Junon, in days long past, had been a military base. Once the home of the powerful Sister Ray, a Mako-charged cannon that had long ago seen its end, the city had gradually changed into a bustling trade center, the largest major port in the world. Seth was rubbernecking almost as much as he had in Midgar. Junon failed to accomplish the same sprawling magnificence as Midgar, but at the moment, it had something infinitely more interesting: people.
Midgar had been crowded, but Junon was absolutely packed, with people from all ends of the Planet bustling about. A few open-air markets had been set up, and the amount of different dialects and languages being spoken all at one time was dizzying, and the diversity of appearance and dress among these people was staggering.
Vincent herded Aerin and Seth in closer to him. "It's the end of the season," he explained calmly, though he had to raise his voice somewhat to be heard above the roar of conversation. "Junon is the trade capital of the world, these days. Everyone's here to get all their business done before the winter storms come and they cannot safely set sail."
Aerin and Seth both seemed all too happy, at first, to stay close to Vincent, clinging to the reins of their chocobos as they led them through the crowd. Nibelheim and Cosmo Canyon were both located in a very rural area, and neither of the two teenagers usually ventured far from home. Seth had already had a dose of culture shock in the form of Midgar, and didn't shrink from the crowd quite as much as Aerin did. However, both soon got used to the hustle and bustle, and nearly broke their necks trying to see everything at once. Vincent just sighed and tried to usher them through the crowd and out of the city.
"I swear I heard someone speaking Wutaiian over there--"
"Why is she dressed so lightly? It's getting cold in this area--"
"Maybe she's from Icicle - wow, look at the clothes that guy's wearing, far out--"
"I think that's a Midelian design but I can't be sure--"
"Dude, look, I think that's a weapons merchant over there!"
"Do I need to get leashes for you two?"
They stopped at least five more times on the way out to goggle at some of the merchandise. Street peddlers were out in force, hoping to sell some of their products to visiting foreigners, and Vincent had to firmly steer both Aerin and Seth away from the various things that caught their eyes. Even the chocobos were less inquisitive than the two teenagers in Vincent's care. The sooner they could get out of there, the better, Vincent thought.
To the stoic gunman, it seemed an infuriatingly long time until he could get the two out the gates of Junon. He made a mental note never to accompany small-town teenagers on any trip that involved entering a major city.
"Aww, Vincent..." Seth pouted a little. "Couldn't we have stopped for a little bit to look around?"
"Mari doesn't like crowds," Vincent said, swinging one leg up and over the black bird's back almost as soon as they were outside the city gates. "She would have caused an ugly scene, and your birds would probably have joined her. Besides, I thought you wanted to get to Midgar."
"I do, but..." Seth glanced back at the trade city. "The whole WORLD was there in Junon! Nibelheim was always too small for really big festivals like that..."
Vincent noted the past tense, but said nothing. "That wasn't a festival. That was simply an end-of-season trade gathering."
"Who cares? It was cool!"
"Vincent, you're so cold!" It was Aerin now, already mounted on her chocobo, glaring at the gunman. "We just wanted to stay and look around for a while, that was all. And Gypsum wouldn't make a fuss," she added, patting her chocobo's neck.
"I have never been noted for being a kind or warm-hearted man," Vincent returned somewhat nastily. "I am only here to escort Seth to Midgar and ensure that nothing happens. The sooner I get him there, the better. Might I remind you that you were not invited; only tolerated?"
"I couldn't help it, Vincent! What if Seth got really hurt and you couldn't help him? I just want to make sure he's alright, same as you!"
"You have been nothing but a liability! We would have been much better off if you had never followed us!"
Vincent's voice, normally calm and low, rose to a roar on his last words. A resounding silence followed. Aerin bit her lip, trying not to cry, unable to meet the crimson eyes that stared so cruelly at her. One of the chocobos warbled uncomfortably.
"Vincent," Seth whispered. Vincent slowly turned to face him.
Seth's face was twisted into an expression of betrayal and horror. He shook his head slowly. If Aerin was unable to meet Vincent's eyes, Seth could not look away from them.
"I admired you," he said quietly, his voice hoarse.
"I had so much respect for you... I admired you..."
bluesharp eyes filled with hate, eyes that once held praise and glory for me, no more, how pathetic he thinks this world is worth something worth anything and he thinks he can bring me down I cannot die not here not now not yet, Mother's will be done no matter how much blood it takes--
Seth suddenly shivered, feeling the unnatural cold of a place he knew for a fact he had never been, seeing Cloud's eyes burning fiercely below him up the length of a sword, hearing the words of a boy whose everything has been broken before him and who acts knowing he has nothing left to lose... He cried out desperately, hoping to shatter the illusion, and yanked hard on Zion's reins, turning him sharply and setting him running off towards the Mythril Mountains, straining to escape what he now felt as the dread heat of a fire, and he could hear their dying screams and smell their blood as they perished in the flames that he had set alight, no, it wasn't him it wasn't him it wasn't ever him but it was and he had burned them, burned his home, and it no longer mattered who held the sword who set the flames because they were both him and he was--
Masamune's sharp steel voice cut through the illusions, stopped the heat of the flames, and brought Seth entirely back to his senses. He was now in completely unfamiliar surroundings, rocky where the Junon area had been flat and grassy. More than a little disoriented, he tugged on Zion's reins to signal a stop. The black chocobo made it a few staggering steps more before gratefully collapsing into a path of grass and laying his neck out flat along the ground, panting in utter exhaustion. Seth gently stepped off his back and onto the grass.
"Masamune?" Seth whispered. "What happened... where am I?"
You went berserk and ran Zion flat out for a good several hours. You're in the Mythril Mountains now. Vincent and Aerin are somewhere behind you. You were having some sort of a waking nightmare, and I was this close to abandoning any hope of getting through to you...
Seth stared up at the sky. It was late afternoon, and night was lurking at the eastern horizon. "A nightmare? No..." He shook his head slowly.
Well, then, what would you call it? The sword sounded irritable. A daymare?
"No... nightmares are just bad dreams. They're not real." Seth shuddered. In contrast to the illusory heat of the flames, the air felt much colder than it really was. "I wasn't dreaming. I was... I was remembering."
"Nibelheim." Seth shuddered violently and sank down into the soft grass, wrapping his cape around himself. "God... Masamune, was it really like that...?"
The circumstances were different... but... yes.
Seth bowed his head, moon-silver hair falling down to form a curtain around his face. "I really am Sephiroth... aren't I."
Masamune said nothing. Seth's hand slowly moved to clasp Masamune's worn hilt, rubbing at the aged bindings. He made no move to break the silence. He didn't need to. That simple touch was all the reminder that was necessary.
It was an ugly truth, and Seth was staring straight at it.
He swallowed back against his suddenly tight throat and rubbed his face against his sleeve as his eyes began to sting. Midgar was close, very close... just a day or two more and he would be safely inside the great city's gates, trying to settle in with his aunt.
But was that really the best thing to do, now? How would he explain his possession of the Masamune? How would he explain his survival of the flames, or the shame he felt must shadow his face now? What if she caught on?
Worse; what if he killed her too?
He could imagine it all too vividly; a moment of insanity, a single instant in which he forgot Seth and acted with the hand of Sephiroth; blood on Masamune's blade and his last family member dead in crimson on the floor... Seth let out a small cry, curling in tighter on himself.
Zion lifted his head and blinked tiredly at his rider. Seth didn't see, his face buried deeply in the circle of his arms.
"I won't! Never...!"
If there was one good thing about the situation, Vincent decided, it was that Aerin had shut up.
He assumed that Aerin was probably either giving him the silent treatment in an attempt to make him feel guilty - which he already did - or just being nice and trying not to explode. Either way, it suited him just fine. He preferred silence to the near-incessant prattle of the healer. Silence made it easier to think.
What happened to him?
Closing his eyes, Vincent thought back on the events of a few hours ago. Perhaps time had cleared his mind...
He said that he had admired me... using it in the past tense. In retrospect I could have been more tactful, yes, but surely that wasn't what made him run away...?
No. Seth's actions after those words could not be attributed anything he felt towards Vincent. He had seemed almost to lapse into another world entirely, and his cry had been filled with an agony too deep to have been caused by Vincent's words...
The way he spurred Zion on... as though trying to escape the gates of Hell itself... he was afraid. He must have been. But what...?
Vincent's eyes snapped open with a sudden realization. Aerin made a startled noise beside him as he abruptly kicked his heels against Mari's sides. The black chocobo squawked and shot forward. They were nearly at the foot of the Mythril Mountains now, after several hours of traveling, and Vincent now urged Mari towards the rocky foothills, suddenly possessed by a kind of wild desperation.
Aerin's voice seemed far away. Vincent paid her no heed, pulling Mari to a stop and climbing - nearly running - up the hills, seeming in that moment more like a wild animal than a human. In that moment, he nearly was.
Confused, Aerin spurred Gypsum on, wondering what had happened to Vincent in the span of these few moments. The man who normally gave the impression of a marble statue was suddenly very alive and animated, and alarmingly feral.
A slight wind blew in Aerin's face, and ruffled the dark man's cloak where he stood atop a tall rock. He raised his head slightly, leaning forward a tiny fraction, giving the unshakable impression that he was scenting the air. His claw caught the bloody hue of the sunset, shining unnaturally bright in the dying light.
In that moment, Vincent Valentine looked like a predator in the hunt.
"VINCENT!" Aerin screamed up to him, part of her irrationally afraid that he had lost the faculty of human language and would not understand her, or would turn on her as his prey. Her heart quaked as he turned in response to her call.
But he loosened his stance, and his descent from his perch was calm and controlled, exactly the way Aerin had come to know the man. She saw him seat himself atop Mari's back and ride the black chocobo away from the foothills, back to her side.
"Forgive me," he said coolly, his voice colored with slight undercurrents of what Aerin could swear were shame and embarrassment. "I lost myself for a moment."
Aerin stared at him with wild eyes. "You looked like a monster."
Vincent flinched, visibly and noticably, leaving Aerin instantly regretting her words. But he quickly composed himself again and turned away.
"I apologize. I... had an unsettling thought regarding Seth, and momentarily lost control. I am sorry if I frightened you."
Though she could still feel the pounding of her heart, Aerin shook her head. "What about Seth?"
Vincent turned back towards the mountains. "I have reason to believe that he may be... that he may have memories that... I think he may be the reincarnation of a very destructive man."
Aerin's heart, just calmed, skipped a beat. "Do you mean Sephiroth?"
Vincent stiffened for a moment, and after a long hesitation, nodded.
"Yes. I have believed this for some time. When he fled... it was not because of anything I said, I'm sure of it. Rather, I believe he must have remembered something that Sephiroth did... which would be enough to frighten anyone."
Aerin looked down at her hands. "But how can he be Sephiroth? I mean... he's so gentle. So kind."
"Everyone can change, Aerin."
"But..." Aerin's deep green eyes were pleading. Vincent did not, could not meet them.
"He is somewhere in the Mythril Mountains. I believe he has stopped to rest, perhaps for the night. We may be able to catch up to him. Let's go."
The air was thick, heavy. The woman sniffed at the air, testing it. The wind carried the smell of storms. There would be one tonight, then. She looked up to the sky, at the stars.
She had wandered the face of the Planet for years, slowly recovering, healing from a state beyond death. Searching, for something she knew would ensure her continued existence. She had come too far, done and lost too much to surrender.
A slight current, the barest shiver of movement in the marsh waters, was enough to alert her to the sudden threat. She barely faltered as she stepped away from the snapping jaws, barely seemed to move as, with an infinitely smooth stroke, she snapped bone and sinew, breaking the neck with hardly a thought. She then moved on, forgetting once more the trivial concerns of the world around her.
The body of the Midgar Zolom sank slowly into the marsh. Nobody would see it, or quite believe it even if they did. No creature of the Planet has the strength or skill to kill that snake without leaving a mark, they would say. And they would be right.
Jenova was no creature of this Planet.
Seth slowly opened his eyes. As he took in his surroundings, he nearly began to cry.
He was at the base of the Nibel mountains. The cold grey peaks loomed high above him, icy and forboding with their heads crowned in mist. To outsiders, they might have appeared inhospitable and even cruel. To Seth, they were a thing of incredible beauty and a symbol of home.
Seth turned around. His eyes widened in disbelief, and he forgot to breathe.
Nibelheim. Nibelheim was there... it was standing... and his mother... his mother was alive...!
Lucy smiled kindly, her short blond hair framing her face, her warm brown eyes infinitely loving. She held out a hand, beckoning Seth closer.
"I'm here, Seth."
"Mom... is it really you?"
He looked around. Everything...! From the worn cobblestone road beneath his feet, to the squeak of the old windmill at the well, to that particular way the town caught the light and seemed to gleam with an otherworldly beauty, and somehow felt so warm even in the dead of winter... It was here. It was alive. The town, his town, his beloved home, it was all *here*... And there she was, his mother, smiling at him, alive and well...
He ran to her, throwing his arms around her in an embrace, his tears flowing freely. She was alive, alive!
Her arms went around him too, holding him tight.
"Shh... don't cry..."
Silence, an eerie stillness... and suddenly the warm and loving air of the town turned cold...
Seth tore himself from his mother's embrace, emerald cape flaring as he spun around, grasping for Masamune...
...and he woke up in a cold sweat, his hand on Masamune's hilt.
"What's going on?"
Zion slept on, his head tucked under his wing in the manner of all birds. His feathered side rose and fell evenly. Seth began to doubt his impulse.
"...I guess it was a nightmare."
No... there is danger nearby, we both felt it...
Seth couldn't quite bring himself to disagree. Restlessly, he got to his feet, not taking his hand away from the sword. Something did feel wrong.
He didn't see anything, but an upward glance displayed heavy clouds, night-lit in a dull red.
blazing a dull murderous red in the sky as it fell inevitably towards this pathetic planet, do you see it mother are you proud of me, we will take this world together and we will rule it as we were destined, mother are you proud of me your son--
He could see it now, burning above him, hanging in the sky like a death sentence, and he could feel the weight of the black Materia in his hand, still hot through the black leather of his glove, and he was laughing, his deep voice pitched higher in the ecstasy of madness...
Masamune was in his hand, slicing upwards through the air before he could think. Meteor shattered into fragments before his eyes, and as his vision gave way to normal sight, he could see a woman there. Soft white hair fell in delicate tendrils around her face, framing translucent blue skin and milky eyes... massive membranous wings, a dark violet color, spread from her shoulders.
She smiled softly, and beckoned to him, calling him closer. Seth lowered his sword arm. He could imagine himself in Nibelheim again, could imagine that face in different shades...
Her smile grew wider. Seth stepped forward, helplessly compelled, reaching out for his mother.
"Yes... Sephiroth, I'm here..."
He staggered back, Masamune again at the ready.
"You're not...! You're Jenova! You aren't my mom!"
Seth? Can you hear me now?
There you are. I thought I'd lost you again, for a moment. I was calling and calling and you didn't hear me.
The woman's attractive face was twisted now into a frown of disdain. She folded one wing forward to conceal herself, turning slightly away from Seth. "I am disappointed in you, Sephiroth."
"I'm not Sephiroth."
"Don't insult my intelligence. You may have new blood, and a new name, but you are and will always be Sephiroth... my son."
"I'm not your SON!"
The cry was punctuated by a gunshot. Zion bolted awake and squawked in alarm. Jenova cried out, hissing with pain as she clutched her arm. Seth whirled in the direction both the scream and the shot had come from.
Vincent stood calmly on a boulder, the Death Penalty's barrel still smoking. Aerin's colorful skirt flared out behind her as she raced up the path, her staff in hand.
"Aerin! Vincent!" Seth cried in relief. "You're here!"
Jenova spat a curse in a language that Seth did not comprehend, and in the moment that Seth was distracted, spread her wings and took flight. Vincent leapt to higher ground and fired the Death Penalty after her, to no avail. Jenova was gone.
"Seth? Seth, are you alright?" Aerin was at his side in a moment, with a white-knuckled grip on her staff.
Seth smiled at her and nodded gratefully. "I'm fine. I don't know what would have happened if you and Vincent hadn't shown up."
Blinking in confusion, Seth and Aerin both turned to face Vincent. He stood motionless, Death Penalty still in his hand. After a long moment of silence, his shoulders slumped and he holstered his gun. Slowly, very slowly, he turned towards the two teenagers, his face grave.
"Vincent?" Seth's voice quavered a little at the edges.
Vincent sighed with the heaviness of ages, shaking his night-crowned head. "She is alive, Seth. Do you understand what this means, the danger we are all in?"
Seth bowed his head. Aerin looked between the two, confused. To her, Jenova was little more than a name, a figure in stories vaguely recollected, tales told in a rich tenor by a man with glowing blue eyes and a kind, too-wise smile... but she had only heard Cloud's stories when she was very young, and she remembered almost nothing of them.
"Yes." Seth's voice was quiet in the gathering storm. "I do understand, Vincent. Cloud... told me, when I was recovering in Cosmo Canyon. He told me the story of your battle, seventeen years ago..."
"Then you know what Jenova was." Vincent locked eyes with Seth. "And what she could still be."
"She was... Sephiroth's mother."
Vincent looked away, closing his eyes. "Not the mother that birthed him, but in a way... she was that. She was what shaped Sephiroth into the monster he eventually became."
"She wants him back, Vincent," Seth whispered. "She wants me back."
"Seth?!" Aerin cried, clutching his arm. "What are you talking about?! You aren't Sephiroth! You can't be!"
He bowed his head, eyes shut.
"I am," he whispered, his grip tightening on the Masamune.
"No!" Aerin dropped her staff and gripped the boy's shoulders, turning him to face her and giving him a shake. "Seth, it's not true! It's not! It's NOT!"
But the weight, the incredible crushing weight in his fathomless green eyes told her that it was. The fine lines of his face, a child's countenance yet but with strength sleeping beneath, the color of his short silver hair, the long sword he even now held in his hand...
And Aerin felt something, a deep and desperate stirring somewhere so far inside her she couldn't begin to name its source. She stumbled back, nearly tripping, staring in disbelief at Seth - yes, it was Seth, not Sephiroth, she had to believe that he was Seth...
"That is not important, now," Vincent said quietly. "Not anymore. Jenova is alive and you know better than anyone the threat she poses."
Seth nodded, sliding Masamune back into its sheath. "I still don't remember much; just a couple of the really important things. But I do understand. Are you going to fight her?"
"Yes. And so are you."
"Me?" Seth squawked.
Vincent nodded. "My original intention was to take you to Midgar, return Aerin to Cosmo, and be done with it all. However, Jenova takes a higher priority. She must be destroyed. I cannot go after her by myself and leave you to fend for yourselves, nor can I simply drop you both off and then go after her. She must be pursued while we actually have an idea of where she might be. Therefore, we must go after her together."
Seth glanced over at Aerin, who had retrieved her staff and was clinging to it, wide eyes staring down at nothing. The poor girl might have been learning to fight, but she was still terribly naive. She had grown up someplace warm and safe, and had, by her own insistence, gotten herself tangled up in a battle seventeen years old.
Just as he opened his mouth to say something to her, there was a crack of lightning and a resounding roll of thunder, and it began to rain. Seth pulled his mantle up around his head as a hood and brought Aerin in close to him, covering her with his cape. Zion warked loudly, shifting from one foot to the other, desperate to get out of the storm but unwilling to leave Seth.
"Take Zion down the east side!" Vincent barked, gesturing with his good hand. "Jenova shouldn't be able to fly in this storm. We can take refuge in the mines for the night. You get yourselves safe, I'll bring Mari and Gypsum down!"
As the two youths scrambled to obey his command, climbing up onto the chocobo's back and setting him off, Vincent sighed, heading down to bring the other two birds up.
"Will we never find peace?" he whispered, his voice lost in the lamenting winds.
Vincent had constructed a camp fire just inside the entrance to the mines, and the ragged little group was gathered around it in contemplative silence. The sudden rain had soaked them all, so they all huddled close together and close to the fire. It was fortunate that all three of the chocobos were black; bred for river and mountain alike, their feathers naturally repelled water, and their dark color caused them to absorb and retain more heat. The result was three warm, dry birds, doing their very best to help out the cold, wet humans.
Seth lay back against Zion, knees clutched to his chest, staring pensively into the flames. Aerin glanced halfheartedly through Study of Planet Life, trying without success to lose herself in the familiar old words. Vincent simply sat, half-sprawled, eyes closed and arms folded across his lap, looking as though he had managed to fall asleep.
The Nibel boy glanced up, meeting Aerin's eyes across the crackling fire. "Hmm?"
The old book was carefully closed, tucked back into Aerin's bag.
"You aren't... you're not really Sephiroth, are you?"
Seth sighed, dropping his head as though it was too much to hold it up. "I have to be."
"What?" Aerin stood up, staring down at him. "What kind of stupid answer is that?"
"The right one." Seth shook his head, resting his hand heavily on Masamune's hilt. "I can wield the Masamune. Only Sephiroth could ever do that."
"Oh..! The way I heard it is that only Sephiroth could USE the Masamune. I bet anyone can draw it. It's so long, I bet Sephiroth was just the only one who ever learned how to use it. Give it to me!"
Seth looked up in surprise at that. "What?"
Aerin held out her hand expectantly. "I said give it to me! Watch, I'll draw it and prove you wrong."
"At least let me try!"
Seth looked for a moment as though he wanted to argue, then gave up. He stood up and walked around to Aerin, offering her the sword.
You know full well that she won't be able to do it. Why are you giving her a chance?
She has to understand.
Aerin wasted no time in grasping the hilt and giving it a good yank. When it did not respond, she frowned and pulled harder.
"Rainwater must've stuck it," she muttered, shifting her grip to use both hands. She then pulled back on it with all her weight, putting everything she had into pulling the sword free, until she finally collapsed to the ground, panting from exertion. The sword had not budged.
Aerin did not see, not with her eyes trained so firmly on the earth beneath her. But she was silent; she understood his meaning all too well.
Seth sighed and sheathed Masamune once more, turning away. He hadn't made it two steps back to his place before Aerin spoke.
"Maybe you were."
She recieved no answer but the slight incline of a moon-crowned head.
"Maybe you were Sephiroth. But no matter how many times you pull out that sword, Sephiroth still died seventeen years ago."
Seth turned slightly, his eyes a little brighter than before.
"You gave me your cape. You wouldn't leave me when I needed you. You've never been cruel."
She looked up, meeting the wide eyes of Seth, and smiled at the wonder on his face. For the first time, she thought she saw something like hope in his eyes, once so dark and heavy with unnamed sorrow.
"So why do you think you're still him? I mean, you haven't even repeated any of his crimes, right?"
The spell was broken; what good Aerin's speech had done was shattered with a single, cruelly innocent reminder.
Seth quickly turned away and walked out towards the entrance, his head bowed. Aerin, not knowing that she'd just reopened a very painful wound, got up to follow him.
She started and turned to face Vincent. His eyes were open and lucid. He'd been awake the whole time.
"Let him be. He has lost more than you know."
Aerin blinked in confusion and looked back in Seth's direction. He was sitting, curled up, just inside the entrance, watching the rain. She sighed and sank back against Gypsum's side.
"What do you mean?"
"That is Seth's alone to say."
"Vincent...!" Aerin couldn't really be mad at him, though. He was right. "He won't tell anyone, though, will he?"
"I greatly doubt it." Vincent closed his eyes. "There are some things too painful to talk about."
No more words were exchanged for the rest of the night. Seth eventually
came back to the fireside, wrapping himself in his cape and falling asleep
beside Zion. Vincent and Mari took up a vigil by the entrance, watching
the storm. The moment it was safe for Jenova to travel, Vincent had promised,
they would pursue. Aerin rested her head on Gypsum's shoulder, and as she
drifted off into a fitful sleep, her last waking thought was to wonder
what Seth could have done that was too terrible for him to say.
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