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The Final Countdown
In the pre-dawn air, there was a stillness. The Tycoon glided gently through the calm waters, and only a few stars lingered at the western edge of the sky. At the eastern horizon, strange and subtle colors were beginning to spread, staining the sea and reflecting off the Masamune's cold blade.

Adjusting his grip on the hilt, Seth took a breath, lifted the sword above his head, and slashed. Using the momentum of the motion, he pivoted on one bare foot and delivered a thrust, and drew the sword back as he swung into a ready position, hefting the blade over his right shoulder.

Step, turn, thrust, slash. Stop, coil, crouch and pivot, bring the sword up in a killing arc and start again. It was something akin to a dance, something entrancing and lethally beautiful. Seth could feel the fatigue beginning to set in, and he was determined to beat it. If he couldn't stand up to a simple training session, how on earth was he supposed to face Jenova?

He paused a moment in his dance, closing his eyes against a sudden pain. Seth was, by all accounts, not at all a morning person - no doubt Lucy, on seeing him up so early, would have wanted to check his temperature - and he would not even have been up now but for a nightmare.

Hardly even a nightmare, really - it was more a memory, than a dream.

It was one thing, of course, to know that he, as Sephiroth, had killed Aerith; to have the words settled into his consciousness and know that it had happened. It was an entirely different thing to remember it, to know the reality behind the words with sickening clarity - down to the feel of his sword penetrating the innocent flesh, the look of horror and rage in Cloud's sharp blue eyes, feeling the smile on his face and the small tinny sound the White Materia made as it fell...

That had been part of the dream, and had stayed with him. The rest was strange, half-remembered - images of being the one in Cloud's place, holding Aerith's broken form, except it wasn't Aerith, it was Aerin, stabbed through the heart--

"No!"

He slashed wildly at the air, redoubling the efforts of his lethal dance.

"That WON'T happen!" he screamed at the air between strikes, his voice breathless and strangled. "It won't! It WON'T!"

At last the sword fell still and Seth sank, exhausted, to his knees. His heavy breath was almost inaudible against the constant sound of the waves.

There was a sound behind him, faint and solid, and then Seth jumped as a pale, long-fingered hand landed on his bare shoulder. 

"You shouldn't wear yourself out like that," came a low voice from behind him, and Seth swung his head around, surprised.

Vincent, kneeling beside Seth, was wearing neither his bandana, nor his cape, and even the hand that rested on Seth's shoulder was bare of its usual glove. Unfettered, his hair fell into his eyes and nearly obscured them. Hints of red highlighted the ebon strands, the faint glow from his eyes much more evident in shadow than in light. If not for the strange, melancholy look in those same eyes, Seth thought Vincent might have looked sinister.

"I have to," Seth gasped. "I have to train - have to be strong or I won't have a hope of beating Jenova."

Vincent's expression softened, and a tiny smile spread over his thin lips, a sight so unexpected and strange that Seth almost missed what Vincent said next.

"You won't have a hope of beating her if you exhaust yourself, either."

"We don't know when we'll fight her," Seth insisted. "Shouldn't I at least try?"

"Seth, I think you are as ready as you will ever be. We will fight Jenova soon, be assured of that. It is pointless to expect to be able to increase your strength significantly before this fight. There is no way you could get any sort of positive result in the time we have, and it will only wear you down if you try."

"Then what am I supposed to do?!" Seth yanked away from Vincent's gentle grip and jumped to his feet. "Vincent - I'm going to go nuts if I don't do something. How can I know if I'm strong enough to defeat Jenova?! I have to defeat her! I HAVE to!"

Vincent calmly stood up, and gently placed one finger on Seth's chest, over his heart.

"The easiest target for Jenova is a weak mind," he said quietly. "That was how she was able to reach Cloud. That was how she was almost able to reach me. Emotional and mental stability, I promise you, will be your best weapons against her."

Seth tilted his head slightly, his brows knitting together as he looked into Vincent's eyes.

"...she almost...?"

"At Mideel." Vincent nodded once, wearily, and removed his hand. 

"Wha..."

"...I don't know how much longer I can keep her out," Vincent said, turning to face the beginning sunrise. "She knows things, that she can use against me. And I've... begun to remember things, that I had forgotten. Weapons I kept for use against myself - that she could easily pick up and use against me, if she only had the chance."

Seth blinked several times, his expression wavering between compassion and worry. This wasn't like Vincent.

"...You may have to make good on that favor I asked of you."

It took only a moment before Seth realized what Vincent was talking about - then, in an explosion of motion, he backed away, shaking his head fiercely, white hair whipping about his face like a strange halo.

"No! I won't!" He punctuated his words with a single swipe of Masamune through the air. "If you-- you just won't, okay?! I won't LET you!!"

"How could you possibly stop me...?" Vincent's eyes were wide. He had been caught off guard. "If she tempted me..." 

"I don't know! I just won't let it happen, Vincent! I - CAN'T let her get another person! Never again! She killed Aerith, just for getting in her way! I can't let it happen again! I can't!!"

Vincent stepped forward, extending a hand as if to comfort Seth, but Seth had already turned around, burying his face in his hand, his shoulders tense.

"I remember it, Vincent - I remember what I did at the City of the Ancients," he said, his voice choked. "I can't... let that happen again... to anyone!"

He spun around again, his face filled with pain, a ferocity in his movement. "Sephiroth went insane because of Jenova. Aerith died because of Jenova. I can't let her take anyone else, ever!"

"Seth..."

"I can't.... I can't...."

Vincent reached out, and pulled the unresisting Seth into a supportive embrace. Seth put his head against Vincent's shoulder and wept into the black fabric of his shirt. Masamune clattered to the deck as the white-haired teen brought his arms up to reciprocate the hold, his grip strong and desperate.

"She will not," Vincent said softly. "I promise you. She will have no further victims. One way or another, we will end it. We will find a way."

By the time they broke the embrace, the sun had begun its ascent into the sky.


It was easier, Aerin felt, to leave quietly by dawn. She had to leave quickly, and she doubted her ability to look her mother in the eye and say farewell, after the previous night. She had to leave now, and quickly. She half wished for just a moment, one last exchange - but then, a small and superstitious part of her feared that saying goodbye would make it final. And she fully intended to come back.

Gypsum warbled as Aerin adjusted her harness, butting her feathered head against her rider's. Aerin smiled a little bit and reached up to pet the black crest.

"Are you ready, girl?"

Gypsum cooed happily, dipping her head once in a nod. Aerin smiled and took hold of the chocobo's reins.

"Let's go find Zair, then."

A stray glance upwards as she led Gypsum from the stables, and Aerin found herself looking straight at the Candle. She swallowed, remembering her dream from the previous night.

It was rather interesting, from a historical standpoint, how in only seventeen years the entire world seemed to have reverted to a belief system that dated back to the Cetra. During the time of Shinra and Materia, the summons - once called "espers" by the Cetra - had come to be regarded as little more than convenient tools, no different from any Materia - more valuable, perhaps, for their rarity, but otherwise the same. The same creatures that the Cetra had revered as small gods had become a market commodity.

When Shinra fell, a slow but undeniable change had taken place. People began to believe in the espers again. 

Some places, of course, had been quicker to return to that reverence than had others. Cosmo Canyon had always been a spiritual place, and had thus always had great respect for the Planet and the espers. The people of Wutai had always regarded Leviathan as a god, many people holding to their beliefs even after losing to Shinra in the war. It took almost no time for the majority of the country's populace to regain their faith in Leviathan after the Meteor Crisis was over.

After the Meteor Crisis, some regions had begun to follow Wutai's lead. The esper Odin had been accepted as lord of the Nibel area, Titan the patron spirit of Mideel and Gongaga, and, of course, Phoenix had come to Cosmo Canyon. Legend had it that Cosmo had actually been the fire esper's first home - that Phoenix had been born in the Candle.

Aerin bowed her head slightly. Knowing about Phoenix and believing in her was one thing. But...

Now, somehow, she thought she could feel the esper's presence, an almost palpable thing, an unusual strength she had never felt before. It was at once reassuring and frightening.

Shaking her head, she moved forward, smiling at Gypsum, who had begun to eye her with concern.

"Don't give me that look. I'm fine, see?"

She reached up to pet Gypsum's feathered head, smiling as the chocobo relaxed and leaned against her hand with a little coo.

"Now come on. Let's find Zair."


"Hey, you."

In response, Zair mumbled and groaned, pulling the thin covers over his head.

"Lazy ass," Cloud said without rancor, grinning at the human-shaped lump under the sheets. "You used to be up with the sun."

"Screw off, Spike," came Zair's muffled voice.

"Aerin's already up and she was up later than you were. C'mon, rise and shine."

"I said screw off."

"Get up or else." Cloud was still grinning.

"No."

The covers were yanked off, and before Zair could even grab for them, Cloud went straight for his unprotected sides and tickled. 

For a good five minutes, the burrow rang with the sounds of screaming laughter, fruitless struggling, and Zair's begging the older man to stop before he finally broke loose, very much wide awake. Cloud was howling with laughter, and the look of death he received from Zair only made him laugh harder.

"Spiky-ass bastard," Zair growled.

"I warned you," Cloud got out between cackles.

"You damn well did not, you just said 'or else'--"

"Right, I warned you, it's your fault if you didn't take it seriously--"

"How the hell was I supposed to know you'd make good on it?! You never did before!"

Cloud's grin evaporated, and it suddenly was very quiet in the room. Zair winced and looked down, silently reprimanding himself.

Foot out of mouth, Zair, that's a good boy...

"You were a SOLDIER before," Cloud murmured, not taking his eyes from Zair. The boy glanced up, and eye contact was made and held. "And I was just a scrawny little recruit."

Zair swallowed and ran a hand through his untamed hair. "...We've changed a lot," he mumbled at last.

It was a bloody role reversal, that's what it was. Cloud had been small and skinny back in those days, but years in the lab had given him the body of a SOLDIER. Zair remembered feeling those muscles under his arms when he carried the nearly comatose young man to Midgar - remembered seeing, through spirit's eyes, the proof of Cloud's new strength in the dangerous days that followed - but seventeen years out of sight made the memories fade, and he was continually amazed by the transformation of the skinny, pale Nibel boy to this accomplished swordsman in front of him. And the change was deeper than the mere physical - time and experience had mellowed Cloud, lightened his heart and made him quicker to smile and to laugh, made him almost - almost a mirror to Zax.

And Zair had taken Cloud's place - the sixteen-year-old kid, strong but never strong enough, never wise enough, never what he wanted to be--

He looked away from Cloud. If he looked, he could see his legacy in those muscles, that bronzed skin, that sun-bleached hair and those glowing blue eyes. He couldn't bear to see. 

Cloud stood up, and slowly crossed the floor to stand beside Zair. He did not turn to face the boy, only stood, gazing stoically ahead.

"I wanted to be just like you," he said, his voice thin and half-broken. "You and Sephiroth."

"I know," Zair said, forcing the words through a too-tight throat.

"I wanted to be just like you," Cloud repeated, and took a deep breath. "I wanted--"

"Don't." Zair's voice broke, and he spun to face the older man. "Don't say it - I know." He swallowed, and closed his eyes briefly. "I'm sorry, Cloud. We couldn't give you--"

"You gave me plenty," Cloud murmured, not moving or turning, still staring into space. "You don't have to apologize."

Zair looked down and away.

"Cloud--"

"Let it go."

Zair looked up, and into glowing eyes like shards of sky - just like mine - and Cloud's tanned face stretched into a smile of sages.

And abruptly, he moved away.

"I brought this for you," he said, reaching for something just outside the doorway. Turning back to face Zair, he held it out.

It was the Buster Sword.

Nicked and marked and crisscrossed with a hundred scars of battle, the steel nonetheless shone bright and lethal in Cloud's expert hands. The edge was still keen, and promised to serve its holder well. Zair reached out, almost reverently, to take the hilt, hefted it and settled into a battle posture.

And he knew then that it was wrong.

The weight was uncomfortable and oddly alien now - the size and feel of the blade strange and unfamiliar. Seeing it brought back memories and felt like home. Holding it told him volumes. There was no going back.

He lowered it to the ground in despair. Lifting his gaze to Cloud's face, he saw surprise, confusion, and maybe even a little hurt...

Zair sighed, smiled, and handed it back.

"It's yours, kid. You earned it. I've got my Hardedge - I'll be fine."

Whether Cloud believed that the simple excuse was the whole truth of the matter, or understood the real reasons behind it, Zair would never know. The man just smiled and accepted the sword, and turned. 

"You should get ready to go, then. Aerin will be waiting - you have to get going."

"I know." Zair sighed and turned back to the bed. He waited until he heard Cloud shift, and walk away - it wasn't until Cloud's footsteps had faded that he moved. 

He held the hairband in his hand for just a moment before tying his hair back into his customary tight ponytail.

...goodbye.


He was smiling when he met Aerin, and they left Cosmo in the breaking dawn. Zair never told her what had transpired between him and Cloud. Aerin never asked. 


"Lunar Harp?" The chief archaeologist scratched his stubbly chin thoughtfully. "Well, this did used to be Ancient territory--"

"Cetra," the soft-voiced woman before him corrected, smiling. "That was their proper name. Cetra."

The archaeologist nodded in return. "'Scuse me. This used to be Cetra territory, so there might still be some around - no clue how many, though. Far as we can tell, they weren't common even during that time."

"I would imagine not," the woman agreed gently. "Do you think you could find one?"

"Well - apparently one or two got dug up almost twenty years ago, so... Well, I guess we could try." He smiled, a few wrinkles around his eyes deepening. 

"Thank you." Her smile was like moonbeams.

"Oh, it's no trouble, just what we do. We'll be glad to help you, Ms...?"

"Jocasta," the woman replied. "Dr. Jocasta Lazare. Midgar Department of Anthropology."

The man smiled and nodded. "Right. Well, how 'bout you just make yourself at home, and we'll start diggin'. And if we find anything, we'll let you know. 'Kay?"

Jocasta bowed deeply, smiling. "Thank you for your help, sir."

Inwardly, Jenova crowed in triumph.


The day had passed in relative calm. Seth had spent the entire day after the interlude on the deck in his room, only emerging to eat, feed Zion and stretch his legs. His dream would not leave him alone, and it made him restless - and angry.

So many people suffered because of what I did. What Jenova did.

Night had fallen, and Vincent and Faris were asleep. Seth padded on bare feet through the ship, trying not to breathe too loudly.

This decision had been made earlier in the day, and time and thought had only hardened his resolution. He was going to do this.

He reached the door of the cabin, and carefully unlocked it with a key freshly stolen from Faris' bedroom. Faris, thank Odin, was a heavy sleeper and snored like a dragon. The key had been remarkably easy to steal.

A compass - good, Faris seemed to keep more than one in the cabin, one little pocket compass wouldn't be missed.

Maps - maps - oh, hell. Seth left them alone, all he really needed was the compass.

Now, where was the last thing... 

Aha.

His bag was at his side, and packed. He quickly took out his notebook and copied down the set of instructions from the small piece of paper, and backed out of the cabin, closing and locking the door behind him. From there, it was another harrowing trip into Faris' room to replace the key. He didn't need it any more.

The next task was to get Zion out of the stables without the big chocobo making too much noise. This was accomplished with relative ease by giving the bird a particularly large green, though he still dreaded the other birds waking up and chirping and alerting the whole damn ship.

And finally...

Zion warbled inquisitively, earning a frantic "Sssshh!!" from his rider.

They were at the back of the ship, on deck. The solar collectors were retracted - they would be of no use during the night, of course - and the way was clear for a lifeboat to be lowered.

Seth urged Zion in first after slinging his bag and cape over the chocobo's back, and it wasn't until he'd gotten the boat safely down into the water (as per his stolen instructions) that he jumped.

The water was frigid, and Seth had to fight to catch his breath when he surfaced, desperately grabbing at the side of the boat with chilled fingers. Zion's beak closed around his collar, and he found himself rather unceremoniously dumped into the boat. It rocked dangerously with the sudden weight, but it held.

"Thanks," he gasped. Zion cooed.

Shivering with the cold, Seth backed up against his chocobo, taking his cape and putting it back on, pulling up the hood. Zion chirped and put one small wing around him, snuggling in as close as he could to share his warmth. Seth smiled and gave the bird a grateful scritch before taking up the oar. 

He looked back once, briefly. After that, rowing north into the sea, he didn't look back again.


Knock. Knock. Knock.

"Seth?"

Knock-knock-knock.

"Seth, are you in there?"

Silence from inside. Faris paused, frowning.

"It's morning, Seth. Don't you want breakfast?"

Nothing.

"Come on, kid, get up. This isn't funny!"

"What's going on?"

Faris sighed and turned to face her friend. "Your charge refuses to even talk to me."

Vincent's brow furrowed. "That is not like him."

"I know - at least yesterday he was talking," Faris groaned, and pounded on the door. "Seth, this is not bloody funny, get out here!"

"Let me." Faris stepped aside as Vincent moved forward, knocking once before giving up and opening the door. Faris cringed a bit at the breach of privacy as Vincent walked in, but silently conceded that politeness wasn't getting them anywhere.

"Se-- Seth?!"

Vincent's voice had started out calm, but suddenly turned panicked. Faris, startled, pushed past him into the room.

"He's gone!... And the Masamune?!"

Vincent, eyes wide and wild with fear, sniffed the air once, twice, and before Faris could ask, Faemdos dashed down the hallway, skidding to a stop just outside the bedroom door.

"Captain! There's a lifeboat missing!"

Faris and Vincent looked at each other in horrified disbelief, reaching the same conclusion simultaneously. 

They bolted immediately for the stables, leaving a confused Faemdos in their wake.

Faris just managed to get into the stables first, by about a tenth of a second. The two of them stared at the telltale empty stall for a moment, not quite able to accept.

"He so fucking did not!!" Faris howled, neatly summing up the common sentiment.


Jenova was near. 

That much Masamune was sure of. It had always felt a certain way when the virus was present - a part of its inner magic responded, ringing with the echoes of her siren song. It resonated to her feel, as much as it did when the last of the Cetra had been near. Not a call or a compulsion - merely a response. An echo.

It had sometimes wondered if the connection worked both ways - if Jenova could sense the presence of the sword. It had never bothered to find out the answer; it simply wasn't relevant.

Until now.

If she knows I am here, she knows that Seth is as well.

Masamune nudged against its wielder's sleeping mind with quiet urgency. It had never cared about right or wrong - they were all the same in death, and with its very essence balanced between holy and unholy, it became a thing of utter neutrality - but it had its duty and it would never, ever let Seth be harmed. If Jenova knew they were there, she would move in. And Masamune could not protect Seth from the kind of attack Jenova would launch. Though she could fight, very well, she preferred subtlety. 

And, even bound to Seth's soul by Cetra magic, Masamune was not equipped to shield Seth from Jenova's manipulations. The part of it that resonated to her song would always let her in.

Seth's decision had been rash and foolish. Masamune had not hesitated to tell him this, and Seth himself admitted it was perhaps a little hasty. But an entire day's worth of thinking had not changed the boy's mind.

I have to fight her, Masamune. I'll get there quicker than the Tycoon will - I could take her by surprise, maybe weaken her before Vincent shows up, and then - well, then we'll see, but I have to do this...

Masamune had given up on changing Seth's mind. But it still refused to go passively along with the boy's mad plan. He would have gotten himself killed if it had.

I know she's strong. But my mind's made up. I'm not going to sit around going "Oh woe is me, I'm Sephiroth" anymore. I refuse. Yes, I am Sephiroth. No, I am not going to let myself fall that far again. Never again. This time, I'm going to do something about Jenova while I still can.

It should have told Seth about Jenova - told him that she was here in Bone, looking for the harp that would awaken the forest.

He'd have attacked right away if he knew. Jenova would have annihilated him. The playing ground isn't level yet.

...Although, it grudgingly admitted to itself, I'll be a dull-edged kitchen knife if I know how to make it level.

Jenova was still down there. She wasn't moving yet, but the morning was aging, and Seth was still asleep. Masamune nudged again, harder this time.

Seth!

This time, it worked. Seth stirred, then groaned and pulled himself awake.

"Huh?"

It's morning. Let's go.

"Mm... where do you think she is?" Seth's voice was low and sleepy, but coherent.

...

"We know she's on this continent, but where on this continent? Tell me, Masamune."

What makes you think I know? A little too quick, too defensive.

"You always know... don't you?" Seth closed his eyes, a sardonic smile crossing his face. His voice was still low and thin. "You sensed her when she found us in the Mythril Mountains."

Masamune lacked a body that could squirm, and rather wished right then that it didn't.

"We both sensed the danger - but you knew what it was. You just didn't tell me. Am I right?"

...yes.

"You felt her at Mideel."

We already knew she was there, that's--

"But you did, didn't you?"

........yes.

Seth nodded and got up, tapping Zion's head to wake him up as well. 

And you were how she could get to me.

Seth, this is useless. We need to move!

So point the way.

Masamune waffled for a moment. It could easily lie and point Seth anywhere, or even claim not to know. Seth would never know otherwise.

But there was something, an edge to Seth's thoughts, that made Masamune back down, for possibly the first time in its existance.

Before I tell you, promise to act rational and hear what I have to say before you do anything.

'Okay.'

She's in Bone. Right now.

Seth immediately tensed up, head swinging around to look at the excavation town.

But don't just charge in! Masamune's harsh steel voice cut through Seth's thoughts. She can best you easily. I can suggest two courses of action.

Suggest away. Seth's stance was rigid, ready to swing himself up onto Zion at a moment's notice and storm the tiny village.

Sensibly, you could wait for the Tycoon and attack her with Vincent at your side.

Out. If I was going to do that I'd have stayed on the ship.

Very well, Masamune said resignedly. She is after the Black Materia, correct?

Yes... Seth was starting to seem impatient.

Last we knew, it was in the crater. But it is apparently not now - if it was, Jenova would have already gone there, instead of dallying in Bone. Can you think of any reason why she would stay here?

To wait for us, maybe.

Think, Seth. If she had any kind of access to the Black Materia, she would go for it as soon as she could. But she hasn't, so she apparently doesn't. There's only one place I can think of that she wouldn't immediately be able to enter.

And that is...

The Sleeping Forest. She would need a--

"--Lunar Harp," Seth sighed aloud, finishing the thought. "I get it. And Cloud needed to get a Lunar Harp in Bone..."

Exactly. So what this says to me is that the Black Materia is probably in there, somewhere. I can get you through - I led Sephiroth through once, I can lead you through. If we can get to the Black Materia before she can, we can destroy it and she will have no way to summon Meteor.

Then we're doing that! Seth jumped up onto Zion's back.

I somehow thought you would say that, Masamune said wearily.


Vincent stood in the bow alone, a folded piece of paper clenched in his hand. His claw was clenched around the railing. In the slight haze, made golden by sunrise, he could just make out Bone. 

His hand tightened around the paper, and he brought it up to read it yet again. The spare, pencilled writing was a little smeared, but still legible.

Vincent and Faris,

I'm going to Bone by myself. I know, you're going to be really mad at me, but I have to do this. Jenova has hurt so many people and I can't let her have anyone else. All this time, I've just been sitting around, crying on other people's shoulders. I haven't been able to just accept that I'm Sephiroth and move on - and meanwhile, Jenova's getting ready to destroy the Planet. 

I don't expect you to understand or even forgive, but I have to do something about this. You know we have to destroy Jenova. I just need to do something, I can't just sit around. There's a chance I can take her by surprise - and even if I can't kill her, maybe I can at least weaken her. I have to try.

Here erasure marks on the paper indicated that Seth had begun to say something else, but had changed his mind.

I won't promise to come through this alive. I can't promise that. I know Jenova's strong - but I have to try. I have to.

If I die - take the Phoenix charm off Masamune and take it back to Aerin. Tell her I'm sorry I couldn't give it to her in person, and that I cared about her a lot. And go to Nibelheim, and ask for Lucy Drasil. She's my mom. Tell her what happened, and tell her I love her and that I'll be working on the flowers with Dad. She'll understand.

And Vincent? If you live through this, for the love of Odin stay the hell out of your godsdamned coffin. Okay? If you don't I swear to Holy I will come back and haunt you until you get your ass out and actually live. I mean it.

Thanks for everything, both of you.

Seth

Suicide. It was as good as suicide, what Seth had done. He could not possibly hope to defeat Jenova alone...

I will not let you do this, Seth. Not now. Not when I finally have a chance to make up for my failure with Sephiroth.

Folding the letter back up and placing it tenderly in his pocket, he lifted his eyes to the village again as Faris, in the cabin, began the delicate work of docking.

There were tears tracking down his face. He didn't care.

I will not let you die.
 

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