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Red and Green

Seth.

A low moan split the afternoon air. 

Seth, wake up.

Another moan, louder, and then the sound of grass shifting as somebody rolled over. "Wha...?"

About time. You've been asleep all day, you know. You've probably got a nasty burn, not to mention that wound can't be much the better for having gone untreated so long.

Seth groaned, disliking the lofty, detached tone the Masamune was taking with him. Pulling himself up to a sitting position, he looked around, blinking.

He was out in a wide plain, past the rolling hills of the Nibel area. The grass was lush and wild out here, rippling in the slight breeze. Blinking his sore eyes, Seth tried to push himself to a standing position. His arm protested immediately and painfully to the sudden demand and buckled under him. Moaning weakly, Seth rolled onto his hands and knees and crawled towards the river.

A few mouthfuls of the clear water soothed his throat, and a splash to the face jarred him into full wakefulness. Taking a deep breath, Seth looked down to inspect his battle wounds, not looking forward to what he might see.

His entire right side did feel tender and was starting to turn an angry red. His T-shirt was spattered with dark stains that he could only suppose were blood. His left ankle had bled slightly onto the sock, exposed by the torn boot, but it didn't look too bad from here and he was afraid to look closer.

His right arm, however, had really taken the worst. Deep, scabbed-over gouges tore deep into the flesh, with bone visible in places. The blood that had dripped down his arm had dried in place, the brown streams cracking when he moved the appendage. Hesitantly, he reached over to roll up his shredded sleeve in order to better assess the damage, only to find that it had scabbed to the arm.

Miraculously, he didn't throw up.

Shuddering and averting his gaze from the injury, he pushed himself shakily to his feet with his good arm. He noticed the weak feeling spreading up his left leg at once, but decided it would still support his weight. 

Masamune was easily detected, shining brightly where it had been dropped the night before. Seth stepped over to it. The overly long blade gleamed in the afternoon light, all traces of blood from the night before having been absorbed into the metal. 

Seth glared at it hatefully for a moment, wishing it gone. 'This is all your fault,' he thought viciously.

Tsk. You humans always find someone else to blame.

"You called me out of bed in the middle of the night," Seth said icily. "You forced my body, as I recall. If I hadn't been out that night, we wouldn't have been attacked, and I never would have... have..." He made a frustrated noise, dragging one hand roughly through his hair. "All because YOU couldn't wait, I'm homeless and orphaned now. I hope you're happy."

It's not my fault the wolf dodged.

"No. But it's your fault I was out there to fight the wolves to begin with."

Why are you so obsessed with finding someone to pin this on? The imporant matter is, what are you going to do now?

"I'm going to finish what I started," Seth said tonelessly, reaching down to pick up Masamune. Holding it out in front of him, he took a deep breath and swung the sword towards his neck.

It stopped about an inch away, Seth's arms locking up as the Masamune invoked its ability to control the boy's body.

What, exactly, are you doing?

"Eliminating the last survivor of Nibelheim," Seth said flatly. "I might as well, right? It's not like I have anywhere to go."

I am not going to go along with this, Seth.

"Hmmph." Seth sheathed Masamune, and turned towards the river. "Fine. I'll do it some other way."

No. You will not.

"Try me," Seth persisted, moving stubbornly forward. 

STOP!

Masamune's voice rang sharp and clear, the chafing, echoing, almost bell-like sound of a blade pulled free from its scabbard. Seth stopped dead, unsure whether it was Masamune taking control of him or his own shock preventing further movement.

You will not end your life, Seth.

"Why not?" Seth questioned bitterly. "My home town is a pile of ashes by now. My mother was in there. Where else do I have to go? What reason do I have to stay alive?"

Considering the stock you humans seem to put in your relations to other humans, I'd have thought the possibility of going to your aunt would have occurred to you. I doubt that she would be enormously pleased to find out that her nephew survived the fire that destroyed his home town, only to behead himself the next day.

Seth stared at the ground, feeling guilty. "That's right... I forgot all about Aunt Lena..." He looked up again. "But Midgar's halfway across the world and I don't have any money..."

Well, there are other towns where you can at least get into contact with her, right?

"You're being unusually helpful," Seth remarked, starting to move forward and wincing at the pain in his leg.

I'm your sword.

"You said swords exist to kill people," Seth said dully, kneeling carefully at the edge of the river to judge the depth. There was a shallow spot that he figured he should be able to wade through. He got to his feet with a wince, slogging slowly, weakly forward through the water. It was cold; the water did not merely chill him, but rather seemed to be trying to devour him with its icy touch. It was deeper than he had judged, coming up almost to his shoulders. Gasping against the cold and the slight pressure against his lungs, he fought his way across the river, opposing the current and the water that threatened to burn his skin away with the sheer frigidity of its touch.

By the time he made it to the middle of the river, he was half-swimming, half-dragging himself with Masamune. His injured arm and leg were shocked into numbness, and barely complained at the  demands Seth was making on them.

He finally made it to the other bank, dragging himself up onto the dry, warm grass, gasping and shaking violently from the cold. He couldn't feel anything from his elbows down, and his feet were almost as numb. Groaning, he rolled over on his back, freely exposing himself to the sun that, less than an hour before, had been burning him.

You missed the point, Seth.

Seth turned to stare at his sword. "I thought you'd given up that conversation."

No. I merely waited until you were not distracted. The point of a sword is not to kill in cold blood for no reason; it is to protect its wielder in a life or death situation. When two clash and one must die, the sword's duty is to ensure that the one who holds it is the one who stands.

"Mph." Seth pulled himself slowly to his feet, fumbling for a bit before finally managed to sheathe the sword. Cosmo Canyon, if he recalled correctly, should be just south of here...

And that, Masamune seemed to whisper as it slid into the scabbard, is why I am being, as you put it, 'unusually helpful'. I did not slay those wolves so that you could die the next morning from shock and an infected wound. Now move.

Seth wanted to reply with a scathingly sarcastic remark, but his fingers were still numb, his clothes icy and clingingly wet. His ankle stung, and his right arm was slowly starting to feel heavy and useless. His sunburn flared angrily, he felt weak from his dip in the river, and the prior events had left him emotionally exhausted. He simply did not have the strength or the will to be flippant any longer.

And so he dragged himself forward, towards the red cliffs and sands of Cosmo Canyon.


The sky around Cosmo Canyon always seemed a little redder from the coppery dust in the air. On the cliffs, the air was always clear, but down among the sands, the sky tended to have a red tinge. During sunset, however, the sky was red no matter where you stood. Those who lived there  always said that this place represented life in its purest form; trees crowned the tallest cliffs in emerald, the color of luck and health and growth, and the cliffs themselves were red. Red was the color of blood and fire; fire fought the cold and the darkness so scornful to life, blood was life in liquid form.

Two beings sat in amicable silence at the foot of the time-smoothed stone stairs that led to the settlement above. One was a man dressed in blue, with a shock of wild, untamed golden hair, and bright blue eyes that glowed with an inner light. The other was an animal, red as the cliffs, his body marked by scars and tattoos. He wore a feathered headdress nestled in among his dark red mane. One of his eyes was scarred shut, the other closed in peaceful reflection.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" the man said softly, watching the sun make its way down the western sky.

"Mm."

"I wonder... what all this'll look like in another hundred, two hundred years. Or a thousand. It's interesting to think about... when all our friends are dead and gone to ashes and only exist in the Midgar museum as empty portraits... we'll still be sitting here and watching the sunset..." He ran his hand through his hair. "Hn... only thirty-eight, and already I'm thinking about stuff like this."

"Do not trouble yourself, Cloud," Nanaki said softly, his good eye still peacefully shut. "We are still young."

"You're still young," Cloud retorted, grinning a bit. "I'm approaching middle age."

"You don't have a middle age," Nanaki returned, opening his eye at last and smiling somewhat. "Remember? You're technically immortal."

"S'the principle of it all." Cloud leaned back against the warm cliff, closing his eyes. "Mm. It's so peaceful right now, I could forget all about all that..."

"Please do," Nanaki murmured. Suddenly, however, his ears pricked up, catching an unfamiliar sound. His good eye snapped open and he jumped to a standing position, his ears cocked, searching for the source of that faint, shuffling, scratching noise. Cloud watched him with confusion, leaping to his feet and following after the red-furred beast as he loped off around a cliff.

They were confronted with a truly wretched sight.

A young man, perhaps around sixteen, was scuffling slowly towards them, leaning heavily against the cliff wall. His right arm, which looked to have been grievously injured, hung limply at his side. His clothes were torn, and as bloodied as the rest of him. His entire body was covered with a thin patina of the canyon's red sands, and an unreasonably long sword hung at his belt, pulling a wobbly trail through the dust.

He looked like a demon, or a lost soul, that had just barely escaped the clutches of Hell.

"Who's that?!" Cloud demanded, gaping openly at the boy.

The tortured soul raised his head slowly. His eyes, set against his reddened hair and dirt-smudged face, were jarringly green and heavy with physical and emotional weariness.

"Help me..." he croaked, just before his knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground, unable to remain conscious any longer.

Nanaki and Cloud instantly rushed to his side, rolling him over. Cloud gave him a quick look-over, assessing his injuries - at least, until the sword at the boy's hip caught his eye. Now that he got a better look at it...

"Nanaki," he whispered urgently, "this is the Masamune. What would he be doing with the Masamune?"

"Cloud!" Nanaki snapped, growling at his human friend. "At this moment, his sword should be the least of our worries! You carry him up the stairs, I will go and inform Illyra so she can prepare a bed for him." With that, he turned and bolted away as fast as his four legs would carry him. Cloud looked down at the boy and sighed, gathering him into his arms.

The boy's dirtied face looked so wan and sorrowful, unable to find peace even in rest, that Cloud couldn't help but feel compassion for him. His worries about the Masamune were forgotten; this was no spectre of the past, but an injured child carrying more than the weight of his sword.

"Poor kid," he muttered, turning and heading back for the stairs as the sun slipped down behind the horizon.


Illyra, the Canyon's doctor, was a stout woman, short and strong with nimble fingers and great knowledge of natural medicine. While not overly 'beautiful' by human standards, she was not entirely unattractive either - she had a plain, simple beauty about her, with her good nature and determined air.

She had made no small amount of fuss when the boy had been brought in, and his circumstances described.

"You say he just passed out in the sand?" she demanded of Nanaki and Cloud, checking over the boy's injuries. "He's had a terrible sunburn - awful wound exposed to the sun all day long - untreated from the looks of it - where did you say he came from?"

"North," Cloud responded, staring at the prone figure on the bed. "From Nibelheim, probably."

"He at least had to cross the river, to get so muddy," Nanaki put in.

"The RIVER? On foot, with this ghastly injury and that sunburn - Holy help the poor boy!"

Illyra stood to her feet and shooed the two past heroes towards the door.

"Out! Out with you both! I can't have anyone getting in my way or distressing the boy any further when he awakens! OUT!"

Thus ordered, Cloud and Nanaki both bowed out meekly. Illyra turned back towards the bed and its miserable occupant. Sitting down by his side, she carefully removed his boots and socks, appraising this wound. 

The ankle looked as though it had been bitten, but the flesh had begun to wither away from the holes, leaving slowly-growing pits in the flesh. The arm seemed to have a similar infection. Illyra silently marveled that the boy had sustained no other wounds, and sighed, turning around.

"Aerin!" she called. 

Within a few minutes, a young girl stood in the arched doorway that led further into the healer's house.

"Aerin," Illyra continued, "would you be a dear and watch him for me for a while? Tend to his sunburn, there should be a salve on the table. If he wakes up, tell him where he is and what happened."

The girl's green eyes darkened in puzzlement. "Where are you going?"

"To catch flies," the healer sighed, heading out the door.


Seth awakened to find himself in an unfamiliar room. He sat up slowly, taking in his surroundings. The walls were carved out of red stone, and there were two exits cut out of the walls. Bunches of dried herbs hung from the ceiling, shelves cut into the wall held any number of potions and medicines, and a small table held a few surgical instruments, as well as a sealed jar full of... on looking closer, Seth could see that the jar contained a small slab of some sort of meat, and the glass chamber was virtually filled with flies. Making a face, Seth looked down at himself.

His clothes had been removed and replaced with a simple sleeveless cotton shirt and loose cotton slacks. All traces of dirt and blood had been washed away from him, and his disheveled hair had been combed. Blinking in wonder, he looked around again.

"Where am I?"

"Cosmo Canyon."

Surprised by the response, Seth turned around to face the speaker - a dark-skinned young girl with chestnut hair done up into a ponytail and deep green eyes, seated at the head of his bed. 

She was very pretty.

"Uh... thanks," he replied, blushing. The girl smiled back at him.

"They said you collapsed just outside the town," she said as Seth lay back down. "Nanaki found you. Cloud carried you in."

Seth had no sooner settled his head on the pillow than he heard that and bolted back up to a sitting position.

"Please, take it easy!" the girl cried. "You're wounded and my mother hasn't even started your treatment yet!"

"Nanaki? Cloud?!" Seth demanded with wide eyes, ignoring her entreaty. "You mean THE Nanaki and THE Cloud? Red XIII and Cloud Strife?!"

The girl blinked before nodding in slight confusion. "Yes. You've heard of them?"

"HEARD of them!" Seth cried. "They're HEROES! Do you really mean to tell me that Cloud Strife, THE Cloud Strife, actually RESCUED me?!"

"I suppose, wh--"

"That is the COOLEST thing EVER!" Seth whooped. "Just yesterday I got Vincent Valentine's autograph, and now Cloud Strife rescued me! And Red XIII! I wish I'd brought my notebook - Cloud could sign that - I dunno about Nanaki, he could leave a pawprint or something - but how utterly cool! Cloud Strife and Red XIII RESCUED me!!"

His joyful rant, on conclusion, made way for a sudden, unpleasant memory - his notebook had been left in Nibelheim.

He had burned Nibelheim.

The wide grin on his face slowly faded to a shameful frown as he sank back down against the bed.

"What's wrong?" The girl questioned.

"Nothing," Seth replied, wiping his eyes roughly. "It's nothing. Don't worry about it - just bad things at home, that's all."

"How bad?"

"Really bad - I had to leave because of it," he half-truthed. "I sorta got attacked on the way - it's a good thing I had my sword or I wouldn't be here."

Well, you certainly don't seem very experienced," she remarked, apparently respecting his desire to turn talk away from his home. "Not that I can blame you. That sword has to be six feet long."

Seth grinned weakly, but was saved from a response by a stout woman entering the room with a tray. A plate of steaming, delicious-smelling food, a teapot, and a cup graced the tray, which she set down on the bed.

"You must be hungry - I don't suppose you've had a thing to eat all day, poor thing," she fussed. "Go ahead, eat up!"

Seth couldn't have held out even if he'd had any reason to. He attacked the plate with a voracious appetite, hardly pausing for breath until it had been wiped clean. He then poured himself a cup of tea and began to slurp it down.

"I see you enjoyed it," the woman remarked with good humor in her voice.

Seth nodded, swallowing the last of his tea. Chuckling, the lady removed the tray and set it aside.

"What's your name, boy?"

"Seth," he replied. "Seth Drasil."

The woman bobbed her head in acknowledgement. "Pleased to meet you, Seth. My name's Illyra, and this is my daughter Aerin. I'm Cosmo Canyon's healer."

Seth smiled slightly. "So how bad am I?"

Illyra's friendly smile dissolved into a sigh. "I'll be honest. Both the wound on your ankle and the one on your shoulder are infected. The flesh is literally rotting away from the point of injury. If the infection were allowed to spread, the arm and lower leg may need to be amputated."

Seeing the panic on Seth's face, she raised a hand to silence any outbursts. "Fortunately, the infections appear to be progressing very slowly, giving ample time to treat them before they go beyond recovery."

Seth calmed only slightly. "What will you do?"

"You saw the jar of flies, right?"

"...Yes, but what does that have to do with it?"

Illyra chortled. "Everything, my lad, everything. How do you feel about bugs?"

"I have an agreement with them," he said in an airy tone. "They don't get anywhere near me, I don't squash them into oblivion."

Aerin giggled from somewhere behind Illyra, who was also chuckling.

"Well, I'm afraid you'll have to cooperate with them. I caught those flies so that they would produce eggs, and thus maggots. Now, maggots are wonderful for treating infected wounds. They eat away all the infected flesh, but leave the good flesh alone. Entirely natural, with none of the pain or side effects you can get from surgery. Just one of the Planet's ways of treating its children."

Seth stared at the woman with a look of disgust crawling over his face. "You mean... you're going to put those things on my ARM?!"

"And your ankle," Illyra added. "You'll have to put up with the maggots as long as it takes for them to eat the bad flesh."

Seth stared at his arm and then Illyra, in perfect revulsion.

"You're going to let a bunch of little white squiggling crawling disgusting maggots eat my ARM?!"

"I could let it rot away to the bone if you like," Illyra retorted. "Since that appears to be your sword arm, I doubt you want that."

Seth stared mournfully down at his arm.

"You don't have to look at them, Seth," Aerin chided, handing the jar to her mother for inspection. "Look, Mom, I think they're ready."

"At least some of them are," Illyra nodded her agreement. "Alright, Seth, I'm going to put them on your ankle first so you can get used to the idea without having to look at them. If you're really desperate, you can put your right arm off to the side and we can turn the bed so your right side is to the wall. That way you can concentrate more on the rest of the room."

Seth nodded weakly. "Please."

Illyra and Aerin busied themselves doing just that. It took them next to no time, which Seth was privately dismayed at. He'd hoped it would take a little more time, so he wouldn't have to face those maggots just yet...

As promised, however, Illyra applied the larvae to his ankle first so that he could easily avoid looking at them. Despite that, however, he could feel the damn little things squirming around in there and eating... He tried very hard not to think about it. 

"When the next batch is ready, they'll go on your arm," Illyra warned. "So get used to these little bugs fast. Just get some rest now and let them do the work."

Illyra and Aerin left, then, leaving Seth to stare at the cut stone ceiling in the dark.

'And yesterday, my life was perfectly normal,' he thought despairingly.


The black chocobo trotted slowly through the sands of Cosmo Canyon, kicking up small clouds of dust. The boy's heavy-footed trail hadn't faded, which the rider was glad for. He was less thrilled to discover that the tracks joined with two other pairs, and then went up into the town.

"Hmmph."

Vincent Valentine narrowed his eyes and brought his chocobo up the steps that led up to the town. About halfway up, a cave had been carved into the cliff, above where the dusty air stopped. There were several stalls inside, a few of them occupied by the large, colorful birds. Seeing nobody there, Vincent dismounted and led his bird into the cave, opening an unoccupied stall and letting the black chocobo trot in. He shook a few greens from his bag into the feeeding trough, patted the bird on the head as she eagerly attacked the vegetables, and then departed for the stairs.


"Vincent!"

Vincent coolly met Cloud's eyes with his own, making no response to the joyful exclamation. Cloud strode forward and clapped a hand heavily on Vincent's shoulder.

"Good to see you again, you old spook!" the swordsman laughed. "Where've you been for the last year or so?"

"Wandering," Vincent replied flatly.

"Still?" Cloud's face twisted into a frown. "It's been seventeen years, Vin. Why don't you settle down somewhere?"

"I don't want to," Vincent replied, still as flat and emotionless as a piece of paper. "I've come looking for somebody."

Cloud's expression turned serious. "Who?"

"A boy, around sixteen years of age. He is close to your height, and bears a passing resemblance to Sephiroth. He should also be armed with the Masamune."

"Why are you looking for him?"

"You may be interested to know what he did to Nibelheim."


"Hello?"

Seth opened his eyes, turning towards the girl at the doorway, illuminated in the light of the oil lamp she held. It was the healer's daughter. He smiled and waved with his good hand.

"Hey. Aerin, wasn't it?"

She nodded. "I thought you might like somebody to talk to, if you weren't asleep."

"You were right. I'd really appreciate a chat right now."

Aerin set her oil lamp down on the table next to the bed and sat down. "Is there anything you'd like to talk about?"

Seth shrugged. "Just talk to me. I don't much care what about, anything will be fine."

Aerin giggled nervously. "Well... I don't have much to talk about, I'm afraid."

"Hmm. Well..." Seth strained to think of something to talk about. "You're the healer's daughter, right? Does that mean you're studying medicine like your mom?" He waved his good arm around to indicate the various medicines in the room. "'Someday my child all this will be yours,' and all that?"

Aerin giggled again. "Well, yeah. But I'm also training myself to fight with a staff on the side."

"Really?"

"Yeah - I even made myself a staff to use. Would you like to see?"

Seth smiled brightly. "Sure I would!" 


Cloud exhaled a small puff of air, taking in all that he had just been told. "What are you going to do to him, Vince? What are you saying about him?"

"Cloud, it is right in front of your face. I thought his outward similarity was only a coincidence, but you know as well as I that only Sephiroth can wield the Masamune. This boy must, on some level, be Sephiroth. He has already attempted one of his former crimes--"

"Vince - shut up. Just shut up."

Vincent narrowed his eyes, but Cloud continued. 

"Have you even met this kid? He's nothing like Sephiroth was. You should've seen his eyes light up when me and Nanaki went in to check on him. He almost fell over himself thanking us for saving him, and insisted on shaking hands with me - *and* Nanaki. Sephiroth would have cut my hand off before he'd have shaken it --"

"--and Sephiroth would have cursed my name before he asked me to sign it in his notebook," Vincent interrupted. "I have met him. I signed an autograph for him in Midgar. He did not have the Masamune then."

"Are you saying it changed him?"

"It may have. It may have brought out a part of him that he cannot control. He is dangerous, Cloud."

"Okay. Y'know what, I'll take you to Illyra's place and you can walk right in there and shoot that weak, injured, tired, currently defenseless kid in the head, and that'll make it ALL better, won't it?" Cloud's voice was sharp and bitter. "You're dangerous too, Vincent. You don't see me lopping your head off because there's a slight off-chance that you might hurt me, do you?"

"Why do you side with him?"

"Because he's a kid, Vince. He's lost, hurt, and scared. Maybe I'm going soft, but I don't see Sephiroth when I look at him. What I see is a sixteen-year-old boy who's wounded and a long way from home." With those words, the swordsman turned his back on his comrade.

"I was not suggesting that we kill him."

Cloud turned his head slightly.

"I wished to talk to him."

"Interrogate him, you mean." Cloud looked up the stairs again.

"If you like."

"Nothing doing, Vince. You wanna give the kid the third degree, wait until he's healed. Wait until he's ready."

"How long until he is healed?"

"Illyra says to give him a few days - a week at the most. After that, he'll probably need to take a little while to loosen up his legs and get used to moving again. Think you can wait that long?"

"I believe I can," Vincent said calmly. "You will not see me again until he is ready to leave. When he is, I will leave with him. Wherever he goes, I will follow."

Cloud nodded once. "Then, goodbye for now. And I hope to all that is holy that you're wrong about Seth."

"As do I, Cloud."


"Wow, so you made that yourself?"

Seth's eyes were wide with wonder as he looked at the staff the healer's daughter was proudly displaying to him. It looked to have been carved from a single piece of wood, with elaborate designs whittled down the sides. There were even small hollows for mounting Materia in. The top of the staff had been carved into the shape of an owl, with tribal designs and the emblems of various creatures carved down the sides.

Cloud silently leaned against the side of the doorway, his blue eyes glowing faintly under half-closed lids as he observed the two teenagers.

"Yep! I can handle it pretty well, too. I don't think my mom much likes the fact that I'm learning to fight," Aerin grinned lightly. "I think she'd rather I just become a healer like her." She shrugged. "I am studying healing, though, but... well, I like to know I'm protected. A bunch of healing herbs won't do you any good at all if you don't live to use them."

"Mm-hmm," Seth agreed, then laughed a little. "Of course, if you're gonna use a weapon, you'd better be able to use it well. I'm lucky those wolves didn't chew me up completely!"

"That's why you always carry at least one potion with you, doof," Aerin grinned, poking his nose.

"I didn't know I was gonna get in a fight! I was just... well, out for a walk..."

"So why were you carrying around a weapon if you didn't think you were gonna get in a fight?"

Seth dipped his head. "Um... well..."

"Aerin," Cloud said softly from his position by the door, "don't you think the poor boy needs his rest?"

"M-Mister Strife!" Seth stuttered, snapping to attention and flushing bright red. "No, it's alright, we--"

"Hang on there," Cloud said, walking into the room and raising one hand. "Lay off the 'Mister Strife' business. It's Cloud. Just Cloud."

"Of course, Cloud, sir," Seth said hastily, then blushed. "I mean, uh.... sorry?"

Aerin giggled and Cloud grinned, shaking his head slowly. "Aw, forget it."

"You're right though, Cloud," Aerin said, standing. "He should get some sleep. Mom'll kill me if she finds out I was down here talking to him."

"But - aww," Seth sighed in disappointment. "I wanted to keep talking to you."

"Sorry." Aerin grinned apologetically, then reluctantly left. Cloud looked after her and then turned to Seth.

"Go on and get some sleep. You've got a long recovery ahead of you."

"I know," Seth said miserably.

The blonde man smiled and turned. "I'll let you be. G'night."

"Cloud--"

Seth found himself with nothing to say as the swordsman's glowing blue eyes met his. He wanted to throw himself at Cloud's feet and apologize for everything that he had done as Sephiroth, for burning Nibelheim again, for every real and percieved sin that he could possibly have committed - but none of it came out. None of it would be said.

"G'night," Seth finally finished, defeated.


"That should do it," Illyra said the next morning, sealing her jar again. "I'll need to catch some more and get some more food for them, but this should do you for a while."

Seth moaned and looked as far away from his right side as he could.

Illyra had just finished applying maggots to his wounded arm, and had scraped off the ones on his ankle, applying a potion to regenerate the lost flesh. According to her, the wound on his ankle had been too shallow to need more than a night's treatment. Seth wished it had been his arm.

"Just don't brush off or kill the maggots, and your arm should be done in about three days," she told him.

"Just don't mention the maggots to me again and it'll be no problem," Seth sighed.

Illyra ruffled his hair. "You'll just have to live with them, dear."

Seth just moaned again.

Soon after the healer departed, Nanaki padded in on silent paws. Settling himself on his haunches beside Seth's bed, he met the young Nibel boy's eyes.

"Good morning," he greeted cordially.

"'Morning," Seth returned.

"Aside from the obvious, how are you feeling?" The corners of the beast's mouth quirked back in what was probably a smile.

"Tired," Seth replied. "Stiff. Sore. Homesick. Lost." Guilty. Unworthy.

"Well, as soon as your arm is better, either I or Cloud will be happy to escort you to Nibelheim," Nanaki purred, in a slightly misguided attempt to reassure Seth.

"No." Seth stared up at the ceiling. "I appreciate it - really, I absolutely do - but there's nothing for me in Nibelheim now. Not anymore." Just a pile of ashes and too many memories.

"If that is the case, you are welcome to stay here in Cosmo Canyon, then," Nanaki offered. "And I am sorry."

"It's okay. And I hate to decline two offers in a row, but... no, again. I'm heading for Midgar to live with my aunt - the only real family I have left now," he added sadly.

Nanaki moved forward and butted his head against Seth's good hand. "Then, I bid you the best of  luck when you leave for Midgar," he said at last, rising to all fours. "I must leave you for the time being. I trust you will remain safe."

Seth grinned and even managed a chuckle. "Sure - but if you come back and find me dead, assume it was boredom, okay?"

Nanaki let out a short, barking laugh as he exited the room. The sound was warm and reassuring for the few moments it lasted.

The warm, soothing feeling the beast seemed able to evoke was destroyed in a moment by a sharp, steely voice.

So you think there's a danger of you dying of boredom? Masamune sounded rather amused. Well, then, I must protect you, mustn't I?

"Not you again," Seth moaned. "I was just starting to hope you'd decided to shut up."

Not as long as you breathe, boy.

"I'm tempted to hold my breath."

It'll never work.

"Can't you be quiet?"

Can't you? It would be very awkward if Aerin walked in and heard you talking to thin air, wouldn't it?

Seth flushed bright red.

I hate you.

I know, I know. Masamune's voice was lofty and sagacious. So, what did Illyra say, three days?

Yeah. Of course, might I remind you--

--I know, I know, it's all my fault and you despise me utterly for putting you in that situation, yes, we've been over this.

You're still so cold about it.

I was given the capacity to think, not to feel. I feel no remorse because it is not something I was ever given the ability to feel. Rest assured that, were I capable, I would most likely be quite ashamed of myself now.

Seth sighed, staring up at the ceiling as he tried to collect his thoughts enough to answer.

Don't worry... I'll be ashamed enough for the both of us.

If it helps at all...

What?

For what it's worth, I offer my apology. I do agree that had I not called you out, this would not have happened. While I see no point in dwelling on something we can no longer change, I apologize.

Seth did not respond for a time, but slowly smiled, warming slightly to that cool moonlight presence in the back of his mind. Thank you.

.... You're... welcome?

Seth let out a slight chuckle and then closed his eyes with a sigh, starting to relax. He stretched out his good hand to pull the Masamune from where it rested on the wall, leaning it on the side of the bed and closing his fingers around the old, worn hilt. 

"Thank you," he whispered aloud, closing his eyes.


The three days passed uneventfully. Aerin, Nanaki, and Cloud visited Seth often, relieving the cloud of boredom. Seth genuinely looked forward to each of their visits.

Aerin was the same age as he was, making it easier for the two of them to relate. She would spend the day out in the village, and in the evening would return full of gossip, her eyes twinkling as she related the higher points of the day to Seth. While he knew none of the characters she mentioned, the tales were still wonderful to listen to.

Nanaki liked to talk to him about the Planet and his deceased 'grandfather' Bugenhagen. Seth would listen in rapt fascination as Nanaki read to him from "Study of Planet Life" or explained  the intricacies of Mako and the Lifestream. The Lifestream was of specific interest to Seth; his mother had once described it as 'the blood of the Planet', when he had been too young to grasp the full definition. Nanaki's description of the flow was more complex, but he himself admitted that 'blood of the Planet' was a good way of describing it.

When Nanaki was not there, Cloud usually was, recounting his adventure of seventeen years ago. The events had apparently made a firm impression on the swordsman's mind, as he had very few gaps in his memory, which Nanaki could usually correct, if consulted. For all his fighting prowess, Cloud had all the makings of a good storyteller, recounting the events in such detail and with such emotion that Seth couldn't help but be absorbed in the tale.

Looking out over the canyon now, still dressed in the plain white clothes Illyra had given him, standing barefoot on the warm stone, Seth flexed his restored right arm and felt a pang of disappointment. He didn't want to leave this wonderful place, as steeped in history and yet devoid of time as it was. He found himself wishing that his aunt lived here, rather than in distant Midgar. It would be a long, long journey.

Was he up to making it?

"Seth?"

Seth jumped and turned to face the speaker. It was Aerin. 

"Sorry, did I startle you?"

"...A little." Seth shrugged. "I was just thinking."

"About what?"

"About leaving." He turned to look at the canyon again. "I really don't want to. I'd love to stay here forever. And Midgar is so far away."

"Do you want to see your aunt again?"

"I do. And I really don't have anywhere else to go..." -- "You are welcome to stay here in Cosmo Canyon," Nanaki's words flashed through Seth's mind. He shook his head slowly. "...Nanaki said I could stay here, and I'd love to, but Aunt Lena... What happened to Nibelheim's bound to make it into the news," he said softly. "She'll hear, eventually. She'll worry. She'll mourn. I can't let her suffer like that without giving her one reason to be happy."

Aerin scuffled her feet, looking up at the sky as Seth kept his gaze fixed straight ahead.

"...What happened to Nibelheim?"

"Bad things," Seth said hollowly. "I told you, I had to leave because of it. Let's just say... I don't have a home any more."

Aerin dipped her head once. "I understand. Just... remember, if things don't work out in Midgar, you always have a home in Cosmo Canyon." 

"...Thank you." Seth turned to smile at her. The smile turned to an expression of curiosity as he eyed the leather bag slung over her shoulder. "What've you got there?"

"Oh!" She started, as though only now remembering the bag herself. She took it off and handed it to him. "It's for you. It's got your old clothes in it, and your boots, and a gift."

Seth had already pulled out the boots, staring in wonder at the left one. All the damage done to it by the wolf's fangs had been mended. "Who did this?"

"One of my mom's friends. She does sewing and weaving."

After putting his boots back on and stomping the left one against the rock a couple times as if to make sure it was mended, he looked back into the bag and, wide-eyed, pulled out a long, emerald-colored cloak.

"My mom's friend made that too," Aerin put in, but Seth barely heard her, as absorbed in the cape as he was. It was made of a soft, light material that billowed and fluttered in the breeze. Above the simple clasp was a long drape of fabric that Seth took to be a mantle.

"This is for me?" he said, dumbfounded.

Aerin nodded with a smile. "Put it on."

Still in awe, Seth did so, fastening the clasp and then draping the mantle over his shoulders. He looked down at himself with an appreciative smile, liking the cape at once.

"Like it?"

"Of course!" Seth threw an arm imperiously to one side, watching as the cloth flared in response to his motion with proper dramatics. "It's great! What do I owe your mom's friend?"

"Nothing!" Aerin grinned. "It's a gift. Autumn's coming on, and like you said, Midgar's far away. That cape should help keep you warm. She would've given it to you herself, but she's really busy today."

"Next time you see her, tell her I love it and I'm honored half to death," Seth grinned. The grin slowly faded into a sigh. "I don't want to leave..."

"Hey, Seth!" 

Cloud and Nanaki were approaching the two, Cloud carrying a leather-wrapped bundle under his arm. 

"Hi, Cloud. Hi, Nanaki." Seth smiled. "What's that?"

"Road rations," Cloud announced, handing the bundle to Seth.

Seth was halfway through putting the rations into the bag before he turned to gawk at Cloud. "You bought them for me? You didn't have to--"

"Sure I did." The blond grinned, crossing his arms. "Unless you had a secret stash of gil in your hair or something."

Seth blushed slightly.

"Well... thanks. I guess I'll be going...?"

Cloud nodded. "The chocobo stables are about halfway down the stairs from the village. Talk to the stablehand and he'll get you a good one."

"Thanks." Seth idly wondered just how many times he could say that in one day. He headed slowly towards the stairs. Just as he reached the gate, he turned around to get one last look at the three, who just stood there watching him leave. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and smiled.

"Really... thanks for everything, all of you. I can't say that enough. I... maybe, someday, I'll come back and visit you all."

He studied them all one last time. Ageless Cloud with his spiky hair, Mako eyes, and odd sideways grin; Nanaki with his many tattoos and war scars, the flaming tail and the single wise golden eye; Aerin with her hands folded behind her back, smiling at him encouragingly. The Cosmo Candle burned brightly behind them.

He never wanted to forget them. Any of them. Any part of them.

"Goodbye," he said at last. It was a little more choked than he would have liked, but he didn't notice as he finally wrenched himself away and started down the stairs.
 

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