[identity profile] aphelion-orion.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] off_the_homerow
Title: Going off the Record
Part: 11/?
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Pairing: Sol/Ky
Rating: R
Contains: Alternate Timeline beginning around GGX, boom and stabbity. Now with 100% more end of the world.
I | II | III | IV | V | Interlude | VI | Interlude II | VII | Interlude III | VIII Part One, Part Two | IX | X Part One, Part Two | XI Part One, Part Two


Going off the Record
Chapter XI, End




For members of the council, President Isan Gabriel had always been a thorn in the side, ever since he had succeeded his father, also a thorn in their side. Apart from their policies or personal feuds, the singularly most despicable thing about the Gabriel clan was that they could conclusively trace their lineage the furthest and highest out of anyone in the city, to the man with whom it all began. The only name to be recovered from Zepp's nebulous beginnings, and although there were no portraits or personal effects, the name appeared in the oldest records of the foundation era, a faceless, unalterable constant.

If one listened to the gossip at banquets and official functions, there was no end to the reasons to oppose the current president, from the rumor that he'd forged his connection to the founding father to the usual suggestions of deviant sexual appetites, though the one most often cited was his cowardice. In a city that was fast, from its people to its machines to its very way of life, Isan Gabriel was slow — slow-moving, slow-speaking, and slow to take action as well. He never made a decision unless he could be sure of all the facts, and though this trait was what had kept things from erupting into an all-out war with the Order for more than twenty years, Aren was the first to admit that it made his father a frustrating man to talk to.

"I do wish you'd let me know when you run off on one of your nightly escapades, Aren. You can't simply expect things to stay on their course while you go crawling the slums."

At the far end of the dining table, the president barely looked up from a sheet of paper he was studying, with the same preternatural thoroughness he used for everything. It wasn't unusual for his father to be up well before this hour, and at another time, Aren might have mistaken the paper in his hand to be simply a part of the day's work, a proposal or a personal invitation. Wouldn't have thought twice about it, and plowed on ahead with his discovery in an effort to get past his father's obstinate insistence on routine, if it hadn't been for the sight of his fingers, rubbing across the emblem of the family's crest, pinned against his breast pocket.

"I have my reasons, sir," Aren replied, curiosity overtaking irritation at the reprimand. Closing the wing doors to the dining room, he stepped closer, trying to catch a glimpse of the president's face and finding no change to his expression. The only irregularity was the small motions of his hand, worrying at the metal brooch.

Wordlessly, he slid into his seat, waiting for him to speak.

"A bird found its way to my window tonight."

It was the slowness, he decided, the fact that the president never raised his voice above a murmur, that made his rivals view him as weak. Aren knew better, even if they often disagreed on the right course of action, him intent on bringing his enemies to destruction, the president more content to wait and see whether enemies would destroy each other. He was a man of few emotions, even fewer reactions, and there was nothing he said that wasn't thought through down to its last syllable, so to see him fiddling, picking at his uniform like someone unaware of his own station was enough to fill Aren with unease, as well.

"A bird, can you imagine? With this tied to its leg." He held the letter out for him to take. "I can't even begin to imagine how he managed to get it there, but I have no doubt its message is genuine."

Aren frowned, for a moment less concerned with the contents of the message and its unsafe transportation than the fact that there was a message at all. Potemkin knew better than to break the radio silence, better than to do or say anything that might be traced back to the house of Gabriel. "What does he have to report?"

"A rather dire failure on our part to assess the situation."

"That's..."

The message was short, artless in its simplicity, and yet, it couldn't have been more damning if it tried.

Ky Kiske, messiah of the ground, attacked by Zeppian machinery.

Every child knew the story, even the most embittered of Zeppian nationalists, those who vehemently denied that it was anything but a scam, the Church's way of trying to claim victory for something that had, at the very least, been a collective effort — Ky Kiske, the Order's golden boy, Gearslayer and savior of the known world. Aren had never known what to make of the story, but he knew enough of legends to be aware that there was no smoke without a fire, and in this moment, truth or fiction mattered not one bit because the legend had been rendered real, more real than any heroic rhyming couplets—

Ky Kiske, anything from wounded to dying, while his followers abandoned grief for revenge.

Gritting his teeth, Aren reached for the cup, downing it to dislodge the sudden lump that was closing up his windpipe. Whatever he might have assumed about the sudden departure of that research team, it hadn't been this. Not this, spelled out in black on white, and he was sure Potemkin couldn't have known, couldn't have known the slightest thing or he would have made sure that ship never reached its destination.

Planning, all those years of caution, acrobatics on a high wire, dodging confrontation, sneaking around Order patrols and security, snatching up the villages they didn't care to protect, all that careful preparation for a dialogue gone, wasted...

"It can't be. They wouldn't. They couldn't possibly— this is insane."

"We knew, though." The president was stroking his mustache, the only outward sign of his discomfort. "We knew that Ghor has been pushing for war."

"By turning us into the aggressor?!"

"What does it matter, if history remembers the victors?"

"That's—" Biting his tongue, Aren tried to grasp a clear thought in the flood of scenarios for the very near future, neatly matched with their individual body counts. Indeed, what did it matter, what did it matter if the chairman was so certain of their chances that he was willing to abandon any hint of pretense, even the flimsiest of charades—

He stopped.

What did it matter, indeed.

Here he was, acting like a common simpleton, shocked at what was, for all intents and purposes, just an unforeseen turn of events, and so dependant on another's information when that information was wrong. The president was wrong. There was still a way.

Smiling grimly, he reached into his shirt, sliding the smudged envelope across the table.

"And what would this be?" the president said, and though his voice remained quiet, there was no mistaking his displeasure at having his mind caught racing down the same lanes as Aren's, spooked at the thought of new conflict.

"Call it the fruits of my late-night wanderings, if you will. A rather intriguing exchange of words with our mysterious co-conspirators, straight from the chambers of Chairman Ghor himself."

Another thing that made the president frustrating to deal with was that he always wore the same unmoving expression that could be interpreted as anything from contemplative to uncaring, lips pursed, eyes retreating behind bushy brows. If he was surprised at the findings, he didn't show it, but Aren thought there might have been a gleam in his eyes all the same, some kind of minor commendation as he studied the letters with excessive care.

"So, it seems we were wrong on this account, too," he finally murmured, lowering the pages. "They certainly don't sound like those fools from the Vatican."

"Perhaps not," Aren said, taking this as a cue to push ahead, "but it fits, doesn't it? If they really went and started a war, then Zepp was never the goal. Just a means to an end, with the both of us as neat little scapegoats if anything went wrong."

The president nodded, reaching up to smooth one hand across his mustache. "Still. Still... exposing these strangers, even just indicting Ghor... it would take more time than we have. The Order might very well be mobilizing troops as we speak."

"Who says we need to?"

"...Pardon?"

"Who says we need to go to all the trouble, with no guarantee of the outcome?" Aren said, raising an eyebrow and gesturing at the letters. "Why not let the injured party decide for us?"

The president didn't reply, fixing him with a hard stare.

"These letters would render Ghor guilty in the Vatican's eyes. Even if they don't believe us, they could hardly ignore such a gesture of goodwill. If we were to turn him in..."

"With a maneuver as underhanded as our enemy's."

"It's the way this city works, father," Aren countered. "I didn't think I'd have to remind you of that. The war was just a drain stopper. Now, everything's circling down, and we've got people like Ghor stomping over everything we've worked for."

"What happens in Zepp stays in Zepp," the president said, but he hadn't stopped rubbing the emblem, a certain resignation coloring his tone.

"And if they have their way, pretty soon, Zepp won't stay anywhere at all. I for one won't stand idly by while they sell our future to the highest bidder. What will you do?"

His mustache trembling with a sigh, the president pushed back from the table, gathering up the evidence. "Very well. Inform the staff that I want the ship to be ready in half an hour. I have a call to make."

----------

The glider cut across the sky, weaving carefully between the towers. Apart from the docks, the high tier was the only area where ships could take off and land without smearing against the walls, the buildings less tightly packed, but still sufficiently linked by corridors and walkways so that any aircraft larger than a noble gondola would find itself in trouble.

The president's glider had sacrificed comfort for security, the weight of plush seating and an onboard bar exchanged for an enforced hull and an extra floor compartments' worth of guns. It didn't matter much to the passengers, the four guards busy with piloting and silence, their masters both preoccupied with their own thoughts.

"I wish you'd stop fiddling with that," the president said eventually, turning from his perusal of the scenery.

Aren didn't pause in his task, feeding shells into the short-barreled shotgun and smoothing a hand across the grip. Satisfied, he slid it back into his leg holster. "Forgive me for being just a tiny bit nervous, sir. Four men is hardly peak security."

"And I can hardly take so many men that it looks like we're trying to storm the council hall."

"You think Ghor is going to harbor the same considerations?" Aren said, reaching up to fix the leather straps of his trusty ocular. "I still don't like that he agreed to meet with us so easily."

"There is no sense in letting suspicion become paranoia, or allowing it to cloud your judgment of character. Ghor is man of minor caliber. Always with his hands in something on the side, but put a bit of pressure on him and he folds like a house of cards. Besides... I thought you already learned that lesson." The president paused, pushing back the folds of his coat to reveal two sleek silver pistols. "Appearance is everything."

"Sir, we're ready to land."

The president nodded, ignoring Aren's dark look. "Put her down, but keep the engines running. The three of you will come with me. Just because we travel light doesn't mean we have to go bumbling around like fools."

Aren nodded curtly. He had long since learned the points he could argue, and his father had always been too much of a soldier, too much of a general not to demand unquestioning obedience in the field. None of this made the plan any more agreeable. It was only owing to the president's hopeless old-fashioned ideals that they were here at all, negotiating like solicitors in their own city, instead of taking what was their right and due. Ghor was still a vassal before the law, and if it had been him, there would have been no talk, no meetings, just a swift strike in the middle of the night and a messenger dispatched to the Order come morning.

Up ahead, the council hall was coming into view, easily the tallest of all the tall towers, losing itself in the press of buildings closer to the mid-tier. Some claimed that it reached all the way down, past the layers and far into the mass of rock that was Zepp's underbelly, though no one had ever been down there to make certain, any doors leading past the mid-tear sealed so tight that no hammer or welding machine would even put a dent in them. As a child, the idea had intrigued him, but now, as a grown up, a handful of years away from taking control, he could see it for what it really was — an old building, just old, like everything in Zepp, slowly decaying from the inside out. The president might have led them through the war, but he had grown old, too, firmly rooted in something that no longer existed, and what was left of it was steadily crumbling away.

Aren had been down in the slums often enough to see as much, to hear the people talk — if anything from the high tier even penetrated so deeply, it was treated as nothing more than a curiosity, names and faces and rules that had nothing to do with the life of a plumber scraping by on the skin of his teeth in his little corner shop, wondering just when he'd agreed to never go elsewhere, somewhere vaster and brighter with an apple or two to stuff in his children's pockets from time to time.

His father was old, too, too old to acknowledge that no one would care if he simply gave the order to storm Ghor's manor and take him into custody. No one except the other houses, and their stance could be easily reversed once Ghor ceased to be around to spread his promises. They loved their money too much, their baubles and taffeta dresses, to risk them against even a shred of reasonable doubt.

The ship hit the landing platform with a soft thump, the engine slowing from a deafening roar to a steady hum. At the president's signal, the guards pulled open the door, falling into step beside him as he descended onto the concrete. Aren followed in their wake.

Chairman Ghor was already waiting for them, two of his own personal guards standing in attendance. He seemed nervous, almost frightened, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his smile a twitchy facsimile as he held out his hand for the president to shake.

"Mr. President."

"Mr. Chairman, thank you for coming. Since we are rather pressed for time, allow me to get straight to the point—"

Aren tuned them out. It was old men talk, steeped in flowers of speech that meant the exact opposite of what they were saying, nothing but words to prolong the inevitable. A part of him was wishing he'd taken matters into his own hands right from the start, now that months of cumbersome secrecy had turned out to be all for nothing. At the very least, he should have kept Ghor's involvement to himself, gone after him on his own — it would have been swift, would have taken their opponents by surprise, and though the president would have been furious once he found out, he would've had to go along with it in the end if he wished to save the city. He didn't like being here, out in the open, winding his way through sycophantic phrases and empty diplomacy.

A slight turn brought the ocular to life, bathing the right side of his vision in an unnatural green glow. A family heirloom, he'd been told, rotting away in the vaults of the Gabriel mansion like so many other things, and though he didn't know exactly how it worked, it had served him well on more than one occasion. Where the false green hit a source of heat, it refracted, splitting into all hues from yellow to red. Slowly, he swept his gaze over the platform, lingering on the balustrade above the entrance, the higher windows, and each of the ornamental columns along its edge, but the light remained the same gently flickering green. Experimentally, he turned to study the escort, pulsing in varying shades of red and orange, except for the pale slash of the handgun, concealed against their sides.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing out of the ordinary, and yet...

"—while the methods through which I've come by this evidence are dubious, I have no choice but to consider the matter in the light of recent developments on the ground."

"Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable. Five generations of unbroken service to our country, and yet you'd believe the words of those dirt-dwelling plebes?"

"I give consideration to their words because it is my duty," the president said. "As it is my duty to give consideration to yours. I would hear your reasons, would you be inclined to give them."

"You'd like that, I suppose. I demand an official hearing, and full disclosure of your so-called sources. I won't let you turn this country into a place where we run investigations like a papal satellite state!" Ghor hadn't ceased shifting, his motions growing more erratic by the minute, and though he seemed to be doing a fine job of working himself into a frenzy, his attention had yet to stray from the president.

Aren stopped, and narrowed his eyes.

If you were a man built like a house of cards... would you seek out the one who can blow you down?

He'd been too young to properly make a name for himself in the war, but his marksmanship hadn't suffered for it. The gun was in his hand before a guard on either side had the chance to do more than jerk in surprise, the safety grinding back with unmistakable intent.

"Do drop your weapons, gentlemen. I'd rather we all not act foolish and put my aim to the test."

"Aren, what are you doing?"

"Chalk it up to my paranoia, sir, but I believe we've been here quite long enough. Mr. Chairman, I'm sure you can expect a.... well, a swift trial." He waved his gun at the guards, who seemed to have decided not to place their master at risk and were unbuckling their holsters. "The small ones, too. Oh, don't look so dumbfounded, you know which ones I mean."

Ghor, he noted, had stopped playing both the nervous wreck and the offended victim the second he'd come face to face with the gun; in fact, his entire posture had grown rigid, taller than he'd ever stood during his speeches at the council meetings.

"You've managed to raise a rather perceptive young man there, Gabriel. I must say I'm quite surprised."

"...I believe the young man would like for you to call off anyone you might have posted around here," the president replied evenly, reaching for his own weapons. That was the nice thing about veterans - they could only be taken off guard once; everything else was just rolling with the punches.

"Or you'll shoot me? Pardon me, but I was under the impression that I'd be worth more alive than dead to you."

"I wouldn't worry too much," Aren said, nudging away the discarded guns with his foot. "I hear they aren't above burning corpses at the stake if they have to. Now then, I would be most obliged if you complied with the president's wishes."

To his surprise, Ghor merely smiled. "That might prove problematic. You see, time is just about up. And once they start... they really can't be stopped."

Maybe it was that the chairman's eyes flickered skyward for a moment, or perhaps just the cliché he'd expected, anticipated— a red gleam at the corner of his vision, and he yanked up the gun before he could even see—

Impossible, /impossible/, there was no one there, I /saw/—

The shot hit its mark with the high-pitched ring of a bullet denting metal, and Aren only had a second to realize that the red haze in his ocular hadn't been a person at all, before a swath of searing brightness cut down, and the ground simply burst into flames.

--------

The reasons he didn't die in that instant would only come to him later, at a point when exhaustion took over and began to show him visions that would keep jerking him awake, shaking at their vivid detail. The first was the bodyguards, poised dutifully in front of his father with their guns in hand, burning in the brunt of the attack. The second was his father's hands, imbued with an inhuman strength, pushing him away.

The force of the blast sent him flying across the platform, skipping like a pebble hitting pavement and rolling to a standstill. Adrenaline had him pushing himself off the ground not a moment after, drowning out the pounding agony in his throat, his head, his chest, forbidding any question of how and who and where. All that was left was room for the realization that there was fire before him, and the abyss behind him, and the sight of two gleaming silhouettes leaping nimbly from a tenth story balcony.

The glider. He had to reach the glider.

Dragging himself to his feet took more effort than anticipated, his left ankle screaming when he tried to force it to bear his weight. Twisted, most likely, and that was going to be the least of his problems because the figures straightened, and even through the smoke, he was certain he could see their eyes flare bright yellow.

Weapon... that weapon... and we thought they didn't have the capacity to go for mass production—

/For fuck's sake, run!/

Useless to try and cover his retreat, the bullets zinging off the armor without so much as taking off a single plate, but he couldn't not try, give them something to keep busy with when a decent jog could have tackled him, when not shooting meant he was left with nothing but inching backwards, tottering like a helpless child. Blood, there was blood, and he couldn't even tell whose it was, his or a guard's—

—or my father's—

—and he couldn't even risk glancing back to check if the ship was still there until he stumbled, and his back hit metal in the most painful way.

"Go!"

Another shot, his free hand clawing along the glider's side until it hit the side hatch, his feet scrambling up onto the skids, and the pilot was still frozen, staring at the platform with a face of slack, fascinated horror.

"Go, go, go, go!"

Yelling, his voice high and reedy from the acrid fumes, tumbling backwards in a heap as the gun emptied, the pilot finally, mercifully reaching for the controls, fingers fluttering along the dashboard with the speed of the panicked, and then the glider blasted off, leaving behind a wave of dust. Aren spent a moment lying on his back as the ship was climbing, gasping and not taking anything in, everything blurring together in front of his eyes.

Better get up, get the door shut, unless you want them to pick you off like a rooftop pigeon...

The cockpit exploded.

At least, that was what he was left to assume, one moment of not looking at the pilot and in the next, the entire metal frame was rupturing, bursting open like a rotten fruit — anti-flak armor, that had been anti-flak armor — the ship's headless torso rotating, tilting, ammo and flecks of broken glass spilling towards nothing, and then he was falling, and then he was screaming.

-----------

The second explosion rocked the landing platform, the engines collapsing in on themselves with a howl and swallowing the whole airship in a blast of blue-red energy. No debris, no crashing wreckage, just an iridescent swelling that rose up, reducing everything to ash.

Slowly, Ghor rose to his feet, dusting off his coat. Around him, his guards were rising, as well, groaning weakly from the unexpected display of power. At the edge of the platform, the robots had stopped, folded back into their dormant position. Shaking his head, he stepped forward to survey the damage, four bodies burned almost beyond recognition.

"What a mess. Meirth never knew how to pace himself."

Wrinkling his nose against the stench, he bent down to retrieve the only thing that had withstood the fire without the slightest scratch, winking bright and golden in its accustomed place over the president's left breast. It came loose rather easily, nothing but a simple brooch bearing a tower framed by a pair of wings, pompous in its symbolism. A foundation for the future, or so the Gabriels claimed. He couldn't imagine what anyone saw in such a trinket, save for the fact that it had survived the heat unscathed, when nothing else had.

"S-sir?"

One of the guards approached hesitantly, casting nervous glances in the direction of the machines.

Ghor closed his fingers around the emblem. "Inform our friends that we have what they asked for."

"Yes, sir."

"Have someone clean up this place, then dispatch a team to Gabriel's mansion. Make sure no one gets away. Oh, and... try not to use bullets. The ground loves its swords and crossbows, after all."

"Y-yes, sir." With a salute, the guard withdrew.

Ghor remained standing on the platform for a little while longer, thumb smoothing across the engravings on the brooch, gazing down at the remains of the man who could now be called his predecessor. It was the one benefit of waiting for so long, he supposed.

After all, that could have been him.







-TBC-

------

A/N: My god, this chapter didn't take long at all or anything. Next time, it'll be back to Ky, and more explosions, and possibly finally Sol. Hope to see you there. XD




Date: 2011-07-12 06:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] infant-queen.livejournal.com
Oh man, now I don't know what to think about Aren.

He seems like a guy with good intentions *with Zepp at least*, but in all the wrong ways Lol I see what you mean when you said that he is Ky's antithesis.

Good job! I will be waiting for Sol in the next chapter xD

Date: 2011-07-12 07:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] infant-queen.livejournal.com
Whoa, almost forgot.

Hopefully LJ isn't lying to me, and in this side of the world is twelve already so...

Feliz cumpleaños :D

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