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"Sir? Doctor Cid, sir?"

He does not and has never have anything resembling Vayne's ability to wake in an instant, snapping so swiftly to alertness it's rather impossible to be sure he was actually taking a moment's rest. In his younger days, at least, Cid had been able to negotiate for better terms with sleep until at least sunrise, the lab's coffee machine practically a holy relic. Oh to be young again, and strung out on an endless supply of questionable chemicals in rampant pursuit of an escaping thesis.

"Sir? I'm sorry to disturb you. It's very important."

Important enough for the aide to actually be in his room and not just knocking at the door, and even with his eyelids gummed shut the overhead lights snap on in a merciless blaze, white space burning where his thoughts have been chased away. Cid groans, throwing an arm over his eyes. Fully clothed, which means falling into bed, which means he should have heard the explosion, whatever's happened. The alarms ought to be going off, Draklor has excellent failsafes for the inevitable disasters. He rubs at his face, hauling himself upright, into a moment of sickening vertigo, still barely half awake and trying to remember how dangerous the last thing he was working on was.

"Is the project secure? Who's in the lab? What's the… status…" It wasn't dangerous, was it? A recalibration of one of the engines off the Ifrit, he finally remembers. Nothing the team doesn't know how to do without him, no problems so far - but then this is Nethicite, which seems remarkably clever at finding new ways to trick his interns into blowing themselves up. No one's died - yet - but as the research moves into new and different areas, it's become as easy to predict the outcome as it is playing pass the parcel with a cactaur taped to a well-provoked bomb. Less a matter of if than when.

Gods above, he's tired. What time is it, anyway?

He rubs a hand against his face, as his eyes finally adjust to the light. The man is not, in fact, one of his aides.

"Who the hell-"

"Sir, it concerns Nabudis."

And then Cid is more awake than he's ever been in his life.

—————————————————

He is the head scientist in the largest and most well-funded lab in what is arguably the most powerful nation on the planet. For over half of his life, he has devoted himself to the largest projects, the most revolutionary ideas, the most innovative technologies, using increasingly dangerous methods and materials to test the limits of human understanding. The underlying tone of every order from his Emperor is, of course, nothing less than to remake the world. Colleagues, co-workers and enemies alike believe he is more than a little out of his mind.

None of this suggests any mistakes Cid makes will ever be considered 'small.' Even by those measures, Nabudis is failure on a standard more familiar to myth than actual human experience. How truly Imperial, really, to be well on their way to mowing over Nabradia, only to go and and blow half of it up before they can get there.

Venat had located the Midlight Shard in Nabudis, the only one of the Dynast-King's relics they might reasonably acquire, and the only way of testing the treaty blade he'd been able to create - only two dozen failures, before he'd come up with something Venat had thought might work. A blade that could destroy the Sun-Cryst, and the Midlight Shard seemed a perfect test. Save for the fact it was in the middle of the Nabradian capital city, and though there had yet been no true declaration of war, at this point it was little more than a formality.

Vayne Solidor is a brilliant strategist, a charismatic leader and very good at subterfuge - his enemies would not hate him nearly as much, were it at all otherwise. If he has any glaring flaw, it is one Cid shares - a deep distaste for working from too great a distance, trusting vital tasks to any hands but his own. Still, there was nothing to be done for it. The Midlight Shard was in Nabudis, and retrieving it with any real force before the taking of the city was nigh impossible.

It does not help, that Cid's research has proven incredibly successful, enough that the even rumors of the Dynast-King's hidden trove, the weapons that Raithwall used to secure peace in his time - the Sun-Cryst itself - these are not the empty tales they once were, and the Emperor is hardly the only one watching Cid's work with a covetous interest. Imagine, what an enterprising Judge might be able to secure with such power, with even a single Shard, let alone the promise of more.

So in the end, it is a simple plan with simple instructions, for a single Judge as yet uncommitted to a cause or faction, with no deep loyalties or - with a bit of careful tale-telling - a true idea of the value of his task. He is to wait in Nabudis, carrying Cid's treaty blade in with him, uncover the Midlight Shard and then keep it in safety, waiting out the end of hostilities. Amusing, perhaps, that a war zone will be a better place for state secrets than the Imperial Palace, yet there it is.

The Judge leaves in secrecy, with half a dozen places marked to track down his quarry, and there will be no word from him, in success or failure, until the war is over. God or not, Venat remembers a different world than the one they now inhabit, and its suggestions are only possibilities, only clues. Buildings crumble, secrets shift beneath old stones, and yet it seems a good enough plan.

Difficult now, to imagine what the bad plan could have possibly looked like.

Cid had to admit, he'd been curious from the very start. Just how did Nethicite differ, cut from the heart of the Sun-Cryst itself rather than coming out of a lab? Apparently the difference was that his version tore the occasional thumb off of a careless researcher, while Deifacted Nethicite killed thousands. Tens of thousands, tearing the very heart out of the city and… well, he'd heard the stories, many stories, but the one that summed it all up was how the survivors had run /toward/ the invading army, far preferring the Archadians to what lay in the ruins of their former capital.

Who knew exactly what had happened? Had there been a double deal? Had their agent realized the value of what he held, and tried to take its power for himself? Had Nabradia learned of the Judge in their midst? Or perhaps Rozarria had been there with men of their own, eager for the chance to study a piece of Deifacted Nethicite for themselves. All the old stories, all the old myths and their power returning to life and truth, all because Doctor Cidolfus Demen Bunasa started hearing voices and actually listened to them.

Far too optimistic, to imagine the newly-christened Necrohol might change Rozarria's mind about Nethicite. If anything, it had been the final catalyst, cementing all positions to full-on alert, driving what remained of Nabradia ahead into the only course left for them, with Dalmasca rousing to avenge the horror visited on her sister-state.

It is not his fault. Or perhaps it is entirely his fault. Cid realizes he can't quite grasp it, the sheer numbers involved, and there is the tiniest cold comfort in the idea that at least they would not have known what was happening. It would have been over in moments, before there was even time to be afraid.

No one he can ask, to judge him or absolve him, because in Archadia's eyes it has nothing to do with them at all. Oh certainly, everyone guesses at the truth, the Emperor and the Judges and a very, very edgy Rozarria, but no one's about to speak up, except to wonder what the hell Nabradia did to itself. Some experiment with Nethicite on their own? Trying to find a weapon that might save them from the Empire? Who knows, perhaps that is exactly what happened.

Cid wonders, as he becomes intimately familiar with the ceiling of his room in the dark, and eventually as he gives up on sleep altogether, if maybe Venat isn't even close to the bottom, of how far down this will go, that perhaps insanity is a sliding scale that just keeps sliding. Eventually, the only thought left to turn over and over is that he's going to destroy the world. It's the only thing left to do, whether he wants to or not, and it doesn't matter what his intentions are or if he even tries. He's hasn't tried, all these times before, and look at what he has to show for it. It was something one of his professors had remarked upon, years ago now - more than smart enough to get into trouble but too damn daft to find his way out again.

He's a shipbuilder, with delusions of delusions of grandeur.

———————————————-

It is not until Rabanastre falls, not until Raminas is dead that there is any real chance at recovering the Midlight Shard. Perhaps it has been destroyed, though much as he believes in his skills, Cid holds out only half hopes for the treaty blade as any sort of success. If it has worked, though, they might recover it as well, and the key to destroying the Sun-Cryst will be theirs. He had wondered, all this time, how Venat could be so calm about their reluctance to commit, to refuse to destroy it.

Standing at the edge, of what remains of Nabudis, Cid thinks he understands. The Mist clings to everything, thick enough that it is difficult to breathe, stinging his lungs, yet that is not what leaves him dizzy, staring at an endless plain of cracked stone, all set at a slant. It tilted the /entire damn city/ - and Cid feels the world fall away in a moment of perfect clarity.

Destroy the world. If one small fragment could do all this, the Sun-Cryst itself…

"Cid." Vayne's voice is overloud and startling in this silent, dead space. No sounds, no birds, no animals, though they've encountered a few creatures already, warped and twisted monsters that speak to the sorts of horrors they will find inside. It's difficult to recover his composure, taking a deep, calming breath in this place out of the question, but after a moment he manages.

"I'm fine."

A premature conclusion, laughably so. The veil swirls away like smoke as they move forward, the Mist shifting, coalescing at the edge of the Necrohol itself, and then his wife is staring back at him. All the sadness of the world in her gaze, all the shame - she knows what he has done, and Cid staggers, sways - is steadied by Vayne's hand on his shoulder.

"Mist shadows. Echoes of what was, and who you carry with you - it is not her, Cid. She is not here."

Neither are Vayne's elder brothers, though they lean against the opposite wall in sullen disdain and solemn silence, exactly as Cid remembers them - and there are other figures, too. Enough to make him choke on his breath - hands reaching out as if pleading for help, the twist of a body attempting to flee, a mother throwing herself down, over the curled form of her child. The idea of ten-thousand lost, it is clearer now, standing in the middle of it. The corpse of a once-grand city, attended for eternity by the faded images of the damned.

"I did this."

"We did this. You and I, and my father, and Rozarria. The gods did this, if you wish to go that far." Vayne is angry, a rare hardness in his tone, and the world stops feeling as if it is about to slip away. "We are the only ones who can ensure this will not happen again. We cannot honor them now with pointless guilt, or save them with the blood of our people."

Imagine what such a weapon would do, unleashed in the center of Archades. Imagine how many would consider it naught but justice.

"So, then…" Cid breathes, and Venat is there beside him, as yet silent but waiting. The preparations for this were extensive, everything in secret and only the two of them, against the unknown, and even with Venat's assistance there is no guarantee what they will find.

"Starting to rethink your allegiances, Doctor?"

Vayne looks into the darkness, unflinching, the slightest hint of a smile on his face. How he is not already Emperor of all Ivalice is a mystery for the ages. Cid sighs, no more comfortable even after he take his gun in hand.

"Here I thought all I had to look forward to was your father cutting my head off."

A simple trip into the bowels of hell itself. What could possibly go wrong?

———————————————

Cid wakes up to the feel of warm water trickling down his face, one arm screaming in pain where it is pinned underneath him. His body is twisted at an ugly angle, thrown to the ground by an angry hand. The air smells scorched, and his lungs burn - it hurts to cough, and when he runs his tongue against the roof of his mouth, he can taste the grit. He could count the parts of him that aren't aching on one hand, if his fingers would do him the courtesy of bending.

Slowly, he rolls over onto his back, and realizes that the water dripping from his temple is blood at the exact moment the thing that has been watching him from the ceiling screams, and drops down on top of him. Cid shouts, throwing himself backward, shoving at it blindly, and hears teeth or fangs clang off the gun he didn't know he was still holding. The magic comes out of sheer panic, only Lightning by blind luck, an overkill that catches it in midair, leaves it twitching and sizzling against the ground. It isn't until he's panting in the aftermath, listening to the patter of dirt from the crumbling walls, that Cid realizes how very close they are to being buried alive.

They.

"… Vayne?" It's a croak, less than a whisper, and Cid swallows twice and tries again, wishing he were twenty years younger, impossible to call out and still have the breath to stand. "Vayne?! Where are you?"

Nausea hits him and the world rolls as he struggles to his feet, but Cid clenches his jaw and rides it out. Listening for anything else moving about in the shadows - the monsters as bad down here as anything he could have expected, and in incredible numbers - but for the moment all is silent, only his own harsh breathing echoing off stone walls.

"Vayne?! Answer me!"

The recent past assaults him in a jumble of images, a tangle of panic and pain. It's terrifyingly easy to get lost down here, an almost maze-like quality to this place, though this larger chamber - the walls are green, dull but still visible - so at least Cid knows where he is, remembers - he hasn't been moved, it is the same room where everything went wrong.

The Occuria. Finally, they'd shown themselves. After all this time, when Cid had wondered how that blow would finally fall.

"Venat?"

No answer, though even as he says it Cid knows better, remembers the whole of it. Making their way down here, following Venat's instruction and the map Cid had of the city, still somewhat useful though they'd had to take detours through shattered walls and around collapsed buildings. No bodies. The Midlight Shard had vaporized every living thing its power had consumed.

It made one wonder, about the Dynast-King, and his long reign of peace.

An arduous task, with new monsters at every turn, and even the small ones were clever enough to hunt in packs, but between swords and guns and magic, they'd managed to push forward, keep ahead of the worst of it. Until they'd reached this room, perhaps once the lower level of a house and an open courtyard, and the Magicite in his hand had flickered, flaring wildly, and Cid had followed its light to a crack in the wall, to a pile of debris and beneath it, glinting dully - his treaty blade. Split in half, but truly the weapon he had crafted. It seemed a strange impossibility, to find anything familiar here, as if he had held it in some age long past - no reason to think the Shard would be nearby, yet the blade alone might prove worth the effort of recovering it.

//Cid.//

He'd looked up, less at that shadowed whisper than to show Vayne the blade, the first piece of good news since they'd entered this god-forsaken nightmare - only to discover it had not been quite so forsaken.

//I am sorry.//

Vayne stood in the center of the courtyard, the Midlight Shard in one hand, held high and studying it in what passed for light in the catacombs. He did not see what Cid could, did not know of the shadowed figures surrounding him. He did not hear them laugh, or what had to be Venat's scream, and even past that terrible, high-pitched howl, Cid could hear the voice, purring in triumph as the Midlight Shard flared to sudden life.

//You wish so greatly for oblivion, Venat, then allow us to oblige you.//

He would forever wonder if it was his blade that had cracked the Shard, if that had caused the explosion that had leveled Nabudis, or if it - all of it - had all taken place by some other design, and it was the Occuria themselves who had put that traitorous flaw into its surface. Waiting for them. All of this a trap, so that Cid would blindly enter and bring the heir of House Solidor with him, that they might be rid of all their enemies in a single stroke.

He had no time, not to move or even shout a shout a warning, no time to do anything but watch as Vayne's eyes saw the fracture, and snapped to his, realizing what would happen in the instant that the Midlight Shard exploded, and burnt the whole of the world away.

"Vayne!? Answer me!!!"

The voice that echoes off the walls sounds like a man unhinged, which is fine. Cid would much rather feel blind panic, would rather stumble like an idiot over cracked stones and feel it echo painfully through every muscle than deal with any of what is looming up beyond this moment. That he's only going to find a body - he'll be /lucky/ to find a body, and then it will be the simple question of whether to bring Vayne back to the surface, or to remain here and join him.

Who will tell Larsa that his brother is gone?

A soft sound, and Cid freezes, twisting, searching for whatever foul beast or abomination is waiting to strike, half-hoping it is something large and fast and he will have no chance to run or fight. Half-hoping it will /hurt/. A moment later, and he is diving forward, the sound not a growl but a soft, pained groan - a human sound.

"Vayne? Vayne, I'm here-" On his knees and digging, carefully pulling the debris away, pieces of the wall and the ceiling that is still groaning ominously above them, a crack now and then - shifting, this city-crypt unsettled by yet another stirring of long-forgotton magics, and if Vayne has broken a limb, or worse, then moving him - he has Curaga, though, and should be able to -

Cid pulls the last of the rubble away, and all his thoughts go still, and quiet.

Vayne's right side, shoulder to waist, is a mass of blood, shredded fabric mixed with skin and gleaming bits of what Cid thinks with a horrified sort of disconnect must be bone or even worse - realizing a moment later what they are, what they have to be to gleam so brightly. The Midlight Shard, exploded into a thousand pieces of shrapnel, tearing through the man now looking back at him with glassy eyes.

"Quite… remarkable." Vayne says around a hissing breath, his skin a sickly shade of gray, every tendon, every muscle pulled taut. Fighting with all he has against the onslaught of agony, Cid can see it in his gaze, in the white-knuckled fist of his uninjured hand.

"Hold on. Just hold on." He breathes, reaching out, staring stupidly as the Curaga flickers and dies at his fingertips.

Deifacted Nethicite. Of course it absorbs magic.

"Can you-" But Vayne has beaten him to it, trying a spell of his own, and the cry ripped from him, ground out through clenched teeth is almost more than Cid can bear.

"All right. Easy, easy…"

Meaningless words in a calm tone, with his own thoughts a blur, his hands moving entirely of their own accord. So many years fixing what is broken, a part of him comes to this naturally even as the rest of him is stunned raw with horror, and Cid is downing an Elixir and throwing up a barrier - twice, before it reaches past what Vayne is absorbing - and he has a handful of potions as if that's going to do /anything/, with monsters everywhere and the ceiling still threatening to cave in.

"Get it… out of me." Vayne hisses. "Burning… it's… Please. Get it /out/."

"I don't…" Except he does, and Vayne is right. If there's any chance… and it doesn't matter if it's the last thing he could ever want to do. Cid pulls his belt free, doubles it over, and Vayne bites down hard into the leather, eyes fixed on the ceiling. He's not a surgeon, but Cid's worked on delicate systems before, adjusting and repairing mechanisms half the size of a gil coin, and though all he has now is a dagger's point heated beneath a hurried Fire spell -

"It's going to be okay. Everything's going to be fine."

As if he's trying to comfort a child, and Cid doesn't know which of them the words are for, only that he has to say something, everything in him shaking save for his perfectly steady hands. He moves as quickly as he can, picking pieces of Nethicite out of skin and muscle, scraping away bits of blackened shirt, dousing careful measures of potion in its wake. If he doesn't think about what he's doing it's almost bearable, not asking why his work surface shudders now and again beneath the blade, the occasional hiss or whimper - and he's not getting it all. The larger pieces, the ones on the surface he can reach, but there's a fine layer, like dust, embedded deep in Vayne's skin, splinters lodged in that he doesn't dare try to pull out.

An interesting experiment, right? The effects of Deifacted Nethicite violently introduced to a human body. Certainly that will produce some good data, at least on the short term. Cid wants nothing more to turn the blade around and cut out whatever part of him couldn't rest until this was done, until he'd gone and broken everything.

"You're bleeding."

"It's nothing." His head hurts, and his vision flickers whenever he glances back at the passageway behind him, attention drawn to skittering sounds in the darkness. "We're going to need to walk out of here."

"Oh, is that all?" Vayne swallows, hard, testing his barely-healed body as he slowly makes a fist, dried blood and potion leaving him looking more like one of the creatures that inhabits the Necrohol than anything trying to leave it, and there are so many shadows inside his skin, fragments of the Midlight Shard, useless now except to kill him slowly. Cid has a hand at his shoulder, as Vayne lifts himself up on his good arm, and it takes all his energy just to get that far.

"We can rest."

"No time. Whatever creatures were driven away by the explosion, they will not be delayed for long. I don't… You could-"

"I'll die before I leave you here." As if it was ever an option. He might be mistaking the slight relief in Vayne's eyes, the light is not so good.

"Well, then. Give me your gun. You're going to have to brace me by my bad arm-"

"/Vayne/."

"I can't move it near well enough to fire, and you have to be free to cast, or there's no way we'll ever reach the surface."

Between the headache and his ebbing adrenaline, Cid isn't sure he could reliably make an ice cube at the moment, but Vayne is right, there is no other option.

Getting into Nabudis was difficult, but the march out is endless, Cid half-dragging Vayne in a way that makes the taller man grimace and stiffen with what feels like every step, but his aim is true enough against the teeth and claws and gods know what else that comes at them from the darkness, and Cid tries to focus on keeping his spells focused and effective and not on his dwindling reserves of magic or Vayne's supply of ammunition.

"Venat?" Vayne finally asks, during one of their many pauses in what passes for a safe corner, the both of them breathing hard, Vayne leaning against the wall with fresh blood dripping off his fingers. Cid shakes his head.

"It was a trap, meant to end all of us here." He remembers that triumphant rumble, how easy it must have seemed for them, to silence this little insurrection. "For all I know of it, they used Venat's power to shatter the Shard."

No answer, and Cid looks up sharply, fearing the silence. Vayne has his eyes closed, leaning back against the wall, communing with whatever impossible reserve of strength he possesses, to keep going this far. He looks dead, and Cid yet again wonders at the state of his own sanity, if he hasn't let this place get in his head, reduce him to dragging a corpse around in circles and thinking there's something left to save.

"I can hear you fretting from here, old man." Vayne's voice, dry and amused and impossibly calm given circumstances pushed well past disaster, and he opens his eyes, turning him from lifeless body to just a man slowly dying, a regret Cid has yet to look forward to.

"I did this to you."

//Get /angry/, damn it!//

The unspoken words sear the air between them. Cid wants to face anger, and outrage, and the promise of retribution the moment they reach safe, solid ground. Anything but that steady gaze, as if there's still nothing to forgive him for.

"/We/ did this. We stood against the gods - if that is even what they truly are - and here we remain. Still alive. Mostly."

In the darkness behind them - hopefully, behind them - something screeches, sending every hair up on Cid's body. He's been shivering for some unnoticed span of time, maybe shock, maybe just the dank, thick Mist-ridden air. Vayne isn't trembling at all, well past that point, his skin ice-cold, breathing shallowly as Cid gets the bad arm back over his shoulder, and they start walking again.

"I cannot condemn you, Cid. I have made too many mistakes, and surely will make more before the end. Besides," Vayne says, raising his weapon at the sound of rasping breath from the other end of the hall, turning into a low and deadly growl, "you make my life far too interesting."

Long before they reach the surface, Cid knows the truth, the reality that what he's been dreading all this time has finally come to pass. The weight of it, of Vayne leaning against him as they stagger, bloody and ruined, into what passes for sunshine in the ruins of Nabudis.

He doesn't need to destroy the whole world, after all. This will do.

This will do.