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Winter storms, my ass.

The sky was beautifully clear, and the wind was strong but benign. It would have carried them all day even with just the sails, and Faris had decided to let them down to take advantage of it. The solar collectors were adjusted for optimal reception, the cells were fully charged with the excess power, and there wasn't a bloody storm in sight. 

Every major port had a group of people who monitored the ocean weather and broadcast their findings by radio. Recently they'd detected the early signs of the winter storms about three months early. They'd found it odd but chosen not to take chances. Faris was beginning to think they'd been too hasty. In this weather, the ship practically sailed itself. In fact, right now it was sailing itself. The day was just too nice to spend behind the controls instead of out and about. Autopilot was a glorious thing.

"Just about a day on a straight course and we'll be at Bone," she announced to Vincent, who was standing beside her. 

"Let us hope that is enough time."

"Fuh. It better be."

Vincent looked up at the sky. Faris took in a deep breath of sea air, then turned to face her friend again.

"How's Seth holding up?" she asked softly.

"He's still sane." Vincent's remark was only half facetious. "So far as I can tell."

"Mm." Faris looked back out at the sea. "It's too bad, really. He really liked her, huh?"

"They were close."

Faris closed her eyes, listening to the song of the waves. She thought about the day she'd lost her mother. She remembered saying good night and kissing her mother on the cheek that last night. She had been on herbal medicine and it seemed to have been working well; she'd sworn she'd probably be up and able to climb Da-chao within the week. Faris remembered saying, that last night, that they'd climb it together when she got better.

She remembered Lenna shaking her awake that next morning, and knowing from Lenna's eyes what had happened before she even asked.

"Faris.... Faris, wake up..."

"nnhuh? Lenna...? What? What's wrong?"

"Faris... Mother's dead."

Their mother had been a strong woman, Midgar born and bred. Their father had been from Kalm, and had moved to Midgar to try and make it big in the big city. Several years later, when Faris was still young and Lenna was barely speaking, they had moved to Wutai. 

Faris remembered holding Lenna before the move, reassuring the tiny girl, saying that no, Meteor wouldn't take them, they were safe... she remembered looking up into the sky and seeing it free of the evil star, and laughing and crying and spinning Lenna around and being held so tightly by their parents....

She remembered the black kimono she wore for the funeral, how the sash had been tied too tight and it rained on the day they buried her. She remembered letting Lenna cry on her shoulder again. She remembered the day she got the Tycoon, and dedicated it to her mother's maiden name. The seas had heard her laughter, and drunk her tears.

"I'm going to talk to him."

"That might be a good idea." Vincent closed his eyes. "He would probably respond much better to you than to myself."

Faris nodded, already heading for the stairs. "Let me know if anything happens up here."

She found him curled up on his bed, his boots tossed carelessly aside, the sheathed Masamune in his arms. 

It's not fair, she thought desperately. He's such a nice kid, and he has all this crap hanging over his head. He shouldn't have to know he was Sephiroth. He shouldn't have had to say goodbye to Aerin.

"Hey, Seth."

Seth raised his head slowly, looking up at her with pained green eyes. Faris sighed and sat down next to him.

"How you doing?" she asked gently.

"Life sucks." Seth bowed his head again. Faris smiled sadly and put a hand on his shoulder.

"I know, kid. Believe me, I know. Do you want to talk about it?"

"No..." Seth shook his head slowly, but uncurled slightly from his ball and, with a sigh, adjusted his position to lean against the captain's shoulder. "But... stay?"

She pulled him closer with one arm. "As long as I can."

There was nothing said for a few minutes. Seth buried his face in Faris' shoulder, and she rubbed his shoulder gently, offering as much comfort as she could in that limited embrace.

"You're like... a mother..."

"I'm a sister. Does that count?" Faris smiled slightly.

The smile faded when she felt tears on her shoulder. "Hey, Seth... what's wrong?"

"My heart... I feel like my heart's going to break..."

She twisted around, wrapping her other arm around him. "You miss her, don't you? Aerin."

"Aerin... and my mom."

"Oh." Faris gave him a squeeze. "What happened...?"

"She's... she went back to the Planet..."

Faris bowed her head.

"Don' worry, Lenna.... Mother went back to the Planet... she's always gonna be here."

"I know how that feels," she whispered. "My mom... she died when I was really little."

"How did she die?"

"She was sick... for a long time..."

"My mom... she's dead because of me..."

"Seth!" She tilted his chin up. "Don't blame yourself. What could you have done?"

His face was streaked with tears. "Faris, you don't understand... I killed her. I'm just like Sephiroth..."

"What in Leviathan's name do you mean by that? You're nothing like Sephiroth."

"Yes I am.... I am!" He tore away, curling back into himself. "I... I did the same thing he did... when he went mad... it was an accident!!"

"Seth, what did you do!"

"I was fighting... Masamune called me out to come get it and that was where it should have ended, I just wanted to go home and sleep..! And there was a pack of wolves and they were hungry... I had to fight!... And... I cast Fire... and... the wolf dodged... and the spell... kept going...."

His voice rose to a howl.

"And Nibelheim was right there!"

As he began to sob, Faris felt her heart break. It was so horribly unfair. Sephiroth had been given a second chance, and even then he got a raw deal. He had lost so much, and by his own hand, without even meaning to... and he would be forever haunted by the knowledge that it didn't have to happen...

If he cast another spell... or didn't cast any spell... or hadn't been out that night... He must have been over this a thousand times in his mind, wondering what he could have done to change things...

"Oh, Seth."

She pulled him into his arms again.

"You poor thing..."

She'd lost her mother to illness. Slow, painful, incurable, inevitable. But nobody made her get sick. Seth's hands were stained with the blood of his mother and everyone in the town, and he'd never even wanted to do it.

As he cried into her shirt, there was a knock at the door. Faris turned her head sharply and snapped.


The door swung open to reveal Vincent's bloody image.

"Faris, there is a storm approaching."


Faris didn't even know if she yelled that aloud as she dashed up the stairs, leaving Vincent with Seth without even time to properly apologize to the poor kid. She hadn't even seen any clouds on the horizon....

As soon as she got on deck she was brutally assailed by a biting wind and stinging raindrops. The southern wind was now blowing to the west, and the poor Tycoon was completely at its mercy. Struggling to see through the storm, she could see that land was coming up - too fast to even try to slow down - and there was a river -

It was stupid, it was dangerous, and it was a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

"Faemdos!" she screamed to the nearest crew member. "Get to the engine room! Cut all power from the cells and pull the engine in! Full sail mode!"

As he scrambled to obey, she turned to two others. "Help me with the sails - we're riding this wind downriver!"

"Are you all right?"

".... I'll be fine."

"This is insane!"

"No kidding." Zair sighed. "See, now you know why nobody ever sails in winter. This is a classic winter storm. We were lucky to get ashore in one piece."

Aerin stared at the retreating storm in disbelief.

"I can't believe the raft stayed intact," she said, her voice filled with awe.

"Didn't even lose any provisions," Zair agreed. "We are one lucky pair of dead people, you know that?"

"Only we're not dead," Aerin said, turning around to sort of smile. "Though after that storm, it's hard to tell."

Zair's smile seemed wrong, somehow. Too dark, self-deprecating. It wasn't right for that soul.

"Don't smile like that."

Zair stopped smiling and looked at her in surprise.

"Zax didn't smile like that. It doesn't look right on you."

He grinned. Still too sad...

"Well then I'll try and do it right for you."

Aerin's heartstrings twanged.

"Even now..."


"....you'll still do anything for me, won't you?"

He bowed his head. "I never stopped loving you. You're still my... absolute most favorite flower girl in the whole wide world."

"I feel so bad... I thought you'd found another girl."

"Never," he said vehemently. "Never, ever."

Aerin sat down.

"But... I don't know if I am your flower girl any more."


"I keep thinking of Seth," she said, looking up at the half-clouded sky as Zair stood beside her. "He's Sephiroth, and if you didn't know, and didn't see him with the Masamune, you'd never guess. I'm starting to remember... the cold man who hated everything, who had no heart left to love with." She shook her head. "I can't believe that Seth is truly him. I know it's the same soul, but... Seth was so kind to me. He wouldn't even fight back when the Planet made me attack him..."

She looked up at Zair, seeming troubled.

"I was raised differently from Aerith and I didn't remember anything of her until now... All I knew was that Cloud always said I looked like her. I didn't think it meant anything. I'm not even a Cetra anymore. Are we still the same people? Can we even go back to how we were before we died?"

Zair sat down beside her, looking up. His face was so much younger, and unscarred, his wild hair tied back now, his eyes without their glow... but there was still so much of Zax in that face. He remembered everything, Aerin had come to understand. He had held on to all his memories. Zax was still alive inside of him and wouldn't die.

He turned his sky-ice eyes to her. 

"Can we try?"

The air here was thick with fog from the silver mountains down to the Cosmo desert, where the heat evaporated it. It was thin enough over the Tycoon to be able to see things, but not by much.

"Captain, with all due respect, you're completely insane."

"It worked, didn't it?" Faris smirked. "What's the damage?"

"As far as we can tell, and we can't believe this - none. You had us scared to death with that stunt. You know you could have ripped the bottom of the ship out."

"Yeah, I know. We were lucky that the river was so deep."

"And that we weren't going half as fast by the end of it, and that the riverbed here is sandy, and that we didn't crash on the cliff walls... face it, Captain, we're all lucky to be alive."

"I know. But we had to take the chance. It was a sure thing that if we'd hit the shore at the speed we were going, if we didn't all die, the Tycoon would be in so many pieces it would be useless. And then Vincent would have shot me. Thanks, Lamkin, you're dismissed."

"Give me more credit, Faris." Vincent emerged from below deck, Seth following. "I am not that heartless. I would just have crucified you."

"Oh, thank you," she said sarcastically, saluting. "Makes me feel a lot better. Hey, Seth, how are you doing? Sorry I had to just leave like that."

Seth smiled waveringly. "It's okay."

"If you need to talk later, I'll be here." She smiled encouragingly, then looked up as Vincent walked up beside her. "Yes? What?"

"Where are we?"

"Cross-continent," she said with a rueful smile. "Just north of Cosmo."

Seth stiffened.

"We are close to Nibelheim, then," Vincent said. 

Faris noticed how Seth suddenly looked away, clenching his fists. "Vincent... this isn't..."

"What?" The look in his eyes told Faris that something was up. "The mountains are just north of here... you can see the peaks from where we stand, even through the fog."

"Vincent, shut up!" Faris hissed. "Seth's right there!"

The ex-Turk turned. 

"I don't see him," he said calmly.

"Great. He must've run off below deck. Nice job, Vince. Do you have any clue what happened to him? What he's lost?"

"Less than he imagines," Vincent murmured.


"This is the lie I have told," Vincent murmured, his voice beginning to sound guilty. "If you go north, you will see precisely how much he has lost. And you will see why I would not tell you what I have kept from him."

"What the hell are you keeping from him?"

He told her.

Her eyes grew wide, her jaw slack. She stared into his eyes as though searching for the truth in those pools of blood.

"Now you know the truth," he said softly. 

She slapped him.

Vincent Valentine, formerly of the Turks, subject of five years of horrific genetic treatments, now stronger than most humans, was knocked to the ground. The memory of her own mother's death and her sympathy for the homeless, heartbroken orphan that had been crying on her shoulder had lent her arm a strength beyond even that earned from years on the sea.

She took two fistfuls of his red mantle before he could recover and shook him violently, her teeth bared in fury.


Vincent opened his mouth to answer, but Faris cut him off at the pass.

"Do you have any idea how much he's suffered because of your bloody testing?! How much he's hurting, how broken he is when a single word on your part could have healed him?!!"

One gloved hand and one claw closed on her wrists with painful force. Vincent's face was serious and full of real regret.

"I do know," he said softly. "And I will tell him."

"When?" she hissed. "Tomorrow? Next week? To his grave?!"

"I will tell him," he said testily, "as soon as you let go of me."

Seth was feeding Zion when Vincent found him.

"Hello, Seth."

"Hi, Vincent." Seth offered Vincent the bag of greens. "Mari's hungry and I don't think she likes me. You feed her."

"She is cold to others," Vincent replied. "It is not easy to win her affection."

"Kinda like you."

That stung. Vincent shook a few greens into Mari's trough. The chocobo blinked her red eyes at him and chirped slightly in thanks before starting to eat.

"Yes," he said quietly, "I suppose so."

"I can't decide whether I admire you or hate you, you know?" Seth's voice was reminiscent. "I can think of a lot of reasons to think you're the coldest bastard on the face of the earth. But then you do things that don't fit with that. Watching over me while I was sick. And I can't forget what you said to me the day after... when I was spazzing and you had your arm around me... You kinda reminded me of my dad, right then. Except Dad was happier."

Vincent nodded, standing beside Seth. "I have little in my life to celebrate."

"It must suck," Seth said quietly. "Do you have any family? Friends besides Faris and AVALANCHE?"

"None," Vincent said quietly. "I have no family or home to return to."

Seth turned to him with sad eyes. "What do you live for?"

Vincent shook his head. "I do not know."

The Nibel boy scratched Zion's ear, eyes downcast. "I can't imagine," he said softly. "I mean... I at least have Aunt Lena in Midgar. I have something to live for, even though Nibelheim's...." He shook his head.

"Seth," Vincent said softly, "about Nibelheim...."


Vincent closed his eyes and sighed. "I have not told you... I was there, the night of the fire."

Seth jumped and turned to face Vincent with wide eyes. "What?!"

Vincent was already taking the single green orb from its socket in Death Penalty. He held it up for Seth to see.

"Master Magic," he said softly. "A gift from the Planet. Whoever holds this gem holds all the power of the Cetra. From the magic that shaped the waterfall cave and made this gun.... to the tiniest ice spell."

The look in Seth's eyes said that he was starting to put two and two together.

"I would not stand by and let an entire town burn to the ground. Not when I possessed the power to stop it."


Vincent smiled sadly, his eyes strangely gentle. "No one was killed. No one was hurt. One house sustained a small amount of damage, but beyond that, nothing. Your mother is alive, Seth. Your town still stands. I had no excuse to keep this from you, and I am sorry."

Seth began to smile first, and then to laugh, great peals of the wildest, happiest laughter Vincent had heard since the day the Planet was saved, laughter followed by tears and Seth was sobbing and laughing and flung his arms around Zion and then around Vincent and cried on his shoulder and was still laughing hysterically until he couldn't breathe, unable to speak or act or do anything but cry and laugh and hold on to Vincent, and the man held him back and began, for the first time in decades, to shed tears of his own.

In that moment, Vincent began to feel a stirring in his heart he hadn't felt since... when had he felt this? 

When had he felt like a father?

It was with some satisfaction that Faris let down the ramp for Seth and Zion. It was agreed that Seth would go alone to Nibelheim. This was his time, and he had earned it.

Faris and Vincent stood at the side of the ship, watched as the black chocobo and his rider streaked away through the fog, green cape flying out behind them, cutting the fog where they ran. 

"You know, I'm half surprised you let him go," Faris said quietly. "We'll take a long time getting to Bone even without this delay... we could have gone on ahead right away."

"Seth needs this time. He needs to find his reason to fight." Vincent's voice was soft and introspective. "'You can't fight without a reason', Cloud once said. He needs to get it clear to himself precisely what he is fighting for."

Because... what he said made me think... What do I have to live for, myself? Only a handful of friends I barely speak to... who have troubles of their own and, but for Cloud and Nanaki, are growing older. And myself. And Lucrecia's memory.

I fight for the Planet. I live for no reason... often I have thought how easy it would be to die. To sin no more. Why do I live?

I wonder... if I could find my reason.

The air was cold, so Seth had pulled up his hood. He slowed Zion to a walk at the gates, turning to take in everything.

It was all... all the same.... nothing to mark the time that he could see... the fog made everything seem ghostly, but he clearly heard the clatter of Zion's claws on the cobbles, and the squeak of the windmill on the well, and noted the way buildings came more clearly into focus as he approached... it was all here. It had not burned.

Nobody was out at this time. He could understand - who would want to be out in this weather? - but it felt empty...

As he came to his door, he stopped. 

His mother would be inside, alone, with no idea where her lost son was or even if he was alive...

"Stay here, Zion," he said softly as he dismounted, knocking on the door. His heart raced. Home... I'm home... and Mom's alive...

The door opened and a sad, tired face peeked out. Her short blond hair was in disarray, her beautiful brown eyes dark with sorrow. She didn't seem to recognize the figure standing in the fog, and her eyes became slightly wary.

"Hello, sir," she said softly. "Who are you? I don't think I know you."

It was heartbreaking.

"Mom - it's me."

She straightened slightly.


He flung back his hood, stepping forward. "It's me, Mom. I'm here." He smiled and his eyes misted. "I'm really here..."

Lucy's eyes were wide and she slowly brought one hand up to cover her mouth.


Seth held his arms out, still smiling. Lucy screamed and grabbed him, holding on to her son like she never would again.

"It's you! Oh, Seth! My little boy! You're alive!! Seth! Oh, SETH!!!"

She cupped his face in her hands and kissed his forehead and both his cheeks and drew him inside and shut the door, tears streaming down her face.

"Where have you BEEN?! What HAPPENED to you?! I was worried sick - we thought you might have gone into the mountains on a hike and when you never came back... I couldn't believe you were dead, you've been climbing those mountains since you could walk and you'd never let yourself fall and especially not in such good weather... but it was such a long time... I couldn't let myself think it, but..."

"I wasn't in the mountains, Mom." Seth blinked and tears of his own began to fall. "Sit down, and I'll tell you. I'll tell you everything."

Lucy was silent for a while, eyes closed and hands clasped in her lap. Seth couldn't look at her after all that he had said. It had hurt to say, most of it. The first encounter with Jenova was hard to talk about even now, and the pain of Mideel was still fresh. It occurred to him, as he spoke, what a thick strange web they had been caught in. 

Maybe it wasn't in vain - his flight to Midgar had resulted in the discovery of Jenova, and if Vincent had not known Jenova was still alive, she might well have found a way to call Meteor... and he could not regret meeting Aerin.

"So," Lucy said at last, "you were Sephiroth."

"Mm-hmm." He smirked slightly. "Maybe that was why his portrait looked so much like me. But I don't want to be him. I don't like him. I just want to be Seth."

"You are Seth," she said softly. "You'll never be otherwise, no matter how much you remember. You're my little winter wildflower and being Sephiroth is just a part of that." She turned to smile at him, kissing him on the cheek. "I'm very proud of you, Seth. You've been through so much and you've borne it like a hero. I think it's very noble what you're doing, and I'm so very proud of you. I think your father would be, too."

Seth turned to smile at her, and his eyes were lighter than when he'd come in.

"Thank you," he whispered. "I promise I'll be back. I'll be back before the wildflowers bloom. You won't have to lose me again. I love you, Mom."

"I love you too, Seth." She hugged him tightly. "I'm so glad you're alright... keep yourself that way, okay?"

"I will, Mom. I will."

There was a pause.

"Aerin lives in Cosmo Canyon, you said?"


"You should bring her here sometime. I'd like to meet her." She winked at Seth, who blushed.

"Mom, it's not like that...!!"

"We're not far from Cosmo," Zair said at last. "Should we go?"

"Mm," Aerin responded.

Zair studied the recently cleared sky.

"Are you going to stay there?"

Aerin closed her eyes, thinking.

She thought of her mother, kind and loving with the power of life in her hands. She remembered going with her mother to the forests, especially to the place they called the Ancient Forest, where her mother taught her how to deal with the strange carnivorous plants and how to find the most potent healing herbs. 

She thought of Nanaki, who taught her about the stars and about the Planet, explaining the passages in Study of Planet Life that she didn't understand. He explained that the Lifestream was the Planet's blood and that her father had returned to it a few days after she was born. He told her how he had battled the illness that her mother could not treat with her strongest herbs, fighting to survive to see his daughter born. She remembered falling asleep while watching the stars, making a pillow of Nanaki's warm side. Nanaki made everyone feel safe and peaceful when he was nearby.

She thought of Cloud, loud and goofy sometimes and sad and serious other times. He would tell her magnificent stories, some of them fanciful, some of them true accounts of the battle for the Planet. The same man who would do ridiculous impressions of Barret Wallace or Yuffie Kisaragi to make little Aerin roll on the ground screaming with laughter would sit her on his knee and hold her and speak solemnly of things Aerin didn't quite understand. She would find herself acting silly just to bring the laughing Cloud back, to make the sad Cloud smile. One such night had resulted in the Promise. She had no male family, he had no family at all. She couldn't be his daughter of course, then he'd have to marry Illyra and that was just gross! so it was agreed that he would be her big brother. Her goofy, loving, protective big brother who told her stories and helped her with her staff technique and watched the stars with her and Nanaki. Aerith had begun to fall for Cloud, an idea Aerin now found utterly repulsive. He was her BROTHER for love of the Planet.

"No," she said softly.

Zair turned to face her.

"I'd love to stay," she said softly. "It's my home... I miss Nanaki, and Mom, and Cloud. Nanaki was like a mentor to me, and Cloud's practically my brother. But..."

She looked at the sky and sighed. "If Jenova calls Meteor, it's all over. The Planet doesn't have a way to fight Meteor again. It can't afford to bleed this time. I can't just stay at home thinking there might be a way I can help."

"I understand..."

"So. I will go home, but leave the raft here. We need to fight. I won't stay here and leave all the fighting to Seth and Vincent. We have to help."

Zair smiled and stood. "Understood, captain. Get your stuff and let's go."

The fog lifted as Seth left Nibelheim once more, and although the sun was setting, he looked as though he had just seen a dawn he'd never thought to see.

The day ended, with all involved in the new battle for the Planet feeling a sense of hope, certain that they would live to see the far-off sunrise they were fighting for.

Previous Chapter - Trial By Fire