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Princess Guard
"No," Aerin said hoarsely, "no..."

Desperately she stroked his hair, his cold cheek, his lips, as though she could impart life through her fingers. She was aware of speaking, through tears, the same word over and over. 

He was dead. He couldn't be dead, not now...

"Seth," she choked. "Seth, you bastard - you promised to live!!"

Her voice wrenched into a shriek on the last word and suddenly she was screaming, beating his lifeless chest and sobbing, alternately cursing Seth and begging him to draw breath again. Her speech lapsed into broken Cosmo as she cried into the green mantle, moaning words Zair understood without knowing their meaning.

Oh, Aerin.

He felt numb as he dismounted from Strife at last, clumsy and awkward as he knelt by Aerin's side. He wanted to touch her, to embrace her, but his arms wouldn't work. He tried to swallow, but his throat felt too tight.

That was just the way she died...

Aerin pulled herself vaguely upwards, her breath still hitching into sobs. Seth's eyes were still open, unfocused and staring at the sky. Aerin bent down and tenderly kissed her fallen friend, then closed his eyes with trembling fingers.

"Aerin..."

At the sound of Zair's voice, Aerin turned, and fell into his arms, crying into his jacket. Not knowing what to say, or if he should say anything, Zair just held her, stroking her hair and aching to be Zax for her.


The Lifestream glowed with a deceptive gentleness, just a few paces away. Zair was sure that the crack hadn't been there before, and grimly remembered the earthquake.

"You see, as long as Jenova exists, the Planet will never be able to fully heal itself."

He closed his eyes, shaking his head slightly to rid himself of that memory - Cloud standing in Professor Gast's abandoned house, looking into the past...

This is not the fucking time for that, he admonished himself, pulling Aerin slightly closer. She barely responded.

The setting sun shot blood-red through the ethereal forest, surreal and dark - and more than a little sad. Vincent had disappeared into the trees a few moments earlier, bearing Seth's body in his arms and instructing Aerin and Zair to remain behind. The faintest rustle of leaves announced his return, and Zair looked up. 

Vincent blended in perfectly, the sunset staining him red from head to toe. His face, pale and gaunt beneath his black hair, gave him the look of Hades bearing a lost soul. He was accompanied by a black chocobo that was not Mari, who Zair eventually recognized as Zion. The bird was crestfallen - his head was lowered, his feathers drooping, grey eyes unspeakably sad. He sank to a nesting position as Vincent knelt. 

When tame chocobos chose riders, they chose for life, and would never leave their rider's side.

Seth himself looked trapped halfway between death and life - every speck of blood had been cleaned off his clothes, and there was no trace of his wound - a Cure spell? cast after the fact? Valentine, did you have to be so fucking sentimental? - and his face, with his lips still frozen upwards in a faint smile, was entirely too pale, yet looked as though he might open his eyes at any minute, and sit up in Vincent's arms, and laugh the entire funeral off.

Vincent paused, as though searching for words, for a long moment before he leaned forward and lowered Seth into the glowing green stream. As Seth's face disappeared below the surface, Zion threw his head back and let out a long, high, sorrowful warble. Vincent absently petted him, once, and then stood. He took a small, thin cylinder from his belt that was not a bullet, and loaded it into Death Penalty. Raising the rifle to the sky, he fired once, and there was a small explosion of light in the sky.

"This is the end of the first day," he said, his voice sounding frighteningly like Sephiroth's before his days of madness - cold, dead, devoid of any human soul. "In two days, if we have not defeated Jenova, Faris will call AVALANCHE. These flares are to signify that I am still alive and in control of myself, and that we are still capable of fighting. If I do not fire these flares at sunset, Faris will call AVALANCHE. If I die before then, do not presume to signal for me. Let her call them."

He took the sheathed Masamune (in its shock, the living sword had apparently consented to take another hand long enough to be sheathed) from where it was strapped at Zion's side, and jabbed it into the ground beside the green stream. Next he removed his scarlet cape, draping it around the base of the sword. The sun finally sank over the horizon as he turned away, a shadow of a man. Zion curled by the crude gravemarker, cooing sadly. Gypsum and Strife warbled sympathetically between themselves.

Vincent raised his hand to his mouth once more, letting out a piercing whistle and stepping over the luminous green stream to wait for his chocobo. Without his cape, he looked remarkably frail.

"Aerin," Zair said gently, squeezing her shoulder, only to have her slide out of his grip and walk to the small gravesite. Her hands trembled as she tied the Phoenix charm back around the hilt of the Masamune.

"Vincent," she said, her head bowed, voice thin and hollow, "where do we go from here?"

Vincent looked up.

"North," he said softly, reaching out to take Mari's reins as she finally came to him, seeming more wary than before. "It's alright, I have my own mind back," he added, to reassure Mari. He swung up onto her back, his red eyes dim beacons in the darkness.

"The Cetra's city is not far from here - an hour's travel, perhaps, by chocobo. Jenova left the Lunar Harp behind, so if we need to cross back through here, we will have a way. The way is dangerous, but the city itself should be safe. We can rest there."

"What about Jenova, then?" Zair put in angrily. "She's got the Black Materia. Are we just gonna let her summon Meteor while we sleep?"

"She can't."

Zair turned, incredulous, to face Aerin.

"What?"

"She can't do it," Aerin said, shaking her head. "The Planet won't accept her. She can't draw power from the Lifestream of this world to use the Black Materia. She needs a pawn to do it for her." She raised her head. "She can wait all she wants, but as long as she can force nobody to obey her, the Planet is safe."

She turned suddenly to Vincent.

"Don't give up."

He coolly returned her gaze. "Nor you."

"I won't." Her face was pained, but her voice was strong. "For Seth, I won't. Not until Jenova is dead and her Black Materia destroyed. That is my promise."

"We've made the same promise, then." He shook Mari's reins, and she started to move forward. As she walked by Aerin, Vincent spoke again. "Let's hope at least one of us can keep it."

And he moved on. Aerin stood in silence for a moment, then mounted Gypsum and followed, leaving Zair, Strife, and Zion alone at the gravesite.

The feathers on Aerin's charm fluttered in the breeze. Masamune stood, a lonely sentinel. It seemed terribly fitting, the union of the charm and the sword. Zair remembered Aerin's tearful farewell kiss, and the way she had dashed to his side as he lay dying, and the way they had lingered together outside Mideel...

"I don't know if I am your flower girl any more."

Zair smiled sadly.

Alright.... I understand, Aerin.

He moved towards the gravesite, pulling a penknife from his pocket and pricking his finger with the sharp tip. Carefully, he set the small wound against the knot where the charm was tied to the sword's hilt.

A gift. For my phoenix and her paladin.

When he was satisfied that the knot was properly sealed, he drew his hand away, wiping the residual blood off on his pants and flipping the knife closed again. He bent down to scratch Zion's head and murmur a few words of encouragement, before he mounted Strife and rode after his two companions.


The sky was clear, and the stars were out in full force, their light just bright enough to give vague details of the city ahead. The chocobos moved nervously, single file, down the winding shell path, picking each step with excruciating care to be sure they didn't slip. Vincent was barely visible ahead of her - black-haired, black-clad, mounted on a black chocobo, he looked like some kind of wraith. This was not helping Aerin's already fragile state of mind.

If she closed her eyes, she could see Seth's dying smile, could feel how cold his fingers were around hers, could hear the way he slurred his last words. She could see him smiling once more, that sad, sad smile, as he held her on a day when she thought she would never see another sunrise. She remembered wishing that she could have made his smile real, could have made him laugh despite his past.

He died so uselessly... The darkness in front of Aerin blurred, and she blinked to clear it. Her eyes were wet with tears. He could have lived... and lived long...

The city had no gates, no walls, only a tiny bridge around a crystalline moat. The chocobos moved more easily now, sensing that the ground was safer here. Zair trotted Strife up beside Aerin and Gypsum.

"Hey," he said gently. It was the first word to be spoken since the funeral.

"Hey," she said listlessly back.

"Aerin - uh - I -" Zair hunted uselessly for words for a moment, and then gave up, hanging his head. "I'm sorry."

"So am I." She stared ahead, not turning to face him.

"I mean, I know - he was a great guy," Zair babbled on, desperate to fill the silence with words. "Though I didn't exactly know him for very long - not like you - but - uh-"

"Zair," she said, her voice small and thin, "shut up."

Zair bowed his head, sighed, and rode ahead.

Ahead in the near distance, Aerin saw Vincent dismount and tether Mari at the gate of a particular shell house, Zair following suit. They disappeared into the door, two small, dark shapes melting into shadow. 

When Aerin reached the door, she lingered outside, looking at the stars. If she looked hard enough, she could see where the new moon rested in the sky.


Zair stared at the ceiling. Sleep was not going to come easily tonight.

Seth had not deserved to die, and had especially not deserved to die that way - stabbed from behind, unable to even see it coming, it was a monstrously unfair death, and they always said a belly wound was one of the worst ways to die -

- and I've seen two people die that way already.

He had let himself be brought back to prevent this. To stay by Sephiroth's side, to keep him sane, keep him human, and above all keep him alive. And that had been a vastly successful endeavour, hadn't it?

Fuck. Sixteen years on opposite sides of the Planet, and then when we actually meet, he dies.

And Aerin...

He tried not to think about it, laying an arm over his eyes. Aerin. Beautiful Aerin, smiling, brave, fiery Aerin - 

Aerith could be dangerous, when roused to anger. Gentle, sweet, playful most of the time, but when provoked, she possessed an almost ancient rage, and Zax had pitied anyone who pissed her off. That fire was in Aerin yet, burning as brightly as ever.

God, how many nights had he lain awake, a small child, remembering the soft lines of Aerith's stance and the curve of her smile and the light in her eyes and the way her hair fell around her face and slid against her skin when she tilted her head - remembering and loving and longing and pining and missing her so much and crying into his pillow how sorry, how very unbelievably sorry he was that he had never come back from his last mission, had never been able to hold her that last time, never been able to keep her from dying, never been able to stand beside her in death? 

Zax's body had died, that day outside Midgar. His thoughts, his memories, his feelings - they never had.

He had never expected Aerith to be alive again, let alone remember him - but there she had been, in Mideel, whispering a dead name, and he had loved her so much in that moment... He wanted to love her, for her to love him, to feel that once more...

But even he could admit now that it was a useless dream. He had tried not to believe it when he watched them, standing outside Mideel saying their goodbyes. He had tried not to hear the way Aerin had spoken about Seth, had tried to believe that they could be Aerith and Zax again. The flower girl and her SOLDIER.

He couldn't deny it any more. Whether Aerin would admit it, or quite realized it yet, she had been in love with Seth - or at least in the process of falling.

Zair rolled over in the dusty old bed, shoving his face into the pillow.

No. You will not. You will fucking NOT feel sorry for yourself, you do not have any fucking right to feel sorry for yourself...

Aerin was the one who deserved pity and sympathy, not him - Aerin who had loved Seth, Aerin who was now bereft and yet still went on, and for Seth would see her mission through. Zair who loved the memory of a flower girl and wanted, so badly, for the phoenix to become the flower, deserved none.

You had no reason, or right, to even expect that Aerith would be reincarnated, and when she was, you had no right to expect that she would just run happily into your arms and it would all be fucking peachy again...

In an explosion of motion, he sat up and viciously threw off the sheets. Sighing heavily, he leaned forward onto his knees and looked around inside the shell house.

A faint red glow from one side told him that Vincent wasn't sleeping either, and a careful listen to the other side revealed that Aerin wasn't even in bed yet. He got to his feet, taking the Hardedge from behind his bed, and headed down towards the door.

Strife, Gypsum, and Mari were huddled down beside the shell wall, heads under their wings. Zair looked at the small group for a minute, sighing. Poor Zion.

"Aerin?" he called quietly. 

There was no response. He tried again, a bit louder. The chocobos stirred this time, but Aerin did not call back. Hoping fervently she had had the sense to at least stay inside the city, he glanced over at the chocobos. Strife gave him a miffed warble and curled pointedly back up, Mari gave him a look that clearly said 'You are an idiot, and I hope you fall off a small cliff and hit your head' and followed Strife. Gypsum just looked around, blinking tiredly.

"Hey, Gypsum." Zair crouched by the black. "Have you seen Aerin?"

Gypsum warbled weakly and gestured vaguely with her wing before yawning and closing her eyes again. Zair looked in the general direction she had pointed. It led rather ominously to the heart of the city.

Oh, no. You did not go back there.

He untied Strife and shook the gold slightly, earning an irritated chirp and a nip on the hand for his trouble.

"Stop it," Zair said, swatting the bird's beak lightly. "I've got to catch up to Aerin, so wake up. I'll let you sleep in a bit."

Strife allowed himself to be mounted with the most long-suffering look of injured pride Zair had ever seen a chocobo wear, and seemed highly reluctant to go beyond a trot. It was nevertheless faster than walking.


He found her shoes neatly set aside at the end of the long, thin pass (which Strife had refused point-blank to be ridden through, driving Zair to take it on foot), and Aerin herself standing at the shore of the lake.

A small, slow tide rolled in around her bare ankles. In the faint blue light, the source of which Zair couldn't see, she wrapped her arms around herself as though to keep something inside. She turned slightly, her long dark hair sliding against her back.

Her hands moved to her orange cloth belt and quickly undid the knots, casting off her multi-colored skirt. There, standing in only her loose white shirt and her short leather pants, she dived into the lake.

Zair was aware of dashing forward, uselessly shouting her name, as though that would brind her back to the surface, and of stopping dumbly at the shore, watching the small dark shape swim awkwardly through the clear water. 

She can't swim, Zair thought frantically, watching the ungraceful flailing of dusky limbs beneath the water's surface. Without thinking, he shed his jacket and dove in after her.

The water was icy cold, worse than the ocean at night, and Zair kicked frantically to reach Aerin, who was doing her level best to get to the bottom. Her movements were starting to slow, evidence that the chill water was already sapping her strength. She resisted only weakly as Zair wrapped strong arms around her and kicked towards the surface.

"What were you doing?!" Zair demanded the moment they broke the surface, pulling Aerin towards the shore as she gasped weakly. "This is the North Continent for Titan's sake - it's cold up here-"

"My s-staff," Aerin gasped, shivering as Zair sat her down on the bank. "Ae-Aerith's st-staff--"

Zair wrapped his jacket around her, aware as he did so that it wouldn't be nearly enough. He had already reached into his pants pockets before he realized that any form of kindling he might be lucky enough to find in them would already be sodden. And she - we, he thought, noticing how his teeth were chattering - needed a lot of warmth very fast.

"Damn it - come on, let's get back to the house, we'll f-freeze if we stay out here - S-Strife!"

Grabbing Aerin's skirt and helping the chilled girl to her feet, he stumbled through the pass again, shooting Strife a murderous glare as he helped Aerin onto his back.

"Damn bird, going through that pass wouldn't have killed you," he muttered viciously before swinging up onto the bird's back. Strife snapped irritably at him, but made due haste to the shell-house. For that Zair was grateful.


Useless.

Vincent stared upward through the red glare of his own eyes, staring at the ceiling, staring into memories.

I failed him, completely. Twice.

In death, Seth's face had borne a disturbing, unsettling resemblance to another's. It had been hard to face the pale skin, the faint smile, without remembering...

... white as snow, because Hojo never let him outside until he was how old? Certainly not while I was with him... the way he smiled, so slight, almost afraid that he would be slapped for it... but when he smiled, he meant it...

The childish lines of Seth's face, so much like that of the young Sephiroth...

Because of Vincent's incompetence, that face would never strengthen, never bear the features of a grown man... because Vincent had been so weak as to let Jenova in, Seth would never again come home, would never marry, never have children... his mother would forever be at home, waiting in vain for her son to return, until Vincent came to deliver the news...

I am the bearer of death. I break everything I touch, everything I love. I loved Lucrecia and she withered. I loved Sephiroth and he shattered.

.... I loved Seth, and he rode alone to his death, because I could not stop him...

His hand traced the cold lines of Death Penalty in something close to a lover's caress. Lucrecia's final legacy. The gun, like Masamune, drew its strength from blood. It was as steeped in death as its wielder. He had always had his suspicions as to how Lucrecia had come by this gun...

...that, perhaps, she did not come by it at all...

She had wanted, so badly, to die... and when they had crossed paths again, in the cavern...

His senses were far keener after the years he spent in Hojo's clutches, and he remembered the way Lucrecia smelled - human yet, but with the foul taint of Jenova... and something else... something that smelled like...

Aerith. Lucrecia was half Cetra... if only I had known, at the beginning, of her heritage and her desire... known the truth about Jenova...

Lucrecia had wanted so badly to completely assume her Cetra heritage, to take on her father's blood... and believing that Jenova was a Cetra, how easy it must have seemed to her...

She was too human for Jenova to kill her... but the Cetra in her blood withered at the virus's touch... she would never recover, and she knew that... and she had come to hate herself, for damning her son to his father's hands... for not being his mother...

Even the gun's sharp metal-scent smelled of human blood, and decay, and of something else entirely... something holy...

It had been Lucrecia's own death penalty, for the sins she could never atone for.

She had left him a gun - fashioned by Cetra magic from her own body. 

May she rest peacefully in the Lifestream, undisturbed, forever... He closed his eyes, wishing for tears, but his eyes remained dry.  And now she can finally hold her son...


Zair could barely feel his legs as he dismounted from Strife, and was aware that Aerin's shivering wasn't as intense as before. If they didn't get a fire or something soon, they would...

"Vincent!" he cried, rather than think about the looming possibility. "Hey, V-Vincent!"


The small fire blazed merrily on the floor. Zair and Aerin's shadows chased each other around the curved walls of the shell-house in time with the flickering flames. Their wet clothes discarded along with any sense of modesty, the two teenagers huddled desperately around the fire, bedsheets draped over their shoulders to shield their backs from the cold, while leaving their fronts open to the fire's warmth. Vincent sat again on his bed in the shadows, having hung the sodden clothes from a rafter to dry.

"Midnight on the North Continent is not a good time or place to swim," he intoned coldly towards his young charges.

"N-not my fault," Zair shivered. "Had to s-save Aerin--"

"I was l-looking for the s-staff," she returned weakly.

"That's not e-even where they p-put it!" Zair snapped, pulling the bedsheet around to cover himself. "Sh-should've asked someone who was t-there-- the hell is so important about this staff anyway--"

Aerin opened her mouth and left it there for a moment, searching desperately for words to convey the urgency of what she had felt, before she finally gave up and wrapped all the way up in the bedsheet as Zair had, inching closer to the fire. A long silence passed between the two, and it wasn't until their hair had nearly dried and their shivers had mostly subsided that Aerin finally spoke.

"It was her staff," she said quietly. "A Cetra weapon, made just for her - like Ultima Weapon for Cloud, and Limited Moon for Nanaki.... don't ask me who made it, or how they knew she would claim it... even she didn't understand how the Cetra knew what they did... but the point is it was hers, and it's filled with the power of the Planet, and - and mine's just wood, Jenova could break it with a snap of her fingers and then where would I be?"

"Minus a staff," Zair said dully, "but if you're really the Planet's weapon--"

"I need a weapon of my own to fight for the Planet, Zair!" Aerin snapped. "What am I supposed to do, kick Jenova to death?"

"Could work," Zair said, brightening slightly as he imagined it.

"You said yourself she's unkillable. Well, she can't be completely unkillable, right? A wood staff won't do anything to her, but a Cetra staff, filled with the Planet's power... it just might."

Zair locked eyes with her for a moment, then looked down into the fire, shrugging. "I guess you could be right."

"You don't believe I can do it, do you?"

The accusation drew blood. Zair refused to look up.

"I don't really believe in much of anything anymore."

Aerin was silent for a moment, looking down into the fire.

"Where's the staff, Zair?"

"It's at the altar." Zair scratched the back of his neck. "Nobody brought it up when... you know. Left it there. A memorial, I guess."

Aerin stood, the bedsheet billowing softly from the movement and the heat of the fire. Turning towards her bed, she spoke. "Then I'll go there... tomorrow. And I'll give you something to believe in."

Surprised, Zair scrambled to his feet as well. "But - it's where you-"

She glanced over her shoulder, dark hair sliding against the curves of her dark face, and smiled, a little sadly. "Sephiroth's not going to come down and stab me again, Zair. Even if he could now, I know he wouldn't." 

She settled into her bed, pulling the blankets up over her head. Zair shook his head slowly, and reached his hand out to rest on her shoulder, pulling it back at the last moment. Despite everything, he found himself smiling.

"Alright. Tomorrow."


Zair awoke the next morning to find Aerin and her chocobo gone. He had a moment of panic before Vincent, already long awake, calmly pointed out that the girl's supplies were still by her bed, and that she would hardly be so stupid as to strike out on her own without potions. They cooked breakfast at the mouth of the shell-house, and it was at dawn, with the warm smell of food in the air, when she returned.

Zair was taking a second portion of the fried bacon (or whatever it was - Vincent had hunted the thing down and neatly shredded it before Zair had even woken up, and he wasn't particularly inclined to ask what it had been) when he heard Vincent's deadpan voice saying "I see you found it."

Zair looked up then, mouth filled with fresh maybe-bacon, and stared dumbly. 

He had forgotten, in sixteen years, the precise lines of Aerith's staff, the particular shape of the emblem atop the golden rod, and seeing it now was actually something of a shock.

It evoked the shape of a phoenix, wings outstretched, with a large ruby in the very center, where the bird's heart would be. Fitting perfectly to Aerin's height and the delicate dark fingers that curled around it, it looked more natural and right than anything he had ever seen. And Aerin was smiling, small and hesitant, but it reached all the way to her eyes and damned if it wasn't the most beautiful thing Zair could imagine.

She noticed his gaze, tilted her head, and grinned at him, and his heart stopped to see Aerith in that smile as she sank to her knees and took her portion of the breakfast.

"What's with all this, Vincent?" she asked, turning to face the sniper. "We never had this much to eat on the road..."

"You'll need your strength," Vincent said quietly. "We all will. You cannot fight Jenova on an empty stomach."

And he smiled, just a little.

Maybe it was the indulgence in the abundant breakfast, or the way Aerin seemed somehow brighter and happier with the Princess Guard in hand, or the eastern light and the last of the lingering stars - but somehow, thinking ahead to the battle with Jenova, Zair felt more hope than fear.
 

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