Seth smiled softly and reached up to scratch Zion's head. The big chocobo chirped happily, rubbing against Seth's fingers and nipping them affectionately when he pulled away.
The Tycoon was a light cargo ship, designed for swift overseas delivery of anything from small food shipments to time-sensitive government papers to... basically anything that could fit that you wanted delivered fast. This included chocobos, naturally - though the designer of the Tycoon's below-deck stables had apparently thought you'd never have to transport more than four chocobos at a time.
The stalls were small, but functional, and the chocobos seemed reasonably comfortable. Aerin's Gypsum had looked vaguely seasick, Vincent's Mari seemed as unflappable as her rider, and Seth's own Zion had just looked bored until Seth had walked in the door with a handful of greens.
"Missed me, huh?" Seth said with a bit of a smile as Zion butted his head affectionately against Seth's hand.
The chocobos had recently been fed and watered by a crew member, so Seth wasn't too afraid of being interrupted. Masamune had been left in his room with strict orders to shut up and stay that way for a while. Taking a deep breath, he began to speak.
"I think I'm going crazy."
There. That much was off his chest. Zion was peering down at him, his big gray eyes confused. Seth managed a slight smile.
"Well, I must be crazy if I'm talking to a chocobo..."
Seth swore that Zion looked indignant and grinned, ruffling the bird's crest and leaning against the stall door.
"Sorry. I really need someone to talk to, though... and I can't talk about this to anyone who can talk back." Seth sighed. "I had another memory yesterday."
"I keep remembering things... little bits and pieces of Sephiroth's life. Mostly the significant things... I remember summoning Meteor, the fight in the reactor, and yesterday..."
He closed his eyes, pulling up the strange images from his memory. It was so much different from Sephiroth's other memories... up to now, he had only remembered things Sephiroth had done in his insanity. But this... "I... he was just a little kid. I was being held by a man in a blue suit... he felt like a father, the way he held me and smiled at me. I felt like... he was the only one who loved me, when I was Sephiroth..."
Zion let out a plaintive warble and nuzzled Seth. Mari was gazing at them stoically with her dark redwood eyes. Seth paid her no heed.
"And then I was being taken away from him... I think I was screaming his name, but I can't remember what his name was. I was trying to get to him and he was trying to get to me, but...
"Zion, this is driving me nuts. I don't know who I am anymore. Seth, or Sephiroth... I have no idea which one is really me. Maybe both. Maybe neither. I just don't know anymore."
Seth hung his head, absently scritching Zion with one hand.
"It wasn't so long ago that Sephiroth was just a name in the history books to me, and I'd never heard of Masamune. It really wasn't that long ago that I was just some kid from Nibelheim on a family trip to Midgar. If I close my eyes and think really hard, I can almost imagine that I'm back home, lying in my own bed, and that I never knew about this stupid legacy I've inherited by being who I am, and that Nibelheim never burned, that I never did it..."
"I didn't mean to...!" Seth's eyes squeezed shut and tears trickled down his face. "I loved Nibelheim! I never wanted anyone there to get hurt! But now I don't have a mother, I don't have a home, and I've only got a few tiny shreds of an identity -- and it's all my own fault!
"I don't know what I'm going to do after we kill Jenova. Maybe I'll die in the battle and all my problems will be solved... but then what about Aunt Lena.... arrgh..."
Seth stood up suddenly. "I'm sorry," he said to nobody in particular. "I thought this would help, but I don't really feel any better... I need fresh air."
As he advanced heavily towards the door, he heard something just outside.
It took him less than two seconds to get to the door and fling it open, revealing a glimpse of dark brown hair and desert-colored skirt flaring down the hallway.
He didn't cry out. He didn't yell. He didn't give chase. He simply sank down to his knees and began to feel a perverse calm come over him.
His secret was out. Aerin, who had kept faith in him and refused to believe that he was Sephiroth all over again, knew. She knew that he had followed in his own footsteps and burned his hometown to the ground.
Well then, it's all over with. She'll tell Vincent and Faris and the entire ship will swoop down on me and put me out of my misery.
A morbid smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. He obligingly allowed it to spread, until a strange sort of giggle escaped.
I wonder if I sound like Sephiroth, he thought vaguely as he fell into peals of near-insane laughter.
Aerin skidded to a halt, her brain finally catching up with her feet.
She had just found out the foul secret that Seth had left to fester inside himself for so long. She finally knew why he hated himself so much. And she was running away from a chance to find out more.
But surely Seth wouldn't welcome her enquiries. Surely she would only hurt him more by probing.
Then again... if Seth was left to himself... his guilt would only increase...
She stood there for a while, torn between two separate impulses, until she heard the laughter. That was not happy laughter. It was the unsettling laughter of someone who had simply been driven past the point of endurance and could no longer react in any other way.
It was not a physical wound, but Aerin was drawn to it as surely as to any injury. Her healer's hands burned to soothe the undeniable suffering she heard in that morbid laughter, no matter how deep it ran. She turned and walked back down the hallway to meet the Nibel boy.
He was still laughing when she knelt by his side.
The laughter stopped. Seth looked slowly up at her with a frightening smile.
"Seth?" Aerin asked cautiously.
"So now you know." Seth was still smiling. Aerin did not like that smile.
"Yeah... now I know." She was treading on thin ice and she knew it. Talking to Seth would require caution; he was definitely losing hold of his sanity. "How did it happen?"
"You care?" Seth's smile only seemed to widen. "You actually care about what a mass murderer has to say?"
"You didn't do it on purpose." It wasn't a question, and Seth's psychotic grin faded as Aerin locked eyes with him. "I heard you say you didn't mean to do it. So it must have been an accident. How did it happen?"
The fierce purity of Aerin's stare surprised Seth. She did not condemn, she did not hate, she did not shrink away in fear or disgust. He looked at himself and saw a monster. Aerin looked at him and saw... what?
"Why do you care...?" he whispered, staring into her eyes.
"Because," Aerin said.
"Because you are Seth." Aerin's gaze did not waver. "Because you're hurt, and I'm a healer. Because you were kind to me. And because I want to know the truth."
With a kind of furious pride, she saw the shade of rising madness seem to retreat from Seth's eyes. Those same eyes darkened with shame, and were turned away from her own.
"It was an accident," he whispered.
"I understand that," she said softly to him. "Tell me what happened."
Seth took in a shaky, rattling breath. "I... Aerin... don't know if I can..." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Aerin... don't make me do this!... I can't do it. I can't... don't want to remember... don't want to see..."
Aerin wrapped her arms comfortingly around him. "I won't make you hurt any more than you have to. But I know your secret now, and I forgive you... the Planet knows you've punished yourself enough for it. I know and I don't hate you, Seth. You don't have to be afraid."
He trembled against her, suddenly clinging, fighting with tears. She stroked his hair soothingly, not letting go. No more words were spoken between the two teenagers; touch was the language of the moment, and all that needed to be said was spoken by the brush of dusky fingers through moon-pale silk and the press of a fair cheek against a loosely clothed shoulder.
In a few moments, Faris would come down this hallway. She would see Aerin and Seth there on the floor, desert flame and mountain ice held in a pact of friendship and solace. She would smile and back out on silent feet, unnoticed, leaving the children to their moment. There are things which mustn't be interrupted and Faris would know this was one of them.
She would know nothing of the crisis that Aerin had thwarted, nothing of their shared secret. She would simply walk away unheard, smiling to herself about the beauty of young love.
Small and round and infinitely green. No bigger than a marble as he rolled it in his fingers, staring into the impossible depths.
Very few Materia were left in the world, now. After the defeat of Sephiroth and the destruction of Meteor, Cloud had insisted that they return their Materia to the planet. It had taken almost a full year to finish the job; most people didn't want to part with the gems.
There were a few, of course, that had not been returned. The Huge Materia remained in Cosmo Canyon for the elders to study. The Materia inside the Masamune, as well; Vincent had ventured alone into the Crater to retrieve the sword and store it safely inside Lucrecia's cave, and had been unable to bring himself to look at the sword further, let alone take off the bindings to remove the Materia set in the hilt.
Another four resided in the hands of a few of the heroes. These four had been gifts from the Planet, given through the Huge Materia. They were conduits of such amazing power that those who kept them had sworn to use them with caution.
Cloud and Nanaki took charge of the Master Summon Materia, through which the holder could reach through the ether to call forth all the gods and monsters to aid them. Unlike other summoning Materia, this was not a prison for souls but a method of communication. There had been some debate and good-natured joking at Cloud's expense about giving such power to a person who couldn't even keep his head on straight, but in the end the jewel was left in his and Nanaki's care.
Yuffie had claimed the Master Command Materia, imbued with the knowledge of generations of martial artists. Through it, Yuffie became a vessel for techniques she alone could never have mastered, of powers that ran deeper than mere magic, that drew strength not from the Planet or the Cetra, but from a human soul.
Cid had claimed Bahamut Zero for himself. Centuries ago, when the Cetra had been numerous and Jenova had yet to touch the Planet's flesh, there had been an elite order of holy warriors. These proud soldiers, entirely devoted to king and country, had called themselves Dragon Knights and over time came to be known simply as 'Dragoons'. Cid never chose to attire himself in the dragon-shaped armor of his ancestors, but none could deny that he was the rightful heir of that heritage. Nobody objected when Cid chose the King of Dragons as his patron and protector.
That had left only one, Master Magic. All the magic of the Cetra was available to the holder of this Materia. It was not a thing to be trifled with; the magic of the Cetra was more than the simple spells that everyone was familiar with. They had possessed power that could bind the soul and bend, to a small extent, the fabric of reality itself. It had been Cetra magic that sealed the Black Materia into the form of a temple, Cetra power that had sculpted the waterfall cave.
Vincent, who had opted to take possession of Master Magic, tried to use the gem sparingly. The power he held now in this tiny orb was dizzying. Everything from the tiniest ice spell to the power that had formed a temple from alien souls was within his grasp. Vincent had chosen this Materia not to empower himself, but to protect the insane power from others. Cetra magic could not ease the ache inside him, could not give him the things he longed for. But if the gem should fall into the hands of a weaker mind, more easily dazzled by this power...
Vincent shook his head and set the Materia back into his gun, holstering the rifle and looking out over the sea. He could see Mideel now, a strip of living, teeming emerald sliding over the horizon. A sudden flow of emotion made him shudder; Mideel as he remembered it was tied to the near loss of a friend and leader, and a near defeat at the hands of one of the Planet's warriors.
It thought we were a threat, when we were trying to help.
"We'll be there within the hour if this wind keeps up."
Vincent turned his head slightly to face Faris as she walked up beside him.
"Bloody glorious day, isn't it?" She beamed at him. "I wouldn't mind sailing all day like this. I must remember to thank you profusely for showing up and needing a ride."
Vincent smiled slightly. "And I must remember to thank you for being so insane as to take us."
"It's a pleasure." Faris grinned for a moment, then turned serious. "So, then. What will you be doing when you reach Mideel?"
"Jenova," the ship's captain said. "What do you plan to do about her?"
Vincent took in a deep breath and let it out. "I plan to fight her."
"Seth and Aerin might not be up to it."
"I do not plan to involve them in it. They are only children. I would not ask that they risk themselves in this battle. Neither of them even needs to be here; and if not for me, they wouldn't be."
Faris gave him a quizzical look. Vincent looked down and shook his head softly.
"I have lied to Seth. He is on this journey under false pretext. He does not need to be here."
Faris arched one violet eyebrow. "You, lie? I find it hard to believe that you've ever spoken an untrue word in your life."
"No. But I have withheld the truth, which is the same. I lied in my days as a Turk; I lied to Cloud and the others; and I now have lied to Seth, by simply holding back the truth. I could set his suffering to rest with a few words, and yet I have not." He shook his head again. "I am a beast of a man..."
"What haven't you told him and why?"
"I was testing him." Vincent closed his eyes. "Testing the quality of his character. To see what he felt. I wanted to see how like his old self he was. I wish now that I had not; he is nothing like Sephiroth."
"I could have told you that," Faris said with a smirk. "He's a sweet kid. But you didn't answer my first question. What is it you're keeping from him?"
Vincent did not speak.
"What, are you afraid I'll go tell him before you're ready to spill?"
"If you knew what it was, no promise could bind you to your silence," Vincent murmured. "I know you too well, Faris. Your nature would not allow you to keep this secret. I therefore ask that you do not press any further. I will tell him. Just not now."
Faris was silent for a minute or two, finally making a frustrated noise deep in her throat.
"Stupid gothy-ass vampire, you're impossible..."
"I'm not a vampire."
"Then stop dressing like one!" Faris punched him lightly in the arm and stalked away. Vincent took very little notice of her departure, gazing out at Mideel. Soon they would face Jenova again. Vincent didn't look forward to it.
Seth will know the truth... if he survives.
Mideel was beautiful.
The island was large enough to comfortably sustain a small population, yet still small. The forests surrounding the town were thick and lush and incredibly alive. Everywhere you looked there was green, so wild and vibrant that Seth doubted whether even a full-scale Mako reactor would have been enough to harm the land.
In the forest, the air smelled of rain and dew. Every so often, however, a sea-born wind would kick up and into the trees, bringing with it the scent of living brine and the distant sound of gulls over the waves. It was the most beautiful collage of life Seth had ever seen, the eternal courtship of mother earth and father sea. His eyes reflected every beryllic leaf and blade of grass as he tried to take in all his surroundings at once.
He and Aerin were silent, hushed in their reverence, and the only sound was that of footsteps shuffling across the beaten dirt path leading from the town to the docks.
"Shouldn't the leaves be turning colors about now?" Seth whispered - for it seemed that to speak any louder would have been to desecrate the forest's very life. "It's September."
"The seasons are different down here," Vincent murmured in response, his voice a low thrum. "The climate is such that it is green almost all year. Spring and fall are brief, and there is almost never snow."
Seth frowned slightly. He was on the very edge of speaking, but held himself back. Snow had been a deeply integral part of life for as long as he could remember, growing up in the icy mountains of Nibelheim. He understood that different climates had different weather, but snow to him would always be just as important as the green.
Then again, he thought, Cosmo wouldn't have snow.
Another, more forlorn notion struck him. I hope there's snow in Midgar.
Am I even going to get to Midgar? His thoughts took a deeper turn. We're about to fight Jenova, if she's even here. She almost had me last time...
As I recall, Seth, it was her calling you Sephiroth that snapped you out of it.
Hello, Seth thought with some annoyance at the sword. I've been just fine, thanks, and you?
Given that I am hanging off your hip right now, I didn't think it necessary to bother with the pleasantries of greeting.
Masamune changed the subject, deftly getting back to the point. Are you worried about fighting Jenova?
Well, yeah. Vincent told me to kill him if Jenova took him over - and if Jenova's strong enough to do that -
I doubt she is.
And you know this how?
I don't. Call it instinct.
What the hell kind of instinct would tell you that? You're a sword, do you even HAVE instincts?
I talk, don't I? I'm intelligent, aren't I?
Shut up. You know what I meant. I'm quite unlike other swords; how do you know I don't have certain instincts?
Wow, so this is Mideel. Nice little place.
Seeeth, you're changing the subject.
Okay, okay, you have instincts, fine, yes, I see your side of the argument and all that.
Splendid. Can we get back to the original topic, which was Jenova?
Yes. Masamune's already harsh voice was sterner than usual. Do you plan to hide in a corner shivering until Jenova attacks you? Or will you face up to your - quite reasonable - fear and prepare for the confrontation? That's what makes the difference between courage and cowardice. You're not a little boy anymore, Seth.
I know that. But Masamune, can you cut me a little slack here?! I'm about to fight a powerful alien who was able to manipulate me in my past life and very nearly got me in THIS life and that even has VINCENT worried and I don't have a home and I don't have a family and I was living a nice quiet life right up until all this happened - I'm scared, okay?! I wish so much that I could turn back time and go back to my quiet life and make all this never have happened--
The simple question brought Seth up short as the small party filed into the inn.
"Seth? Are you okay?"
Seth blinked as Aerin waved one dark-skinned hand in front of his eyes. He grinned sheepishly.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just spaced out a bit."
Aerin's expression of concern lightened, stretched into a grin.
"Not going to go insane again, are you?" she joked, taking his hand.
Seth laughed and shook his head. "Nahh. I think I've got my head on straight this time."
The desert girl smiled brightly, a small giggle escaping her. She tightened her grip on his hand and gave it a small tug, moving for the inn door.
"I'm holding you to that, you understand. No going crazy or I'll have to hurt you." She winked, moving slightly into a patch of sun as she did. The light caught in her dark hair, reflecting off the beads on the charm she wore bound up among the dark strands. Seth blinked, realizing that he'd managed to get lost somehow in her leaf-green eyes. Her hand suddenly felt very warm in his own.
He looked down at it, suddenly entranced. In some places her skin was rough against his, evidence of long practice with a staff. That particular art, Seth began to realize, had been no idle hobby for the healer, nor had it been a recent undertaking. He remembered, suddenly, Aerin's skillful use of the weapon in the fight against the Grangalans. It was fascinating, really, how one pair of small dark hands could be so skillful at the arts of war and healing alike...
Seth was jolted out of his quiet reverie when Aerin, rather abruptly, withdrew her hand. Blinking, Seth looked up at her, his cheeks suddenly burning. A similar flush seemed to be spreading across Aerin's dark skin. How long had they stood like that, like young lovers, not even knowing?
A breeze rustled through the awkward silence. Seth's cape rustled about his ankles, the feathers on Aerin's charm fluttered. For a painful moment, neither of them seemed willing or able to speak. The fragile silence was a possibility, and it held within it a promise, an offering. An offering to make something beautiful, if only one of them would take the chance, putting forth their faith and their hand.
Faith is harder to give than fear. Most people look at the future and say, what if it's worse? Some can look and say, what if it's better?
And possibilities went untouched, the fragile greenglass silence between them broke as Vincent reappeared in the doorway, crimson eyes regarding them coolly. He might have stepped back and allowed the children their time, if Seth had not seen him, looked up and made eye contact, desperate to escape the silence and too afraid to take a chance.
"Hi," Seth said with a sheepish grin as Aerin turned to follow his line of sight.
Vincent's eyes were, as usual, unreadable. "Do you wish to stand in the front door all day? I can speak with the owner and see if he can arrange an alternate doorway for his patrons, if such is the case."
Seth winced slightly at the sarcasm. Choosing not to answer, he carefully ducked around Vincent and into the inn, Aerin trailing behind him like a flame-colored shadow. Vincent snorted lightly and walked on.
"Right, right, I'll get to you, stop pecking, ow, you'll get your share in a second, ow! Look, if you don't calm down, I can just back right out of here and you can say goodbye to the greens!"
The grey-eyed chocobo finally calmed down enough for Faris to finish the feeding rounds. A lot of dark vindictive little thoughts were running around and crashing into each other in the woman's head, mostly concerning whoever had designed the Tycoon's chocobo stable to be so small and the vow to charge Vincent for his next ride, friend or not. She rapped Zion, the pecker, sharply on the beak after giving him his greens.
"You've got less to complain about than I do," Faris grumbled.
It wasn't that she minded staying on the ship after her crew had decided to follow Vincent and the kids into Mideel. She had no burning desire to visit the island, and if she ever did, well then, she bloody well could. She saw the place about eighteen times a year on business and she'd found it one of the better places to wait out the seasonal storms, so it wasn't even a novelty. Besides, Faris was addicted to her profession and fanatically devoted to her ship, so being left alone on the Tycoon with so many little chores to be done actually put a little extra spring in the young captain's step.
She just drew the line at feeding the damn chocobos.
Once more cursing the ship's designer for making the distance between the stalls so negligible, Faris brushed a few spare leaves off her shirt and left the stable. There were, after all, a lot of things to be done.
He could smell her.
Somewhere, mixed in with the life-rain smell of the forest, the faint salt tang on the wind, the musk of the town's inhabitants, and the raw, powerful scent of untamed life that was the open Lifestream, Jenova's smell hung, fresh and immediate. A cold counterpoint to the warmth of the exposed Mako, hers was the smell of decay and waste, so foul that Vincent constantly wondered why even normal humans couldn't sense it.
He sniffed the air again. Yes, she was near...
Ah... there... near the Lifestream...
It would not be long now.
"Something bad is going to happen."
"How do you know?"
"It's just... this feeling I have... I'm afraid."
Seth swallowed and looked out the window. "I'm afraid too. I... I don't know if I can fight Jenova, Aerin."
"I don't think Vincent wants us to." Aerin bit her lip and looked at the white-haired boy.
"But we have to, don't we?" He looked back at her, his dark green eyes troubled. "I mean, we're not helpless. It's just the right thing to do. It is, isn't it?"
"If you don't know," Aerin said, almost below a whisper, "no one does."
Seth's fist tightened on Masamune - he hadn't realized he'd been holding it - and he looked down. He rubbed his thumb over the hilt's worn bindings, pulled the blade out an inch to study the edge.
He was afraid.
You're not a little boy anymore, Seth.
There was no going back. There was no changing what had passed. He could stand paralyzed forever in the present, letting the world act upon him, or he could act upon the world.
wildflowers in the snow at the foot of the tree... laughter and the first sunlight breaking through the winter clouds... small cold hands with numb fingers brushing away the snow to free the intrepid blooms...
they smelled like sunlight and life and beginnings.
they smelled like...
Winter wildflowers. Jenova had wanted to summon Meteor and had used Sephiroth to do it. The Planet had bled to stop it, and it could not afford to do so again. It would die, and so would everyone and everything on it.
Nanaki would die. Cloud would die. All the people of Cosmo, Midgar, Junon...
There would be no more life or beauty.
For the sake of the Junon traders... the people in Midgar... the people in Cosmo... for the heroes who watched the sunset without fear, for the forests of Mideel and rainbows in the Nibel mists... for the sake of just one more winter wildflower....
Will you face up to your fear?
"Yes," said a hoarse, cracked voice.
Aerin smiled at him.
That's what makes the difference between courage
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