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Trial by Fire
The world was suddenly silent.

One crystalline blue eye opened in silent inquiry.

The birds had stopped singing, and the wind had suddenly stilled itself. The only sound was the breath of the listeners.


"Yeah, I noticed." Grass and clothing rustled as the young boy sat up, spitting out the blade of grass he'd been chewing on. "It got quiet alluva sudden."

He laced his fingers above his head and stretched out, then stood up, glancing around. Nothing seemed amiss...

His chocobo screamed.

The Planet cried.

It cried in pain and sorrow, sobbing wildly into the silence. Nobody would hear it, nobody could hear it. The Cetra no longer walked, having all returned to the Planet long ago. They were in its blood now, and they could not hear its cries.

The pain wouldn't stop, it ached so badly, and the Planet was so tired... Holy had broken and the virus walked, the bleeding wounds would not close...

please... please just stop... please

Fire and snow, there was a soul that still walked, a soul the Planet knew terribly well. The soul of Sephiroth son of Lucrecia. His mother had returned. His father was here. Why couldn't he come back as well? Why did he linger outside the Planet's blood, poised to cause more pain?

don't hurt me any more, please don't hurt me... just come back... why won't you come back?

The stench of waste-rot was heavy, and now he could smell traces of the sweetness that Jenova seemed to exude to disguise it.

He was standing at the open Lifestream. 

The stream of living blood seemed distressed. It churned and roiled and made little wavelets that broke against the shores.

Vincent fixed his gaze on a stand of trees just across the stream from him.

"Show yourself."

"If you desire."

The silky voice was woven thick with a low pleasing current that threatened to overwhelm Vincent completely. He clamped his hand on his gun, flexing his claw to remind himself of his past and purpose.

Twigs snapped, leaves hissed and shivered as someone passed through the brush...

Vincent drew back with a sharp cry, a Wutaiian profanity he'd picked up from Faris.

Lucrecia smiled demurely back at him, gazing over her half-moon spectacles at the ex-Turk.

"Hello, Vincent."

Vincent held himself in check, not responding. It is a trick, a trap, an illusion - she can change her form, you know she can, Lucrecia is dead she is not here it is Jenova....

The scientist shook her brown hair, smoothing it back in a nervous gesture Vincent had always thought was adorable. Her smile was exactly as he remembered it, small and hesitant but warm, her eyes a shade of green that even now haunted him in the eyes of Aerin and Seth. It was the color of sunlit emeralds, of forest hearts and new green buds. 

Jenova... it is Jenova...

"It's good to see you again, Vincent." Even the voice sounded exactly like Lucrecia, down to the slightly foreign way she pronounced her words, a slight accent that Vincent had never been able to place, an accent he had later heard echoed in Aerith...

"Stop it," he said, his voice strangled and desperate. She even smelled like Lucrecia... damn Jenova and her illusions...

Lucrecia drew back slightly, tilting her head, her expression suddenly wounded and forlorn. "But aren't you happy to see me? I've come back, I'm alive now, truly alive... we can raise my son together, you and I, and be a family... that's what you always wanted, isn't it?"

Vincent could not speak.

Lucrecia held out her arms pleadingly, beautiful green eyes filled with love. "Oh Vincent, I have waited so long for you... won't you come to me? Won't you be my son's father?"

Trembling, Vincent took one unsteady step forward, then another. What she offered was no more, no less than his heart's deepest desire.

To have a family... 

His tensed hands fell lax at his sides as he took the first step into the glowing stream. Another. Another, and he was knee deep in the Planet's living blood, arms stretched forward. 

"Lu.... cre..... cia...."

Lucrecia shed a single tear, smiling brightly, and stepped toward him, stopping just at the edge of the shore. Vincent was waist deep in the stream now, moving forth with increasing speed. It could have been molten lava and he would not have turned back. 

To love and be loved... to never again be looked upon with fear or hatred...

"Vincent... it will be all that you desire..."

To touch, without breaking, something precious... to hold... be held...

"I have.... missed you so, Lucrecia..."

"It will be the most intimate joining... the deepest bond, that only death can break...." She nearly stood in the stream now. "If you will only come to me..."

..... to hold a child in his arms and love it and be loved by it, and raise it, and watch it thrive.......

She stepped into the stream and Vincent threw his arms about her.

"I love you, Lucrecia...."

....to be a father....

The earth began to shake.

Aerin gasped and keeled forward, clutching at her abdomen. The world around her blurred and shifted and bled into itself like a watercolor stain. She could hear, under the rumbling and shaking of the earth and the far-off cry of a worried voice, a distant sad keening cry that cut her as surely as the blade...

The blade was there, she felt its cruel bite stabbing through her womb even now, felt the cold steel that was robbing her of her blood and her life... it didn't matter any more, not now...

But he was alive, and she could no more deny that than she could deny the plea for help that, though not her own, seemed to come from deep inside her... 

She was a healer, then, now, and forever. Her purpose, the force that drove her existence, was to soothe the hurts of others... and the Planet was hurt...

Aerin's fingers closed around her staff as she lost herself in a sea of green.

....in the crater, something fell into the stream of living blood....

One slender arm wrapped around Vincent's broad shoulders, small thin fingers weaving into his hair. Lucrecia's smile was gentle and loving, with the same warmth that Vincent had once fallen in love with. She dipped her head into the hollow of his neck and shoulder, letting her left hand fall into the stream.

Come to me.

The chocobo came to a stop, quivering, at the edge of the forest. A yard or two more would have taken it to the open Lifestream.

The black-haired boy, somewhat out of breath from running so hard to catch his bird, clung tightly to the feathered neck, staring grimly out of the trees. He didn't know what that couple was doing in the Lifestream, during a bloody *earthquake* no less, but he figured they had better get out soon unless they wanted to die....


Clutching at her hair, the distraught woman rocked back and forth, screaming and chattering in rapid Cosmo. Even Nanaki, for all his calm words and soothing presence, was hard pressed to calm her.

"My child!" she was screaming. "My little daughter! The end is near and I have lost my daughter!"

"She will be fine, she will be fine," Nanaki insisted urgently, pawing gently at the woman. "Illyra, do you hear me? Aerin is a strong girl with a strong soul. She will be fine."


"What!?" The word was barked more than spoken as Nanaki turned his head to face the speaker. "What is it?!"

Cloud stood in the doorway, leaning heavily against the frame. His face, deeply tanned from years in the canyon, was ashen.

"Nanaki," he gasped, "the Candle just went out!"

Aerin rose slowly, staff in hand, standing still despite the shaking earth beneath her feet.

"Aerin, come on!" Seth's voice was high and urgent. "It's not safe in here, the whole place could cave in!"

She turned.

Seth stopped dead.

Her eyes were glowing. Iris, pupil, sclera, all had disappeared into a glowing, swirling Lifestream green.

As Seth stood, frozen with surprise and fear, Aerin raised her staff and charged.

Vincent's hands crept to Lucrecia's waist.

"Shiiiiiiit! This is big!!"

The dragoons of old were legendary for their courage in battle. It had been said by some that nobody who bore the title of Dragon Knight felt any fear. In Cid's opinion, that was stupid. He'd learned long ago that courage wasn't about not being afraid to do something, it was about being afraid and doing it anyway.

If you had asked him, as he stood in the doorway with his wife Shera at his side, his Venus Gospel firmly grasped in one hand and Bahamut Zero's Materia held in the other, Cid would not have been ashamed to admit that he was afraid.

Hand and claw closed in a strong grip on the slim waist.

Lucrecia smiled at Vincent, meeting his eyes.

He narrowed his eyes and coldly returned the smile.

The earth was shaking, Vincent was nowhere in sight, he was miles from any semblance of home or family, and Aerin was chasing him with murderous intent.

Seth really would have liked to know how life could get any worse than that.

A roar that was more bestial than human split the air as Vincent, in a sudden burst of powerful movement, lifted Lucrecia clear out of the stream and threw her as far and as hard as he could. She struck a tree with a gasp and a sickening crack, and slumped to the ground. Before she could recover, Vincent scrambled out of the stream and leveled the Death Penalty at her heart.

...deep within the Sleeping Forest, the Lifestream churned in a freshly-opened chasm, and something small and dark was ejected from the glowing stream...

The earthquake stopped as suddenly as it had started.

All over the Planet, people were momentarily stunned into inaction. Slowly, they began to relax and breathe more evenly, unfolding warily from whatever shelter they had taken. 

In Wutai, a single woman looked out from the top floor of the pagoda. The town had sustained minor damage, but it was nothing that could not be repaired. From here, she could hear a child crying. Her face became grim, remembering her own childhood... there had been an earthquake just before the war...

Automatically, her hand rose to touch the round yellow gem set in her headband. But generations of martial artists, for all the skill and wisdom they had given her, had no answer for this.



The voice was cold, firm, and authoritative, with a threat lying just under the surface of the command. The gun hand did not waver.

She swallowed and kept her tongue. Maybe she could not pull his strings, but she knew him well enough to realize that Vincent Valentine did not make idle threats - and that he was probably strong enough to follow up on this particular one.

"I am not such easy prey as you would imagine, Jenova."

"No," Jenova replied, Lucrecia's mouth twisting into a mirthless smirk, "it seems you are not."

Vincent could not have said why he hesitated. The crisis from the sky sat helpless before him, staring up at him with a mixture of fear and strange, grudging respect. Jenova, the living virus, plague of the Cetra, poison of souls, blight on the Planet, was at his mercy.

He did not shoot.

He remembered Lucrecia - the true Lucrecia, not the shapechanged spectre in front of him - sitting on a Cetra-sculpted throne in perfect solitude, weeping bitter tears for her own interminable life and the son she never got to hold. The last moments he had spent with the poor, wretched woman, brought to ruin by the very monster that now dared to take her form. 

Vincent never saw her again. He supposed - hoped - that she had made an end of it, silencing her shame and finding peace within the Lifestream.

When he went back to the cave, she had left him a gun.

Nothing more. No memento of her existence, not the slightest shred of evidence that she had ever been. Only the gun. And a deep, unhealing scar on his heart from which his Chaos had been born.

That same gun was still leveled at Jenova's heart. 

Jenova had corrupted Lucrecia's son, brought him irredeemably into darkness. Death had been the only salvation. Jenova lived in the cells of his own body, giving his demons a way to take form. The Cetra had died by her, and if she were allowed to live free, the Planet would soon follow.

He could not shoot.

As if sensing his difficulty, Jenova narrowed her eyes. "Why don't you get it over with?"

The tiniest jolt ran through Vincent's body, and his eyes widened just the smallest fraction of an inch. "What?"

"I'm right here in front of you. You know what I am, you know what I intend to do. But you don't shoot. Why?" Thin lips stretched into a predatory smirk. "Can you not kill your darling Lucrecia?"

Vincent's trigger finger twitched.

"I learn from those I infect, dear Vincent. I can see their memories, their feelings... she might have loved you, Vincent. Why, if it weren't for me, and for the good Professor Hojo, things might have been different..."

Vincent's hand trembled.

"Just think, Vincent..." Jenova's smile grew wider, exposing a pale line of teeth. "If not for me... you might have been the one to put the ring on Lucrecia's finger... my son might have had black hair..."

Vincent couldn't breathe.

"He might have been your son, Vincent."

Vincent pulled the trigger.

Jenova smiled triumphantly at him, not flinching as she began to bleed. 

"So you have killed me," she whispered.

"Stay that way," Vincent said, his voice ragged.

Jenova rose carefully to her feet, still smiling. "You truly believe, then, that what you have done is right."

"You corrupted Sephiroth," he growled. "You poisoned Lucrecia. You destroyed the Cetra. You are a blight upon this world."

She began to laugh.

Vincent's spine froze.

"Then you do as you think best for this Planet," she hissed, "and I will do the same."

Seth desperately brought up the sheathed Masamune to block the ornate wooden staff. Had he been just a bit slower, he would likely not have lived to tell of it.

Aerin brought her staff back, Mako-pool eyes blazing, readying herself for another strike. Seth only barely managed, again, to block it, scrambling to his feet and trying to back away. He tripped on his cape.

As he landed, Masamune was jarred from his hand and landed a foot away.

Recovering, he lifted his head to see the staff bearing down on him.


In the single moment that Vincent was distracted by the cry, Jenova shed her disguise and took to the air.

The boy had seen enough. He swung up onto his chocobo's back and kicked his heels into the bird's sides.

"Yah, Strife!"

Vincent crossed the stream once more and was running. He cursed himself for allowing Jenova to escape, but Seth, for reasons he could not articulate, was more important now.

The staff struck the ground where Seth had been only a moment before. He rolled, felt his hand close on Masamune's scabbard, and desperately swung it around to collide with Aerin's weapon. The impact knocked both weapons from their wielders' hands. Without even stopping to think rationally about his actions, Seth stood and got between Aerin and her staff, bracing his hands against her shoulders in an effort to push her back.

No blood, there would and could be no blood...

Aerin fought back with a strength he had not expected, digging her nails savagely into his arms, baring her teeth and pushing back against him as though his defeat were all that mattered.

"Aerin, stop!" Seth's voice was choked with fear. "Aerin, it's me! It's Seth! I'm not your enemy! AERIN!"

He saw a flash of red and black and gold...

In the full sunlight, there was a flash of gold.

Rage consumed the black-haired boy, pounded in his veins and exploded behind his eyes. Jenova was alive, damn her... hadn't she caused enough damage? Hadn't Cloud and the others killed her enough?!

The part of him that knew her realized, with a heavy certainty, that you could never kill Jenova enough. SOLDIERs, yes, you could kill SOLDIERs, but only because they were still, above it all, human. The last survivors of the SOLDIER program would be standing to see the world end, but only if the world didn't find a way to kill them first. Jenova would be there, age, disease, and injury be damned. You just couldn't kill the bitch.

That man - Vincent - was foolish to keep trying. Foolish and brave.

He remembered Vincent, from long ago...

Seth stood on weak legs, panting, shaking, staring in disbelief at the prone form that lay at his feet.

Vincent knelt down beside her, feeling her head with his good hand.

"She will be alright," he pronounced finally. "I did not hit her hard enough to cause any real damage. If she wakes up with a headache, that will be the worst of it."

Seth swallowed. "Sh... should we take her to the clinic?"

"No. It will be better for her to awaken in the inn. It will not be so harsh as the hospital. Get her staff."

Nodding shakily, Seth bent to retrieve the weapons, strapping Masamune back around his waist. The weight was somehow both reassuring and depressing. As he stood back up, Aerin's staff in hand, his eyes met with those of a stranger.


Seth blinked, disconcerted yet at the moment unable to really be shocked. A part of him dimly noted that the boy standing in front of him looked uncomfortably familiar, and that yes, that thing beside him could not be anything but a gold chocobo.


"She gonna be okay?" The strange boy gestured behind Seth to Vincent, who had just gathered the unconscious Cosmo into his arms.

"She will. Who are you?"

The boy brought his hand up to his forehead in a brief motion that could almost have been a salute. "My name's Zair Virago. Here, you can put her up on Strife here, he'll be real steady with her. So who're you?" His query was suddenly directed at Seth as Vincent moved to place Aerin on the huge chocobo's back. "I know Valentine here, but who're you?"

"Seth Drasil," Seth said vaguely. "From Nibelheim."

"Nibelheim." Zair's voice sounded oddly distant for a moment. "Nice place, eh?"

"I always thought so." Seth was extremely uncomfortable with this topic. "Um, her name is Aerin Carae. She's from Cosmo. Thought you might want to know."

"Aerin... pretty name. Suits her."

Vincent stepped up beside them. "You may continue your conversation at the inn. Aerin needs to rest and we must prepare to depart."

"What?" Seth blinked, standing still for a moment as the others began to move with Strife in tow. He quickly moved to catch up and kept pace with Vincent. "Wait, what happened? Didn't you find Jenova?"

"I did," Vincent said, his voice dull. "It... did not go as well as I would have hoped. She managed to escape and has likely left the island."

"Yeah," Zair offered. "I saw her leave. Looked like she was heading straight north."

Vincent turned to stare at Zair. He shrugged.

"What? I know about Jenova. You've got a lot of courage to stand up to her, you know. I want to help you if I can."

"I think we'll need it," Seth mumbled.

Cloud sat slumped over the table in his room, glaring at the PHS in his hand as though daring it to ring again.

Everything had been calm in Cosmo for about twenty seconds after the earthquake. The Candle had suddenly flared back to life and was now burning innocently, just as bright as ever. Everyone had been silent for a time.

Then the talking had started - a sudden boom of speculation and exchanges of thoughts and fears. The most coherent thing he'd heard had been from Nanaki, who had calmly hypothesized that something terrible must have happened but sorted itself out. The only problem was, what had happened?

Earthquakes weren't common, especially not here, but there was nothing greatly unusual about them. Growing pains, he had affectionately dubbed them after one had hit about a year after Sephiroth's defeat. The Planet was a living thing, after all, and it was still growing up.

But he had never, ever heard of a quake that shook the entire damn Planet up.

Yuffie had called from Wutai to inform him of it. He'd gotten an earful of profanity before "hello" when Cid called from Rocket Town. Reeve in Midgar had sounded like he had about one nerve left and it was rapidly fraying. Barret in Corel had been almost as bad as Cid. Tifa in Costa del Sol just sounded highly worried. By all accounts, any needed repairs were well underway. It hadn't been a severe earthquake, but it had been disturbingly widespread and Cloud had the sinking feeling that it had probably hit Mideel and Icicle too. This was not normal.

Nothing seemed normal anymore. The winter storms had come about a season early (he clearly remembered Tifa's incredulous call about three days ago, which had nearly deafened him and gave him new insights into Tifa's vocabulary), a kid who looked just like Sephiroth had shown up in town, and Aerin had run away, leaving only a note where she insisted "terrible things" would happen if she didn't follow Seth. And the Cosmo Candle had gone out for the first time in... decades, at least. No, nothing seemed normal. And this time there wasn't even a tangible threat to combat, as there had been with Sephiroth.

The PHS did not respond to Cloud's glare. The swordsman was half angry and half glad. Vincent was the only member of AVALANCHE that had not called to report anything. It would have soothed Cloud's nerves to hear any news from Vincent, but at the same time he dreaded the news Vincent would probably have.

Sighing, Cloud dropped the phone on the table and dropped his head on his outstretched arms. 

Just when you thought it was safe to go outside, he thought sardonically.

...the green faded away...

Aerin shifted weakly in the bed. Her head hurt.

She opened her eyes, squinting in the light... 

Shielding her eyes from the direct light, she looked up through the roof of the ruined church. This was one of the few places that got any real light under the Plate, and was just about the only place where these flowers grew. 

He was late.

Sighing slightly, she went back to the flowers. She couldn't be mad at him; he had said he might not be able to make it. He'd promised to come if he could, but he had warned that he might be, as he put it, "detained by menial tasks assigned to me by the Supreme Assholes of Shinra-gods-of-our-world-have-mercy-on-us-wretched-mortals." Just thinking about that remark made her snicker.

A spiky shadow fell over her just as a male voice said, "That's strange, I don't see anything funny down there."

"Zax!" She turned around, laughing. Broad shoulders and thick black hair and that scar on his cheek and a smile that could have made the flowers grow... "You came!"

"Of course I came!" The young SOLDIER pulled the girl to her feet, smiling. "Seph's gonna give me the look of death tomorrow, but Shinra can't expect me to put off a visit to my absolute most favorite flower girl in the whole wide world just to do some snotty paperwork for Heidegger. I can do it tomorrow and Heidegger can kiss my ass."

She punched him, laughing. "Zax! Bite your tongue!"

Zax grinned. "Oh, certainly, my dear lady, but may I humbly suggest that I can do much more fun things with my tongue?"

"Pervert!" She yanked one of his bangs, still laughing helplessly. "Honestly, Zax, you're absolutely hopeless."

"Absolutely hopeless and damn sexy, you mean."


.....I'm glad you came...

"Za... x..." Aerin croaked. Her eyes were adjusting to the light now, and she could see a mass of spiky black hair...

And bright sky-colored eyes that were heavy with concern and unnamable feelings. "Aerin, right? Are you okay?"

She blinked and sat up slowly, wincing and touching the tender spot at the back of her head. "Ow... what happened?"

"Aerin!" Seth suddenly appeared in her field of vision. "You're awake, thank Odin - how do you feel?"

"I think I hit my head somehow," she said. Trying to remember how that could possibly have happened brought back a lot of memories, more than she wanted to know. She pitched forward with a moan under the onslaught.

The Planet... crying... a cry for help... the virus... the son of Lucrecia...

So much of it was jumbled impressions from the Planet and not her own thoughts, but as she struggled to pull an idea of her own from the mess, the entire situation suddenly turned very clear, and very cold.

"Seth... I'm sorry..."

"What happened?" he murmured, his voice sorrowful. "I know you wouldn't attack me... and your eyes... what happened to you?"

"The Planet..." her voice was a whisper. "The Planet wants you dead."

"What?!" The two boys spoke at the exact same time, eyes wide.

Aerin lifted her gaze to rest on Seth. "It wants you to come back... It's afraid you'll hurt it again. It doesn't know who you are - just who you were."

"But I'm not going to hurt it!" Seth cried. "I'm trying to get rid of Jenova so the Planet will be safe! I absolutely don't want to become Sephiroth again!!"

The other boy's head snapped around to stare at Seth.

"The Planet doesn't know that," Aerin replied, beginning to sob. "Seth, it's so afraid, and hurt - it has to fight! It doesn't know what else it can do! It can't make another Weapon, it can't afford to bleed again to stop another Meteor, but if it doesn't fight, it will die! And Jenova's alive, and Holy's broken... Oh, Seth! I am the Planet's last weapon!!"

Seth blinked, looking horrified, and sank slowly back into the chair. "Then... it wants you to kill me..."

Aerin curled up, shaking her head miserably. "That's why I had to follow you... I didn't know why, just that it would be bad if I didn't... I followed you to kill you... I can't come with you any more, Seth."

He had been expecting the words, but they still stung. "...I understand," he choked. "But... how will you get back home?"

"I can take her."

The two looked at the third boy in astonishment.

"You mean it, Zair?" Seth blinked. "You only just met us just today, and she lives in Cosmo..." His chest felt suddenly tight as he realized how very far Aerin was from home, and on his account, but he continued. "You'd really do that for her?"

The black-haired boy nodded. "Of course I would." He then turned to face Aerin, smiling sadly. "For you, anything."

Aerin shrunk back slightly into the covers, a bit confused and just slightly worried. 

"Who are you?" Her voice was small and thin. "I don't think I know you." But you look so familiar...

Zair leaned closer to her and sighed, the sad smile not leaving his face. Aerin stared into those sky-fragment eyes and strove to remember them.

I think I knew you once...

"I knew you once," the boy said, his voice low. "We weren't the same then."

"What... do you mean?"

"Like Seth. We're dead people, all of us." A small, self-deprecating smirk. "Too stubborn to stay that way. You're the Planet's weapon, right? Well, if it didn't have the energy to create a weapon, where do you think it got the life energy? It just pulled someone out of the Lifestream. Not just anyone, though... it had to know that the weapon would fight for it. You did fight for the Planet once... you called Holy... do you remember? Your mother's Materia... the altar in the Ancients' city?"

"I don't remember... Did I meet you there?"

"I think you saw me for a moment," Zair said, his voice half a whisper, "when you died there."

Aerin's hand flew to her midsection.

She said the closing words that would complete the incantation for Holy and lifted her head, smiling. Cloud stood before her, his face as grim as always.

"It's alright," she wanted to say, to make those eyes lighten, that mouth twitch into a smile. "I've done it. Meteor won't come."

She never had a chance to speak... in the next moment, Sephiroth and the Masamune... a sudden pain as she knew she was silenced, but she smiled to the end because no silence would bind her now - she had called Holy - she would be part of the Planet now and she would make it live...

As her vision dimmed, she thought she saw another pair of blue eyes glowing in the darkness behind Cloud, surrounded by a halo of thick black hair.... and then there was only the green.

"I did see you!" Aerin cried. "You were there - with Cloud - I thought you'd forgotten me, but you didn't! You never did!"

"Never," Zair affirmed, smiling. "Never, ever, ever. I never meant to leave you, Aerith."

Aerin smiled tremulously, her eyes watering.

"Zax... I missed you."

He leaned forward to wrap his arms around her. "I missed you too."

Seth rose and padded silently out of the room. This was not, to his thinking, a conversation he should be present for. Vaguely, he remembered Zax talking about his "wonderful one-in-a-million I want to marry this girl and have 2.5 kids and a dog" girlfriend... even after death and rebirth, the lovers still remembered each other. As the once-murderer of Aerith, Seth felt hideously out of place in this reunion.

His departure went unnoticed. 



".....I'm glad you came."

They spent that night in Mideel. Vincent insisted on leaving by first light so that Jenova wouldn't have as much of a head start, so everyone was up and moving before dawn. Aerin had packed everything up and gotten Gypsum off the Tycoon. Zair had consulted his parents about taking Aerin home, and had told them as gently as he could that he probably wouldn't come back, wanting to make up for lost time with Aerith. He promised, however, that he absolutely would keep in touch, unless he got eaten by a sea dragon or something.

The Tycoon was a huge, silent shadow in the harbor, looking like a sleeping dragon as its sails fluttered in the pre-dawn light. Just down the shore, a comparatively tiny shape was fitting a harness on the glittering form of a gold chocobo, its oddly metallic plumage shining even in the faint half-light. A sharply contrasting black chocobo stood just beside it. Behind them, attached with long straps to the gold's harness, a small raft bobbed in the water. Farther up, just at the edge of the forest, a pair of friends were bidding farewell to each other, each one depressingly aware that they might be the last words they ever exchanged.

"I'm going to miss you, Seth."

Seth tried to smile. "After we get Jenova, I'll come and visit you. I promise."

Aerin dipped her head once. "What I said still stands, you know. You'll always have a home in Cosmo Canyon, if it doesn't work out in Midgar."

"I'll remember that." Seth sighed and looked out over the horizon. For a moment, there were no words.

"I don't know how much of Aerith carried over," Aerin finally said. "I'm probably not going to be anything like a Cetra. But I'll try to talk to the Planet... I'll put in a good word for you." She smiled slightly.

Seth grinned weakly back at her. "Thanks. I'll try and live up to it."

"You won't have to try," she said softly. "Just be. Just be Seth. My words, your actions, and the Planet's heart will do the rest."

Cupping his face in her hands, she stood up on tiptoe and kissed him on the forehead. Pulling away, she smiled brightly at him.

"And you have to promise not to go insane again."

Seth's laughter carried through the thin dawn air all the way to the Tycoon.

"I promise," he said, holding her hand and giving it a squeeze. "And you have to promise to live. For Zair, for Cloud, your mom, and me. And for Aerith."

"I will," she said, "if you do."

He caught her up in a brief, tight hug.

"I will."

When he pulled back, his eyes were misty. Behind him, the sun broke over the eastern horizon.

Aerin swallowed and smiled at him sadly, remembering a sunrise on another shore. 

On a sudden impulse, she reached up to her ponytail. Small deft fingers undid the knot in the short leather thong and drew the charm from her hair, presenting it to Seth. Unfettered, her hair fell in dusky waves about her shoulders.

"Here," she said softly. "It's a charm made with a real Phoenix down. It'll bring you good luck."

With wide eyes, Seth took the charm from her hands, brushed his fingers over the large, fiery feather that dominated the design. He felt terribly unworthy.

"Aerin," he said in a low voice, "this is yours. I can't--"

"Shut up." Aerin smiled at him, closing his fingers over the ornament. "Just keep it until you beat Jenova. See, now you have to live because you have to bring this back, so you can't die until you do."

Seth began to laugh in response, a single tear dripping down his cheek.

"Got it. I promise not to die on you."

She hugged him again and didn't let go this time. He felt her tears on his neck; but that was okay, because he was crying too.

"Goodbye," she whispered as she pulled away and, without looking at him again, walked away. 

Seth turned away, wiping his eyes as Aerin walked to the shore. He couldn't watch her leave. He wasn't sure he could bear to watch as Zair embraced her tenderly and helped her and Gypsum onto the raft, didn't think he could stand to see the gentle kiss on her cheek. He stood with his face to the forest as Zair clambered onto the raft after Aerin and shook Strife's reins. The gold chocobo turned and obediently climbed into the water, pulling the raft behind it as it swam out to sea.

He didn't see Aerin wave goodbye.

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