. What are you doing here, especially at this hour? I live here, and I’ve got keys to the library, but what’s your excuse, huh? Last I heard you lived over in Malkuth.” Sync goes for his throat with accusations. The sudden shift catches Guy off guard and his cheeks go bright red in some kind of shame.

“What am I doing here? Well it’s a little embarrassing but I was having some insomnia. Business trips make me anxious and it’s hard for me to sleep.” Guy rubs the back of his head sheepishly and Sync only looks on in a deadpan stare.

“....Business trip? Talk about convenient.”

“H-hey it’s the truth okay? I mean it, honest.” Sync stares him down for a few moments, but decides that he doesn’t care enough to pry.

“Whatever, I’m going to put my books back and go to my room.”

“Hey, wait-”

“What is it now?”

“How did you know I live in Malkuth?” Sync can feel his face turn a bit red, realizing only now that his comment was more invasive than he had realized. Not this again. He fumbles mentally for a moment but comes to his senses with a reasonable explanation.

“Ah, it was Anise. She told me.” If he were any more pathetic he may have considered that a ‘nice save’ of sorts. However, he ignores it and instead only looks for a response from Guy. He seems to relax from the comment, smiling even. Sync releases the breath he didn’t realize he was holding.

“O-oh, of course.”

“What? You think I really care that much to be asking about you?”

“Well, maybe not, but we do keep bumping into each other so much. Figured that there could be a reason to it.” There’s a slyness to his smile, and for the first time in a long time, Sync can only laugh off his notion. No nasty snarl, no glare, no yelling, just a simple and small chuckle.

“As if.”

The lack of a growl makes Guy perk up, if only slightly. Sync notices, and he knows that Guy notices. Playing nice is so annoying. But maybe… just maybe this could be worth the efforts.

“I’m going to head back to my room.” Sync shakes his head dismissively, running a hand through his hair. Clearly, he’s exhausted. The both of them are, in fact. Guy has small bags under his eyes, but doesn’t seem to let on to how tired he must be.

“Don’t push yourself too hard, okay?” Guy offers, and Sync only scoffs it off.

At least, that’s what he tells himself later, but it’s much more akin to an actual laugh. He won’t admit it, though.

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

Chapter Text

Days pass, uneventfully crawling on.

It wasn’t that Sync wasn’t busy, no, he was always busy running here and there, errands and paperwork and inconsequential meetings. None of it meant anything in the grand scheme of things, but he continued on with it regardless. It was better than nothing, he supposed. It wasn’t important, but staying busy like that was so much more worthwhile than absolute boredom.

He hated that lull more than anything else.

It was days like this, though, that perhaps made everything worth even less than usual, though.

He had found himself outside on this day, a hot breeze in the air coming from the volcano, but it wasn’t so unbearable he couldn’t stand it. No, he had to persist.

Today marked the anniversary of Van’s true death.

He found himself outside of his public grave marker, a small homage that Florian insisted on, if only for the sake of honoring the man’s memory. People despised Van after they learned what he had done, but the grave marker stood nonetheless. A small stone marker engraved ‘Vandestelca’, nothing more.

Sync stood in front of it, a feeling of shame heavy in his gut.

He hadn’t been to the grave his sister had built for him, but that was for the best. This was hard enough, and it was only a waystone to remember the man by.

A single plucked flower had been placed at the grave already that day, someone else having already stopped by. If he had to make a guess, likely Anise or Florian, but he couldn’t be sure. Maybe both, who knows?

It was tough looking at this, though. Sync would give up his life in an instance to trade it for Van’s, but he knew that that wasn’t how it worked.

“A memory should stay a memory…” He mumbles to himself.

After a few moments, he manages to remove himself from his own thoughts, the sound of footsteps approaching from behind.

Turning around, he sees a small group of people that he had so desperately wanted to avoid. How could he keep bumping into them like this? Why was his luck so absolutely God awful?

Tear, Guy, and Anise, a small party heading behind the Cathedral. No doubt they were headed directly towards the grave marker.

“And they- oh, it’s Sync.” Tear was the first to notice his presence, and Sync wanted nothing more than to shrink into a ball and roll the fuck away from them. But he couldn’t. He had to endure this encounter.

Why…? Why did he have to endure it?

For Van’s honor? Did he even care about that?

“Are you here to pay respects as well?” Soft spoken, so very sweet, but it sounds like poison to Sync’s ears. Can’t hardly stand to be near it. Tear only smiles softly.

“So what if I am?”

He knows he’s coming off too strongly, but can’t stop himself. None of them seem bothered by it, and merely walk closer to the grave. Guy seems to be the most comfortable near Sync and stands right beside him, and Sync can only stare, annoyed. This was supposed to be a quiet moment for himself and his mentor, not “let’s all bother Sync time.”

“That wasn’t a challenge. I am only here to do the same.”

“...” He doesn’t argue, merely makes space.

She places a bouquet of flowers at his grave, if Sync’s memory served him it was the same flowers as those from Tataroo Valley. How fitting.

If he hadn’t been completely dead inside he may have found it in his heart to feel empathy.

After a moment of tense silence with the group of nuisances, he decides to dismiss himself, to which Anise protests.

“You’re leaving already?”

Sync doesn’t turn back around, he can feel the eyes of the annoying entourage on him. Everything about this situation is uncomfortable and he would much rather be anywhere else.

“I had no intentions of grieving with the likes of you.”

Against his better judgement, he looks back for just a moment, just to see the stupid looks on their faces. Tear and Anise seem unphased by his words, but there’s a look in Guy’s eyes that he can’t shake. Something knowing, something that went beyond a simple gaze. He hated it. There wasn’t anything he would’ve rather done in that moment than smack that sorrowful look from his face. But he wouldn’t. Sync would behave himself, if just for the moment.

“Take care of yourself, Sync.” Is all Guy offers before Sync turns tail and walks as fast as he can away from them.

He didn’t need their sympathy.

Back in his room, he finds himself staring into his own reflection once more. If he hasn’t looked awful before now, he certainly looks it now. His skin had become sickly pale, bags forming under his eyes. Was this an effect of being so stressed, or was it simply his body finally giving out on him? He had no way of really knowing.

Instead of doing anything proactive about it he chose instead to lay down and take a nap.

“Why do I even bother?”

Chapter Text

Chesedonia was hot. Not only was it hot, it was full of sand. Completely miserable. Who decided to build a city in a desert anyway?! An absolutely terrible decision, really, and Sync was suffering as a result.

It was the middle of summer and he had been sent on some embassy escort mission, accompanying some important head official as they did business. He couldn’t care less, but it was important work and if he didn’t do it he’d never hear the end of it from Florian and Anise. That was the last thing he needed.

"When did my life become a series of trying to avoid others?" He speaks aloud to himself in his inn, and is unsurprised when no one answers. He had been laying in bed for quite some time, unwilling to face the world just yet.

It had been quite some time since he had last been back in Daath, having been stuck on this mission for several weeks, and he would kill to be in his own bed.

Even he couldn't believe he could miss that room, but there was nothing like a cheap stiff mattress to make him miss the comforts of his own room. It had been far too long since he had gotten a decent night's sleep… insomnia notwithstanding.

It wasn't like he would stay here forever, though. Surely he would return back sooner or later and be back to his normal routine of harassing new recruits and dealing with the mountains of paperwork Florian had for him.

"It's only because I know you can handle it!" Was just code for Fuck You in burouecratic speak.

He just had to bear with it and surely he would be back to his own routine of existence.

But maybe that in and of itself was its own torture.

Sync finally decided to get up, getting dressed, grabbing a quick drink of water, and headed out the door into the insufferable heat.

It wasn't often he found himself in Chesedonia but when he did, he couldn't help but be reminded of his last visits there, mocking Anise and her friends in her lost beloved's voice. In hindsight it may have been too much… no, absolutely not. He had to be getting soft if he was doubting himself. If she could be shaken so easily as by a simple voice change then she was too weak to be considering herself a soldier.

What did he even care anyway?

It’s not like it mattered to him.

Arriving at the embassy, he was greeted by the Oracle Knights who were stationed there, as well as the staff. It seemed like they had been expecting him.

The meeting went on for forever. Words droning on and on, none of it meaning anything. The day blurred by just like the days before, nothing of note, nothing outstanding, just old men bickering over numbers on pages that meant more or less nothing to the God General. If it weren’t for the fact that he was under occupation of the church he may have just left then and there, but he didn’t. He cooperated, he stayed, and eventually he was able to go home.

The heat outside was still excruciating. It didn’t matter what type of shade or breeze passed through, it was hot and miserable and Sync had had enough.

He decided to slip off into an alleyway, dark enough that it would provide some shade.

“I’ll just rest here for a second…” Sync sets himself down in a corner, heat exhaustion making him nearly see double. There was no way he was going to walk all the way back to the inn in this state.

“Just a second…”

His eyes closed, delirious.

“Sync?”

A voice. He had fallen asleep.

What time was it? How long was he out for?

Taking a second to assess the situation, it appeared to be around dusk, and the voice… He knew who it was without a second thought. Guy Cecil, always showing up uninvited and in the strangest of places. How did he even manage to find him?

“You.”

“Hiya, taking a nap?” He smiles, amused at Sync’s resting spot.

“It was either this or risk a heat stroke.”

“Well, I got some extra water if you need, here.” Bending down, Guy offers Sync a canteen. Usually he wouldn’t be so careless to accept mystery fluids from a potential enemy, but there was no hostility in Guy’s voice, no aggression.

Without hesitation he drinks, and amazingly it is in fact just water. It was outstanding how thirst could make water taste so refreshing, he greedily guzzled the whole canteen down.

“Needed that, huh?” Guy doesn’t wait for an answer. “Do you need help getting up?”

“I’m fine.” Even though he most certainly isn’t, Sync feins a confident mask. He stands up, using the wall to prop himself up.

“I do have to ask though, how is it you keep bumping into me like this?” Guy’s expression shifts to something Sync could only think of as suspicious, suddenly refusing to meet his eyes. If he was stalking the God General then Sync would make that his last mistake he ever made.

“I really don’t know, honest. It just seems like the two of us have common business to attend to.” Guy gives off a half-hearted shrug, but Sync doesn't buy it.

He pauses for a moment, stopping to think for a second on what Guy is really trying to say, the text between the lines. He had a habit of dodging questions and his smooth talking definitely helped in that regard. 

...Was Guy trying to pick a fight?

“I get it.” Sync declares, and Guy looks back at him, befuddled. “You’re itching for a rematch, aren’t you?” Maybe he was delirious, maybe he wasn’t, neither of them knew nor cared, really. 

He pulls his gloves out from his pocket, pulling them over his fists.

“That’s not- I mean, I guess, sure, we could.” Guy takes a moment to look around the narrow alley. “Is this enough room though?”

“Like I care.”

“Alright then.” Guy pulls his sword from its sheath, pointing it towards Sync. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.”

The match doesn’t even last five minutes.

Try as he might, Sync simply found himself outmaneuvered this time around. It was as though overnight Guy found his will to strike back, or maybe it was simply to shorten the exercise, but Sync almost instantly found himself pressed against a wall, sword to his neck. Adrenaline pumped through his veins, an excitement filling his blood like he couldn’t last remember.

“Not going to finish me off? Kill the big bad wolf you dream about in your nightmares? It would be so quick I wouldn’t even know.” Sync spits out, egging Guy on to finish him. It would be the ultimate irony, to die to his hand a second time. Well, perhaps not irony, but it would be funny to him to have two of his lives placed onto Guy’s conscience. “You killed me once, surely you can do it again.”

“Why do you have such a fucking death wish?”

The vulgarity catches him off guard, but not as much as the look on Guy’s face. Tears fill his eyes, angry heavy on his brow. Why? Why did he care so much?

"What do you care?"

"Do you not think I regret taking your life? Do you think I enjoyed killing you?" He had to have. "Because I didn't." He's lying. "I didn't want us to even be enemies, let alone to have to kill." He has to be lying. 

"Stop lying to me!" Sync practically spits in his face and Guy has to pull back on the blade so it doesn't begin to pierce flesh.

"Why can't you believe me?!"

Because it was either Sync was wrong, or he was lying, and there was no way Sync would stoop so low as to apologize to him.

He doesn't want to speak, like his voice has been caught in his throat. There's a feeling of burning in his gut, shame and anger bubbling deep within. Everything in his body is telling him to run, to fight, to do everything in his power to fight Guy. But something stops him.

Something in the back of his mind tells him to stop.

"I'm sorry, Sync, for whatever has happened to you to make you feel this way, but fighting me isn't going to help."

"Just… just shut up." He doesn't fight.

Guy removes the sword from Sync's neck, placing it back in his sheath. Even though he has the free opportunity to, Sync doesn't run.

"This world is unkind, if you ever need anything, just say the word." There’s a softness to his voice that makes Sync’s stomach tighten, a smile gracing Guy’s face in such a way he can’t help but pull his stare away. It’s infectious, and he can’t dare to become susceptible to it. Too bright.

"Why?"

"Huh?"

"Why do you go through this much effort for someone who hates you?" The question catches Guy off guard, and he pauses to think for a moment.

"I don't like to give up on people, especially those who seem to have given up on themselves." It hurts to hear, but perhaps he's right. Sync had long since given up his will to live… in truth he never even had one to begin with.

"Don't act like you know me." Something about the exchange almost felt like a joke between old friends.

"I would never."

They go their separate ways, Sync never having learned what exactly Guy was up to in Chesedonia, but he doesn't mind. Something in the back of his mind knows he'll run into him again, and for some reason he can't help but feel reassured at the idea.

Chapter Text

After weeks of being holed up in his inn room in Chesedonia, Sync was finally allowed to go home. It had been weeks and days and hours of annoyances and trials and tribulations but they finally agreed to some bureaucratic nonsense and he was allowed to leave.

No one had ever seen someone so eager to board a ship.

It was another few hours of traveling and unpacking before he was finally able to declare himself home, but he could at least rest in his own clean bed, no worries about anything and the gentle plucking of his music box and to lull him into a nap.

He slept soundly, unaware of the figure approaching.

A shadow creeping from the corner, something seemed to be sneaking up on him. Faintly he could hear breathing, eyes opening just in time to see the face of the hollow eyed specter that had lured him to Akzeriuth.

It stared into his eyes, into his very soul.

"R e t u r n…"

With a sharp gasp he awoke.

It was gone. It had vanished with his nightmare.

Outside it had fallen to dusk, or perhaps dawn, it was hard to tell how long he had slept.

His body felt paralyzed with fear, unable to see into the dark corners beyond his bedroom door. He needed to get out of there, go somewhere brightly lit, anywhere.

It was unsafe here. He would be hunted by that thing.

Taking his coat and sliding on his shoes as quick as possible, he leaves his room, opting to head down to the cathedral lobby.

Being around people was insufferable but he couldn't let that thing near him. If he did, he would be dead for sure. The best thing he could do was to stay awake, stay somewhere bright. He had to.

In the main cathedral there stood guards, knights at each post as they should. Sync may have looked disheveled but they paid him no mind. If they had he would have had some words to part with them.

"Sync?"

God Damnit why was this his luck?!

"I know you live here but the number of times we've bumped into each other is getting out of hand." Guy, looking tired, sheepish, almost confused. He wasn't his usual self, or perhaps this was him without the sunshine guise he wore.

"I could say the same. Why are you here?"

Guy extended out an envelope.

"Paperwork for the Fon Master." Sync notes the deliberate lack of saying Ion or Florian's name. "It's not urgent but I'm up early."

"So it's morning already?"

"You okay? You seem out of it."

"...I just got back from Chesedonia, if you must know." There was no need to humor his question, so why did he? There was no reason to play nice, but he couldn't find it in him to find that rage Guy was so often victim to. It wasn't in him. He was nothing if not exhausted.

"Ah, no wonder." Guy shuffles his feet a bit.

"Guy, can I ask something of you?"

The look on Guy's face is like he just won a million gald.

"What's up?" He acts all cool and collected but Sync can tell he's just itching to help, just dying to stick his neck out. It's almost funny, but also will be even funnier when Sync asks what he needs done.

"I need to borrow the Albiore, or at least have you fly me somewhere."

There's a moment of pause from Guy, skepticism showing heavily on his brow.

“What is this about?” He’s not buying it, but Sync isn’t about to back down. He needs to get to the bottom of this, and the best method he can think of is to cut it at the source.

With very little regard for how it would look to passerby’s, he grabs Guy by the collar, not bringing him too close, but enough to intimidate, enough to feel convincing. Even though he’s taken off-guard, Guy doesn’t become defensive, doesn’t push him away. If anything he seems to be humoring the notion, Sync can’t stand him.

“I need to go back to Akzeriuth.” His voice is barely above a whisper, but Guy hears it clear as day.

“I can’t do that.” The air is too tense, Sync can’t hardly think.

“I need to.” There is something in his voice that not even he understands, is it a plea? Is it his pride slipping through his lips and shattering on the floor? Perhaps, but he needs to suck it up and get this over with if he’s to cure his plague.

There’s a look of conflict on Guy’s face, and it doesn’t take long to crack his will.

“...Okay. But I’m going to be keeping a strict eye on you. I know what happened last time,” He grabs Sync’s arm, where his IV scars sat. “And if you try to run off again I won’t hesitate to stop you.”

A sharp exhale leaves Sync’s nose, the scar still hurting.

“It’s a deal.”

And just like that, the tension lifts and Guy’s face returns to that of a nonchalant grin.

“I’ve got to deliver this to the Fon Master, I’ll be back in a bit. Get yourself ready in the meanwhile and we’ll meet back up here.” Guy begins to walk off, but stops for a second to turn back around. “And I promise I won’t tattle.” He adds a wink and Sync can nearly feel his chest ache.

Why was he like that?!

-

Sync waits outside the Cathedral for a long while, at points considering if he should give up entirely, but surely someone will come for him, be it Guy with the keys to his goal, or Florian coming to lock him up for his idiocracy. He deserved it, all things considered, but he couldn’t be stopped, couldn’t stop himself.

The sun shines bright overhead.

Eventually he sees a familiar face, Guy’s smile shining, no documents in hand. It seems he held his word, it really was for business. What exactly he was doing Sync had no idea, but that didn’t matter right now.

He couldn’t get the image out of his mind, the specter that haunted him. No longer would he be the one chased, though, he would become the hunter of his own despair.

“Are you all set?” Guy asks, hand on his cocked hip. “I’m done with what I needed here.”

“Yeah, let’s go.” There is little hesitation in Guy’s movements, the two of them setting off together towards the town exit.

“Who would have thought we would actually be teaming up for something?” He tries to give Sync a little nudge on the arm, teasing him, but Sync only shoots back a menacing glare.

“This is just out of necessity.”

“Uh huh, sure.”

-

Getting aboard the Albiore, Sync finds himself overwhelmed and underwhelmed all at once. On one hand, being in an airship was absolutely fascinating, but the size of the ship… it was cramped to say the least. Running a full crew would no doubt be a struggle.

“Who do you have for a co-pilot?” Sync asks, taking a look into the cockpit. The glass is tinted a light amber, but he can see the marina clear as day. It had hit almost dusk by this point, their trek to the port taking a bit longer than they had anticipated.

“I don’t have one actually.” Walking into the cockpit, Guy takes a seat at the pilot’s helm, flicking a switch as he does. It lights up the rest of the dashboard.

“You fly it solo? That’s pretty reckless, don’t you think?”

"Not really, I've gotten used to being by myself for a while now. Ever since…" He pauses. "Well, ever since the original pilots for the Albiore were injured, I've been the one taking care of her." He pats the dashboard fondly before turning the ignition switches.

Watching Guy maneuver the Albiore was something else, that's for certain.

"You might want to sit down or hold tight to something!" Guy calls out, and Sync takes the invitation and sits down in the co-pilot seat, watching with wide eyes as they pull out of the port and into the open air, zipping across the ocean.

"You're certain you want to go to Akzeriuth right? There's still time to change your mind on a destination."

"No, I need to go there." Sync won't give in. He knows there's something there, and he needs to find the truth for himself.

"If you're certain, then okay." There's no hint of humor in his voice, Guy is as serious as he gets, and Sync could only be found in awe. He wasn't trying to fight Sync, he wasn't trying to deter him… if anything he was helping him?

"What do you have to gain from this anyway?"

"Hmm?" It's clear Guy is caught off guard by the question, and he takes a moment to think about it. "What I have to gain? I guess… I don't really know. Maybe I just needed something to do."

"I don't believe that."

"I wouldn't really think you would. To be honest, I don't know what I'm doing. Maybe I'm just restless, maybe I'm just curious." The more Guy talks the more honest his words sound to Sync's ears. "How could someone who had been dead for nearly two years suddenly emerge from the ground as if nothing had happened, as if no time had been lost?"

"I … I don't know. I'm trying to find the answer to that myself."

"I don't mean to pry, but… do you know how you were…" The pilot trails off, words failing him, an obvious stumbling in his words showing his discomfort with the subject. Death seemed to be unpleasant to most, Sync found.

"Resurrected?" Guy nods. "There was a man. He… I think he was that Replica." This got Guy's attention.

"Luke?! He's alive?!" The joy in his voice only barely covered the desperate sadness behind it.

"I don't know."

"What do you mean you don't know?" Sync had to look away from Guy, his eyes unable to meet his interrogative gaze. "Did you talk to him, did he speak to you? What happened?"

"He isn't the same, he's been changed by the planet storm, fused with," The thought hurts him to imagine. "With Asch, with his original, and not only that, but Lorelei." The more he talks the more he feels his words sound fake.

"...What?"

"I don't even know if he's real. I think he might be, but I'm not sure. There have been so many things that just don't make sense…" Sync clutches his head, the front of his forehead hurting tight with a tension headache.

Remembering the events of his recent scares made his head throb.

Guy seems to take the hint and eases up on the interrogation.

"Have… have you been having visions?"

Sync only nods.

"...I used to get those a lot when I was younger, admittedly." Guy says, calm and cool as ever, perhaps even somber, the gusto in his voice completely evaporated. "They're really scary, especially when you can't distinguish between a vision and reality."

He… understood?

"Have you talked to Florian about any of this?"

"No." And he didn't want to. It's not like Florian would understand, or if he did he would just fret over the God General even more.

"I see, I'll make sure this stays between us." Guy offers a soft smile, and Sync's only response is to let out the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding.

"I'm going to bed."

While he can see the questions left on Guy's face, he knows he doesn't have answers for him. He doesn't even have answers for himself. In truth none of this made sense to him. It seems Guy understands well enough and dismisses his own curiosity.

"The sleeping quarters are down that hall. Pick whichever bed you want, they're all the same." Guy signals down the corridor, and looking that way Sync notices an open hall leading to a curtained room, and another room on the side with a door. "Other room is the bathroom if you need it."

Sync walks down the hall, finding the sleeping quarters to have four beds, two bunks. One of the top beds was seemingly being used for storing extra sleeping bags, Sync could only chuckle at the thought.

He picked one of the bottom bunks, kicking his shoes and outerwear off he settled in, getting comfortable.

It wasn't an uncomfortable bed by any means but the concept of not having a proper ground below him made him nervous. Not nervous enough to ignore his exhaustion, though.

Nestling his face into the pillow, Sync found it to smell exactly as Guy did. Not that that was a shocking discovery, it was his ship and he did likely sleep there often. But… to be against it, it felt like something forbidden.

Tomorrow he would get answers to his questions, figure out who or what that apparition was, but for now he was content to simply be.

Chapter Text

By the time Sync had woken up they had long since arrived outside of Akzeriuth. He had managed to sleep well into the day, a feat for him, especially with his horrific sleeping problems -light sleeper, easy to rouse, hard to fall back asleep. And yet, he dreamt like a dream, only to awake to the music he wished he didn’t have to face. But face it, he would.

“Are you sure you’re prepared for this?” Guy asks, offering Sync a small pack of gels, which he begrudgingly accepts and pockets.

“I’m sure.” Is all Sync can say.

"Once we go in, I want you to stick by my side okay, if you run off…" Guy's words trail off but Sync knows exactly what’s implied. He won’t make the same mistake twice.

"I won't, okay. It'll be fine." Big words that he couldn't know for sure if he meant. There was no way of knowing if what awaited them was a trap left by his old commander, or simply an empty room filled only with miasma and broken memories.

"If you say so…"

The two of them get ready to leave, and are able to make it to the city limits with the sun still high overhead. It doesn't take them long to get into Akzeriuth, but once they do their pace screeches to a crawl.

“This place reeks of death…” It’s barely above a whisper but Sync hears Guy’s words plain as day. He can’t help but agree though, the smell of a graveyard was unpleasant at best. Even though Sync had been here not even weeks before, he hadn’t noticed it then. Perhaps there was something about being around Guy that heightened his senses. Or maybe it was simply his determination before that blinded him.

They pass through the center of town, making their way down into the mines. 

Sync can feel a chill run down his spine as they approach the mine shaft that led to the ruins of the Sephiroth Tree. It was still somewhat accessible, but that wasn't to say it wouldn't be dangerous. He approaches the mine and Guy puts out a hand to stop him.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?"

Sync doesn't look back to him, knows his resolve may break at the sight of Guy's worry. "I have to know what's down here. What happened to me… I need answers."

"I'll back you up as best as I can." Sync can't help but smile.

"Let's go."

-

Inside the cavernous mines it's cold, damp from a recent rain. Everything seems as if undisturbed for ages. Frozen in time.

"Do you know where you're going?" Guy whispers, keenly aware of the overwhelming silence.

"It's through here… I'm sure of it." Following the same path he went down the last time he was here, he keeps track of where he turns with key markers. His mind works fast, and his legs faster.

Before either of them realized it they had made it to the Sephiroth Tree. Sync looks around. It lay in ruin, but the main structure of the tree still remained, inaccessible. They look on at it in awe.

"There's nothing left of it, we shouldn't stay here." Guy moves to push Sync back from the edge of the path, where it cut off into the oblivion.

"I don't understand… Why was he here? Why was he…?" Sync cuts himself off, pulling away from the Tree and back into the safety of the mines. But even then it wasn’t truly safe. Miasma still seeped into the deepest parts of the mine, effectively choking the both of them.

Sync coughed hard, curling into himself as he did. Pain wracked his body with each cough. It hurt. Why was he even here? What did he think he would learn? This was stupid and he was going to die because of it.

"We're going."

"Huh-" Before Sync could process what had happened, he had already been hoisted up into Guy’s arms. The way Guy managed to lift him with such ease, it was like he weighed nothing! Either that or he had simply become so delirious he couldn’t feel his own weight anymore. This was bad.

“Am I dying?” He jokes, but there isn’t a laugh to follow.

“Not if I can help it.” Guy sounds so focused, so serious.

Sunlight blinds Sync as they reach the exit of the mine, he hadn’t even realized how much ground they had made. Maybe he had been fading out of consciousness and not realized it. Everything in his body aches as Guy sets him down to his feet.

“Can you stand? Are you okay to walk?” There’s no good way of saying no to those questions, and Sync merely stiffens his lip.

“I’m fine.” Sync clutches his head, falling to his knees.

“No, you most certainly are not-” Guy moves to try and help him up but is met with opposition, a slap to his hands to keep him from coming close. “Why are you fighting me?”

Sync doesn’t have an answer for him, and just slumps down into a pile of himself. He can’t stand, lacks the strength to. Everything in him feels betrayed, but for what? There was nothing saying anything would even be here. Why would he feel misled by a figment of his imagination? Why did he care so much?

There’s a tap on his shoulder, a hand being pressed into it, so sincere and caring. He can’t stand it and tries to shy away, but he can’t.

“Let’s get out of here. We should get back to the Albiore, or at least away from the mines…” It’s a soft suggestion, but Sync knows he can’t object to it. Finding what strength he has left, he pushes himself to his feet.

-

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Huh?” Sync only barely registers at the last second a bowl being shoved in his face.

“Here, I made us some food, eat up.” There’s a smile on Guy’s face as he speaks, a bowl in his other hand for himself. Even if he wanted to refuse, he couldn’t, especially with the way his stomach grumbled smelling the food.

At some point after they arrived back on the ship Sync had passed out, either from exhaustion or hunger he couldn’t tell, but waking up to a hot meal? He couldn’t begin to process what that made him feel.

“Be careful, it’s still hot.” That doesn’t matter, Sync had already been set on devouring the hot soup he had been so graciously given.

He finishes in record time, a feeling of invigoration filling him once he’s done. Maybe he had just been deliriously hungry… wouldn’t be the first time he had gone too long forgetting to eat.

“Do you eat regularly?” Guy’s words are closer to an observation than a question.

“...” 

“I’ll take that as a no. You need to eat, yknow?” There isn’t any maliciousness in his voice, no harshness on his face, yet Sync can’t help but feel a fire of shame in his gut. To be scolded over something so elementary, but in truth he was never taught to take care of himself, never taught how to be alive.

All he’s ever existed for was to be a weapon to destroy the score, a mission he succeeded in… and now what?

“...Don’t patronize me.” Sync places his empty bowl down, having finished.

“I’m not, I’m just stating the truth. You need to eat.” Guy collects the bowl from him, putting it in the small sink that Albiore’s kitchen had. It wasn’t much, but it worked, and Sync could admit he appreciated the smaller spaces over the excess of the Cathedral. It felt… snug.

“...I know.” 

“If I cook for you will you make sure to eat it?” There’s that sad smile on Guy’s face, not unlike a puppy dog pout, and Sync can’t help but be unnerved at how much he feels himself giving in.

“I’m not a little kid.” Guy gives out a hearty laugh at this, so good-natured it’s blinding as the sun.

“I know you’re not, but sometimes people need a little extra help.” 

There’s a moment of hesitation, Sync can feel himself giving in, can feel another sheet layer of ice melting off of his heart. He can’t withstand this type of nicety, it’s sickening, and yet he feels himself softening, relaxing. Everything about this feels wrong, feels like giving up, but he doesn’t have the will to reinforce the rage and despair in his mind.

“...Fine. If you make me anything I won’t throw it away or anything. But don’t expect me to rely on you, I can take care of myself just fine.” Guy’s smile grows so wide that Sync can’t hardly bear to look at him, can’t bear to know he’s smiling because of his words. He doesn’t understand why it makes his stomach flip, doesn’t want to.

“Sounds like a deal.”

Sync sits next to Guy in the co-pilot seat on their route back to Daath, and on the way he finds himself slipping into the smallest of smiles.

Chapter Text

“How’s it going, Sync, you busy?” Guy stopped by Daath every few days. Whether he was there on his own leisurely schedule or official Malkuth matters he didn’t say, but here he was, food in hand at the base of the Cathedral’s stairs.

“I was asked to come down here by one of the security guards, did you send him to fetch me?” He only asked the first time, after that it had become a regular occurence. If Sync wouldn’t show him to his officer’s quarters then he would simply choose the next best option.

“Yeah, figured you could use a break from the paperwork!” He walked to the side of the building, where the Cathedral kept its lush botanical garden. Members of the church and community helped to keep it thriving, and Sync always found himself at peace when he was there.

Laying out the food he had gotten for the two of them, it was only now that Sync realized what Guy was doing.

“A picnic? Really?” Sync scoffs, but he doesn’t turn away. In fact he takes a seat, happy to accept whatever meal Guy had planned for the two of them. He knew well enough that Guy was a decent chef, so at the very least he could get a free meal out of it.

As if he had to convince himself, what a joke.

“Well, it’s a beautiful day out and I was already passing through, so I figured why not, yknow?” Guy hands him a container and utensils, flashing his trademark smile as he does. “At the very least I figured you could use a check-in.” Maybe he was right, Sync hadn’t really been taking the best care of himself, missing meals, oversleeping, undersleeping, he felt exhausted.

Much to Sync’s amazement, the rice dish Guy had made for the both of them had stayed warm on the way there, and he chowed down content as could be. Even if it was poisonous, he didn't care. If that would've been his last meal, he would've been content.

"This is tasty, what is it?" Sync asks between shoveling it into his mouth. Upon closer inspection he realized it had been almost a full day since he last ate.

"You like it?" There’s a look of pride, maybe even joy, on Guy’s face.

It made Sync think twice about whether or not complimenting his cooking skills would just go right to his head. In the end, he decides maybe it isn’t such a bad thing.

“Yeah…”

This goes on time and time again, like clockwork Guy shows up every few days, food in tow.

“I can feed myself, yknow.” Sync wants to argue, he wants to find any way of getting out of these interactions, but he still stays, he sits and eats and has small talk with the swordsman despite how much he claims to hate it.

The moment came and went, underwhelming, yet too much all at once.

If this was the only human interaction he would have to deal with, however, he could easily consider himself happily content to put up with it.

Happy…?

Is that what it meant to be happy?

Is this what it meant to have a friend?

He couldn’t say for certain.

“It means nothing.” A voice tells him. The back of his mind loudest during the dead of night. “He will abandon you as soon as you are no longer useful.” It screams.

“What am I useful for, then?” He bargains, but it doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t matter.

“You are nothing but a scrap of meat.” A vision, a face appears.

His original.

Against all sensibilities, he tries to swipe it away, but nothing happens, the vision persists. He can’t shake the eyes staring at him, can’t push away the feeling of fleeting hope, anger boiling in him.

If this was how his life was meant to be then what was the point of living it?

Being a ghost trapped in a living body, plagued by visions, tormented by those lost to him… it was all too much to deal with.

-

“He won’t open the door.” A female voice, if Sync had to take a guess it was Anise.

“How many days has it been?”

Sync can’t hear whatever the response to the question is, and he doesn’t care.

He doesn't care how many days he's been in there, and no one tries to pry him out, only leaves him food by his door like he's in some kind of self-inflicted isolation.

In the back of his mind all he could hear was a voice, something similar to his own, but so different, so alien, one he had never even heard yet he knew so well. His Original, Ion, his voice clear as day, as though he was standing mere inches behind him.

“They don’t need you.”

A memory, flames, heat, the bright, blistering heat of the volcano that scorched his eyes and body. Even years later the scars on his chest remained, a reminder, a horrible memory. The heat… he hated the heat.

To be discarded into a volcano, as though nothing more than trash, kindling for the fire.

“They don’t want you.”

There wasn’t any doubt in his heart that this was all the fault of the score. If not for the score he would have never been born, never been forced to live this life of misery and pain.

If not for the score he would not have died three times, and yet somehow returned each time.

“If I’m not needed then why do I keep coming back?!” He asks no one, the room empty, no Original, no specter to haunt him.

“Knock! Knock!”

Sync snaps back to reality, staring at the door intensely. He sees an envelope slip in from under the door. After a moment of hesitation, he decided to get up.

The letter doesn’t have anything of interest on the back, but the front has a seal on it, that of Malkuth. Sync takes a moment to open the door, to see if the person who had delivered it was still nearby but the hallway was empty, not a soul in sight. Likely just a guard making rounds, he shut the door once more.

Examining the letter he found it to only be one page, a short note extending an invitation to him to visit… the Malkuth Emperor? Was he seeing that right?

“Signed by Emperor Peony Upala Malkuth IX… Is this really from him?” 

What in the world could the Emperor of Malkuth want with him?

Surely this sort of invitation got sent out to the rest of the higher ranking officers as well, or at least to Florian. They must have, right? It would be too strange if it was just him.

After taking a moment to think about it, he decided to go to sleep, or at least attempt to. In the morning, he would set off for Malkuth to see what it was the Emperor needed from him.

Chapter Text

“General Sync! I see you got my invitation just fine!” The Emperor himself, Peony of Malkuth, and just like Guy he was nothing more than a ray of sunshine incarnate. “I’m so glad you decided to come all this way out here to visit.”

No one else had accompanied the trip.

“I didn’t.” Sync states, matter of factly. “I received your invitation to visit so I did as such, what was this about, exactly?” It wasn’t like he actually had anything better to do, but the boat ride over had made him nauseous and he wasn’t about to have wasted his time and health on the whim of a Royal.

Sync was the only one sent an invite.

“Well, as you may or may not know, relations between our Nations as of late has been, well, they’ve been good. Great communication between ourselves and Kimlasca, but with Daath… that’s another story. We haven’t been able to secure an ambassador from there, and talks with the Fon Master have become fewer and farther between.” Was he saying what Sync thought he was saying?

The waterfall behind the throne room is deafeningly loud compared to the silence between the two men.

“What I’m saying is, I’m offering you-”

“I know exactly what you’re offering.” Sync doesn’t let him finish. Everything about this feels wrong, feels staged. When was reality going to come back, snap him back to life and he’ll be sitting in his room daydreaming? But he doesn’t. There is no dream, this is no illusion.

“I… I don’t know.”

“Just, think it over, would you? Here, you'll need to look over these documents.” Peony gets up from his seat at the throne, and hands Sync a piece of paper. It’s a document pre-signed by Peony stating his approval to appoint Sync as the new Daath-Malkuth Ambasador.

“Can I ask something?”

“Huh? Yeah, go for it.”

“Why me? Is there some reason to single me out for this position, I don’t understand.” Sync thinks to himself all the trouble he had been up to since his time back on the planet, between highjacking the Albiore, getting miasma poisoning, and assaulting Peony’s errand boy, he should’ve been receiving a scolding from the Emperor, not a position of employment!

“You come with high recommendations, from your fellow peers.” Is all Peony has to say, a smile across his face. “That and I've since had my interest piqued since I heard about your return.”

Peony doesn't get the chance to say much more before the door to the throne room is opened once more, the necromancer Jade stepping in.

"Sync, good to see you're still in one piece." Jade remarks with an air of whimsy in his voice. He must have known something of Sync's business to be acting that way, but Sync ignored it.

"I am."

"Well, unfortunately I must speak to the Emperor in private about matters of the state, if you don't mind." He doesn't so much as blink when he speaks, his smile curling up but not quite reaching his eyes.

“We were just about finished, I'll take my leave..” Sync takes the paper and makes his way to leave.

“Sync. Think it over, okay?” While Sync doesn’t stop to turn around, he at least acknowledges the Emperor’s words with a nod.

-

Out in Grand Chokmah, the sky had already turned to twilight. The water was vibrant orange against the setting sun, the market in town beginning to die down, a lull taking over the city.

Sync enjoyed the ocean’s breeze, it wasn’t often he was in Malkuth, after all.

Had he been over here since he had been resurrected? Well, the desert, sure, and Akzeriuth, but he hadn’t been near the capitol in many years. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had seen the palace.

"I never mourned not seeing more of the world before… what's different now?" He only speaks quietly to himself, staring off into the marina.

"Hey Sync, what's up?"

"GAH!" Guy had come out of seemingly nowhere, and had only barely missed a fist headed straight towards his face. "When did you get here?!"

"Woah there! You don't gotta be jumpy, it's just me!" Guy laughed it off but it was clear he was shaken by it, at least just a bit. "I had heard you weren't feeling well so I'm glad I was able to catch you while you were here."

He was … Glad? Had he heard that right? He was happy to see Sync.

… Why did that matter?

Why did he have to ask that? What good did it do?

"I'm… Feeling better now, I guess." He turns his gaze away from Guy, towards the sunlit ocean. "Guess I just needed a change of scenery."

Guy rests his arms against the guard rails, and Sync joins him with propping his elbow up on it.

"The ocean does the soul wonders."

Looking out at the ocean, Sync notices a boat coming in to dock, people coming and going through the port as they finish up their business for the day. Seeing the busybodies of the market did seem to soothe his soul, as Guy said.

"I… I got offered a position here. As an ambassador." Sync blurts out, nervous, and he immediately tenses up, unsure why he's saying this.

In the back of his mind he knows why, but he won't acknowledge it.

"Oh yeah?"

“Yeah, apparently I come with high recommendations. Who would’ve thought?” His comment is directed straight at Guy, and the man just looks away nervously, running a gloved hand through his hair.

“I, yeah, I can’t say I don’t know what you’re talking about but-”

“It’s fine.” Sync decides.

“What?”

“I don’t mind. I need to get away from Daath.” There's unspoken words about Daath, about the apparitions that haunt him. There is so much to be said about his home, his prison, and yet he can't bring himself to say any of it. Can't decide if it's simply not worth the time, or if it hurts too much to speak.

“...Has it been bad?” The softness in Guy's voice makes Sync's stomach hurt, a nauseating feeling of pain, despair.

“I just… don’t know what my purpose is, and maybe I don’t have one. But I can’t just keep lingering there." Sync speaks quietly, as if he's scared to admit it out loud. At one time he would've declared it defiantly, but it felt different now. "All it reminds me of is what I am: empty." He felt different.

“...Sync…”

Guy attempts to reach out for his shoulder, but stops last second, keeping his hand to himself. Even if he may have needed that comfort, Sync appreciates the hesitation. He's unsure of himself in all forms, and it felt comforting to have that mirrored.

“Don’t think some kind words will fix me. I’ve been dead too many times for that.” He doubles down on his stubborn self-loathing, but they can both see the cracks in his mask.

“I know… But that doesn’t make me not want to try to help.”

“But why?”

“I want to be friends, or at least, I want you to stop hating me.” Guy laughs a little, amused by the situation. Sync can't help but agree that it's a touch silly.

“If I hated you then I wouldn’t be here." The words are out of Sync's mouth before he's realized what he said. “Ah-” He tries to correct himself, but he’s cut off by Guy giving him a hearty laugh.

"Friends, then?” There's that sunshine smile on Guy's face once more, and Sync can't hardly look at it. It's too bright. His face feels hot from the glow of it, he convinces himself.

“S-shut up.”

Guy reaches out and gives Sync a supportive pat on the back, and Sync just gives him a sharp exhale, but coming from him that was basically a laugh.

"I’ll take that as a yes.”

-

Arriving back in Daath, Sync knows what he has to do, he has to see Florian.

“Huh? What’s this?” It’s easy enough finding him in his study, and Sync practically shoves the paperwork at him. “Hmm… An ambassador position, eh?”

Sync knew what he needed to do.

“I was offered the position, and after thinking it over, I think I’m going to accept.” Sync says, trying his best to stay calm, but he can’t help the shaking feeling in his gut.

If this was how he was going to get closer to Guy, then so be it.

“I think it would do you good. Here, let me grab my seal.” Florian walks over to his desk, putting his signature and official seal onto the document. When Sync goes to grab it back, Florian holds it for a moment. “Don’t push yourself.” Is all he says before letting it go.

Sync doesn’t bother hanging around any longer.

That night, when he looks at himself in his bedroom mirror he can only see his own identity, not Florian’s, nor Ion, nor his Original. For once, he feels a sense of being, and it scares him deeply, but not enough to give it up.

“If this is what I’m meant to be then I will cling to it with every breath I have.”

Chapter Text

Days pass uneventfully between the time of Sync’s next departure to Grand Chokmah. He would have left the same day his document was signed, if not for the lack of boat’s coming and going to Malkuth, an issue he would see to fixing.

Sync arrives by boat and finds the Emperor with little trouble.

“Ah, Sync, so good to see you again!” The Emperor gives him a good-natured chuckle, and accepts the document handed to him. “I see you’ve made your decision, though I suppose if I hadn’t seen you again that would’ve also been a decision. Nevertheless, glad to see you’ve come aboard.”

“Just sick of hanging around Daath, is all.” He says, matter-of-factly, and Peony just laughs once more. From behind them, Sync hears the door open, and in walks Guy and Jade, a rappig in tow on a leash.

“We should celebrate! A party to welcome the newest member of our embassy!” Peony declares, and Sync can’t help but panic.

“No!”

They all pause to stare at him.

“It’s fine, I don’t need a big party thrown for me.” Trying to save face was hard, but he managed, and they all seemed to leave it at that.

“Well, if you’re sure, then okay.” Even though he seems disappointed Peony gives up easily, discarding the idea. “But, we do need to get you properly set up.”

“Huh?”

Guy walks up to the Emperor, being handed something that Sync can’t quite see. There’s a word said between them that Sync can’t quite make out. What was this about?

“Alright, Sync, you’re gonna come with me.” Guy proclaims, trading off the leash of the rappig to the Emperor. “Jade is going to stay with Emperor Peony, and the Colonel is going to accompany us.” The way he addresses the rappig makes the necromancer stare smiling daggers into Guy’s head.

Guy begins to head towards the door, the Colonel tagging along despite complaints. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see!” Is all Guy replies with, and they head out of the Palace towards the housing district.

Sync can tell where this is going.

Housing, it made sense, surely it was just a studio apartment or a room in a dorm, that would be fine.

Why did Jade have to come with though?!

He could feel the man’s smile through the back of his head while they walked along the sidewalks of a small street. There was something about the man that made the hair on the back of Sync’s neck stand on end. Perhaps it was the history the two shared, Fomicry, that made Sync so unnerved by the man.

Sync hadn’t hardly noticed Guy coming to a halt just in front of him, almost bumping into the man.

“Here we are!” The three all look towards what Guy had pointed at, a thin two story house, ivy having taken over the left half of the house. It seemed to be the standard size for this housing district, the other houses on the street similar in shape and size, though only some had any form of greenery around them.

“Huh?” Sync just looks at Guy, confused. “There must be a mistake.”

“Not at all, this is what Peony was able to secure for you.”

“My room in Daath is already too much, but a whole house?” Sync could barely process what he was saying, just staring absently at the building, not even realizing when Guy had handed him the key to it.

“Go ahead, unlock the front door!” Guy insists. “I didn’t spend all yesterday afternoon helping clean this place up for nothing!” He gives a playful push to Sync and he begrudgingly does as he’s asked.

“Okay, okay.” It doesn’t take much to get the door unlocked, and walking into the house, Sync felt… emotional? He couldn’t tell what it was exactly, but perhaps it was just a sense of being overwhelmed.

It was fully furnished, nice furniture, mostly leather and wood. Guy led them through the house, showing off the kitchen and bathroom, and showing off the loft upstairs that held Sync’s bedroom and closet. It was a relatively small house, a standard military home, Guy explained, but it seemed so lavish compared to what Sync had in Daath.

It felt… foreign.

“My, my, this is quite a bargain for the young man, isn’t it?” Jade jokes, and Sync can’t help but mentally agree, not that he would say it.

“Oh, hey, I just realized how late it was getting.” Guy says once they’ve all returned back to the bottom floor. “I need to go check up on his Highness’s rappigs.”

“Ah, okay, see you around then.” Sync says, and Guy gives him a toothy grin in return.

Why does that make his head hurt?

He doesn’t want to think it, doesn’t want to say it.

Guy heads out on his way, while Jade remains, the two of them having come out to the front patio, staring off into the horizon.

“You really should be worrying about your health, you know.” Is all Jade offers, a statement that Sync took to mean fighting words.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You’ve had a serious case of Miasma poisoning within the last month, and it would’ve been another one if you hadn’t gotten lucky.” Flat in tone, not aggressive, nor concerned, but stern, Jade’s face lacks any emotion that Sync can see.

He knew what the necromancer was saying was true, but he wanted so badly to shrug it off as though it meant nothing.

“Your health is already in poor condition, and to be charging into Akzeriuth like some brazen idiot? It’s like you’ve got a death wish, acting like that.” It’s here when it clicks, the tone he has, it’s nothing short of disappointment. Did Jade think Sync to be better than to behave like this? Because if so, he had another thing coming. “At this rate, your body will not last long.”

“...It’s not like it matters, if what you say is true.”

“If you come to my office, I’ll give you an examination.” Jade began to walk off in the same direction Guy had gone, towards the city. “Just take it into consideration.”

Left to his own devices, Sync returned to his house.

To think, it all belonged to him. Or at least, he had free reign to do as he pleased while living there. It felt… wrong.

That night, curled up in his bed, he couldn’t help but smell the lingering scent of Guy. That night, he slept with ease.

Chapter Text

Weeks pass by, Sync having slowly but surely adjusted to his new life acting as an Ambassador between Peony and the Fon Master. Most of the time was spent onboarding with Peony, going over procedural nonsense and paperwork, but there were moments here and there that made the work worthwhile.

Moments of banter between Guy and the Emperor, watching them pile up on Jade for this and that. It was, as much as Sync hated to admit, fun.

The days seemed to blur together, Sync’s mind slowly becoming more and more hazy. It was as though a hand had grasped itself around his brain, clenching and twisting his vision and memories.

He could feel his vision swimming, coming to a head as he was almost home, trying to unlock his front door.

“This is bad.” The words barely leave his mouth louder than a whisper, and it's painful to say, painful to hear. There was no more beating around the bush that he could do.

He had to go see Jade.

Though, in his current condition he likely wouldn't make it far.

'If I just don't show up tomorrow I'm sure they'd be so overwhelmed with worry they'd have no choice but to check up on me.' Sync thinks to himself, trying to plot the best course of action.

"I need rest…" Is all he can agree on with himself. He finally managed to unlock his front door and had let himself inside, kicking off his boots to the side.

After a difficult time struggling up the stairs to his loft, he made it to his bedroom, stripping out of his get up and cozying into bed.

"I can just sleep it off." He tells himself. "It's fine."

-

"You most certainly are not fine!" Guy had arrived not even an hour after Sync was supposed to have shown up for his duties. To say he was understanding of Sync's absence was an understatement, but that didn't stop him from playing mother hen.

"You're running a fever! How long have you been feeling ill?"

Sync gives a weak cough. "I don't know, a week, maybe?"

"I knew I should've pushed Jade…" Guy doesn't finish his sentence, just stands up abruptly. "I'm going to take you to Jade's office. He can run tests on you there."

Tests… the idea terrified Sync in the very core of his heart.

Logically he knew it would be fine, that there was nothing to fear. But the thought of being put under, examined, it gave him a primal chill down his spine.

If taking these tests meant figuring out what was wrong with him, though… maybe it would be worth it.

'When did life suddenly become worth fighting for?' He almost laughed to himself. 'Though, maybe this is what I was always fighting for. A world with no certainty…'

-

The inside of Jade's office was nice, it was a pleasant temperature compared to the cold industrial building it was attached to. Sync sat on a medical bed they had wheeled in from the ward over, well Guy had, and they had long since finished taking his vitals, taking samples. The IV tube in Sync's arm felt unnecessary but he let it be.

"Hmm…" Behind his desk, the necromancer sat staring at a handful of freshly printed documents. "Now that's… I see." There's something in his tone that Sync doesn't like, but then again there wasn't much about the man that he enjoyed. Something about his dry humor drove Sync up a wall.

"What is it?"

"I ran some tests, and from what I can tell there's a strange phenomenon happening that I've seen happen before, but usually it isn't prolonged like this." Jade states, trying to be as calm and straightforward as he can be. "To put it simply, your fonons are rejecting each other and your body is slowly tearing itself apart."

The reality of it hits Sync like a tsunami.

"You don't have long left to live."

"No...no, no, NO, NO! This is bullshit!" Sync shouts, getting up so fast his vision blurs. "You're telling me I'm going to die again?! Is that it? I only came back to suffer?!" An anger Sync hadn't known for some time swells in his gut.

"Sync, please, calm down." This time Guy tries to intervene, but whatever his plan may have been was doomed to fail.

Behind him the apparition of Van appeared, hollow eye'd, venomous, and Sync couldn't help but burst into hysterics.

"He's right there…!" He practically pleads to the two men, and they're left with no other choice but to subdue him. Before Sync could even hope to run off away from his fate, Jade had already pumped a medication into his iv to induce sleep.

Even if he wanted to, he couldn't fight it.

-

"Where… am I?" Sync awoke to a dark room, but as it would be it was exactly where he left off, in Jade's office. The day had turned to night, the only source of light in the office coming from the streetlight lit windows and a small fonon burner on the Colonel's desk.

After a moment of looking around, he notices Guy sleeping on an office chair next to where Sync had been set to rest.

Trying to move his arm to reach out to Guy, he found it shackled to the bed frame, as if he was some sort of criminal.

Fitting, really.

The clank of metal on metal wakes Guy up.

"Sorry 'bout that," he wipes his face of any sleep gunk. "It was Jade's idea. He didn't want you running off."

Sync looks away from Guy, towards the door. If he really wanted to he could just break the shackles and leave anyway… but he didn't. In reality he was too tired, too drained, too sick to operate.

"So, do you wanna talk about what happened?"

It takes a moment for Sync to process. Of course he doesn't want to talk about it. In truth he had no idea what 'it' was.

"I don't… know." Is all he can manage.

"It's okay." At this Guy had gotten up from his chair and walked over to Sync, unlocking the shackles.

Sync rubbed his wrist, staring at it as if it was the most interesting thing in the room.

"I know I said it before but… I've been seeing… Things. Ghosts of people long dead and gone." Saying it feels awful. He can't even begin to imagine how it must sound. "They speak to me."

"It's okay." Guy's voice is so gentle, so kind it feels like knives. "Grief manifests itself in a lot of different ways."

"But it's not okay. I'm not okay." Sync rambles, voice wrought. "I'm a fuck up, and I should have stayed dead, and instead I got the shittiest draw of luck and now I'm going insane and might end up hurting you, or-"

Guy doesn't let him finish his rant, and pulls him into a crushing hug.

"You know I can handle anything and everything you throw at me."

For the first time in Sync's life, he openly sobs. The feeling of Guy's arms around him was too much, but he could do nothing but hold tight to his chest.

Chapter Text

“Now, now, Sync, before you try and attack me just know that I had no intention of keeping you prisoner… for long.” Jade laughs as he speaks, having come in to work right at the crack of dawn. “I would’ve been in shortly, even if Guy hadn’t stayed!”

“Oh bite me, old man.”

Taking a moment to walk over to his desk, Jade pauses. “It’s been a while since I’ve been called that,” He grabs a stack of documents from his desk. “Perhaps I really am getting old, though.”

The room falls into a heavy silence for a moment.

“Let’s start this, shall we?” The necromancer pulls up a chair next to the side of the medical bed. He took out a thermostat, placing it in Sync’s mouth and recording the temperature in his logs. “Hmm… seems to have gone down since yesterday, that’s good.”

“Did you already give me something?” It’s more of an assumption, but Jade nods, confirming his suspicion.

“I did. We had a couple doses left over in the lab, and I was able to put it in your IV.” Pushing his glasses up, Jade consults the chart. “If I hadn’t done something then and there… I don’t particularly imagine you’d still be with us, to put it simply.”

“Oh.”

Sync fidgeted his hands, picking at his cuticles. If they hadn’t acted when they did… He would have died. If he had been dealing with this back in Daath he may not have made it.

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he thanks his fortune that he managed to escape his fate unscathed. The thought of leaving this world in such a pathetic way, so much business left unfinished… it would haunt him.

Or perhaps it would be Sync that would be doing the haunting. But regardless.

“The treatment is working though, right?”

Jade doesn’t answer at first, just stares at the numbers on the chart, as if lost in thought. “The treatment is helping the symptoms, but I can’t say for sure yet if it’s having a direct impact on your fonic structure. An issue that often happens with inexperienced fomicry is that the replicated structure can collapse in on itself.”

“The cells tearing apart at the seams…”

“Exactly.”

The memory of the first Fon Master replicas still plagued Sync’s mind. Watching his brethren, incomplete, terrified, dying before their very eyes. It terrified him to remember.

Was that the fate he was going to face?

“Usually this only happens shortly after the replica is completed, typically within the first few weeks.” Jade states, tapping his pencil to his mouth. “It’s extremely rare for it to be happening this late after your creation, even if you take into consideration your resurrection.”

“Is there any way to reverse it?” Is all Sync can manage to ask.

“I… don’t know. I don’t think so. With treatment we can hope to slow it significantly, add a few extra years to your life,” There’s a short pause. “But I wouldn’t expect more than three or four.” Even if he wanted to, there wasn’t anything more Jade could do for him, and Sync knew that. It didn’t make the bitter feeling on the back of his tongue taste any better, though.

This made him feel sick, but in a different sense.

“I’m going to send you home, now. Take this once a day, for as many days as you can, and when you run out come back to see me.” Jade hands him a bottle of pills. “By that time I should have that ore ordered in from Belkend.”

“Alright. I will.”

“And Guy, would you be a dear and walk him home? I don’t want him collapsing on us again.” There’s something in the sing-song way he spoke that made Sync’s face light up, a heat overwhelming it. It was like he was poking at a bear, completely aware of just how close he could skirt to not get bit. “And don’t let him go anywhere. He’s not to travel until he’s made a proper recovery.”

Even if they wanted to argue with him, they both knew Jade was right. Sync needed the bed rest, and didn’t argue letting Guy lead the way back to his house.

-

The walk from the Military Offices over to Sync’s home didn’t take long, and he couldn’t have been more grateful for it. The sun beating down on his long olive hair was hot, and with his off and on fever it felt particularly harsh out.

By the time they arrived, he had started walking somewhat swayed, a clumsiness in his step.

“You gonna be okay if I leave you by yourself?” There’s a sweet concern to Guy’s voice, and Sync can’t help but feel a conflict of emotions. Something between wanting to fight him and wanting to invite him in.

That wasn’t going to happen, though.

“I’ll be fine.” Sync is tough, he reasons. “I can take care of myself.”

“Uh-huh.” Skepticism was clear as day on his face, but he didn’t question it.

-

That night, sleep does not come easily to the former God General. Try as he might, he couldn’t seem to find rest, torn between the fears of death and whatever had sparked this sudden change in his body, and the change in his heart.

For so long, he had wanted nothing more than to simply die, to make his death worth something greater than what he himself could ever accomplish. And he did that. He had died, and made peace with it, or at least he thought he had.

The further he got from his own past deaths, however… It just felt wrong. It felt like he was losing his sense of mission, like he had somehow failed in his task, but he hadn’t. They had successfully completed their mission, they were in a world without the score, but for what?

To be terrified of what the future held?!

What a joke!

He couldn’t believe he had even let himself feel that way. What could have possibly made him stoop so low as to worry about such mortal trivial nonsense.

What indeed?

Unfinished business…

That stupid man, Guy.

He didn't want to know why he felt this attachment to him, didn't want to think about why the scent of him put him at ease. It was too much.

He knew exactly what it was, what it meant.

Everything about this was too much.

-

At some point Sync must have finally fallen asleep, as he was awoken to the sound of knocking at his door.

Peering down over the lifts banister, he saw that it was Guy, struggling to corral the Emperor's rappig through the door. After a good solid minute of trying, he succeeded.

"Ah, Sync, sorry if I woke you up." Guy wiped the sweat off his brow. "I've come to deliver a letter to you, from Peony, and also Florian."

Guy comes up the stairs, meeting Sync on the loft. He handed over the document, and Sync looked it over.

"Take as long as you need…" He read aloud.

A get-well card, from the two nation's leaders… what a strange idea.

"How're you feeling today?" Without thinking, Guy reaches out with an ungloved hand to feel Sync's forehead.

The touch makes his head spin, dizzy.

"Woah, you're burning up!" Even if he wanted to try and explain it away, Sync was far too embarrassed to. "Here, lay back down. I'll bring you your meds and some water. Where would I find it?"

"Kitchen counter." Sync says unable to speak more than that.

This was all so exhausting on him.

After a moment of rustling, Guy managed to find the medicine and brought it up with him. He extended it out to Sync and he only stared back for a moment.

"I'm not leaving until you take your meds, y'know." His tone is light, humored by Sync's belligerence.

"I'm taking it, jeez." He grabbed the pill, swallowing it with the water Guy had also graciously brought up with him.

"Good." Smiling down at him, Guy nearly looks like an angel.

"I'm… gonna sleep." His words slur together, exhaustion overcoming him.

Just before falling asleep, he feels Guy gently pull the covers up over him.

Chapter Text

"You're test results for yesterday came in." Two weeks had passed since Sync had first fallen ill. Guy had been coming over every day to check up on him, whether or not it was on order of the Emperor, Sync didn't know. He didn’t dare to ask.

"Oh yeah, what'd they say?"

"The treatment's working, that's for sure." Guy says, a wide smile across his face. "Jade even cleared you for travel if you wanted to go back to Daath."

"It's working? You're certain?"

"There's some irreversible damage done to your fonic capabilities, your artes have probably taken a toll." The disappointment in his voice is so clear Sync can't help but notice. "You just need to take it easy, no combat, okay?"

"..." He didn't want to acknowledge what that meant, but he knew. He had sunk down to the same functionality level as Florian… Of the rejects.

"I want to go to Daath." He declares, so sure of himself. Whether or not it was a false confidence he couldn’t tell. All he knew was that he had to go, somewhere, anywhere.

"Yeah? I'm sure Anise and Florian must be worried about you." Guy nods, putting his gloves on from eating. "Just say they word and I'll get you airborne."

"Literally whenever you're ready, I want to go." What was getting him so worked up?

"H… o… d…"

A voice, a sharp pain in his ears.

"Who?"

"What's wrong, Sync?" Mere seconds and Guy is next to him, checking in on him.

"Argh…" Throbbing, piercing pain in his head keeps him from any real thought.

"You… must…"

And as quickly as it arrived it vanished.

"Are you okay? What's wrong, Sync?"

Eyes as wide as saucers, filled with unshed tears, Sync is overwhelmed with a feeling in the back of his mind.

"You said you would take me anywhere, right?"

"I don't like the sound of this…"

"Hod." The immediate sinking of Guy's expression is indicator enough of his answer.

Sync only now looks down at his hands, suddenly aware of how he had been holding onto Guy's arm for stability. He pulled away.

"I… I don't know." It's an honest answer, and Sync is surprised he had even entertained the idea. "But something tells me that if I don't help you're just going to do it anyway and I'll have to go rescue you anyway."

"I need answers." For once, Sync is straightforward in what he feels. "I need to know the source of this, and I know… I know if I go there I'll get the answers I need."

Guy looks at him skeptically, but doesn't interrupt.

"I can feel him there… Lorelei."

"Lorelei?" There's a hushed worry in his voice, and Sync can only nod.

The silence between them was too much to bear.

"I'll take you there." Guy decided, getting to his feet and to the door with haste. "You ready?"

"Yeah."

-

Getting to Hod and landing the Albiore was the easy part, they quickly found out.

The island of Hod had long since beached itself against the coast of Malkuth. Over the ocean they could spot Tataroo valley, the other side seeing the Capital. Even entering Hod was not too difficult, there had been service entrances excavated out of the collapsed debris. Guy knew there was so much left undiscovered within Hod, the Emperor having marked it unsafe to traverse.

"Watch your step, okay?" Guy can't help but say, as if it was instinct.

"Yeah, yeah, I'll be fine." Is all Sync can offer back.

They manage to get through the entrance, and into the main structure of the building. The white walls hurt Sync's eyes, too bright.

White walls covered in the blood of his comrades, of his friends.

He wanted to forget, but he came here to remember, to learn the truth. The truth of how he died, and what that entity wanted with him.

"S… y… n… c."

"Gyah…" Piercing sharp ringing in his eyes once more, but he pushes on despite it.

"Hey, are you okay?" Even if he wanted to, Guy could do nothing but keep pace as they walked the white halls.

"Fine. Let's keep going."

His legs move forward, continuing on regardless of how his heart raced, how his mind seemed detached from itself.

The open air of Hod, the unfinished walkways leading to the castle halls, Sync would have expected it to have been infested with monsters by now, but no. It was empty, aside from the two of them.

"I don't like how quiet it is…" Guy says, still struggling to keep up with Sync's quick pace. "Hey, could you slow it down?"

Sync doesn't even look back, makes no attempt to stop.

"Sync?"

He barely acknowledges Guy's words, only turning back to look at him briefly. There's a look in his eyes that Guy can't quite shake, something mistified, terrified.

"Keep up." Is all he replies.

They walk in silence, heading through the castle structure of Hod, and ending up in the noble district, near the replica of where Guy's manor had been. Near where their final altercation had been.

"It's been so long…" Sync finally slows down, hearing Guy's words. "Do you remember any of this?"

Sync stops at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at the structure he had been tasked with protecting.

Where he had fallen.

"I do." His hand comes up to his face, absently tracing his scar.

"I-I'm sorry."

"GRAH!" A shrill noise Pierce's Sync's ear once more.

"R E T U R N." It echoes in his mind, deafening. Sync pulls his hands up to cover his ears but it does nothing, and his knees buckle under him.

"Sync?!"

He pushes Guy's hands away from his, a blind rage overwhelming his senses. After fighting it, he can't anymore.

"Lorelei…"

-

His body moved against his will.

He climbed the stairs to the castle, feet moving on their own, controlled by something above himself. Even if he wanted, he wouldn't stop. He had to get to the bottom of this, had to know the truth.

“Wait up!” Guy had called after him, but he ignored his cries and continued on, long since leaving him in the dust.

It wasn't until he reached the final set of stairs that his consciousness began to return, that he was looking through his own eyes once more. It felt unreal to be here once more. Every hair on his neck stood on end, his mouth drier than the desert.

"So you came…" there's a voice, one he recognized. But this time it was real.

"You…" Sync walked up onto the platform. He had sworn the platform would have been destroyed in Hod's fall, but here it was, and here was the mastermind of it all. "Lusch."

"H-hey, you actually called me by my name." Lusch sat in front of the Core's entrance, his face somewhere between relieved and distraught. "I'm not going to lie I'm… I'm not doing too great."

The man's face and voice was distorted, as if pulling apart from itself. Sync could hear the dissonance between the two figures, of Luke and Asch, and he felt a fear deep set inside his gut.

Was this his fate?

"You're voice…" There wasn't anything he could do, only approach.

Lusch reached out for him.

"I won't survive, but you…" Fear and uncertainty overwhelm Sync as Lusch reached out for his hand, taking it tight in his. "I'm so glad you came, so I can use the last of my strength to heal you."

A fonic arte lit up under Lusch, a song passing through his lips, one that Sync hadn't heard before.

"What are you doing?" The feeling of the arte rushed through Sync's body, a healing arte. A warm glow enveloping the both of them for a long moment.

"Luke!" Guy had finally caught up, a panicked pant heavy on his breath.

Lusch's face twists into one of sadness, his lips pulling tight. A final surge of fonic energy passes through Sync and he cries out at the feeling. It hurt, the feeling of his cells regrowing, but he could withstand it.

"Guy, I'm sorry." Lusch's voice is low, distorted and he's being pulled apart by the seams as he speaks.

"Don't be." Is all that Guy can manage, choking back tears.

And before their very eyes the apparition that was the ghost of Luke and Asch deteriorated, returning to the planet storm.

From behind him, Sync can hear Guy let out a suppressed cry. He yells into his hands.

“R e t u r n…” The voice still speaks, Sync knows know what the voice is. It echoes from the Core, becoming stronger the closer he gets.

“No…” Sync stands, stumbling to his feet. “I won’t.”

It took every fiber of willpower in his being, but he approached the Core, staring into its depth, knowing full well that Lorelei awaited him. Did he dare to jump in? To meet his maker? It would give him an ultimate satisfaction to destroy Lorelei once and for all.

And yet, he hesitated.

To destroy that which had made his life, that which had made him suffer, it was within his grasp.

“I won’t.” He repeats, his hands steadying themselves on the ground in front of the Core’s entrance.

“Sync, don’t-” Try as he might, Guy can’t stop him.

“I’ll put this to rest, once and for all!” The Fon Master replica honed in his inner strength, bringing forth the Daathic Fonic Seal that had been used to protect the Sephiroth trees. With this, no one would be able to access the Core except for himself and Florian.

The toll it took on his body, though.

“Sync!” He had collapsed, head hung low, barely supporting himself on his elbows. “Hang in there.” Guy leaned down, putting a hand on Sync’s shoulder to keep him a bit more upright.

“I’m fine, I-” Shifting over, Sync looks up to get a look at Guy’s face, and instead sees past him. Behind him, stood Sync’s original. Ion.

He froze, unsure of what to say, what this meant. Instead of tormenting him, however, Ion simply stood there, looking towards the Core. After a moment, he makes eye contact with Sync, before turning his back and walking away, disappearing.

“It’s over.” Sync finishes.

After all this time, he could finally rest.

“Hey, Sync, you’re-” The swordsman reached out, wiping a tear from Sync’s face. Without even thinking, Sync reached out as well, choosing to pull Guy into a crushing hug. “Woah there.”

Warmth filled Sync’s face as he felt Guy reciprocate the hug, pulling him even closer.

“What do you say we get out of here, huh?” Voice so soft and gentle, Sync can only nod in return. It was likely unsafe to stay here, even if they hadn’t seen any monsters on their way in didn’t mean they were entirely alone.

Despite being able to walk on his own two feet, Guy insisted on carrying Sync out of Hod.

“I don’t want you to push yourself too soon and collapse again!” He insisted. Even if it was true, Sync couldn’t help but feel embarrassed by it. “We’ll be out of here and to the Albiore before you know it.”

This time Sync knew his flushed face wasn’t a result of fever, nor a side effect of illness. Everything about this was too much, but for once, he knew it was a good thing.

Looking back only once they had gotten to the bridges, Sync saw a mirage, of those who had fallen in Hod in their final struggle, waving farewell to him. He choked back tears, stiffening his upper lip.

‘Your deaths will not be in vain.’

Chapter Text

Once the two had reached the outside of Hod, Sync had finally convinced Guy to let him walk on his own two feet. He had thankfully regained his strength by then, and the two walked in silence the rest of the way to the Albiore.

When they got inside Guy didn’t interrogate him on what happened, just gave him a moment of peace while the swordsman grabbed something to eat. If he had to guess how Guy was feeling he'd likely assume him exhausted, physically and emotionally.

He didn't say much when he entered the living quarters. But that wouldn’t last for long. They’d have to talk about what happened eventually.

“So…” He starts, uncertain where to begin.
“Was… was he real?” Beating around the bush only served to annoy Sync, but he understood the uncertainty. The fresh wound.

“I don't know." Sync says, quiet unsure. "I held him in my grasp, but I still couldn't tell you if he wasn't just an illusion."

Guy let out a heavy sigh, like he had been holding his breath. He likely was.

"What's done is done, I suppose." Even now, he was still as laid back as ever. Though, in truth, he had likely long since made peace with Luke's death. He had to. There was no way he could've continued on with his life had he not. Though, he clearly still clung to hope of seeing him again. Perhaps not anymore.

"What do you plan to do?" Sync asked, finally taking a seat in the Albiore's lounge, Guy followed suit. In his hands he cradled a drink, whether or not it had alcohol in it Sync didn't ask nor care.

"I don't know. I plan on staying in Malkuth for a while longer, but I think ideally I would want to travel." The swordsman spoke slowly, really thinking over his answer. It seemed like he was being overly deliberate with his words.

Shit like that annoyed Sync, but he would let it slide.

"What about you, Sync?" His heart sank to his stomach. "What're your plans for the future?"

With his limited time… what were his plans?

"I…" His throat felt so dry, his heart dropping to his stomach. "I want to experience the world outside of the nonsense of the church. All this time I've spent I've just been filling the time doing errands for higher ups like it all meant something." For a moment he paused, unsure if he was ready for what he was about to say.

"If you're okay with it, I'd like to come with you. I want to see the world." If he could see the smile that lit up on Guy's face every day for the rest of his life, he could surely die happy.

"Yes of course!" Guy practically beams at the idea.

"Do you think if I asked the Emperor he'd give us money to go on vacation?" Sync jokes, and Guy looks mesmerized at his little laugh.

"Y'know, if you gave him a smile like that, maybe." There's a clear blush across Guy's face, and Sync can't help but be overly aware of it. Since when had he gotten so close?

Sync's heart beat so fast in his chest, his face becoming flustered at the realization of how close they were.

"I-" They spoke at the same time.

'If I don't try, I'll never know.' Sync tells himself, balling his hands into tight fists, trying to find any form of resolve in himself.

"What I want…" Courage didn't come naturally to Sync but he would try nonetheless. "Is to be near you."

Wide eyes met his nervous gaze, and he couldn't help but feel he had said something wrong.

Guy extended a hand to Sync, grabbing him by the shoulder and bringing him into a borderline crushing hug.

"You can stay by me." He speaks into Sync's hair, uncaring of how much he practically crushed the smaller man with his strong hold. "As long as you need, as long as you can."

"Can I?" Sync doesn't finish his sentence, but Guy understands what he means, and nods. Carefully, oh so delicately, Sync placed a kiss on Guy's lips.

To say he felt electricity would be an overstatement, but there was a spark in the back of Sync's brain. It felt so right, exactly what he needed.

The warmth, the embrace, he wanted to give Guy everything he could in return for this feeling.

Wanting to give something of himself to another… what a foreign feeling. Something about it felt wrong, taboo even, but if something that felt this nice was wrong then so be it. He lived with worse sins on his hands.

“I want to stay with you Guy.” He offers, voice barely above a whisper, and the grin that grows on Guy’s face makes him blush.

His only response was to pull him in even tighter, smothering him with kiss after kiss until his face was bright red.

-

Their first destination after leaving Hod was Daath, to give Florian a proper Letter of Resignation from the ex-god general. Even if he had wanted to stay working for Florian, which he particularly resented the idea, he knew his health wasn’t well enough to maintain the job.

“You’re quitting?” Florian didn’t sound surprised, if anything he seemed… relieved? It was a bit annoying if Sync was being honest but he left it alone. “I can’t say I’m surprised after hearing about your health complications.”

There’s a moment of knowing silence from the young man.

“Take care of yourself, okay?” He turns away from Sync, looking towards the stained glass of the cathedral. “Even if you may not consider it to be anymore, just know that this is still your home. Don’t forget that we are here for you.”

A smile passes Florian’s face, a genuine one, and Sync almost finds it infectious. Almost, being the key word. He would rather stab his own foot than give Florian the satisfaction of being friendly towards him.

“Yeah.” Sync tries to say dismissively, but Florian seems to take it otherwise.

“You’ve really grown up, Sync.”

“Keep your opinions to yourself. I’m the same as I’ve always been.” They both know it’s not true, and there’s almost a shared laugh between them.

Outside the office, Guy waits for Sync, and once he’s finally left they go to collect what few belongings he still had in his room.

“So this was the bedroom of the great and fearsome Sync the Tempest, huh.” Guy says, taking a look around and marveling at just how little there was in his room. Though, one of the few personal items Sync had left in his room was none other than the fon machine music box that Guy had given him. “Oh, wow, you actually kept it.”

“I- yeah.” Sync stammers.

“I’m glad you hung onto it, really.” The way he smiles, Sync can’t stand to look at him without his face turning flush. Winding it up, the melody plays out from it, a melody that had long since soothed his nerves, given him comfort when he needed it most. He knew Guy had been the one to give it to him, but seeing him holding it, hearing it next to him, it felt different. It felt… special.

Everything about this was such a new and foreign feeling to him, but it wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, he found himself welcoming the feeling openly.

“This is the last time you’re gonna be here, does it feel weird?” Even if he didn’t mean for it to, the question struck a chord in Sync’s chest.

“A bit, yeah.” It did feel weird, to say goodbye to where he had called ‘home’ even if it wasn’t for forever, even if he was allowed back. Making the conscious decision of a farewell felt wrong. He had been so used to simply going with the flow and accepting consequences and road bumps as they came.

At one point he would have been so ready to throw it all away for the sake of destroying the Score, and even now, being detached from a life predetermined by fate, he still harbored that same strong will. He would throw this whole life away if it meant being closer to what he wanted, but this time what he wanted was being with Guy.

What he wanted more than anything was to live a life free to his own will, and with the swordsman by his side he could seize that future for himself.

“I’m ready.” Sync declares, and the two begin the trek back to the Albiore, Sync’s belongings in tow.

Together, they would make their own future.

"We've got a lot of life left to live, let's make it count!"

"Yeah." And for the first time, he meant it.