Faris, her tanned face grim, nodded slowly.
"I understand," she said flatly.
Vincent finished checking his ammo, clicked the safety catch into place, and hooked Death Penalty at his side as he rose to his feet.
It wasn't much of a plan, but it was the best they'd been able to come up with. Vincent and Seth were permitted three days to find Jenova and fight her. At sunset on the third day, if he was still alive and in control of himself, Vincent was to shoot a flare into the sky. Faris would be watching for it. If it failed to show, Faris was to assume the worst and use the ship's radio to contact Cloud. Even assuming it did show, if Vincent didn't come back by the sunset after that one, she still was to contact Cloud.
The other former members of AVALANCHE, Vincent had said, were getting older and had their own responsibilities now - but if the Planet was in danger, it was everyone's concern. AVALANCHE would come, winter storms be damned.
Faris had wanted to ask what good they could possibly do if Jenova was strong enough to defeat the reincarnation of Sephiroth and the strongest demihuman Faris herself knew; but seeing the expression on Vincent's face, she just hadn't had the heart to ask. He looked like a man with absolutely nothing left to lose.
"I want you to stay right here - if the ship is endangered, save the radio and head into town. You need to stay alive at all costs."
"I know," Faris said dully.
Say something. He's going to die out there. Don't let him go without saying something.
"If you don't see the flare right away at sunset, call them - I may just have been delayed or not noticed the changing light but you cannot afford to allow for any margin of error, simply assume--"
"Vincent, shut up."
He paused and glanced at her as he strapped the flares to his belt.
"I know all that. The plan's clear, okay? I want to say something before you go."
"Say it then. I don't have much time."
"Try not to die out there."
Vincent blinked, and his eyes softened, almost imperceptibly.
"I cannot promise that."
"Shut up, that's Seth's line." Faris clasped Vincent's shoulders. "Listen. Just be careful out there and especially don't go letting yourself die, okay?"
Vincent's brow furrowed, and he opened his mouth to speak, but Faris cut him off.
"If you die now it will be meaningless and it will not fucking atone for anything. You're not a sinner, you're not a demon, you're a man just like any other and my friend. So just try to stay alive. Okay?"
Vincent said nothing for a few minutes, simply looking at Faris. The sailor met his gaze firmly.
"Okay?" she repeated.
"I will try." He bowed his head once.
"Good." Faris let go of him and pulled back, flashing him her cocky grin. He smiled thinly in response, and Faris punched his arm playfully. His smile widened a bit, and he nodded firmly.
And he was away, striding down the ship's ramp faster than it seemed he should be able to go. Mari was already there, waiting, and he mounted her with an expert's easy grace. Faris watched them run, before turning away.
She found a comfortable perch at the back of the boat, and sat there for a long time, watching the sea.
Go get 'er, Vincent.
Walking through the Sleeping Forest was, Seth had decided, very disconcerting.
If one ever wondered why the forest had been given its name, the question was answered about five steps in. It was like walking through a dream, the way it dulled the senses and hazed the mind. Alone, Seth was certain he'd never have been able to find a way through - or even back out.
It was only the sullen light of Masamune, lurking in the back of his mind, that saved Seth from getting lost forever. Even so, he could sense the forest's attempts to confuse him, and he could almost see the trees changing, out of the corners of his eyes. The best thing to do, he had learned, was stare straight ahead and just walk, without stopping to think about the surroundings.
Remember the last time we did this, Seth?
Shut up, Seth thought tersely. I'm trying not to think or remember. This place makes my head hurt.
The Cetra made it to do exactly that.
Well they did a damn good job then.
It didn't bother you last time.
Last time I think I was just too insane to notice.
Masamune actually laughed at that.
Now can we please not talk? I want to find the Black Materia and conversation with you has been known to distract me.
As you wish, Masamune replied, sounding amused.
And stop grinning at me.
Swords can't grin, Masamune said innocently.
The village had changed very little in seventeen years - more permanent dwellings had been erected in the area, but otherwise it was more or less as Vincent could remember it. To him, a man himself unchanged by time, it was almost a comfort.
Mari blinked at him and cooed softly, settling down on the ground and fluffing her feathers. Vincent took a moment to scratch behind her ears.
He had raised her from a hatchling, and she had been an unfailingly loyal companion, as tame chocobos tended to be. She was still strong, but aging, and in a few years - maybe five, give or take a few - she would probably no longer be able to bear his weight.
Sighing, he knelt beside her. Her soft red eyes fixed on his in an inscrutable gaze.
"I'll be back," he said in a low tone.
Mari closed her eyes, bowed her head, and nudged his shoulder. Vincent sighed, stroking the feathers on her neck before getting to his feet.
"Be good," he said softly, turning and entering the village.
There was a light breeze, and some clouds in the sky, but neither seemed particularly threatening to the young travelers. Gypsum had settled down for a long ride, and good-naturedly allowed Aerin to rest against her side. Staring at the clouds, Aerin lazily let her fingers trail in the water. The breeze kicked up slightly, and Aerin closed her eyes as the cool air blew over her.
It was pleasant - a slow, lazy peace, filled with fresh salt air and cool water and soft feathers and the sound of the waves. For the moment, Aerin felt safe, forgetting about her purpose for just a little while.
"Get your fingers out of the water before something bites them off."
Aerin had already yanked her hand clear up to her chest by the time Zair started laughing.
"Aerin, I was kidding!"
She stared at him for a moment - just a moment - then she lunged.
He saw it coming a moment too late, managing only a startled yelp before he fell into the water with an almighty splash. Strife, surprised by the noise, stopped swimming immediately, swiveling his long neck around to try and see what happened.
He surfaced a moment later, to the sound of Aerin's laughter. Wiping the water from his face, he looked up to see the healer offering him a slender hand. Giving her a sour look, he took it and allowed himself to be pulled out of the water.
"Gonna get you for that someday," he grumbled.
"You asked for it," Aerin said lightly. "Don't worry. We'll try and get you a nice bath when we reach the North Continent. Until then, well, you'll have to deal with the crystallized salt in your hair. Sorry."
"You're enjoying this too much."
"Yes I am," she returned cheerfully.
Zair glared at her for a moment and then stuck out his tongue. Aerin laughed aloud, continuing to giggle helplessly as Zair made a big show of crossing the raft to signal Strife that is was okay to go ahead. The gold chocobo chirped and immediately obliged, and they were going forward again. Zair sighed and settled himself next to Aerin against Gypsum's side.
"Sorry," Aerin said finally, grinning.
"Mm. S'okay, I guess. Just be glad I wasn't wearing my jacket, I'd have just about had to kill you." He turned to grin at her.
"Over a jacket?"
"Hell yes. I love that jacket. It is sacred. You do not mess with the jacket."
Aerin stifled a laugh, then turned her gaze back up to the sky. The two of them watched the clouds for a moment in comfortable silence.
Zair didn't want to break that silence, not with the day so perfect and Aerin so content - but there was something weighing on his mind...
He sighed and looked up, staring out at the sea. "How are you going to fight her?"
Aerin blinked, surprise and confusion spreading over her face.
"I... what do you mean?"
"How can you fight her? How can you win?" His voice was pained. "Damn it - I know Jenova. I know what she can do. You all should have completely obliterated her by now, but she's alive and even stronger than she was. You know, she's the whole reason Seth even exists--"
Zair suddenly found small, dark hands grasping his bare arm with almost painful force, and a frantic face near his own.
"What do you mean, Zair?! Tell me!"
"Hey, hey - calm down--"
Zair sighed, his shoulders slumping.
"Give me... a minute to get it all straight in my head, okay?"
Meteor had fallen. It had not hit but it had fallen, and Midgar had been almost ripped apart by the storms. It was sad, painful - horrible to look at but impossible to look away from.
Somehow, unbelievably, most of Sectors 5 and 6 had survived, and mourners had congregated along the common wall. Flowers (so many, more than had ever existed in Midgar before, all colors and shapes and sizes - where the Planet had bled they had sprung to strange, vibrant life) lined the walls, along with candles and the scribbled names of so many who had died...
Some of the lost wandered among the mourners - some of them angry, some wailing with their living families, an obscene few laughing cruelly at the misery - but most of them simply milling about uselessly, looking lost and forlorn. There were so many here...
Zax bowed his ethereal head, scratching absently at the nape of his neck - more to distract himself than anything else.
Congratulations, you're all dead. Welcome to hell.
So many more than the ones he saw had died in the fall. Maybe they weren't here yet - or had wandered elsewhere - or, lucky sons of bitches, had returned to the Planet. Zax couldn't say he pitied the ones who had.
Aerith... must be so much at peace there.
He cast a lamenting gaze to the defiantly clear sky, free completely of the crimson bane that had been responsible for all this death. He almost wished to see it there, just to curse it one more time.
Fucking goddamn stupid rock, Aerith died to stop it...
And I never even got to tell her I was sorry.
Sorry for dying. Sorry for going on that last job with Sephiroth. Sorry for not telling her, one last time, that he loved her...
And she thought... she thought I left her, for some other girl without even telling her, and she died and went to the Planet thinking that...
And I can't even join her!!
It was guilt keeping him here - guilt for failing to stop Sephiroth when it mattered, for dying when Cloud needed him most, for not being able to be with Aerith when she most needed his love - guilt, and shame, and a burning self-loathing - he'd never been strong enough when it counted.
His footsteps had carried him far along the wall, along the line of the mourning. Zax looked down at them, and wanted to cry with them. He too had lost. He had lost everything.
God but it was strange and painful to look at these people, these living breathing sobbing people and envy them their life. To know he didn't belong with them, that he was just a ghost, just one more shade among the hundreds...
Stop this. Stop it now. It's not getting you anywhere.
He finally came to a stop, letting his eyes trail along the mourning wall. God, so many names...
His eyes, following that line, met black.
Disbelieving, he jerked his head up, only to have his first thought confirmed - he stood there, just the same as ever, just the same--
"Hello, Zax." He sounded sane - cold, infuriatingly cold and distant, just exactly like the man Zax had once known - and his voice was level, almost clear of all emotion. "I was just beginning to wonder where you were."
Callous, cold words - even the dead should not speak of death with so little feeling, it was closer to them than to anyone who still drew breath, and to speak with so little regard in a fucking sea of ghosts -
You son of a...
"Why are you here?! To GLOAT?! This is ALL YOUR
FAULT!! All these people--" he gestured wildly
Zax could stand no more. He lunged, seizing a handful of Sephiroth's coat, and spun him half around, intent on causing as much pain as possible to the other spectre - and then he stopped, fist raised, when he saw Sephiroth's face.
There had been no trace of tragedy in the man's voice, and it seemed now that it had been hidden with a master's art - because Sephiroth was crying.
The thought was so absurd, so far beyond the realm of what was real and possible, that Zax found himself running through it again, all the while staring at the undeniable proof before him.
Sephiroth, who never felt sorrow, or fear, or joy, or even anger - Sephiroth, the man of stone who had, for all of Zax's best efforts, been coaxed only to a sense of camaraderie and an occasional half smile - this man was crying.
The general closed his eyes and turned his face away from Zax. It was amazing, really - how a face once so immobile could now display the man's shame so clearly.
Sephiroth's lips moved, and he spoke in a whisper so thin, so broken, that Zax couldn't have heard it even if he'd known what to listen for.
Silver hair fell forward, hiding Sephiroth's face in a curtain of snow as he bowed his head.
".....I'm sorry," he repeated, just barely loud enough to be audible, with the faintest hint of a tremor in his voice.
"I know it's not enough," Sephiroth continued, his voice rising. "I know - I know I can't - make it better - but I'm sorry - I'm sorry - oh gods, Zax, I'm SORRY!!"
Zax first saw the blur of black and silver, then realized his hand was empty and that Sephiroth was running. For a moment, his own ethereal body would not allow him to follow the nighted general, for whom the crowd of ghosts parted like strange waters around a savior - and then he gave chase.
Sephiroth just kept running, and Zax began to realize that he'd never quite found out just exactly how fast his general could really run when he was inspired.
They were out of Midgar by the time Zax caught up to Sephiroth. The man had collapsed against a cliff, carelessly sprawled and shaking with only barely-suppressed sobs.
Zax had barely been dead a month, and thought he had seen more tragedy in his time as a ghost than he ever had when he was a living SOLDIER. This, for some reason, seemed to top it all.
Quietly, he knelt beside Sephiroth and gently laid his hand on the man's shoulder. Sephiroth started, but did not turn.
Zax wanted to say something. But what could you say to a man like this? The first and most perfect SOLDIER, the legend, the icon, the silver god - a man with no emotion, only presence and power and authority and the unexpected capacity for a madness so violent and absolute that he had nearly pulled the whole world down with him - what could you say to this man, who was now half curled into a ball and crying like a child?
His face softened, and he reached out, doing the unthinkable, something that he would never before have dared to try...
Sephiroth allowed himself to be pulled into the gentle embrace, limp and unresisting as a ragdoll. It was unbelievably absurd, but Zax had ceased to care about that - it didn't matter any more, this was now, this was real, and this was Sephiroth weeping bitterly onto his shoulder, curled against Zax's chest like a small boy to his father.
"Sssh. It's - it'll be okay."
The moment of comfort could have lasted as long as it had to - the passing of time doesn't matter to ghosts. For as long as Sephiroth needed a sympathetic shoulder, Zax would have been perfectly happy to sit there.
He would have been happy to, had circumstances permitted.
Circumstances did not permit - very abruptly, Sephiroth jerked upright, whipping his head from side to side, his face a mask of stark terror. Zax realized he had also never seen his general really frightened before...
The snow-haired man turned, gripping Zax's arms in the grip of a drowning man, and came face to face with Zax. Slitted pupils had contracted to the thinnest of lines in his Lifestream-green eyes, and his face was pale.
"She wants me back," he said, his voice tight with panic. "She wants me back!"
"Who wants you back?!" Zax howled back, giving the man's shoulders a shake.
"Jenova!" Sephiroth hissed. "I was her best bet for victory - and she doesn't give up easily, she wants me back she aaaaaagh!" His grip intensified to levels that could even cause the dead pain as his body jerked backwards. An invisible force seemed to be pulling him back, one that he was actively fighting against. "Zax - don't let me go Zax don't let her have me dear gods DON'T LET HER HAVE ME!!"
Sephiroth's entreaties were unnecessary, as Zax was already wrapping his arms fiercely around the other man, pulling back with all his strength. The world around them seemed to have faded, and had Zax noticed this he would have been considerably more worried than he already was - the invisible force redoubled its efforts, and Zax held on tenaciously, putting everything he had into this single endeavor -
And it wasn't enough.
He could feel Sephiroth fading, slipping away from him despite his best efforts, and Zax knew, in that moment, that Jenova would take Sephiroth back, no matter what he did.
He could have resigned himself to Sephiroth's fate. He could have let go.
Closing his eyes, he tightened his grip, and he could feel it as he and Sephiroth together were drawn out past the point of no return.
In the moment before oblivion claimed them, Zax made a vow.
...and a life began.
"...Jenova was able to pull his soul out of limbo, somehow. I'm only alive because I wouldn't let go of him until it was too late. Just before I lost consciousness, he was pulled out of my grip... I guess he went to Nibelheim because that's where Jenova got him the first time..." Zair sighed, hanging his head. "And I got sent to Mideel. I guess it was too late to put me back in limbo, so she sent me there. She probably thought it was so fucking far out there that I couldn't get in the way."
Aerin sat curled with her knees to her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs, her expression sober. Zair threw his head back, staring at the sky.
"I promised myself I wouldn't forget. So that someday I could find Seph, and keep him away from Jenova. It was the last thought that Zax ever had." He shook his head slowly. "And then I was born. As far back as I can remember in this life, I've always known who I was."
"You never did like breaking promises," Aerin said quietly.
Zair shook his head slowly, then took a breath.
"But... you know? I had a lot of time to think about that while I was growing up. And doubt's a nasty thing, you know? I started to wonder if I'd ever be able to protect him like I wanted to. Kept me up nights, sometimes."
He closed his eyes, and a thin silence hung in the air. He wanted to keep speaking, wanted to tell her how it felt, being a small child with small weak hands and thin weak arms and remembering what it was like to be tall and strong, to feel the sweat of his palms against the hilt of his sword and the weight of the blade in his arms, to be a SOLDIER First Class, strong and powerful and untouchable - how it was to be eight years old and remember the smell of blood and burned flesh, the bite of Wutai liquor, and the sweetness of a first kiss with a woman too perfect to be human, to remember all this and then to look down at childish hands and realize that there was no going back, and to cry bitterly in the night for unkept promises. He wanted to tell her, but these memories were too intimate for words, and so they went untold.
"It was worst when I was little," he said abruptly. "By the time I died, I couldn't really remember what it was like to be a kid. And he... fuck, I guess he lost his emotions when he was really young because he was just like a little boy. I couldn't understand it, then. And then suddenly here's me growing up again and I was helpless. If I'd met him then, I couldn't have done jack for him. And seeing childhood through adult eyes..." He took a deep breath and covered his eyes. "I think he must've been like that all his goddamn life. He never grew up, he was a little boy trained to kill and he never realized that wasn't the way life is."
"And Seth does."
Aerin's voice was small and gentle and sad, almost lost in the sound of the sea.
Zair gazed up at a cloud, and sighed. "You know, if I didn't know.... I'd never have guessed he was Sephiroth."
"He isn't," Aerin said softly, "not anymore."
It was such an obvious statement, but the underlying truth of it cut Zair deeply, and he had to turn away.
And I'm not Zax, came the unbidden thought. Zair shoved it away.
I am. I will be.
"So," he mumbled. Then, louder, "So. How are you going to fight Jenova?"
Aerin took a deep breath and let it out. For a moment she considered telling him about Phoenix, only a moment, and then she lifted her head, eyes closed, and smiled softly. And the secret stayed inside.
"I don't know exactly," she said softly. "But I'll find a way. I know I will. The Planet has faith in me."
And Zair smiled back, that sad-edged smile he couldn't quite rid himself of. His eyes shut, and in the darkness he saw an image of a slightly older girl, her hair twisted in a braid, her eyes closed and tilted to a stream of sunlight that fell through cracks in the sky, with a delicate carpet of green and yellow silk at her feet - the first time Zax Denatri had ever seen Aerith Gainsborough, he had almost mistaken her for a fledgling angel.
If he opened his eyes, the vision of the gentle Cetra woman would be replaced by the brown-skinned face of the Cosmo girl she had become.
Zair leaned back against Gypsum, and did not open his eyes.
"Bit warm for the season, isn't it?"
"It's probably just a passing weather glitch. I hear the winter storms have moved in early, nobody can sail..."
"In September? Things are just going to all Meteor in a handbasket..."
The three men sitting around the fire stopped their idle chat and turned their heads as one to face the newcomer. The others in the small lodge followed, and dead silence reigned as people figured out who he was. Vincent closed his eyes, mentally praying to any gods that would listen to give him the strength to tolerate this.
"Vincent Valentine," a voice said, and Vincent opened his eyes again to see himself face to face with the foreman. Both the face and the voice were unfamiliar, which annoyed Vincent slightly. One of the many downsides to fame was that complete strangers knew who you were.
"That is my name," he said shortly.
"Well, well." The foreman beamed, the wrinkles in his worn face stretching and folding. "What brings you here, sir?"
"I need something excavated." Gods, he hated being famous. People calling you 'sir' all the time and beaming like a visit from a beast like him was cause to celebrate...
"Would it be a Lunar Harp, by any chance?" The man's voice sounded amused, and Vincent faltered.
"...yes," he said after some hesitation.
"Well, it looks like you came at a good time," the foreman chuckled. "This pretty lady back here's been waiting for a Lunar Harp since yesterday. We should get one out pretty soon now - why don't you go and wait with her?"
The foreman pointed as he spoke. Vincent's eyes followed the finger until they landed on a young woman furiously scribbling in a notebook. She wore a blue dress suit under a purple velvet coat, and blonde hair so pale it was almost white fell in a veil in front of her face, hiding it from view.
Vincent walked silently across the room and settled himself down next to the woman, with absolutely no intention of engaging in conversation. He was going to sit here, and wait until they got the Lunar Harp out, and then he was going to find Seth and that would be that.
It had not been encouraging in the slightest to find that Seth was absolutely nowhere in the village. Vincent had paced up and down the place, desperate to at least catch his trail - but there wasn't so much as a footprint, a black chocobo feather, or even a trace of his scent. Seth had not been in Bone.
He closed his eyes as the woman put her notebook away. Seth hadn't been here. And foolhardy though the boy's recent actions had been, he wasn't stupid. Bone was located in a place where a great deal of warm air was trapped - over the mountains lay ice and snow. Even with his cloak, Seth was dressed far too lightly to deal with the full impact of a North Continent winter. Not even having been raised in Nibelheim would allow him to properly deal with that. And Vincent had enough faith in the boy's common sense to at least hope that he could recognize that danger. Which left exactly one place - the Sleeping Forest.
'Are you worth half the trouble you cause me, Seth?' Vincent thought irritably.
"Hello - you're looking for a Lunar Harp too?"
The voice was startlingly sweet, and Vincent turned his head to meet the blond woman's smile. Intelligent amethyst eyes sparkled behind her half-moon lenses. She smelled of orange blossoms and Wutai cherry trees.
"Yes," he replied curtly.
"How wonderful!" The woman beamed. "I really can't wait to see one - I wonder if they'll let me keep it? I'd love to study it - see what kind of magic is in it - the Cetra were an amazing people, don't you think?"
Vincent blinked slowly and said nothing.
"I'm sorry, I haven't told you my name - I'm Jocasta, Professor Jocasta Lazare. I work at the Midgar Institute - the Department of Anthropology - I'm doing a study on the Cetra right now and it's simply astonishing, the things I've found already - It's so exciting, I never expected to have to use a Cetra artifact to get to their city, I can't wait to set out..."
"I suppose I can safely assume that you enjoy your work," Vincent deadpanned.
Jocasta blushed and nodded, giggling like a schoolgirl as she brushed her hair behind her ear.
"Ah, I'm sorry - I've just always wanted to do this," she said, still smiling. "I plan to stay on in the city for some time... I want to see if I can learn anything more than what has already been discovered. We really know precious little about the Cetra... most of Dr. Gast's records were lost, and our other available studies are primarily conjecture..."
Vincent studied the woman bemusedly, as she went on about the Cetra and what was known about them and how wonderful it would be to learn so much more about them. She gestured vaguely with her hands to punctuate each point, and couldn't keep the smile off her face as she went on about arcane anthropological things that Vincent couldn't hope to fully understand.
Try as he might, Vincent couldn't seem to keep his walls up. He liked Jocasta. She was almost childlike in her delight at the prospect of even a little bit more knowledge. Her amethyst eyes sparkled as she spoke. He could barely imagine the world those eyes saw - a place of wonder, and beauty, and hidden jewels just waiting to be discovered and held to the light...
Vincent blinked away an image of Nibelheim starlight and the smile of a woman with a dream, and the thought was gone as soon as it came.
Outside, there was suddenly a huge cheer, and a few of the lodge's occupants went out to see what it was about. Jocasta practically leapt to her feet, beaming.
"I think they've got the Lunar Harp!"
"You're coming with me?" Jocasta asked innocently, her fingers wandering over the harp's strings.
"The path to the city can be dangerous," Vincent said gallantly. "You should have an escort."
Jocasta smirked, giving Vincent a sly look. "So Mr. Valentine is going to protect me from the big bad monsters?"
"More or less." There was a slight rustle of leaves as the forest awakened, and Jocasta stopped playing. "Shall I carry the Lunar Harp for you?"
"Oh, no, that's alright." Jocasta beamed, gingerly setting the artifact inside an empty shoulderbag. "I brought this along in case I found anything I wanted to bring back for further study."
Vincent smiled. "You prepared for everything, didn't you?"
"Almost." Jocasta grinned. "I didn't prepare for you."
Vincent chuckled, and turned away slightly. He put two fingers in his mouth and let out a long, shrill whistle.
Jocasta looked at him questioningly.
"I left my chocobo outside the village," he said calmly. "She comes when I whistle."
"Ah. You must have trained her well."
Vincent nodded vaguely as the black shape came cantering up the hill. He moved forward, a fluid streak of red and black, to meet the bird as she stopped in front of him, cooing softly and rubbing her head against his shoulder. He stroked her neck briefly before taking her reins and leading her gently to Jocasta.
"Mari, this is Jocasta," he said softly. "She'll be riding--"
It happened too fast for Vincent to even think - the docile, patient chocobo had taken one look at the anthropologist and exploded into a deadly fury, squawking and screaming, beating her wings and snapping at Jocasta with pure murderous intent. Only by pure reflex did Vincent manage to hold his suddenly vicious bird back, keeping Jocasta safe from the flailing beak and talons.
Chocobos were not by nature meat-eaters or even very violent birds, but they were equipped to defend themselves and, if threatened, would do just that. But even then, they usually didn't even try to kill - merely wound, confuse, and escape. Mari's behavior was incomprehensible to Vincent, and deeply frightening.
"MARI!" he roared, getting between her and Jocasta and baring his fangs, while keeping a tight grip on her feathered neck with one hand. He hated to use force on his beloved mount, she had always been so calmly loyal, but now it was all he could do to hold her back. "What's gotten into you?! Jocasta is a friend! FRIEND!"
Mari shook her head wildly and warked again. Her rage had seemed to subside, fading into desperation as she let loose a long string of chirps and whistles at her rider in a hopeless attempt to communicate.
"Jocasta is a friend," Vincent repeated. "Calm yourself! She'll be riding you."
Mari screamed and snapped and shook her head viciously, and Vincent got the point. He turned to Jocasta and knelt beside her.
"Are you alright?"
"I'll be fine," Jocasta whispered, her voice trembling as Vincent helped her up. "Y-your chocobo - is she always--?"
"I don't know what's wrong," he said helplessly. "She is often cold to others, but never outright hostile. She might be jealous that I left her outside," he added, in an effort to find an explanation. "Let's just go."
"Mari," he said over his shoulder, "stay."
Mari warbled, shaking her head, but Vincent didn't see.
Seth stopped dead, and looked up.
What is it?
The forest...? "The forest... It's awake."
Is it? I can't tell.
"It is..." Seth looked around. His chest felt hot with fear. "It woke up. It's completely normal, it's not even *trying* to confuse me anymore... Masamune, she woke it up."
Masamune let out a low metallic hiss. Damn her. She couldn't have waited another hour or two... We have to hurry.
Seth nodded and resumed walking, rather faster than before.
Jocasta seethed quietly, while managing to keep a pleasant face as she and Vincent walked. That damned chocobo had nearly exposed her. She knew she was just lucky to have caught the marksman up in her spell as quickly as she had, or Vincent would have had the common sense to listen to his bird and the entire plan would be for naught.
She needed him under her command. If he was allowed to think on his own, he would not do any of the things she needed him to do. No other could do this.
Not that she hadn't thought about others. Cloud, bless his shattered psyche, had been a lovely puppet - until that bloody Lifestream incident. The first fall had rendered him completely useless to anyone, and the second one has resulted in the healing of his fragmented memory. She could feel his mind still - he was still a carrier - but she knew, even if he didn't, that the moment she even touched his strings, he would rebel so violently that Jocasta didn't trust her mind to be in one piece after he was done. Cloud had not liked being a puppet.
Sephiroth had been the perfect tool for her plans. He was as much a part of her as if she had indeed given birth to him, and at the same time very much a child of the Planet. He was the perfect link between her and the Lifestream - it would accept him, but he could tap her power. The inhuman circumstances in which he was raised had made his mind so easy to bend to her will it was laughable - he was a good little boy, and would do anything Mother said.
But even he had abandoned her, in the end. His mutated body slain, his spirit only barely clinging to his preserved shell in the Lifestream, he had betrayed her. Instead of waiting, like a good little boy, for Mother to regenerate his godsdamned body for him, he chose to make an end of it. In a last moment of sanity, the stupid boy had called to Cloud. That last duel had severed the last link between Sephiroth's soul and his body, and he was free of her.
Jocasta fought down a rising urge to kill something. She had worked so hard to bring him back, with almost the last of her energy - the only reason she could even touch his soul was the bond between him and his sword. Lucrecia, his true mother, had created the sword with her own magic, and bound it to his soul - and this might have shielded him had she herself not been so filled with Jenova's cells. The sword lay delicately balanced between Cetra and Jenova, and it had been the slight taint of Jenova in the blade, bound forever to Sephiroth, that had allowed her to pull him back one more time.
And a great lot of good that had done her. Now he was Seth. And Seth was as bloody-mindedly determined to stop her as Sephiroth had been to serve her. She had managed to get to him once, and since then he had apparently learned to block her out, even if Masamune couldn't stop her.
Damned rotten luck.
But Vincent would not turn against her.
Smirking, Jocasta reached out to possessively stroke her latest puppet's hair. He had almost eluded her before, true - but he had scented her before she had taken on Lucrecia's guise, and knew it was her. It had been foolish to take Lucrecia's face anyway, she had been dead for years. But Jocasta Lazare - this was a completely new face to him, sweet and innocent and beautiful in all the ways he most admired. Enough like Lucrecia to dredge up old feelings - different enough to evoke new ones. And the more he dropped his walls for her, the more hers he became.
Brushing her mind against his, she smiled at the snarls and curses flung at her from his other aspects. The Galian Beast clawed and chewed at their mental prison, baying and roaring for her blood. Hellmask revved his chainsaw and spat profanities that would have embarrassed Cid Highwind. Death Gigas hurled himself against the mental walls, crackling with electricity in his agitation. Chaos threatened, screamed, cursed, cajoled, even begged. They were amusing, these four - poor little nightmare angels, so desperate to protect their beloved Vincent, and unable to do so even in the sanctity of his own mind. Galian Beast began to howl, and Hellmask snarled at him to shut up; he wanted Jenova to be able to hear what he was calling her.
You can't help him now, she told them, withdrawing. Outwardly, she placed her head demurely against Vincent's shoulder, and he wrapped his arm around her in response.
No one can.
The chocobos warbled gratefully as Zair moored the raft, and they were allowed to stand on the firm ground. Gypsum jumped a little bit, cantering in a small circle to stretch her stiff legs. Aerin barely seemed to notice, staring at the forest.
"Hmm?" Zair finished his task and stood up, glancing at Aerin in concern. "What's up?"
"Not much longer," she whispered. Then, shaking her head, she gripped her staff. "Let's go."
It was unpleasant to the touch - it prickled, and sent chills running up his forearm, and you could almost feel the hostility coming off it in waves. It wanted to kill.
Seth shivered as he picked the Black Materia up, holding it in his hands. It felt disturbingly light, for its size. He didn't like it.
So this is it. A pocket-sized Doomsday.
Looks harmless enough, doesn't it?
It feels bad, though. Seth shivered. Hurts to hold.
Then don't hold it, Masamune snapped impatiently. Destroy it. Shatter it now and Jenova can never--
Silence. Seth felt suddenly cold.
"Ah - hello?"
Seth turned around, clutching the Black Materia as though it were a lifeline, though it now burned to the touch. His heart skipped at the sight.
Oh fucking shit!!
Vincent stood beside the pretty woman that could only be Jenova. His arm was around her shoulders.
"Vincent?" Seth's voice sounded pathetically small and he knew it.
"Hello, Seth." No scolding. No reprimands. No 'you idiot, you could have gotten yourself killed, what in the Planet's name were you thinking?', nothing. Just hello. Seth swallowed painfully.
This wasn't Vincent anymore.
The woman slid out of his grasp like silk and he just stood there, allowing it. His eyes were distant, barely fixed on any point. The woman walked towards Seth and he recoiled.
"What is that you have?" Her voice was misleadingly pleasant, matching her kind face. Seth narrowed his eyes and for a moment he saw the pale blonde hair as white, pale skin as being ocean blue, her velvet cloak a pair of folded fleshy wings--
"You can't have it." His voice was a little too desperate. "It's dangerous. It has to be destroyed."
"But it's a Cetra artifact, isn't it?" The woman looked innocent as she continued to advance. Seth backed further away, edging to the side. He didn't want to be driven away from Vincent - maybe there was still hope for reviving him.
"No," he said, his voice rising. "It's a portable apocalypse, this is the end of the world Materia, if this thing gets used the entire Planet dies and I won't let you use it! You can't have it! You can't!!"
"Seth, give it to her!"
Seth turned, with wide eyes, to face Vincent. The man looked angry.
This is what you wanted, Vincent. To fight Jenova. To destroy her. This Materia is her best weapon! She can't hurt the Planet without this!
"No!" In one smooth motion, the Materia was tucked into his bag, and Masamune was in his hand. He held it between him and Vincent, bracing the blade with his left hand, the edge turned downward. "Don't make me do this, Vincent. I don't want to fight me - but if you're hers - I will. I will." His voice quavered, but his hands were steady.
"Give it to her," Vincent hissed. "She's only a scientist. She wants to research it. Give it to her, Seth."
"She's not what you think she is!" Seth yelled. "And you - you're not Vincent anymore! Vincent would want the Black Materia destroyed!"
With a strange inhuman howl, Vincent lunged. Seth struck.
The flat side of Masamune hit Vincent with stunning force, allowing Seth a safe moment to back away.
"I don't want to do this, Vincent!" He ducked under Vincent's charge and brought Masamune up in a sharp arc, knocking Vincent's prosthetic arm aside with a resounding clang and rolling away.
Vincent fought like a wild animal, never once thinking to reach for his gun, only lunging and snarling, baring his teeth as though meaning to devour his kill. Seth fought as he had done only in memories, moving with an inhuman agility he knew had to be borrowed from Sephiroth - and for once he did not resent it.
It might have been a fair fight, between the two of them. One or the other might have eventually triumphed. It may well have been Vincent, but Seth may well have come out the victor.
That was not a risk Jenova could afford to take.
Forgotten in the battle of puppets, of lost son and forgotten father, she lunged.
It was amazing, really, how things could change in the span of a second.
One instant Seth's features were locked in a mask of mingled horror, panic, and determined desperation - the next, his mouth fell open in shock and his already pale face drained of any color it had previously had. The force left his stance. He choked.
Caught off guard by this sudden change, Vincent stopped his charge. His gaze flickered downward.
And Jenova's spell left him in a second.
Jocasta pulled her newly formed blade-arm out of the yielding flesh, and Seth cried out, staggering forward and crumpled. Masamune fell uselessly from Seth's hand as he hit the ground. A dark stain spread across Seth's green cloak.
"You," Vincent choked, looking up in horror at Jocasta. She tilted her head and smiled cruelly, disdainfully shaking the blood off her blade-arm.
He could hear the screams of his Sephiroth ringing in his ears, and the enraged howls of the Galian Beast as his other aspects burst free from their confinement. More than any of the others, the beast wanted blood.
Our son! he heard it bay, even as the transformation began and the line between Vincent Valentine and Galian Beast began to blur. He could feel the horns breaking through his skin, and fur sprouting over his body - his thoughts became less his own, and more those of the beast, until they were one and the same - it no longer mattered who he was, he would kill to avenge the death of his child, his precious cub --
"Did you hear that?"
"I did!" Aerin spurred Gypsum on desperately. "What was it?!"
"It sounded like the Galian Beast," Zair said, his voice high with worry. "All the time I was watching you and Cloud - whenever Vincent fought with the others, he never let himself transform unless he had to..."
"Yah, Gypsum!" Aerin's voice cracked. "I hope we're not too late...!"
The world was fading.
Seth stared at the ground. It seemed like it was getting harder to hear, suddenly - the sound of Vincent's roar reached him as though from a long way off. He was dimly aware that he should be fighting, that he couldn't admit defeat yet...
Is this what death is like?
The wound didn't even hurt so much, and as Seth stared vaguely at the same little patch of dirt, it wandered in an out of focus.
Just a slow fade into the green...
... I can't die yet!
Slowly, achingly slowly, he pushed himself up onto his knees, and pulled himself to his feet with Masamune. It was getting harder to breathe now, and the world swam as Seth wobbled on his feet.
He reached into his pack, and his hand brushed against the killing orb. It stung, and it was all he could do to draw it out, hissing with pain. It shot up his arm and down his spine and into the raw edges of his wound.
He dropped it on the ground, his hand still aching from the touch, and raised Masamune. If he could do this last thing, then even in death, he would win. The Planet would live on.
A hand grabbed his hair and yanked him viciously back, tossing him aside like a ragdoll. A fresh wave of pain shot through Seth and reminded him he was alive. Turning desperately, he saw Jenova - her true self, all pretense abandoned - with the Black Materia in her hand.
She seemed to sense his gaze, turned, and smiled cruelly.
"So brave!" she said coldly. "With your dying strength, trying to shatter my Materia... A gallant effort, my dear, but you have lost."
Seth wanted to stand, to fight her, to snatch the Materia from her hand and bring Masamune's killing edge down on the evil thing - but as weak as he was, he could only cry out brokenly as Jenova spread her wings and flew away.
Aerin jumped off Gypsum almost before bringing the chocobo to a halt, dashing towards the battlefield. Vincent lay at the foot of a tree, battered, unconscious, but not broken; Seth had not been so lucky.
"Oh Phoenix - oh all holy gods, oh Planet, oh good Phoenix, SETH!!"
She was at his side in a moment, holding him, propping him up, praying silently that he survive. Seth turned his head weakly to look at her.
"Yes, it's me," she choked, stroking his hair. "Oh, Seth, no, don't die, not now, please no..."
"Aerin..." He coughed, and his mouth arched in a sad, sad smile. "I'm sorry."
"Don't you dare apologize!" Aerin shrieked. "You will not die! I'll-- I have potions, I can--"
A weak, pale, cold hand clutched her wrist. Seth shook his head slowly. "Blood," he whispered. "Lost too much. You know... it won't..."
"It will work," Aerin insisted, setting him down for a moment to grab the strongest potion she had from her bag. It took many precious seconds more than she would have liked, but at last she emerged with the vial. Her expression of triumph faded into horror when she saw what Seth was doing.
Trembling, bloodstained fingers had untied the leather thong binding her charm to the hilt of his sword, and held it towards her.
"Seth - no - no!"
"Aerin," Seth whispered, his voice thin and weak as he propped himself up, "I promised... not to die... before I gave this back."
"Take it," he begged. "Broken too many promises... lemme keep this one."
Tears streaked down Aerin's eyes as she set the potion aside, tenderly taking the precious charm from Seth's dying fingers.
"Kick J'nova in the shins f'me," Seth slurred, managing a weak grin. "And get the Black Materia... d'stroy it for me. S'the only chance."
Aerin twined her fingers with his, nodding. "I will."
Seth smiled then, a real smile, and squeezed her hand weakly. "'N'don'cry. 'Kay? Wann'see y' smile..."
And on that word, his last breath left him.
Seth Drasil was dead.
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