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Shadow of Doubt
It was a wet, dreary sort of day that greeted the three travelers as they set out the next morning. The skies were heavily overcast, only the dimmest light filtering through the grey. A fog hung over the Zolom marshes, and the rain from the previous night had not ceased. It was also cold, terribly cold, each breath clearly visible in the frigid air. Seth and Aerin would dearly have loved to stay in the mines until the rain passed, but Vincent insisted that they had to look for Jenova.

Aerin lifted her dark-skinned face to the grey skies, inhaling deeply of the misty air. Such weather should have been depressing, but Aerin liked it. It rained so rarely in Cosmo Canyon, that when the skies did turn silver and weep, it was considered a great blessing. As a child, Aerin had always gone out to play in the rain whenever it did come, and every time had marveled that the Candle never so much as fizzled in the rain.

Thoughts of the Candle brought back a twinge of guilt.. Biting her lip, she closed her eyes. She'd left a note, of course; but what good was that if she wasn't even going to Midgar anymore? Fate had led her to abandon that plan for a possibly futile chase, seeking a creature who could be anywhere on the Planet by now. She let out a cloudy puff of a sigh, opening her eyes to watch it drift away on the wind. 

As soon as we get rid of Jenova, she thought, I'll--

She couldn't finish the thought.

What had she planned to do when Seth's journey came to an end? When he was safely in Midgar, living under his aunt's wing, living far away from whatever torturous memories he held so tightly? Surely Aerin couldn't stay there with him. To abandon the Canyon like that would be unthinkable, and Aerin knew perfectly well that she could never hope to live in the city. She was a born Cosmo, and her home would always be in the red sands.

Yet to leave Seth seemed almost as preposterous as abandoning her home.

Aerin shook her head; this was impossible. She couldn't leave Seth, and she couldn't stay with him. Unless Seth changed his mind and settled in Cosmo with her, Aerin was in a situation that could not be resolved. The only way to get herself out of this loop would be, it seemed, simply not to exist.

She gave herself a mental smack. That's being ridiculous, she chided herself. Seth will be fine without you once he's in Midgar. You can't always be around to keep an eye on him; just accept it.

A loud sneeze from beside her interrupted her thoughts. She turned her head to face Seth, who was bent over on Zion's back, soaked through and shivering.

Aerin immediately felt terrible; absorbed in her own silly little thoughts, wrapped in the warm green cape that Seth had insisted on lending her, she hadn't even given a thought to his suffering. Her hands moved beneath the folds of the mantle, undoing the clasp and drawing the cloak from around herself before she could think, holding it out to Seth.

"Here," she said.

Seth immediately shook his head.

"I'm used to the cold."

Aerin did not withdraw her arm. "You're sick. Take it."

"I don't deserve it."

Aerin's eyes widened in surprise. "What?"

Seth shook his head. "It doesn't matter. Just take the cloak. You need it more than I do, I'll be fine... really..." 

"We're nearly there," Vincent called back to them from the front of the small formation. "We can stop and rest there before pursuing Jenova further."

Seth lifted his head and gave Zion's reins a shake. The massive chocobo trotted forward reluctantly but obediently, glancing back at Aerin as he did. The desert girl was left behind, her arm still outstretched, still holding Seth's cape. 

Though she did withdraw her arm and follow her companions, did keep pace with them all the way to the small port, she did not put the cape back on.


Sydois was not the most developed of towns; in fact, one could hardly call the small settlement a town at all. Houses were spread loosely out over the area, connected to each other by a winding dirt road. A tidy-looking little inn graced one corner of the town, along with a few shops. The road led out of the town, to the docks. The entire town was so small that Vincent thought he could have walked around the entire perimeter in less than half an hour. It was understandable, of course; the town was only about ten years old.

The rain had stopped, and the sky cleared; so it was with some anxiety that Vincent paced the muddy road of Sydois, looking for anyone who might have witnessed Jenova passing by. His only comfort was that Jenova would probably not travel in broad daylight, when she could be easily noticed.

Slightly uneasy, he glanced back at the inn, where he had left Aerin and Seth to relax while he searched for leads. He had had some reservations about leaving Seth there, and he was still fighting a mad urge to dash back to the boy, wrap his arms around him, and tell him everything that he had been hiding.

The boy's mental condition was deteriorating. He had been unhappy before, but ever since they had left Junon, Seth had been retreating farther and farther into himself, drowning himself in the bloodstains on his hands. Vincent wondered what Seth had seen in that moment outside the gates, what Jenova had told him in the mountains, to begin the shattering of a once-innocent boy.

"--saw an angel, I swear--"

Vincent stopped and glanced up. While he had been preoccupied with his thoughts, he had found his way to the docks. Three men stood by one of the larger ships. Two of them -- a lithe, thin man with dark skin and a massively tall man with a scarred face -- were laughing at the one Vincent had overheard, a robust individual with long black hair, who looked frustrated nearly to the point of tears. Vincent discreetly moved into a shadow, listening to the conversation from a distance.

"Sure you did, Brent, sure you did," the dark-skinned man laughed. "And what did your angel look like?"

Brent huffed. "You ain't gonna believe me," he said, with a distinct Midelian drawl. "I know you ain't."

"Tell us anyway," said the third man. "If you won't describe it, we'll have to automatically assume you're lying, and not just crazy."

Brent sighed. "A'right, a'right. She had blue skin, and these great big purple wings, and masses of white hair, kinna like the moon... she flew by real fast and the rain was pretty heavy so I didn't get a good look at'er -- stop LAUGHIN'! I KNEW you wern' gonna believe me..."

Vincent usually spoke with a very polite and dignified tone, but he had acquired quite an impressive inventory of swear words over the years, and he muttered every single one of them under his breath as he hurriedly moved towards the men. All three of them looked up when they heard the clacking of his boots against the wood of the docks, and gaped once they recognized him. Vincent was used to it, but it still annoyed him. At least, it did when he wasn't focused on more important things. Like now.

"Excuse me," he said, coming to a stop. "I happened to overhear your conversation - you say you saw an angel?"

"Aw, don't mind Brent," the dark man grinned. "He's a good enough man but he's a little bit crazy--"

"I SWEAR I saw it!" Brent roared. "I couldn' believe it either, thought I'd gone as crazy as these two say - but she was REAL--"

"What did you say she looked like again?" Vincent said, trying to keep the urgency out of his tone. 

"Beautiful woman," Brent replied. "Blue skin. Huge purple wings. White hair, an' lots of it..."

"The wings - they weren't feathered, were they? More like flesh taking the shape of wings?"

Brent looked absolutely astonished. "Yeah. Yeah, thass right... confused me a bit but I didn' know what else she could be, if not 'n angel... d'you believe me?"

"Yes," Vincent said, his voice strained. "I do. I have seen her, I'm looking for her - which way was she going?"

The drawling man paused to throw a triumphant smirk at his wide-eyed friends before turning back to Vincent. "South. To Mideel."

"Are there any ships in port now that are going to Mideel?"

Here the dark-skinned man appeared to find his nerve, stepping forward and shaking his head. "No. Our ship just got in and it's the last one. Winter's setting in and the storms are coming. Nobody's going to go out on the open sea now, especially not after last night's storm."

Vincent bit back a colorful piece of profanity. "I see. There is no way, then, that I could get to Mideel immediately?"

The dark man shook his head. Vincent nodded and bowed politely.

"I'll be leaving, then. Thank you for your help."

He swore under his breath all the way back to the inn.


"Here, take it."

Seth mumbled and shifted in bed limply. 

"It'll make you feel better."

He mumbled again and curled up tighter. Aerin sighed.

"Seth, for the love of the Planet, will you just take it already?"

Weary green eyes flickered partway open, then shut. Seth took a deep breath and stretched, in a sleepy and rather put-upon way before he scooted up into a halfway sitting position and stared sleepily at Aerin.

"Here." The Cosmo offered him a small bowl full of a dark red fluid. "I know it looks kind of bad, but it's just a potion. It's a great cold remedy."

Seth eyed it dubiously, then slowly extricated his arms from under the fluffy covers to accept the bowl. Once he had it in his hands, he stared at it for a long time.

"It looks like blood," he said at last.

"That's because some of the ingredients simply have a strong red pigment. I promise there's no blood in it."

He was still staring at it, with a strange look in his eyes. His eyes had dimmed slightly, and he seemed to be looking at something else, something very far away...

Aerin suddenly snatched the bowl from him. He snapped back as soon as the potion was taken out of his sight and blinked at Aerin in confusion.

"If it looks so awful, close your eyes and I'll feed it to you," Aerin told him, more calmly than she felt. 

Seth obediently shut his eyes and opened his mouth. Aerin held the bowl to his lips and tipped it up slightly. She did not remove the bowl until Seth had drained it. Aerin didn't voice it, there was no need with the slight threat gone and the fear ebbing in her chest, but she recognized the look in those eyes. That was exactly - exactly - how he had looked after they left Junon. Simple words had set him off, then; she didn't want to see what forbidden memories a bowl of blood-colored potion would stir up.

But Seth seemed to be back to himself now, and Sephiroth was apparently back where he belonged - seventeen years gone, firmly rooted in the past.

"It won't take effect for a while," Aerin said, crossing the room to put the bowl back in her bag. That done, she returned to Seth's side, sitting in the chair by the bed. She sighed. "I didn't need the cape."

Seth burrowed back under the covers. "If I hadn't given it to you, you'd be the one lying in bed sick."

Aerin tried to find an argument to that, she really did.

"But-- I-- Seth--"

Seth yawned and peered out at her from under the covers. "I don't want you to be hurt."

"What, so my health is more important than yours?"

"It's my fault you got dragged into this."

Aerin stared at him, mouth agape. "W...what? What are you talking about? It's not your FAULT, I just -- I felt like I needed to be with you -- felt like terrible things would happen if--"

"If I wasn't here, you wouldn't have had to follow me."

"But...!"

Seth's eyes were closed. His breath was lengthening. Aerin sighed helplessly as she realized he had fallen asleep. 

"Seth," she whispered, "why do you hate yourself so much?"


"I hate winter."

This complaint was put forth to nobody in particular, anybody who would listen.

"Miss the sea?" The bartender asked sympathetically, cleaning out a glass. 

"Hell yes. It'll be ages... I don't think I can make it."

"You said that last year," the bartender said mildly, pouring out a small glass of vodka. "Somehow, you managed to survive."

"Ah, you know I'm just griping," the woman said, accepting the glass and depositing the appropriate amount of gil on the counter. She leaned on the counter and took a sip from the glass. "But they're early this year," she continued. "Usually they at least wait until December, but nobody can deny that the storm season's on. Something's not right, it's only September..."

At first glance, it could be difficult to tell that this was a female. She wore loose, masculine clothing. Her bared arms showed firm, toned muscles. She slouched at the bar. Often, it wasn't until one looked closer, noticed the slenderness of her build, the feminine contours of her form, that one realized she was a woman. She was a sailor; not only that, but she was the captain of her own ship, the Tycoon. It was rumored she'd spent all her life on the sea; her ship was everything to her.

It was understandably frustrating for her to have to stop sailing for the winter storms.

She set down the vodka and blew a lock of violet hair out of her face. Every year, every Planet-forsaken year, and it still annoys the living daylights out of me.

She heard the footsteps, heard them before the bartender started gaping at something just behind her, and before she could even turn around to look, she heard that voice, that flat tenor that could belong to only one man...

"Faris Scherwiz," the voice said, with an air of slight amusement. Faris grinned and turned around to face the man, leaning back onto the bar.

"Vincent Valentine," she returned. "I see you're still stalking me."

He ignored the remark, taking the captain's hand in his and bending to kiss it. She rolled her eyes.

"What was that for?"

"It is customary for a gentleman to kiss a lady's hand," Vincent explained calmly.

He saw the glitter of mischief in Faris's eyes, just before she brought his hand to her lips. "A pleasure to see you again, Miss Valentine."

He is so going to blow my head off with his gun, but I don't care, it was worth it, Faris thought gleefully as Vincent's eyes widened and he made a series of strange noises, seeming to cycle through shock to fury to embarrassment and back again. Dear gods, but it was so much fun to catch the unflappable ex-Turk off guard...

"So what brings you down to Sydois? Anything in particular? You can't be planning to travel by sea, not with the winter storms coming. Here, sit." She patted the stool next to her. 

Vincent quietly picked up what was left of his dignity and sat calmly on the chair. "I had hoped that there would be a ship bound for Mideel. I have urgent business there."

"In Mideel?" Faris snorted. "Mideel's a great little place, absolutely lovely, but what the hell kind of 'urgent business' do you have in a pretty little resort town? You don't 'urgently' need to relax. Well, maybe you do, but..."

"Jenova is alive," Vincent said shortly. "She was last seen flying towards Mideel."

Faris's entire demeanour completely changed in the span of an instant. The slouch was abandoned, the smirk, the playful tone in her voice both vanished. She sat completely straight, her eyes wide, her face serious.

"You're kidding. Jenova?" At Vincent's nod, she swore and dragged a hand through her hair. "Well, shit."

"That is putting it very mildly," Vincent said. "We have already encountered her. I do not wish to think about what might have happened..."

"We?"

"Myself and two children," Vincent said. "Around sixteen years of age. A boy named Seth from Nibelheim, and a girl named Aerin from Cosmo Canyon. Seth ran into Jenova alone, and she flew away as soon as Aerin and I approached."

"Why are you traveling with...? No, never mind, forget it. Tell me later." Faris took in a deep breath and then let it out in a rush, shaking her long bangs out of her eyes. "Pretty little tangle you've got yourself in here, Valentine. Jenova heading to Mideel in the middle of the winter storms..." 

Abruptly she stopped and frowned, turning to face Vincent. 

"Wait... if the storms have come, why the hell is she out flying? She stands a good chance of either getting blown way off course or getting struck by lightning..."

"You forget Jenova is not bound by the same restrictions as our kind," Vincent said evenly. "She will find Mideel if I am at all familiar with her abilities... and lightning will hardly deter her. We destroyed her utterly... whatever was left of her must have been scattered across the entire Planet... and yet she has somehow brought herself back. I do not think lightning is a major concern of hers."

"Damn it all, you're probably right. Okay. So what exactly are you planning to do? Do you even have a clue what she's after?"

Vincent shook his head. "Seth said that Jenova wants her son back... but why would she go to Mideel...?" He was speaking mostly to himself now. "Surely she knows..."

"Knows what?" Faris looked confused. "That Sephiroth's dead? I should bleeding well hope she knows that."

Vincent barely heard her, muttering so quietly that Faris could only hear snatches of words. "...unless... if it was never Sephiroth's own goal... yes... that would be... the Lifestream..." 

"What in Leviathan's name are you babbling about?!" Faris curled one hand into a fist in frustration.

Vincent rose abruptly to his feet. "Mideel. The open Lifestream... immense amounts of spiritual energy... and if her goal is what I think it is..."

He turned to the captain with a strange energy in his movement, a tension just at the edge of each motion. "Faris. Would you be willing to sail the Tycoon to Mideel?"

She stared at him. "Except for that tiny little detail that it'd probably be in about thirteen pieces in the middle of the ocean by the time the storms got done with us, yes."

"Would you rather," Vincent growled, "lose the Planet to Meteor? No stream of Holy will come forth to protect us now, and it would be unwise to count on the Lifestream again..."

"Wait, go back a few steps." Faris held her hands up. "When did Meteor come into this?"

"We do not know where the Black Materia is. Jenova might. I am sure that Sephiroth did not act entirely of his own will, and if that is true, then Jenova is very likely to do the exact same thing that he did, the very moment she can."

"Okay, so in normal human language, that means she's gonna call down another flaming hunk of rock if she can. Am I right?" At Vincent's nod, Faris' face set itself into a tight mask.

"So you need the Tycoon to get to her."

"I know you. You are the only one who would even consider crossing the ocean in winter."

Faris' tight-lipped expression softened, tilted up at the edges into a smirk. "When do you want to depart?"

"As soon as you can get the Tycoon ready."

The smirk widened and Faris brought one hand up in salute. "Be at the docks in half an hour."


Drops of blood, rolling one by one off the moonlight blade, each one falling like ruby tears... falling down into the leaves below him, landing and quivering among the sprays of green as fresh, ripe berries.

A rowan tree, Seth thought vaguely. This is a rowan tree.

Distractedly, he cast his eyes down to the landscape beneath him, shimmering like diamonds beneath the rowan's leaves. Far below, nestled in against the silver mountains, was Nibelheim. Seth blinked, not feeling any reaction to this. Certainly he ought to; pinned by Masamune to a giant rowan tree miles above his home town should have made him feel something. 

Am I dead, then? Is that why I feel nothing?

He lifted his head slightly, focused on the length of shining metal that was his sword, had been driven through him and into the heart of the tree. Here he hung on the great mountain ash, apparently dead and yet aware.

Of course, I'm Sephiroth, seventeen years dead but alive. Content with this reasoning, he looked back down, his eyes traveling down the length of his sword, watching with interest his slight bleeding from the wound. He watched as the red drops rolled down his moon-pale flesh, staining the green cape that had been wound about his waist and shoulders as some form of cover. 

As he watched, one drop rolled free of his emerald trappings and fell, far below, and it wasn't blood after all, it was a summon Materia... it fell into a pool of pale green -- more blood, Seth realized, never once questioning the illogic of blood being that color and shining with its own light -- and where it touched the green, a six-legged horse sprang forth, bearing on its back a grim-faced creature of legend.

Odin, Seth realized numbly. Odin, the god of the mountains, the patron and father of Nibelheim... he was free of his Materia prison now. Seth smiled vaguely.

"All-Father," he murmured aloud, stretching out his sword hand as if to touch the god. He was suddenly aware that this was the thing Odin himself was said to have done; offered himself in sacrifice to himself on the great ash tree Yggdrasil, in order to gain the wisdom he could not find alone. This thought made Seth feel guilty. He had desecrated this tree with his mortal blood. He was not a worthy sacrifice to Odin; the god must be angry. Seth bowed his head.

"Forgive me."

A gloved hand with gentle fingers tilted his chin up. Seth found himself staring into Vincent's ageless red eyes, red as blood as summon materia as ripe rowan berries.

"I will forgive you."

Even as these words were spoken, Vincent was drifting away, his hand still outstretched.

"Your trial is not yet done, Seth Drasil. You have yet to endure the pain that will set you free."

Seth only nodded, and lay back his head against the rowan's trunk.


"Hhhhhhuh!"

Aerin looked up with a start from her copy of "Study of Planet Life" at Seth's gasp. The boy had sat partway up in bed, his eyes wide and staring, one hand brought up to his forehead as though to shield it from some invisible attack.

"Seth?"

Seth sighed and plopped back down onto the bed, murmuring more to himself than to her. "Just a dream..."

"A dream? What was it about?" Aerin closed her book so she could devote her full attention to Seth.

"I dunno... it was just weird." Seth shook his head slowly, the images already fading. "Something about a giant rowan tree... and Odin... I dunno. It was weird."

Aerin looked slightly concerned. "Well, do you feel any better this morning?"

Seth nodded. "Actually, yea... this morning?!" He sat up suddenly, looking around at his surroundings. This was not the cozy little inn room. This room was small, sparsely furnished... and seemed to be moving... he was lying in a bunk bed set into one wall... "Where are we?!"

Aerin covered her mouth, politely stifling a giggle. "After I gave you the potion, you were totally dead to the world. Vincent came in a few minutes later to tell us he'd found a ship and we needed to get going. You wouldn't wake up for anything, we had to carry you out to the ship..."

"And we've been traveling all night?" Seth blinked. 

"Mm-hmm."

"Where's Vincent?" Seth wondered, getting up carefully from the bed.

"He might be out talking to the captain. They seem to be friends." Aerin grinned. 

"Friends?" Seth knew how dumb it sounded, but the words 'Vincent' and 'friend' were wheeling around his brain and bumping into each other. He couldn't quite get them to connect.

"Friends, F-R-I-E-N-D-S." Aerin poked his nose. "Don't give me that blank look, I know you understand the concept."

"Yeah, I do, but Vincent?" Seth looked mystified as he grabbed his cape off a hook near the door. "You mark it off on the calendar if Vincent smiles, and you declare it an official holiday if he laughs. I can't see a guy like that knowing what a friend is."

"Then maybe you should open your eyes once in a while." Aerin's steely tone halted Seth on his way out the door. He turned, confused, to face her.

"Huh?"

"You heard me." Aerin's face was stern. "There's more to him than a gun, a claw, and a famous name. You know, he stayed up all night keeping watch over you. I tried to tell him that deep sleep is a normal side effect of this potion, but he wouldn't hear of it."

Seth stood there, the door forgotten, two pairs of green eyes locked across the room.

"Vincent?" Seth said dumbly.

"Yes, Vincent!" Aerin snapped, rising to her feet. "He took me in to bed last night and told me that he'd keep watch over you. All night, all night he stayed by your side just to be sure you were okay! He wouldn't abandon you; just like you didn't abandon me!"

Seth might have responded. Aerin might have continued her tirade. It's impossible to say, because whatever might have happened was interrupted by footsteps stopping at the door and a woman's weight on the doorframe.

"I see you're up."

Seth turned around to face the newcomer and saw a tanned woman in loose, pale blue clothing leaning on the doorframe, grinning at him.

"It was quite a sight, you know, your pals carrying you down the street and onto the ship. You looked like you were in a coma or something."

"Uh," Seth said intelligently. The woman laughed and offered her hand.

"I'm Captain Faris Scherwiz; just Faris is fine. Nice to finally meet you, Seth."

"You're the captain?"

"Weren't expecting a woman?" Faris quirked an eyebrow, but didn't withdraw her hand.

Feeling as though if he got one more surprise today his brain was going to go into automatic shutdown, Seth decided to keep his mouth shut and just took her hand. She gave it a few firm shakes. Her hand was strong and slightly callused from work, but there was gentleness in it.

"Nice to meet you, Faris," Seth said with a bit of a smile as he withdrew his hand.

Faris grinned and gestured over her shoulder. "Vincent said that he wanted to talk to you, if you were up. He's on deck."

Seth nodded his head. "Thanks."

As Faris moved aside to let him out, Aerin sighed and shook her head.

"I don't know what we're going to do with him."

"Don't be too hard on him," Faris said, her smile fading. "I saw the Masamune. That's a lot for him to carry."

Aerin didn't think Faris was talking about the sword.


Quite a morning, what?

"Eh."

Very interesting dream you had, I must say.

"Nn."

Can't quite understand why I had you pinned, though, but anyway. I especially liked the summon materia coming from the blood, that was clever.

"Mm."

Interesting how Vincent took the place of Odin at the end. Why d'you reckon that was?

Seth stopped short. He had been listening to his sword with only half an ear, but that statement caught his notice.

Why indeed? Odin was the god of the silver mountains, the spirit he had prayed to when he was a little boy (and had been neglecting in recent years, Seth realized with a pang of guilt), the protector of his home. Why had Vincent taken the place of the All-Father in his dream?

"All night, all night he stayed by your side just to be sure you were okay!"

Seth leaned against the wall, massaging his right temple as a whirlwind of thoughts assaulted him with all the force of a Nibel blizzard.

"There's more to him than a gun, a claw, and a famous name." 

Seth groaned and slid down the wall to sit on the floor as this thought let loose a hail of strange, vivid memories. He was being held in a pair of slender arms, held close to a warm chest dressed in dark blue... looking up, he saw deep sad redwood eyes in a pale face framed by strands of ebony... and the most loving smile...

Father.

Not his father, not Rowan... then... who?

Someone who loved him. Someone who wouldn't let him go...

...he was crying out, reaching out for the man in blue, sobbing and howling, screaming a name... his hands were so small and helpless, he couldn't help the man, he couldn't help himself... and he howled his despair...

"Gods," Seth whispered, staring at his teenage hands. "Dear Odin, who am I?"

"Maybe you should open your eyes once in a while."


It was a very shaken Seth, severely rattled by his latest bout of memories, that finally made his way to the deck. The sunlight, beating down on him without yesterday's comfortable blanket of grey clouds, nearly blinded him. Once he had brought up an arm to shield himself from the oppressive light, he could see Vincent standing at the very front of the ship, staring out over the shining waves. Seth took a deep breath and crossed the wooden deck to reach his inscrutable guardian.

"Hey."

Vincent did not turn. "I had wondered when you would awaken."

This was more like the Vincent that Seth knew, not the stranger that Aerin claimed had spent the night at his bedside.

"Faris said you wanted to talk to me."

"Yes." Vincent turned around to face the boy. "This has been weighing on my mind recently."

"So, out with it." Seth stood next to Vincent, leaning casually against the railing. "What've you got to say?"

"What happened when you were alone with Jenova?"

Seth was somewhat taken aback by the question. "What happened?"

"Yes. What did she say to you?"

"She said... she said I was Sephiroth. After I said I wasn't. Umm... she said something about me having new blood and a new name. Yeah... she said that even though I had that, I'd always be her son. Freaked the hell out of me, to be honest. That's when you showed up."

"Before that." Vincent looked down at Seth, and their eyes met. "What did she say? What did she do?"

"Um... she didn't say anything, really. I'd... uh..." Seth blushed and looked down. He didn't want to talk about this to Vincent.

"Seth, I need to know this. Tell me what happened," Vincent said in a surprisingly gentle voice. "Tell me everything you can remember."

The Nibel boy didn't lift his head to meet those garnet eyes. "I'd been dreaming... about being back home, in Nibelheim. Mom was holding me... and then Masamune and I both felt like there was danger nearby, and I woke up. I didn't see anything at first, but the clouds... um... the clouds reminded me of Meteor."

Taking in a deep breath to steady himself, Seth continued. "And then... then I... I remembered. I was Sephiroth again... I... I was laughing. I could see Meteor, I could see the damn thing like it was really there, and the Materia... oh gods... it was still hot from the summoning, I could feel it in my hand... and..."

The pitiful, broken stream of words rattled to a halt. Seth hid his face in shaking hands, starting to hyperventilate. Reliving the memory once had been bad enough as it was; having to concentrate on it and put it into words was worse. He could barely breathe; his heart was pounding with uncomfortable force; his body was trembling almost violently. 

A thin-fingered hand closed reassuringly on his right shoulder. Vincent had tentatively wrapped an arm around Seth's shoulders in an attempt to lend him some tiny strength.

"It was a memory," he said softly. "Sephiroth is dead, Meteor is gone. Shades of the past. Forget them. I need to know what you lived, not what you remembered."

Despite Vincent's strangely reassuring closeness and the steadying sound of his voice, it took Seth another five minutes to regain enough composure to speak.

"When I stopped remembering that," he whispered, "I saw Jenova there. I... for a moment, I thought of her as 'mother'."

As though afraid that this would earn him hatred to rival the emotion in his own heart, Seth bowed his head quickly. But Vincent only gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. 

"Go on."

Braced, Seth took in another gulp of air. "She was caling to me... and I was going to her... after a bit, she stopped looking like Jenova... more like my mom. And I thought I was back in Nibelheim, going to my real mom... and then she called me Sephiroth, and... that's when I snapped out of it. I... I told her she wasn't my mom, I wasn't Sephiroth... and that's when she said I always would be, and then you showed up, and..." Seth sagged in relief. "That was it."

"Thank you," Vincent murmured, and Seth leaned against him, exhausted from his retelling. Vincent stared up into the sky. "You have never been exposed to Jenova cells, have you?"

"Hmm?" Seth blinked up at Vincent. "No, I don't think so..."

"No, you wouldn't have been... I've seen you in battle, your physical abilities are not of the caliber a survivor of Jenova would have developed. You are completely human, a thing Sephiroth could not claim."

"Sephiroth wasn't human?"

"Not entirely. He was born to humans, yes, but he was injected with Jenova cells before birth. From the moment he opened his eyes to the world, he was a half-breed. Jenova was not his mother in the conventional sense, but she might as well have been."

Seth blinked as Vincent moved away to pace the deck, seemingly deep in thought. "What are you getting at here, Vincent?"

"What I don't understand," Vincent said, apparently deaf to Seth's query, "is how Jenova could have influenced you as she did. With none of her cells in your body, she should not have been able to touch you..."

"Maybe she's strong enough not to need that now?"

Seth regretted his suggestion the minute it came out of his mouth. Knowing what he did about Jenova, that was not a thing he wanted to ponder. Apparently it bothered Vincent too, because the gunman stopped dead in his tracks. 

"Um... sorry," Seth muttered.

"Don't be. Nobody understands Jenova well enough to be able to explain how she works. It may be your remembering Sephiroth that has allowed her to get to you. It may be something else. It may be anything that we cannot understand or infer. Any suggestion is valid."

Seth didn't say anything to that, and Vincent didn't continue. A few moments of silence passed.

"Seth," Vincent said suddenly, "I need to ask a favor of you."

"Huh? You, ask me a favor?" Seth blinked. "What could I do for you?"

"Kill me."

"Fwuh?!"

"I myself harbor Jenova's cells in my body. Surely you have heard of my transformations?" Vincent's voice took on a sardonic tone at the last sentence. "It is Jenova's influence that makes my body mutable, that allows my other aspects to take form."

Seth was still staring at Vincent, looking as though he'd just had a couple circuits in his brain blown out.

"Never has Jenova ever managed to control me; for some reason, I have always been beyond her reach. But if, as you suggested, she has grown stronger, she may be able to reach out to me."

Vincent began pacing again. Seth was watching him, listening intently. Abruptly Vincent stopped and clenched his good hand into a fist. Seth had a momentary flash of that same hand from his dream before Vincent spoke again.

"Jenova... is responsible for so much pain. It was Jenova that led Lucrecia to ruin... it was Jenova's influence that drove Sephiroth to madness. It is Jenova who even now appears to have the same goal as she and Sephiroth did seventeen years ago. We are the only ones who know and who stand in her way. If it were within her capabilities, it would be so easy for her to subvert me and thus direct us all away from her, allowing her to achieve her goal." 

Vincent's eyes narrowed and he turned to Seth, his eyes blazing with more emotion than Seth had ever seen the man show.

"Jenova is my enemy. I cannot even hate Hojo for what he has done, because he did so under Jenova's influence. I will fight Jenova until one of us falls. I will never bow to her; she will pay for her sins." Vincent placed his good hand over his chest. "Remember my words, Seth, for these are the words of the true Vincent Valentine. My aim is to destroy Jenova, and to stop her before she can imperil the Planet again. These are my own words, Seth. Should I ever deviate from this goal, should I ever steer us away, should I ever, ever show signs of ceasing to be Vincent Valentine and becoming a pawn of Jenova, I want you to strike me down."

Seth, bewildered, could only sputter out "How will I know?"

"You will know. Know me as I am now; a man burdened by unforgivable sins, and driven by hatred. A man with blood on his hands that can never come clean. I was a Turk and committed unspeakable acts in the name of Shinra. I was unable to defend that which reawakened the barest stirrings of a soul in my heart. I am a false shell of a true man who died, years and years ago. I am less than human. Sometimes I feel as though the only evil I have not submitted to is that of Jenova. Know Vincent Valentine, Seth, so that you will see if I ever commit that final sin."

Vincent did not stay a moment longer. His scarlet cloak flared out behind him as he strode away from Seth and went back below deck. Left alone, the youth slid down onto the weather-beaten wood beneath him, staring into space. 

It was not until later, when Faris emerged to check the weather to be sure they weren't sailing into a storm, that Seth finally moved. Overwhelmed, he rose to his feet slowly and went below deck. He did not speak a single word for the rest of the day.

Previous Chapter - Gathering Storm