There were a great many things that Seth had never seen. He had lived in Nibelheim his entire life. Although he knew the Nibel mountains inside out, he'd really only left Nibelheim twice in his life. Once had been his trip to Midgar with Lucy, and this was the second time.
One of the things that he'd never seen, at least up close, was a chocobo. Certainly, he knew what one was; they were relatively common birds, and most young children learn the names of common animals, right after they learn their colors, shapes, and letters. But the only chocobos he'd ever seen were made of ink printed on paper.
Walking into the chocobo stables at Cosmo Canyon, Seth decided that his books had not done the birds a speck of justice.
First, the chocobos came in more colors than he'd dreamed they existed in. There were a great number of birds with iridescent emerald-colored feathers, others with pale blue feathers; some with glossy black plumage; and still others in any number of different colors, from ruby red to snow white to even stranger colors like pink and purple... Nowhere in this stable was there a plain yellow bird to be found.
Nor had his early education prepared him in any way for the noise; the constant warks and warbles and chirps that the enormous birds constantly produced. With so many here in one place, the air was filled with chocobo cries. Not that the birds had unpleasant voices; they were simply loud.
His inquiry was almost drowned out by the noise of the birds. But the stablehand, a young man not much older than Seth, heard him and hurried over.
"Yes, sir? How can I help you?"
A little dazed at being referred to as 'sir', Seth found his voice. "Um... I'd like a chocobo, please."
"Well, you're in the right place," the stablehand grinned. "What type would you like?"
"Uh." Seth stared blankly around the stables, at all the different birds. "I don't know. Can you make a recommendation?"
"Where are you going?" The young man seemed to brighten a little.
"Midgar," Seth said. "What would you recommend?"
"Hmm... Midgar? Well, the best one for that would be a gold, but they're incredibly difficult to breed," the stablehand said thoughtfully. "Strong parents produce strong offspring, and most chocobos just don't have what it takes. Next best thing to a gold is a black."
Seth found his eye drawn to the black chocobos. He couldn't surpress a smile; one of those sleek, regal birds? He was going to get one of those?
"So do you want one?"
"Huh?" Seth blinked his way back to reality. "Oh. Yeah, I'll take a black. Hey, can I ask you something?"
"Can you tell me how the different types of chocobo differ from each other? I don't know the first thing about these things and I'm curious."
The stablehand beamed at the question and nodded. "Sure, I can tell you that!" He held out a hand with four fingers raised. "The first thing you should know is that only four colors are in any way different from most chocobos - these are green, blue, black, and gold. For some reason, chocobos with particular physical abilities are always one of these four colors. All the others are just like your standard yellow chocobos.
"Green ones, like that one right there behind you, are born mountain climbers. Notice how he's a bit bigger than most, and has more muscular legs. The stronger legs allow him to climb where a regular chocobo would be too weak. Also, he's got larger lungs than most chocobos, so he can breathe better in the thin mountain air."
Seth nodded to that. "Yeah, that makes sense..."
"Now this one," the stablehand said, leading Seth over to another stall, "is a river chocobo. They're always blue. Take a look at his legs. They're a lot longer, see? And the body is more streamlined, so he can just cut through even a strong current. These are good sprinters, but they can't carry much weight and they don't have as much stamina as mountain chocobos. Also, they get swept away in deep water."
"So what about blacks?" Seth found himself glancing back over at the dark-colored birds.
"Now, black chocobos are generally born to green and blue parents, and have the same abilities. Notice they're bigger than both? They've got the lung capacity, stamina, and leg strength of the mountain chocobos, but they're also sleek enough to handle rivers just as well as the blues. Their strength also makes them better for transport."
"Wow." Seth stared with newfound appreciation at the huge birds.
"As for golds, they're supposed to be these huge, strong things that can even tackle oceans without any trouble. Nothing gets in the way of a gold. But you can imagine how tough they are to breed."
"So, you'll take a black then?"
"Yeah - how much would it cost? I don't think I have any money, but maybe I could get Cloud to lend me some..."
"You're Seth, right?"
Seth blinked, caught off-guard. "Uh, yeah?"
"Yours is free," the stablehand said. "Mister Strife paid in advance for you once you decided you were going to leave."
The Nibel refugee just gaped. "He actually bought my chocobo for me?"
"The best one, too," the stablehand grinned. "He's down this way."
Seth followed in stunned disbelief, glancing around at the different birds. Coming to the stall of a particularly large black, the stablehand took a harness from the wall, fitted it onto the chocobo's head, and then opened the stall, handing the reins to Seth.
"Here you go. His name's Zion."
Seth accepted the strap numbly and then looked up at Zion. The bird had big, friendly grey eyes that studied Seth with just about as much curiosity as Seth studied him.
"Hi, Zion," Seth said gently, reaching out to pet the bird tentatively.
"Wark!" Zion took a big chunk of Seth's hair in his beak.
"Ack!" Seth let go of the strap in a panic and tried to get away. "He's eating me!"
Zion let go and blinked at Seth. "Wark?"
"That's just his way of saying hello," the stablehand laughed. "Chocobos are vegetarians, anyway, he wouldn't find you very appetizing."
With one hand on his damp hair, Seth reached out cautiously for Zion's reins again. "Okay, sorry, Zion. I've never been this close to a chocobo before, though."
"If you're quite through, are you ready to go?"
Seth should have been startled, but he recognized that soft, calm voice. On turning around, he found his suspicions confirmed.
The gunman smirked slightly under his mantle. "So it's 'Vincent' now,
not 'Mister Valentine,
"I got used to being on a first-name basis with Cloud," Seth offered with a grin and a shrug. "Why do you want to know if I'm ready to go?"
"Because I'm coming with you," Vincent said simply, adjusting his hold on the reins of his own black chocobo, who was laden with several leather bags.
"I'm coming with you," Vincent repeated. "To keep an eye on you and ensure you are involved in no accidents between here and Midgar."
"You're coming with me?" Seth repeated, staring at Vincent in disbelief. "Cloud bought me food and a chocobo, Illyra's friend gave me a cape, and now you're coming with me to Midgar?"
"Yes. Do you object to that?"
"Not at all!" Seth crowed, tugging on Zion's reins and moving forward. "Let's go!"
Riding a chocobo, Seth decided, was not nearly as easy as it looked.
Zion was undeniably strong and quite fast - it was self-control the majestic black needed to work on. After being guided down the stairs to the bottom of the canyon, Zion had taken off at a full sprint towards the south, apparently not caring one bit that his rider was as inexperienced as they came and had NOT been prepared for that dash.
"Break anything?" Vincent asked mildly, stretching out a hand from atop his own chocobo to pull Seth to his feet.
"Ow," Seth said eloquently as he stood, rubbing his posterior. "Just my pride. And once that chocobo gets back here, probably his neck," he added sourly, glaring at Zion, who was calmly trotting back towards them.
Vincent chuckled. "I'm sure he was just eager to get out of the stables."
"Wark!" Zion, having returned, butted his head affectionately against Seth's.
"Yeah, yeah - you throw me off and now you're my best friend." Seth snorted. "Alright, lemme on. And don't run off this time."
Remounting was a simple matter. After his initial dash, Zion seemed more sedate, and Seth's worries about being thrown again started to fade.
Vincent quirked an eyebrow. "So. So what?"
"Why're you coming with me?"
"I already told you that. I am escorting you to Midgar, and ensuring that you are involved in no accidents."
Seth narrowed his eyes a bit, scrutinizing the black-haired man's emotionless visage. "I know that. But why? Did Cloud send you? Nanaki? I mean, I don't even know you like I got to know them."
A moment of silence, and then Vincent shook his head. "I was not sent. I chose to accompany you."
"That is the question of the day, isn't it?" Vincent snorted. "To be perfectly frank, I am worried."
"And why is that?"
Me? Masamune tried to sound innocent.
"Oh, Masamune?" Seth swallowed and looked away, self-consciously adjusting his mantle. "Yeah. Sephiroth's sword. I see."
"You are familiar with its background, I trust?"
"Oh yeah." Seth smiled sardonically. "Real familiar."
"Then you understand my concern."
"Better than you know." He spurred Zion on. He could see thick forest ahead, and he was anxious to get on his way. "How long to Costa del Sol?"
"The fastest way would be to go north, and then cross the mountains east of Nibelheim," Vincent said calmly, his ruby eyes trained on the boy.
Seth went pale at the suggestion, yanking suddenly at the reins and pulling Zion to a startled halt. Cruel images danced before his widened eyes - the fire spell miscast, striking his beloved hometown - blood among the ashes, Masamune clasped in his hand as he walked through the flames and smiled as he left the town to burn - no, no, not him, not him, not him at all - but it had been, once.... hadn't it....?
Vincent quirked an eyebrow at the violence of Seth's reaction, stopping his own chocobo along Seth's. "No? Why is that, Seth? Bad memories?"
The words stung as though deliberately chosen for just that purpose. Seth flinched, trying to shake away the thoughts of Nibelheim as a set of burned-out shells, black as death, standing like cold sentinels in the misty mountain air...
"Yeah," he said hoarsely. "Really bad."
"I see." Vincent ceased his scrutiny and his testing. "Then, we can go south from here. After we cross the river, we go east to Gongaga. We can stay there for a while, then north to Corel. From there, Costa del Sol is just across the mountains."
"Okay." Seth nodded. A gentle prod, and Zion began to amble forward again, Vincent and his chocobo following alongside.
Gongaga, eh? Your old lieutenant was from Gongaga, if I recall correctly.
Who? Seth's face creased into a frown. Masamune, I hardly remember anything. Who was my lieutenant?
I believe his name was Zax.
"Zax..." Seth whispered the name aloud, testing it, trying to remember the face behind the name.
"Did you say something?" Vincent's voice was cool and silky.
Seth gave a start. "N-no! Nothing!"
Vincent raised an eyebrow silently at this, but let it slide. "Very well. Let's get going; it's easy to get lost in those woods, and we'll stand a better chance in daylight."
A full moon hung over Cosmo Canyon that night, giving the area a silver cast. The red cliffs looked dark in the moonlight, the far-off forests faint, glimmering shadows in the distance. The Cosmo Candle burned brightly, a spot of warmth and light in the silver darkness. Only two seemed to be awake at this late hour, and they were both stealing away quietly down the steps.
Aerin Carae clung to the reins of a black chocobo, leading it carefully down the steps. This was beyond the bounds of reason, and she knew very well the amount of trouble she was inviting with this action.
Mom's going to kill me when I come back... or if she catches up to me, she thought vaguely, swinging herself up onto the chocobo's back. Casting a final glance up at the village and the Candle, she sighed and spurred her mount on and away from her home.
She couldn't have explained why. Cosmo Canyon was where Aerin had been born and raised. She was most at home among the red rocks and cliffside huts of the village, most comforted when she knew the Candle was burning brightly just outside her window. She had no reason to want to leave - even Seth, who seemed so fond of Nibelheim, hadn't wanted to leave the canyon.
Seth. It all came down to Seth. There was no reason for it that Aerin could effectively convey, but she left the canyon to follow him. She didn't know why; she just felt herself inexplicably drawn to the otherworldly Nibel boy, to the point that she could not refrain from following him. It was as though the Planet itself would bleed if Aerin was not with Seth.
Her shoulder-bag had been packed with rations and a change of clothes. A copy of "Study of Planet Life", old and care-worn, was tucked at the bottom of the bag. What space was not taken up by these essentials, was filled with a wide variety of healing herbs and potions. Her staff was strapped to her back. Her good-luck charm was tied into her hair. She was ready.
Only the moon stood sentinel to Aerin Carae's flight from the canyon, in search of the white-haired boy and his nighted escort.
One of the things that the Turks were never taught, but learned quickly through sheer necessity, was light sleeping. Those who survived became masters of that fragile art, of snatching rest in the moments where they should not have been able to breathe freely, of coming sharply, instantly awake at the slightest indication of danger. Vincent in particular had made that skill as natural as his own breath, learned it in the field and honed it to a fine point in the following years.
Which was why the faint crack of a foot on a twig snapped Vincent awake, his red eyes vaguely luminous in the darkness.
Seth slumbered on, curled up against Zion and huddled up in his cape, but Vincent was sharply aware, where only moments ago he had been peacefully sleeping. Death Penalty was in his hand in a moment, cocked and ready to eliminate any threat to himself and his charge.
Listening, he could hear the faint whisper of footsteps on grass, occasionally crushing a dry leaf. He looked around, hoping to catch some glimpse of whatever danger lurked in the darkness.
The soft voice caught Vincent slightly off-guard. It was the quiet voice of a young girl - and it came from behind him. He turned around to face the speaker, and found himself staring at a ghost.
It wasn't possible, he knew that, but somehow, sitting atop a black chocobo, looking alive and healthy, was...
"Aerith?" He stopped just short of gasping, his eyes widening in disbelief. There was no way... Aerith Gainsborough was dead... long dead and laid to rest in the City of the Ancients...
The girl blinked and shook her head. "No. I'm not Aerith... do I really look that much like her?"
Belatedly, Vincent started noticing the smaller details. Her hair was shorter, her face and stature considerably younger... the pattern of her clothes was definitely Cosmo, and her skin, even in the moonlight, had a visibly darker tone...
"At first glance, yes," he replied calmly. "You have her face and her hair exactly. She was paler, though."
"I'm from Cosmo Canyon," she said by way of explanation, smiling. "Nanaki never brought it up, but Cloud once told me that I looked like someone he'd known once. I'd never heard of Aerith until that day." Her green eyes flickered over to Seth, little more than a dark ball with a white patch on top in the faint light of the moon. "Is Seth all right?"
"So far as I can tell." Vincent narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
Aerin opened her mouth, then sighed, shaking her head ruefully. "I don't know. I just... I feel like I have to be here with him. Like... like terrible things will happen if I'm not here to stop them."
Vincent crossed his arms, Death Penalty forgotten on the ground. "Rest assured that he is quite safe with me, and go home."
"Please, sir, can't I come with you?" Aerin looked desperate. "I have to be here. I won't be able to rest if I just go back now!"
"My name is Vincent." The ex-Turk regarded her coldly for a moment, then sighed almost disgustedly. "Fine. Tag along if you must. You'll find it's not so glamorous as you may think."
"I DON'T think it'll be glamorous," Aerin retorted, dismounting from her chocobo and taking a seat. The bird sank down beside her. "I just think it's necessary. Besides, I'm sixteen. I'm a big girl."
Vincent gave her a look. "Even big girls can be irresponsible," he said calmly, looking very distant for a few moments before returning.
"Hmph. I'll be fine." She eased the bag off her shoulder and unstrapped her staff, lying down with her head on her chocobo's shoulder.
"I trust you will remember those words." Vincent lay back down himself, closing his eyes.
"Good night, Vincent."
Seth was very much not a morning person. Aerin was up bright and early, and Vincent dragged himself into consciousness not long after, but Seth continued to snooze soundly even as Vincent and Aerin were eating their breakfasts and getting ready to go. Aerin chattered merrily all the while, so most of Vincent's morning was spent resisting the urge to throttle the young Cosmo.
"All things considered, it's probably a good thing I'm coming with you two," Aerin said brightly. "My staff's not that much, but you never know when it could come in handy."
Vincent set his jaw, feeding Mari a handful of greens. The chocobo gobbled them down happily, oblivious to her rider's annoyance.
"Seth and I could have handled ourselves," he said stiffly.
Aerin gave him a look that was so reminiscent of Aerith during one of her more stubborn moments that Vincent faltered for a moment.
"I'm coming along and that's that," Aerin said firmly to the gunman. "I brought along probably more medicines than you can even name; what if I turned back now and one or both of you got sick? Then what would you say?"
Vincent rose to his feet. "I have given you my permission to come along!" he snapped. "What more do you ask of me? Must I give you my blood too?"
"I'd like you to stop being so PISSY about me coming!" Aerin snapped right back.
"This is a matter between Seth and myself; you'll forgive me if I am less than eager to have an innocent getting in the way!"
Aerin opened her mouth for an angry retort - and left it that way, staring in confusion at the man.
"Between you and Seth...? Don't want an innocent getting in the way...?" She turned to look at Seth, then back to Vincent. "Are you saying that Seth's not...?"
Vincent mentally backpedalled, trying furiously and desperately to come up with a good answer to that. He hadn't meant to say that... hadn't meant to let slip even the slightest of his suspicions about the boy...
He was saved from having to answer by the stirring of the boy in question. He and Aerin turned as one to face Seth as he muttered, groaned, and then finally rolled over onto his back and yawned loudly, stretching out and opening his eyes. He blinked sleepily at them from under sleep-rumpled white hair, then smiled vaguely and waved.
"G'morn', Vinc'nt. Morn', Aer'n. Wh'cha doin' h're?"
And just like that, the tension in the air evaporated. Aerin smiled brightly.
"Hi, Seth! I'm coming along with you two!"
Seth managed to wobble to his feet and give Aerin a somewhat lucid smile. "Great! "S'okay with Vincent?" he asked, glancing over at the gunman.
"Yes," Vincent said through his teeth.
"Cool." Seth gave a thumbs-up. "Did I miss breakfast?"
"Officially, yes." Vincent handed Seth a package of trail mix. "Considering that our breakfast consists of this, however, you didn't miss much."
Seth made a noncommittal noise in response, then reached for his bag and pulled out some greens, offering them to Zion. While the Chocobo was eating, Seth started in on his trail mix, sitting back down at the bird's side.
"So," he said conversationally after finishing off a handful, "what made you decide to come along, Aerin?"
Aerin shrugged. "I couldn't resist." A sidelong glance at Vincent. "I... thought it might be nice to get some real world experience."
Seth grinned, nibbling a slice of dried peach. "Well, I'm glad. Vincent won't win any awards for his conversational charm."
Vincent 'hmmph'ed and adjusted Mari's bridle as Aerin started giggling.
"No offense, of course," Seth added.
"Hmmph. Of course."
Finishing another handful of the trail mix, Seth closed the package and put it in his bag. A tug of the reins and Zion, already finished with his greens, got to his feet and allowed Seth to mount him.
"So, are we going?" Seth smiled at his companions. "It's a long way to Costa del Sol!"
"...Indeed." Vincent rose to his feet and calmly mounted Mari. Aerin followed suit with her own chocobo. "Let's go."
The mountains were laughing at him.
Literally, of course, they weren't. But they way they loomed up into the air, blocking his view to the west, almost daring him to scale them and look, see for himself what they hid... for all he knew, they could be laughing, deep down inside their rocky hearts.
Look, there he goes; he's the boy who burned Nibelheim. He burned it to the ground and ran away like the coward he is; and off he goes now, running off to cry to dear auntie. If only he climbed up and over us, he could see it, see what's left of his hometown. But he won't; he doesn't have the courage to face it... he's a coward, that's all he is, repeating Sephiroth's sins without even the courage to admit it.
Seth dragged his gaze away from the sloping peaks, ignoring the words he was putting into the figurative mouths of the Corel mountains. He would hate to see what he could imagine the Nibel mountains saying about him.
They'd spent the night at Gongaga, as planned, and were now on their way to Corel, in the strange, cool highlands that parted from the blazing Corel desert. The giant amusement park glittered in the distance, its many branches offering as many releases from real life and the worries that came with it as could be crowded under those multiple roofs. Surrounded by the desolate dunes of a desert bordered with quicksand, it was also completely unreachable for the white-haired boy.
No release for me... I'll just have to settle in with Aunt Lena at Midgar and try to forget as best I can...
But you never will.
A chill ran down Seth's spine.
No... I won't, will I? I destroyed my own home... and Midgar, no matter how well I manage to settle, will never be Nibelheim.
Whenever he had been upset in the past, or needed to be alone, or just wanted to think, he'd climbed up into the grey peaks that surrounded his town. Sometimes he'd go as far as Mt. Nibel, but usually stayed to the smaller, nearer mountains. There he would perch, about halfway up, and stare at the town below, looking so tiny and far away. When he was younger, he'd play games up there, pretending he was a mighty king looking down from his castle, or one of the playful mountain spirits of old folklore. As he grew older, he'd abandoned his games, but the icy peaks had never lost their magic. On cold days, Nibelheim seemed to sparkle, viewed through the thin, misty air of the mountains.
No more. No more would there be a warm, cozy house to go home to, no more would there be peaceful, quiet little town nestled in among the mountains. Nibelheim had always seemed like a perfect place to Seth; small and cozy and warm and comforting, that kind of slow-moving, comfortable little town where everyone knew everyone else, and if you were hurting, there was always warm cocoa and an understanding mother at home, and friends next door and down and across the street and everywhere you looked.
He had destroyed all that with one little fire spell.
As the little party entered Corel - another peaceful little mountain town, Seth thought fleetingly - he bowed his head and discreetly wiped away a tear.
"Seth, look out!"
Aerin's words, well-meant, were unnecessary. Seth twisted away from the sharp projectile, his maneuver ungraceful but effective. The strange-looking monster recalled its silver wheel and Seth went back to a ready position.
Everything had been so peaceful right up until they'd left Corel this morning...
A bullet fired from the Death Penalty struck home, and for a moment, Seth thought he saw something like anger in the painted eyes before the thing opened its 'mouth' again, and...
"When threatened, Grangalans are able to replicate themselves," Vincent said, somehow sounding calm even as he fired off a few more bullets, this time at the smaller one. "Change of tactics. Attack the smaller one; ignore the first as best you can."
Seth shrugged helplessly and brought Masamune down onto the smaller Grangalan. It dodged and spat out another silver wheel, which was solidly whacked away by Aerin's staff. He smiled and nodded to her gratefully, and she returned the gesture with a victory sign.
"Don't let down your guard!" Vincent's shouted warning was punctuated by the roar of Death Penalty. Even as the smaller Grangalan was dispatched by Vincent's shot, the first one took the opportunity to attack. A third circle, glowing in blue, appeared on the monster's forehead as though traced by an invisible hand, and began to glow with a blinding light. Before anyone could open their mouths to even scream, the light had focused itself into a ray and shot forward. At the same moment, the silver wheel the smaller monster had released before its demise scratched Seth's cheek, drawing a painful line of crimson across his face before it vanished. He blindly struck out with Masamune, the sharp sound of the blade tearing through the doomed Grangalan masking the thud of Aerin's staff falling uselessly to the ground.
The air was eerily still. Seth could still feel his heart pounding and his limbs shaking. This had been only the second fight since he had gotten Masamune, and he still wasn't used to it. He carefully eased Masamune back into its scabbard, his fingers trembling as he did. He could feel blood trickling from the cut on his cheek, could feel the wound stinging as the wind hit it.
He turned his head carefully to face his friend. "Aerin?" he called softly. "Did you bring any--"
The cut was completely forgotten when he saw Aerin. She was on her knees, her tribal-patterned skirt spread out around her. She had wrapped her arms around herself, and was shaking slightly. Thinking she was afraid or in shock - this had probably been her first real battle - he knelt down beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey, Aerin... it's okay, the battle's over, we won... see, we're all in one piece... I'm bleeding a bit but I've had worse, I'm fine... Aerin, it's alright..."
"No it's not..."
Those words were uttered with a slight sob, as Aerin raised her eyes slowly to meet Seth's. They were dark and heavy and glittering with tears, full of an unspeakable sorrow.
"Aerin? What's wrong?"
"Sadness spell," Vincent said with a sigh behind them. "It's a magical poison. It causes a profound sorrow in the afflicted. It does not wear off, either, nor can it be alleviated... it simply remains until the antidote is administered."
Aerin sniffled and bowed her head. "I'm sorry..."
"It's okay, Aerin, you don't have to apologize," Seth said tenderly, pulling the girl into a comforting hug. "Don't worry, it'll all be okay..."
Save your breath. Nothing you do will be of any use. It's all very good and noble to try and comfort her, but in the end, it won't help her at all.
"'I brought more medicines than you can name'," Vincent mimicked Aerin under his breath, so that neither of the teenagers could hear him. He had been looking through Aerin's bag for the proper medicine. However, the fire-red concoction was nowhere to be seen. "We can do nothing for her now," he announced, closing the bag. "The medicine that I do carry is useless for her condition, and she appears to have none of the antidote herself. It will have to wait until we get to Costa del Sol and can purchase some there."
"Are you sure they'll have it?" Seth asked worriedly, still holding Aerin.
Vincent fixed him with his ruby gaze. "It may seem new to you, but this is a fairly common affliction. Many creatures have developed this poison as part of their defenses. The antidote - a medicine called Hyper - is available nearly everywhere."
He strode over to Mari and calmly mounted her. Chocobos were skittery birds in the wild, but tame ones, although they didn't fight, weren't given to abandoning their riders. Seth carefully rose to his feet, pulling Aerin up with him.
"Do you think you can ride?" he asked softly. Aerin nodded faintly in response, then shivered.
"Cold," she whispered.
"Cold?" Seth blinked. "It feels warm to me..."
It's a common side effect of this condition.
"It's so cold... not like in Cosmo..." Aerin whimpered. "I want to go home... I miss the Candle..."
"Shh. It'll be alright," he said softly, unfastening his cape and draping it around her shoulders. "There, that'll keep you warm, alright? Let's get on our chocobos and we'll be at Costa del Sol by the end of the day. You'll feel a lot better when we get there, okay?" He smiled at her. It went unreturned.
Vincent watched, inscrutable behind his crimson cowl, as Seth helped Aerin up onto her chocobo, returning her forgotten staff to her before climbing onto Zion's back. He watched how, as they moved onward toward Costa del Sol, Seth guided Aerin's chocobo for her, the dark-skinned girl too deep in her sorrow to do more than clutch her staff and hold Seth's cape tightly around her body.
He said nothing, gave no outward reaction to Seth's kindness towards the healer, but he watched them all the way to Costa del Sol.
"What do you MEAN, you're out?!"
The shopkeeper cringed back from the angry snow-haired boy.
"I'm sorry! This is high season for Grangalans; a lot of people come down with the affliction, so we sell out of Hyper a lot faster this time of the year! You'll have to wait until tomorrow, when we get the new shipment in!"
Seth ground his teeth in frustration. "Are you ABSOLUTELY SURE you don't have one or two lurking somewhere in your back room? Absolutely positive? My friend REALLY needs just one Hyper..."
The shopkeeper bowed deeply. "Really, I'm quite sure. I've already checked. I hate to disappoint you, but we're really all out of Hyper!"
Seth sighed and backed off. "I guess you're telling the truth. Fine... I guess we have no choice but to wait." He shook his head slowly, looking forlornly out the window. Aerin was sitting on a bench, Vincent sitting next to her in what looked like a very awkward silence. "Poor Aerin..."
He got a nod in answer to that. "Something like this always happens. We always run out at least once or twice and have to make someone wait. It's always hard to watch..." He sighed and shook his head. "But there's nothing we can do. You'll just have to keep her company until tomorrow."
Seth nodded. "Thanks for your time."
"Just wish I coulda helped more," the shopkeeper said with a rueful smile as Seth walked out the door.
The hot Costa del Sol air hit Seth's face as he strode quietly out of the shop, eyes squinting against the bright light. He wasn't sure how much he liked it here. To him, a boy who had spent his entire life in the cold air of the Nibel mountains, everything here was too bright and too hot.
He was mildly amazed that Vincent, in his black attire and heavy red cloak, wasn't melting, or at least suffocating, in the heat. Aerin was still wrapped in his cape, whimpering and shivering. He sighed and walked over towards the two.
"Did you get it?" Vincent's crimson eyes met Seth's. The Nibel boy shook his head slowly, his shoulders slumping.
"They're all out. He said there's so many Grangalans around this time of year that they ran out of Hyper for everyone who came in. They're getting in a new shipment tomorrow, though."
Vincent sighed, looking over at the dark-skinned girl. Between the three of them, Aerin was the only one who even vaguely fit in here, appearance-wise. "I suppose we'll have to stay the night here, then."
Seth nodded, then sat down beside Aerin, putting an arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry, Aerin. It'll all be better tomorrow morning..."
Aerin jumped to her feet, glaring defiantly at Seth with tear-filled eyes. "You said it would be better when we got here!" she howled. "It's NOT better! You said they could help me here, and they CAN'T! You broke your promise, Seth! I HATE YOU!!"
Sobbing, she tore Seth's cape from around her shoulders and threw it at him. Seth jumped up immediately, leaving the green material there and grabbing the staff that Aerin had, once again, forgotten.
"Aerin! Aerin, wait!"
"Seth!" Vincent grabbed Seth's arm. "Seth, she doesn't mean it, she will be back soon--"
"How do you know?" The boy turned on Vincent, glaring at him with his deep, endlessly green eyes. "What if she DOESN'T come back?!"
Before Vincent could respond, Seth had yanked his arm free, and turned fully around to face the tall man, continuing his tirade. "Think about this, Vincent! She's under a spell of unending sadness! She knew she was going to get medicine when we got here, and if it didn't make her happy, it at least let her know that the pain would end soon, didn't it?! And now that's just been utterly dashed to hell, at least for her, and she has to suffer through an entire day and night of this before it gets any better! And you want me to just sit here and wait like a good little boy for her to come back?"
"No! No, just shut UP already! If I have to hear you deadpan any more about how 'we can't do anything, we have to wait, we can't help her so there's no use trying', I honestly think I will snap! You and Masamune BOTH have been telling me that there's no point in trying to make her feel better because it won't work - well, you know what? I. DON'T. CARE. I can't just sit back and do nothing while she's suffering like that! I can't just IGNORE her like you both seem to be suggesting I should! I'll do whatever I can - because even if I can't cure her, I don't want her to be alone!"
Breathless and defiant, Seth stared up at Vincent, sharp fragments of emerald meeting deep pools of blood. It was Vincent who broke the silence first.
"Masamune?" he asked softly.
Seth flushed a bit and laid a hand on the hilt of the sword. "Um... yeah. It talks. Only to me though, I think. I don't think it can talk to anyone else."
"Hmm." Vincent nodded slowly, crossing his arms. "It would be in keeping with the bond that is said to exist between the sword and... you, now." He looked out towards the sea, where Aerin had run off.
"If you are so concerned about her, you should go," he said, changing the subject.
Seth was off without another word.
So nice, the sea.
In, out, in, out... a nevereending languid flow of sweet salt water against the gritty sands. Was there pain to be found under those cerulean ripples? Did sorrow exist there? Standing on a large rock that jutted out from the beach over the water, Aerin wondered.
Perching at the edge of the rock, Aerin spread her arms out like a pair of wings. What would happen if she jumped? Would she find sanctuary from her sorrow, in the soft rushing roaring sighing waters of the sea? What wonders would she discover, as she breathed in the cool ocean, filling her lungs with the heavy salt water?
She thought about finding out.
Rocking forward onto her tiptoes, Aerin spread her arms out again. So nice and peaceful, the sea...
She stumbled backwards, turning to face the source of the voice. It was Seth, running like a maniac across the sands towards her, holding her staff in one hand.
"Seth?" she asked numbly, sitting down.
He ran up onto the rock and stopped there, leaning forward to rest his hands on his knees, gasping for air. "Hoo... not used to this kinda heat..." He straightened, and handed the staff over. "Here."
She accepted it, looking up at him with her pain-filled eyes, then looking back out at the sea.
"I wonder what it would be like?"
"What?" The white-clad boy sat down beside her.
"To be there... in the sea... do you think the ocean creatures cry, Seth?" There was a gleam in her eyes that Seth didn't like. "Do you think sadness exists down there?"
"Aerin..." Seth put his arm around her shoulders. "Sadness exists everywhere. Even in Cosmo Canyon, where you have the Candle to let you know it's all okay... someone is crying there. Even in Ni..." His voice cracked, but he summoned the will to speak again. "Even in Nibelheim, where it was always so nice and comfortable, there were tears... There's sadness everywhere, Aerin. It's how we deal with it that matters."
Aerin looked at him, her eyes growing dewy with new tears. "Seth... what can I do? This spell won't go away... nobody here can help me... I just want it all to stop, Seth..." She turned away, shoulders shaking. "I want to be able to smile when you're kind to me... I have to see you smile at me and not be able to return it, never be able to return it..."
"Don't say never," he said softly. "Just until tomorrow."
"Never," Aerin replied softly, tears in her voice. "Never. I'll never make it."
"Yes you will." Seth held her tightly. "You will. I'll make sure you live to smile again."
She buried her head in his shoulder. "What if I..."
"I won't let you." He rubbed her back comfortingly. "The Candle is still burning, Aerin."
There was a long silence between the two, broken only by the never-ending rush of the sea.
"Stay with me, Seth?"
And stay with her he did, holding her as the sun set, holding her as the stars came out to play. He ignored the grumblings of Masamune about how very sappy and pointless this all was. If the sword didn't believe there was a meaning to this, he did. Aerin wasn't alone and that was all that mattered.
They fell asleep that way, Aerin curled weakly against Seth, who in turn held her with thin, strong arms, refusing to let her suffer alone.
Vincent had found them the next morning, a vial of Hyper clutched in his hand. It was late and the sun was already high in the sky. The two children slept on, oblivious to the passing of time around them, pale Seth and dark Aerin, holding onto each other in slumber.
He had taken care in waking them, offering the precious medicine to Aerin. It had taken effect rapidly, as magic concoctions usually did, and in no time Aerin had been back to her bright and chirrupy self. Seth had made no secret of his relief.
Once Aerin had recovered from the fit of bounciness that cessation of sorrow had brought on, and Seth's cut had been healed, Vincent had bought them tickets for the first available ship to Junon. Aerin and Seth stood at the railing, staring out at the sea, the salt wind tossing their hair and clothes. Vincent sat more calmly elsewhere on the deck. They were one step closer to Midgar, now. Once over the Mythril Mountains, it would be a simple matter of perhaps a day's travel to reach the city.
And where would they all go from there?
Seth would settle into Midgar with his aunt and try to forget the source of sixteen years' worth of memories. He would never succeed, Vincent was sure; he would spend the rest of his life in the world's largest city, trying to forget the silver peaks and his mother and everything that he had loved about his dear Nibelheim, and he never would. And he would never cease to regret.
Aerin would need to be escorted back to Cosmo; her mother would be livid that she had left in the first place, no doubt, but at least if Aerin was returned safely, there would be no more pain of loss.
Vincent narrowed his eyes at that thought, privately despairing. It was too late now. He had let his tests carry a little too long. There was no way to turn the boat around... they were going to Midgar now, regardless. Once his feet touched the soil of the eastern continent, Seth would go on to Midgar and live there, now, and he would never, ever know...
The stoic gunman shook his head and closed his eyes, looking down. No use thinking about that now. Maybe one day.
And what would he do with himself?
Once he had returned Aerin safely to Cosmo, Vincent knew what he would do. He would pull back and become a wanderer of the Planet one more, never settling anywhere. He was undying, and such a creature could not long settle anywhere among mortals.
But perhaps... he might come back to Midgar.
There might yet be time.
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