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Falling Stars
The moon was a cold crescent surrounded by stars. Hundreds of tiny little white points were captured in the gently rolling waves of the sea, and as far ahead as one could see, there was no land. The air was chill, the wind calm, and if you didn't think too hard about the ship, you could almost believe that you were standing in space, surrounded on every side by stars. It was enough to take one's breath away.

Vincent completely understood this. And yet, his blood-red eyes glowing faintly in the dark, he could, for a moment, let himself believe.

Believe that it was so easy to stand in redemption among the stars. Believe that there could be hope, believe that it was possible for miracles to happen. He didn't dare close his eyes for then he would realize that he was on a ship at sea and half of the stars were merely reflections. He treasured this moment of illusion and let it claim him utterly.

Freed of the normal iron self-control, Vincent's mind wandered...


It was cold. It was fucking freezing outside, and he couldn't move until the scientists did.

The Turk shot a baleful glance at the mansion. It was probably to be expected - this was their first night working on the project full-time - but they had to sleep sometime and so did he.

He wondered if Cari had some sort of deep personal grudge against him. He remembered accepting the neatly typed order sheet from the brown-eyed Turk leader and now half wished he hadn't. This was excruciatingly boring.

"Guard duty?" he remembered saying. "Isn't that a bit low-key for Turks?"

Cari had leaned forward on her desk, brushing a lock of pale blue hair behind her ear. The thin pale scar under her eye had always held a morbid fascination for Vincent, and he did his best not to stare at it now.

"They don't want troops," she'd said. "We don't want to unduly frighten the Nibel people. One man in a business suit will be less threatening and about twice as effective as two men in military uniform."

So he'd taken the orders. And here he was sitting in front of the gates of a rusty old mansion, shivering and wishing the scientists would just get done and come out so he could get some sleep.

Wouldn't Mom like to see me now, he thought with a bitter smile. He had known nothing of the life of a Turk when he'd been recruited, and it had given him a stupidly high opinion of himself that they had chosen him. He was just a dirty slums kid, okay with a pistol and doing his best to scrape together a living for himself and his mother - and then Cari of the Turks had approached him on behalf of Shinra.

Octavia Valentine had been beautiful, petite, and proud, a bad combination in the slums. She wasn't strong enough for physical labor and there were no jobs available that she had the skills for. Save one. She considered that one the lowest, the one thing she would never resort to. Selling her body, she felt, would stain her husband's memory and cheapen her son's life. Her mother before her had been from Wutai, and Octavia regarded honor highly; she was forever looking for a good job that would sustain her and her son without a sacrifice of pride.

Vincent laughed, bitterly, into the night air. As far as he knew, she had never resorted to it - the most lucrative female profession in Midgar. But her son had stained the family honor forever even as he saved them both from a death of poverty. He no longer counted his slight Wutaiian blood - he was a Turk, and he was all Midgar.

"Good evening, Valentine."

Vincent didn't allow himself to jump or start. He simply got carefully to his feet, brushing dust off his suit.

"Are you done, then?"

"For tonight." The man who had addressed him, Yamaki Hojo, exchanged a long, cool glance with Vincent, as though attempting to read him and spell him out, a look that was not so much malicious as coldly calculating. Black hair and narrow eyes - Wutai, Vincent thought with an internal smirk. At least he has some honor left.

"You won't need to escort us," the taller man said. He was on a level with the Turk. Richard Gast, Vincent thought his name was. He was considerably more pleasant in aspect than Hojo. He actually smiled kindly as he went on; "We did keep you a long time. We'll see ourselves to the inn. It's not like Midgar, after all."

No, Vincent thought privately. It's nothing like Midgar. For one thing, it's safe.

"Thank you, Professor," he said. Cold, crisp, businesslike. A voice his mother would have wept at. 

"Sleep well, Valentine," Hojo said absently. "Lucrecia. Are you coming or would you rather stay out here and freeze?"

"I think I'll freeze, Yamaki, thank you," Lucrecia Catori replied cordially. "You don't get stars like this in Midgar. I want to look at them for a while."

Hojo snorted derisively and went ahead. Gast smiled at her.

"We'll see you tomorrow then," he said before following Hojo.

Vincent stayed. He didn't know why, but he stayed, watching as the reedy young woman stared raptly up at the stars, each tiny point reflected in her glasses. After a while he too turned up his head. He had never seen stars until he became a Turk. After that first time, the beauty had faded under years of blood...

"They're nice tonight," Vincent said vaguely.

"Mm-hmm," Lucrecia's voice agreed. "They're a lot brighter here because of the clear air. All the smog in Midgar makes it hard to see them."

"Mmm."

"I don't get much occasion to look anyway," the woman continued. "So I look whenever I can. How about you?"

"Huh?" Vincent turned to look at her. "Well... I don't usually get to either. It doesn't matter, though. They're just stars."

"Just stars?" Lucrecia turned to face him, looking incredulous. "Just stars!"

"I really don't see what's so great about them," he said patiently. "They're pretty, yes, but..."

"Our sun is a star," she said softly. "From a scientist's point of view it's incredible. If our sun can support a world with life... what about out there? We're a long way from having the technology to go there and see, but wouldn't it be wonderful? Think about it... what was your name?"

"Vincent Valentine."

"Think about it, Vincent. Somewhere out there, some distant sun has set and the people under that sun are watching the stars and wondering - what else is out there? Somewhere so very far away... and someday we'll go there."

She had been gesturing madly as she made this speech, her thin face bright, her eyes aglow with possibility. Vincent was somewhat overwhelmed.

"You sound very enthusiastic."

Hello, understatement. Lucrecia didn't seem to mind, just smiling and brushing back her hair, gazing back up at the stars.

"It's just that there's so much that could be. Most of it we'll never know. But the Jenova Project..." She shivered, whether from the cold or excitement Vincent couldn't tell. "If the Jenova Project succeeds, we'll be able to find out so much from our own Planet. Maybe it knows about other Planets. Maybe it can tell us a way to visit them. Just imagine, standing under a foreign sun..."

Vincent listened, finding that the scientist's eager innocence was slowly drawing him in...

"There's so much to learn, on our Planet and in space... Of course, I won't live to see the great discoveries of the future. But it's the least we can do to open a pathway for the next generation to follow..."

"You really do believe in this, don't you?" The words came out before Vincent was even aware that he had spoken.

"Absolutely." Lucrecia took her eyes away from the stars again and stifled a yawn. "I really should go to bed, shouldn't I? I'll see you tomorrow, Vincent."

"Wait." The Turk stepped forward, holding out his arm. "I'll walk you to the inn."


If Vincent had known what horrors would follow that starlit night, he would have tried, somehow, to pull Lucrecia away from the experiment, to take them all away from Jenova... if he had known, and been able to act upon it, what would have happened? What would the present be like?

Vincent shook himself from his cruel reverie. It would do no good to muse on the past when the future loomed so darkly ahead of him, with Jenova threatening to end it.

Yet...

He closed his eyes, shutting out the beautiful illusion around him. There was something strange awakening in him, a feeling that should have been entirely alien. But it was familiar, achingly, blissfully familiar in ways it shouldn't have been, familiar like coming home.

It made him uneasy, this new-old emotion. He couldn't remember when he had felt it before, and that bothered him immensely. At his age, he told himself, certainly it was natural to expect some memory lapses - but the excuse withered and crumbled under scrutiny. No, his memory was perfectly all right. He could remember most of the past seventy-four years with perfect clarity. No matter how he looked at it, there was a big hole somewhere in his memory, with sharp edges. 

He knew that for a gap like that, he would have had to repress something. What, though? He was not a man to shove his weaknesses under the rug and ignore past failings. He would keep them out, hidden from others but always available to his own eye, small weapons in the battle against himself. He had not forgotten his inability to save Lucrecia, nor had he truly forgiven himself for it. He had definitely not repressed it.

Vincent frowned, brow furrowing, silently adding up the years in his mind. It had been forty-seven years since he had entered the coffin... and by all rights, he imagined, the year he'd gone into the coffin should have been the year Sephiroth was born. But no matter how he prodded the figures, one fact that he had somehow managed to overlook until now stared him in the face.

There were five years unaccounted for. He could not remember anything that had happened between Hojo's first experimentation on his body and the thirty years of nightmares.

Five years. What had he been doing for five years? He couldn't have been unconscious. He was quite clear on the fact that he had spent precisely three decades asleep, not one year more or less. It made no sense at all. What had he been doing for five years, why couldn't he remember, and why hadn't he ever noticed this before?!

He was suddenly furious, and could feel the vague shuffling of his other aspects in the back of his mind. They sensed his distress and were unsure how to react. If he had been doing mortal combat with a monster, something real and tangible, any of them would gladly have risen to lend their strength to their charge and master. In this battle of the mind, however, they were weaponless.

The mournful bay of the Galian Beast in the back of his head touched off an avalanche.

"Vincent!! VINCENT!!"

running, running, roaring a response, We will protect you, We will keep you safe, safe with Us forever and We will not let you be harmed...

loud noise and sharp pain, pain--

Vincent convulsively clutched at his left shoulder, then at his throat, finding nothing and only then realizing that this vivid memory was just that, in the past--

--and shrinking into myself again, and Galian Beast roaring his frustration in the back of my mind... and the eyes of my son...

"I have no son," Vincent gasped, speaking to no one.

"Vincent...? Izzit... you?"

...my poor son, my little boy, I wanted to free us both but I have fallen... you are none of my blood but I would fight for you tooth and nail... but it doesn't matter... I have lost.

You are his now...

"No," Vincent hissed.

"Yes..."

Step after labored step even as I could feel the tranquilizers sapping my strength, I still fought for my child... I loved him as a son, though I had no part in his birth... I was his only father.

"Holy..."

"Sephiroth, it's me... Se... phiroth...."

and i was falling.....

"VINCENT!!......"

There was a harsh, ragged sound tearing at the air. After the longest few seconds of his life, Vincent finally recognized it as his own breath. 

The palm of his hand was sweating against the cool cloth of the glove. His heart pounded fiercely in his chest and he was shaking. The memory, cold as a winter tide, had receded at last, leaving him frozen and shivering on the metaphorical beach.

He let out a small, thin moan and sank helplessly to his knees. He felt Galian Beast in his mind whimpering and snuffling at him like a worried dog, and he pushed it back in agony. 

Up until now, he had remembered Sephiroth as a cold man in black, maned in snow, with eyes like blood - the blood of the Planet. A figure of hatred, of death, corruption and his own failure to protect. Sephiroth was a cruel puppet, a marionette made to dance with a sword.

He had not been the Sephiroth that Vincent had known.

Vincent clung to the ship's railing with hand and claw, gritting his teeth against the cry of realization and grief that was rising in his throat. Sephiroth had been his son.

Not his son in the true sense, oh no - how painfully aware he had been of that - but had that mattered? The father by blood had never spared his son a loving glance, any true moment of tenderness, and had entrusted his care to Vincent. Make yourself useful, he'd said, because I can't be working on you 24/7. I have other work.

Other work. That was what Sephiroth was to Hojo; work, a project, an experiment, to be thrown out if it didn't go right. Maybe it would have been better if Sephiroth had been a failure. Hojo would then have abandoned him and left him entirely to the broken Turk, who would have healed himself and the child with a father's love.

It wasn't the blood that mattered. It was the feeling. It was the fact that little Sephiroth, released from whatever injection or test he had been forced to endure that day, would stumble crying into Vincent's arms, and look always to him for comfort. It was the way Vincent's heart ached to see the child in pain, the way he would sing him lullabies and tell him stories of the world outside and promise that someday, someday they'd both be free. It was the bond, made in sorrow and sealed with tears and enfolding arms and the love they freely gave each other. That was what made Vincent a father.

How had he forgotten that? That terrible, wonderful connection, the long confinement, watching Sephiroth grow and begin to walk and to talk, holding the tiny half-human in his arms and loving him with all his own half-human love... He was half a demon and Sephiroth was half an angel, and they were each other's only comfort. Father and son in purgatory, dreaming of heaven. How had Vincent permitted himself to forget that?

Because you failed. The words came immediately to mind and he knew they were true. Too much was broken. Too much was lost. You could not bear to lose your son and so you forgot him to save yourself.

But I remembered Lucrecia.

You could not have saved her. She sentenced herself to death and you did not have the power to change that. But you were responsible for Sephiroth. And you failed.

He lives again. He had a second chance. He is Seth now.

You are leading him to death.

I will protect him.

Like you protected Sephiroth?

No. I will learn from my mistake. I will not lead him foolishly into danger. I will not let Jenova take him. I will not let him die.

We will see.

Vincent lifted his head to the sky. The moon was setting.


It felt good to have his notebook back.

The notebook was important to him. Each page was filled with silly little stories, random doodles, and passing thoughts. He would go back and add comments or tiny pictures in the margins until the paper was worn and soft and every inch of usable space was filled. Both sides. This was a new notebook, only about half-finished, with a blissful expanse of empty space ahead that begged to be written in. That was his favorite part of filling the notebook; in the beginning your head was full of thoughts of the last one and it was awkward starting afresh, because you wanted this one to live up to the other and it was always strange. When you got down near the end, you felt frantic and wondered if you'd have enough room, and there was a vague sense of finality and parting that Seth didn't like.

At this point though, you were well into the process and the end wasn't anywhere near. You could write and feel that the empty space could go on forever and you could scribble your soul onto eternity. 

He was writing now. He'd started on the page with Vincent's name written neatly at the top, doing his best to pen out the story of everything that had happened to him since Midgar. It seemed fantastic and unbelievable as he wrote it, an incredible work of imagination. If he hadn't lived it, he'd have doubted it himself.

I'm going to be a hero of the Planet, he wrote incredulously as the story wound down. This is really going to happen, I am going to fight Jenova.

Can we beat her, though? I mean, she's really powerful. She was already supposed to be dead; what's keeping her alive? What if she just comes back again after we kill her?

Seth absently chewed the end of the pencil he'd borrowed from Faris, and then sighed, beginning to write again.

We have to try.

I'm Sephiroth. That's still so hard to think about. I'm Sephiroth. Psycho man who torched the old Nibelheim (mine's okay! it's still there! I didn't burn it after all! wooo!) and tried to blow up the Planet. That's one hell of a legacy to inherit, you know? Even the Planet doesn't like me!

I really, really don't want to be like Sephiroth. A lot of what he did wasn't even his fault, Jenova made him do it, but that doesn't make the things he did any better. Vincent told me to kill him if Jenova took him over. Maybe I'll ask him to shoot me if I start becoming like Sephiroth.

Kill Vincent. Gods. I hope I never have to. I really do.

Vincent's so... I cannot figure this man out. Right when I think he's an utter bastard he does something else that doesn't fit with that. Sometimes he really, really reminds me so much of Dad it's scary. I don't remember Dad that much, I was like five when he died, but sometimes Vincent just... feels like Dad did.

And why didn't he tell me about Nibelheim? (I'm not mad, honest. Too happy to be mad. Mom's alive!) How is it he can be so cold one minute and then turn around and do something like watch over me all night when I'm sick? What's his deal, anyway? Vincent Valentine - who the fuck are you? Thank Odin for private notebooks, Mom would throw a fit if she read that.

Nibelheim's still there. That's a really great thing to think about. I've been carrying this guilt around for ages and now it turns out I don't have anything to be guilty about. (Nothing I did in this life anyway.) I can go home when this is all over, and sleep in my own bed and talk to my mom and climb the mountains and actually see the town and not a bunch of cinders. Woo! I love my town. I love the mountains. Midgar rules but I don't know if I'd be happy there. I'm a complete country hick. Say it loud, say it proud. Boondocks kids unite!

Seth turned the page and stared at the next. He wanted to write more, he truly would have liked to just stay all night and write his hand off, but after that his mind was blank. He could think of a lot of stuff, but nothing he wouldn't just be repeating if he wrote it down.

A thought struck him.

Zair better take good care of Aerin or I'll punch his lights out next time I see him.

Not that that's really anything to worry about. He's Zax and he knows it. He's always remembered it, he told me. I can't imagine spending my entire life knowing I was somebody else. That's worse than remembering bits and pieces later in life. You grow up in your own shadow.

But anyway. Zax loved Aerith A LOT. I kind of remember that Zax was the kind of guy you'd expect to be a total flirt (I think I once thought he was trying to seduce ME) but he wasn't. He found one girl and suddenly all other romantic prospects ceased to exist. He was In Love with her. And he remembered that too. And Aerin's Aerith, so...

Crap. Not only do I feel guilty about Aerith and Zax (neither of them would have died if not for me) but I think I'm a little jealous too. Crap again. I've got a crush on a girl who was literally born to kill me and is already spoken for anyway. GODS do I know how to pick 'em.

Masamune thinks this is funny. Screw you, sword.

Okay, okay. I've really gotta actually sleep tonight or I'll face the Wrath of Vincent in the morning, or barring that, the Wrath of Faris. Neither one is terribly appealing. Maybe the world will make more sense in the morning.

He put the pencil away and shut his notebook, taking a moment to stare at the cover with a sort of smile before setting it aside, too.

A flash of fiery red caught his eye and he glanced over at it. It was Aerin's charm, tied to Masamune's hilt. The Phoenix down seemed almost to glow in the darkness.

Seth got to his feet and extended one pale hand to retrieve the longsword from where it was propped against the wall. His actions were strange, impulsive, comforting - the feather felt warm where it was pressed to his lips. 

Somewhere in the back of his head, Masamune was doing the mental equivalent of raising an eyebrow. Seth really didn't care, just withdrawing calmly and putting the sword back.

You are a sentimental fool, Masamune said condescendingly as Seth curled back into his covers. That action was meaningless.

Not for me.


A soft wind blew in over Bone Village, stirring the boughs of the forest beyond. The Sleeping Forest was a unique magical phenomenon. Some historians held, from the fragmented accounts, that it was not a natural occurrence, but rather had been created by the Cetra in an attempt to imprison the Crisis from the Sky. It hadn't worked, but it had apparently confused and delayed the Crisis long enough for it to be contained elsewhere. 

Unlike a lot of the things the historians said about the Cetra, that was absolutely true. Jenova was presently reflecting on that very fact with some annoyance.

As far as she could tell, the Black Materia had surfaced somewhere in that forest. She could see an earthquake crack leading in between the trees, filled with Lifestream. It wasn't very large, but it would have sufficed.

Common sense would have said to follow the crack into the forest and not stray from it until she found the Materia. The trouble was, common sense didn't apply to these trees. Jenova knew with absolute certainty that no matter what guide she used, she would get lost in there. She could have Ariadne's enchanted string and still not find her way out. She couldn't even just fly out. She'd tried that last time and found herself unable to get off the ground.

Even if she did find the Materia, there was another property of the forest that had either never been recorded or never found its way into the hands of humans, which was that the Sleeping Forest also had a natural choking effect on magic. She couldn't cast anything in there. And again, she would be hopelessly lost and unable to get out. The only reason she'd gotten out the first time was because some foolhardy Cetra child had wandered in and they'd had to wake the forest up to get the kid out. Jenova had also been allowed to escape, but the Cetra had been ready for her and had attacked her in full force the minute they got close enough. There hadn't been many left by that time, but damn it, there was only one of Jenova and every single damn Cetra had been really, really pissed. Not good odds.

Jenova shook her head. This was not helping her get her Materia back.

Natural calamities could probably destroy the forest, she thought with little hope. If she jumped in the Lifestream, her presence would cause a quake and maybe, if she was lucky, that would flatten the place. But even if it worked, that would attract entirely too much attention. So would burning the damn thing down.

There was only one way she knew to awaken the forest - play a Lunar Harp. And that was completely useless information to Jenova, because she had not the slightest clue where to find one.

She didn't even know if there were any Lunar Harps left in any state to be used. Aerith had had one, but gods knew where it was now. Cloud had managed to get one dug up in Bone...

Aha. If her little blonde puppet had managed to get one, maybe she could too. And maybe Professor Hojo would pop out of the Lifestream and do a jig, but there was a possibility, wasn't there? Who knew, after all, how many of those harps had been buried in the strata of ages - and if she took an unthreatening human form and gave them a story about wanting to research something or other...

It was worth a shot, damn it.


"The Candle!"

Aerin's cry of delight was warming to Zair. Aerith's heritage had lay in the ice, but Aerin was very much a child of the desert fire. He smiled vaguely, easily keeping pace with Aerin and Gypsum. Even with the black going at a fair run, his Strife was larger and faster and was actually going at something of a trot and still keeping pace with Aerin's bird.

Strife...

He sighed, his smile melting away. Cloud lived here in Cosmo Canyon.

He remembered the restless months spent wandering the Planet, haunting Cloud and Aerith. They'd never known he was there, ever. It had been unspeakably frustrating, and he had on more than one occasion wanted to simply break down and weep. He remembered Gongaga - broken to shards, even worse than Hojo had been cruel enough to tell him, the people all trapped in mourning... his parents, lamenting their absentee son it wasn't my fault! I was in a tube for five years and then I DIED! I meant to visit, really! Really and truly!... Aerith, quietly and painfully confiding to Cloud that her boyfriend from SOLDIER, name of Zax, had abandoned her and had probably found some other girl he liked better never ever EVER, my poor little flower girl, I always loved you, I never wanted to leave you!... He had hoped, in the moment she was split on Sephiroth's blade, that they might be reunited... but she died properly, and returned to the Planet, and he never got to speak to her. He had died in guilt and shame and a desperation to see Cloud safe and make things right, and had not been able to rest.

He remembered Cloud's crippling identity crisis, remembered wanting to take the man by the shoulders and shake him until he stopped begging that bastard Hojo for a number, and not being able to... only being able to watch as the man he'd failed to kill and the man he'd failed to protect circled slowly in a predator's dance. He wanted to say it killed him to watch these two past friends transformed beyond any semblance of the men he'd known, hating each other the way they did, except he was already dead.

What would he SAY to Cloud? He felt responsible for Cloud's massive identity problems. They'd gotten sorted out, and Zair was glad for that, but what could he say?

"I'm sorry, Cloud, for dying right in front of you and giving you serious schizophrenia and not being able to help you and not being able to kill Sephiroth or stop the burning of your hometown and by the way I sunk the Gelnika too."

"Hi, Cloud! It's me, Zax! You know, your best friend who died right in front of you and gave you serious schizophrenia and..."

"Cloud, is everything okay with you? I've kinda been dead and then I got reincarnated in Mideel sixteen years ago and stuff, and I'm sorry for dying right in front of you and..."

No, no, I don't have a fixation on a particular event, not at all, Zair thought sarcastically.

His trepidation turned to full-out panic as Aerin dismounted and led Gypsum up the steps to what Zair could now see was a stable carved into the cliff. He swung himself off Strife's back and did the same, and every single step felt like it was chipping at his nerves.

Cloud was here. Not the abstract memory of sixteen years in a quiet forest town, but a blazing reality that Zair didn't know if he could face. Cloud was alive here, and Aerin was probably going to go talk to him and then she'd want to introduce him to Zair and oh gods he couldn't breathe....

"Zair?"

Dark desert arms wrapped around his shoulders as Zair hyperventilated right there outside the stables, convulsively clutching at Strife's reins, slowly going hysterical. He was shaking.

"I can't... I can't..."

"Zair, what's wrong?" Aerin's voice was worried. "Zair?"

"Can't do it.... I can't... he's here he's fucking REAL he's here.... I can't... I can't... can't face him.... oh gods..."

He turned and clung to Aerin with a small cry, trembling like a leaf, fingers digging into his shoulders as the healer held him, rubbing his back gently and stroking his thick black hair. Zair's voice was a frantic whisper, edged with hysteria and the desperate keening sound of one holding back sobs.

"I can't... can't do this... I can't... I can't...."

"Shhh - it's okay," Aerin whispered, not stopping her soothing caress. "It's okay. It's okay. You don't have to talk to him. Don't worry; you won't have to talk to him until you're ready."

Zair buried his face in her shoulder, still whispering "I can't" over and over. Aerin didn't let go, and just kept murmuring words of comfort to him. Gradually, the trembling lessened and Zair began to relax.

"He doesn't even have to know about you until you're ready," Aerin said gently. "I won't tell him about you if you don't want me to."

"Thanks," Zair said weakly, letting out a shaky sigh. "I'll talk to him tonight. I promise I will. Just not now... just give me time. Just a little time..."

Aerin nodded softly and kissed his cheek. "Will you be okay waiting here for a while? I have a lot of catching up to do with him and Mom and Nanaki."

"I'll be fine," he said, pulling himself slowly, almost reluctantly, from her embrace to look her in the eye. He managed a grin that felt a little like the old Zax grin. "Don't worry about me, I'm fine. Now go home, get away, shoo." He made a little shooing motion with his hand.

Aerin laughed brightly, the same sound that Zax had once felt that he could live off of in place of food and air as long as it came from Aerith.

She made one last remark, as she turned to leave: "You're still just like Zax."

He watched her as she walked away, long dark hair swinging loose behind her and many-colored skirt flaring around her legs. He let out a thin sigh and slid down the wall, staring up at the stars.

"And you're still just like Aerith," he whispered to the sky.


"Honestly, Cloud, I know you have more sense than this."

"Sorry, Illyra," Cloud said sheepishly.

While working, Illyra was the ultimate mom. No patient was safe from a heavy dose of motherly care - or in Cloud's case, a sharp motherly reproof.

"You knew there was a torch there," she continued firmly, rubbing a cool salve into Cloud's back. The sun-bronzed skin was burned an unpleasant red over his left shoulder and part of his right. Cloud didn't know which had been more humiliating - sustaining the injury or explaining it to Illyra.

"I told you, I was distracted," he said wearily. "And I lost my balance turning around. Ow!"

"It's still your own fault," she said primly, putting away the salve. "You should have been paying attention to where you were going. There, that should do it. The pain ought to be gone in a few minutes; I'll bring you a spare shirt to replace the burnt one. And I hope you've learned your lesson."

"Yes, mother," he said wearily. 

Illyra huffed slightly and rose to her feet, bustling out of the treatment room. Cloud sighed and hung his head. The dull throbbing pain of the burn had been soothed somewhat already, but it still lingered to remind him of his careless mistake.

And if he caught Nanaki snickering at him again for this burn, so help him he was going to throttle the damn cat.

As though summoned by the mere thought of his name, Nanaki poked his head into the room, a grin plastered all over his canine face. Cloud met the look sourly.

"How is it?" Nanaki asked, and Cloud didn't think he was even trying to hide his amusement.

"Better. Illyra's good at what she does." Again as though summoned, Illyra appeared and tossed a shirt at him. Cloud caught it and stared. "Geez, what is this? I just think someone's name and they show up. Does this have something to do with Master Summon?"

"That or excellent timing," Illyra said lightly.

"Great. I guess there's no sense pushing my luck and seeing if Aerin will turn up if I mention her," he said gloomily, pulling on the shirt. He winced as it slid across his burn, but if Illyra's salve was anywhere near up to her usual quality, he wouldn't even feel it pretty soon.

"Miz healer! Miz healer!"

Nanaki scooted out of the way of an excited little boy who had, by his shortness of breath, evidently just run up the steps to reach Illyra's home.

"Why aren't you in bed?" The Force Of Motherhood That Was Illyra was a daunting thing to have staring at you with all the power of the stern parental look, but the kid shrugged it off.

"I was watching stars," he replied, then his face broke into a wide smile. "Guess what, miz healer? Aerin's home!"

Illyra's authoritative manner melted away at once. Her eyes widened and her hands flew to her mouth as she took in a long slow breath. Suddenly she bolted, running past the boy and dashing down the steps with the eager child following her happily. Left alone and still in shock, Nanaki and Cloud stared after her for a moment in disbelief and then turned to face each other.

Cloud, having already been humiliated once that night, and presently a bit unbalanced mentally by this sudden happening, said the first, stupid, thing that came to mind.

"I didn't do it!"


Home.

There was a singular feeling about Cosmo Canyon. Aerin remembered Nanaki telling her, when she was younger, that Cosmo Canyon was close to the Planet, and was one of the places where the Planet's power was strongest. As a result, he said, it naturally felt warm and welcoming.

It was home.

It was one thing to see the Candle burning from afar - it was another to actually be here inside the gates, to hear the roar of the holy flame, to have the worn Cosmo stone back beneath her feet and know that she was home, home, home...

She sank to her knees, her eyes filling with tears, crying out praises in Cosmo to the Planet and to Phoenix for bringing her back to the canyon. She barely heard her mother's voice as the woman came running down the stairs to meet her, only returned the desperate embrace, mother and daughter kneeling together on the warm stone and crying and holding each other as though they would never let go.

In that moment, Aerin felt a fierce love for her home and her family blazing in her as bright as the Candle, and she never wanted to leave again.


"We've been worried sick about you, Aerin!"

"I'm sorry..."

Aerin knew as she said it that 'sorry' was not going to be quite enough.

Illyra took a long, deep breath and took Aerin's hands in her own. "Tell me, Aerin. What 'terrible things' did you think were going to happen?"

"I didn't know." Aerin shook her head slowly. "I just knew I had to follow Seth."

They were sitting in the common room of Illyra's home. The patients' rooms were farther into the burrow, but even here the carved stone dwelling smelled of herbs and spices. Cloud was seated on an old handcrafted sofa beside the two women, and Nanaki was lying on the rug at Cloud's feet, flaming tail twitching. The initial greetings had been exchanged and Aerin now found herself with an awful lot to explain.

"You could have taken Cloud or Nanaki with you," Illyra fretted. 

"I was with Seth and Vincent, Mom," Aerin sighed. 

"If you had any idea the worry you caused me--"

"Illyra," Cloud said finally, holding up a hand, "lay off the kid, okay? She's back and she's fine, not a scratch on her. I guess you and Vincent got Seth to Midgar okay, then?"

Aerin fidgeted, looking nervously up at the ceiling. "Ummm... not... really..."

"Something happened!" Illyra grabbed Aerin's arms. "I knew it! What happened, Aerin?"

The girl lowered her head in resignation. "We never got to Midgar. Before we got there... um... we met Jenova."

"Jenova?!" Cloud and Nanaki instantly shot to standing positions, Nanaki's tail-fire flaring up abruptly. Aerin shrank back reflexively, blushing and nodding.

"We got separated from Seth... when we caught up to him, Jenova was there," she murmured. "Vincent shot at her but he missed and she got away... so we had to go looking for her. Vincent wasn't going to just let her get away, and he couldn't leave us, so..."

"How did you get back here, then?" Cloud demanded. "Wait, better yet - how is Jenova still alive?!"

Aerin took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "I don't know that much, but I can tell you... Holy is broken. Without Holy, the Planet couldn't stop her - she just gathered strength and recovered. She's looking for the Black Materia now. She wants to call Meteor."

Cloud sank slowly back into the chair, resting his head in his hands.

"Well, fuck," he said finally. Illyra didn't even snap at him for it.

"Vincent and Seth are going after her to fight her," Aerin continued softly. "And -- so am I."

"You are NOT!" Illyra rose stiffly to her feet. "I will NOT have you throwing yourself into that kind of danger! Cloud and Nanaki can--"

"Hold it!" Cloud raised his hand. "Look, Illyra... I know about Jenova. I know she's the reason Sephiroth lost his mind, and the reason I nearly did too. I have her cells in me. If she has enough strength to be walking around on her own and looking for the Black Materia, then I can't safely go anywhere near her. I can't guarantee she won't take me again."

The gravity of Cloud's voice did absolutely nothing to diminish Illyra's just wrath. "Then Nanaki can go! Aerin will NOT fight that monster!"

"Mom! I was BORN to fight Jenova!!"

Illyra turned, and would have argued further, had she not seen the look in Aerin's eyes. There was a depth there, a great age - and a power before which even Illyra withered.

"What do you mean?" Nanaki's gruff voice interjected at last.

Aerin slumped a little, but the fire did not go out of her. "I am the Planet's last weapon," she whispered. "I was a Cetra. The Planet sent my soul out of the Lifestream to create me. It can't make another Weapon. It can't afford to bleed again, the way it did to stop the last Meteor. And it can't survive another one. I have to fight Jenova. I can't let another Meteor fall."

Illyra opened and closed her mouth several times, her deep brown eyes shining with tears. At last, she spoke.

"Isn't there another way?"

She turned desperately to Nanaki and Cloud.

"Any other way?"

"Mom..."

"No!" Illyra spun to face her daughter, grasping her arms with an anguished expression. "I don't want you to fight her! I don't want you going out to die! You just came back - I was so afraid for you - Aerin, don't go! I don't want to lose you too!!"

The healer, the mother, the ultimate authority of the canyon, was reduced to desperate sobs. Aerin gently put her hands on Illyra's shoulders, blinking back tears of her own.

"Mom... it's not my choice to make any more."

Nanaki and Cloud exchanged uncomfortable glances as Illyra slowly raised her head. Neither one was entirely sure he belonged here.

"Even if the Planet wasn't counting on me to fight... I wouldn't stay here. I want to stay - oh holy Phoenix, I do - but I can't. I have to fight Jenova. I have to beat her, for the Planet's sake... for everyone."

Aerin managed a slightly unsteady smile.

"I'll come back, Mom. When I've defeated Jenova, I'll come back home. I promise."

The look in Illyra's eyes did not need words, and Aerin would not let that fear be realized with words.

"I will come back."


The night was growing cold.

His sword was of a strange design; short, heavy, and lacking a true blade. More a club than a sword, really, but no less deadly. It took trained hands to make the weapon effective, and Zair had had the experience of two lifetimes in swordplay. It lacked the heft and slash of the Buster Sword he'd gotten used to, but there were few enough of those...

This was close enough. 

The Hardedge was Gongaga's signature weapon; the small forest town was the only place on the Planet where the bladeless sword was made, and it was for that reason that Zair had chosen it. It was a desperate link, he knew - he held onto the Hardedge as a drowning man would clutch at a straw. Zax had been born in Gongaga, and Zair hoped to keep that identity alive with this small thing.

Wisps of spiky black hair dangled in Zair's face as he absently polished the chilled metal. The action was mindless, more to keep himself from thinking than out of any real need to clean the weapon. 

It was getting late and Zair knew that soon he would have to go into town, if for no other reason than to ask a room for the night. But then, he knew - absolutely knew - that he would have to face Cloud.

I failed him, completely. I died at the worst possible time; at least he got to Midgar okay, but the identity problems I left him nearly killed the poor kid! How can I just mosey back into his life and say "Hi, Cloud - really sorry about dying in front of you and all, but how 'bout we be friends again?" Dear gods. I wouldn't be surprised if he hated me.

He tilted the Hardedge and stared at the smooth, flat surface. The blurry, starlit face of a child stared back.

My eyes should be glowing... chin should be stronger... I should have a scar, right here...

He won't even recognize me.

That thought, surprisingly, was worse than the fear of facing Cloud's hatred.

Zair wanted Cloud to recognize him. He wanted Cloud to look at him and know exactly who he was, he wanted Cloud to see the man, the SOLDIER, instead of the boy, the frustratingly small and weak boy. 

I'd rather you hate Zax, than forget him... because if you forget him, he'll be nothing more than my memory...

He missed the height, the strength, the SOLDIER's build, the thick black mane (his hair now was too thin, too glossy), the scar on his jaw and the blue burn of his eyes... His hands looked pitifully small and impotent as he stared down at them. Small, sixteen, nothing but Zair. 

I was Zax. I am Zax. I will be Zax.

His hand was not shaking, he told himself, as it gripped the Hardedge's hilt. His heart did not tremble in fear at the thought of Cloud shattering his shell of Zax. There were, absolutely, no tears running down his face.

He would talk to Cloud. And he would not be afraid.


"You should be asleep, you know."

Aerin closed her eyes, smiling at the sound of that gentle voice. It wasn't even a reprimand, just a statement of fact, spoken in a tone that was completely understanding.

"I know."

The man she called 'brother' was beside her in a moment, crossing the small plateau with silent steps. A strong, callused hand rested on her shoulder.

"You used to give your mother heart attacks up here."

Aerin turned to look up at Cloud. His Mako-blue eyes were fixed on some distant point beyond the horizon.

"Even before you started training. You loved to get right up to the edge... see how far you could go..." he grinned, shaking his head and closing his eyes. "You're so much different from her. She was used to danger, but that didn't mean she went looking for it..."

"You're talking about... Aerith, right?"

"I always thought, if your eyes were just a little bit darker, your skin a bit lighter... you'd look just like her. It was hard, at first. I thought I was fixating on her death... seeing her face where I shouldn't be... but I only ever saw her in you."

Aerin swallowed and looked down. She didn't like where this conversation was going.

"Cloud..."

"Sorry... I was just kind of thinking out loud." Cloud smiled sideways, ruffling Aerin's hair. 

Aerin leaned against him, looking up at the stars. "Cloud... I don't want you to think of me as Aerith."

"You think I do?"

She startled, and Cloud laughed, pulling her into a one-armed hug.

"Come on, kid... I watched you grow up. Even if you were Aerith... you're my litle sister now and I promise that won't ever change."

Aerin blinked, then smiled and closed her eyes, resting her head against Cloud's shoulder. "I'm glad."

For a moment, neither of them said anything. It was enough just for them to be beside each other. 

If I lose... this will all be gone.

Aerin looked up at the stars, unconsciously pressing closer to Cloud.

There won't be anyone left to look at the stars... the Candle will go out forever...

She shook her head fiercely, as though trying to dislodge those images and feelings.

Cloud's voice, low and smooth, broke her thoughts.

"Are you afraid?"

"...Yes." Aerin took a handful of his shirt, rubbing her fingers over the cloth. "I'm not even sure what the Planet wants me to do... how I'm supposed to do it..."

"The Planet has faith in you," Cloud said simply. "So do I."

Aerin closed her eyes.

"Thank you..."

"It's just the truth. Now get to bed, you can't fight Jenova if you're falling asleep on your feet."

His smile was warm, gently teasing, filled with the kind of love he'd never have been able to give Aerith. Aerin smiled back, glad for the affirmation, glad to know that even now, nothing would change between her and Cloud. She didn't think she could stand to have Cloud look at her and see a woman from the past.

"Okay, okay. Good night, Cloud."

"Good night, Aerin."


It was now or never. Either he walked through those gates right now, or he was going to spend the night with the chocobos.

The night air felt sharp and cold as he breathed it in, taking that first step to confront his past.
 



"How is she?"

Cloud sighed and smiled at his four-legged comrade.

"Still awake. Can't blame her, honestly, I don't think I'll be able to sleep either. She's afraid, but she's willing to do it. She's a brave girl." Cloud's voice was full of admiration and pride on those last words.

"She always was," Nanaki said softly.

Cloud started walking, and Nanaki fell easily into step behind him. Theirs was the rhythm of old, old friends, who can communicate as well with a shrug or a silence or meaningful glance as they can with words.

"How's Illyra?" Cloud asked at last.

"Better." Nanaki shook his head, headdress jangling. "She is still opposed to the idea, but she will allow Aerin to follow this path."

"You could go with her," Cloud offered. "It's not safe for me, but you could go."

Nanaki made a small woofing noise. "I cannot."

"Why not?" Cloud reached up to trail his fingers against the red stone wall as they turned down another staircase.

"If Jenova decides that she needs a pawn, she will know exactly where to look."

Cloud stopped dead. Nanaki stopped a step or two in front of him, glancing back at him meaningfully with one golden eye.

"Aerin is brave, and strong. I feel it might be better if I stayed here with you - to protect you, Master Summon, and the four Huge Materia if need be. If I am absent, and the Candle goes out again, or you..." Nanaki shook his head and looked forward, away from Cloud. "I want to go with her. But I feel it is not my place. Perhaps it is a fear of my own. Perhaps it is the Planet's wisdom. Who knows?" He looked up. "Whichever it may be, I do not feel my presence would help her significantly. This may be her time of testing."

"The Planet has faith in her," Cloud agreed softly. "She's its last hope. I would like to think the Planet's last hope can take care of herself."

"As would I." Nanaki smirked. "Furthermore, she is not alone."

"What?" Cloud had just started making his way down the stairs again, and stopped at those words.

Seemingly unconcerned, Nanaki twitched his tail and began to ramble down the stairs again. Cloud hurriedly followed.

"What do you mean, she's not alone?"

"I smelled someone else on her," Nanaki said, sounding vaguely embarrassed. "A boy. Since she did not tell us about him, I did not want to embarrass her by asking..."

"Oh, great. And that's a reason not to go with her?" Cloud groaned. "'Time of testing' or not, she's almost sixteen, Nanaki! Hello? Rabid teenage hormones?! When I was her age..."

Nanaki laid back his ears, bowing his head a bit as they walked, emerging into fresh night air. "You know Aerin is a very responsible girl," he muttered a bit defensively. 

"Nanaki! With what she's going through right now...! I wouldn't be surprised if she just got really stressed out one day, and the boy offered, and she just...! I know she's responsible, but people act different under stress..."

"You sound like a protective father," Nanaki chided. "I truly don't think she... by the Planet. That's him."

"Huh?" Cloud's voice sounded hopelessly lost and confused.

"I smell him on the wind," Nanaki explained, lifting his head and sniffing, then glancing around. "I think that's him... by the Candle."


He could see why Aerin loved the flame so much.

For a fire that size, it put out a remarkably small amount of heat - Zair would have expected to be blasted with hot air from sitting so close to it, but it seemed remarkably tame. And yet the small warmth it gave off warmed him completely, fighting off the chill night. It seemed alive. Zair wondered, if he reached out and touched the flame, if it would even stoop to burn him, or just flow between his fingers like warm silk.

"Hello, visitor."

Zair jumped and turned around, freezing when he saw just who was addressing him. The one who had spoken he recognized as Nanaki, and just beside him, was....

Cloud seemed so tall now, startlingly so, and there was a strength in his arms that had not been there even during the Meteor Crisis. Years in the Canyon had tanned him until, but for his fair hair, he looked as though he was a native. He wore Canyon-style clothing now, straight down to a white headband...

And he looked extremely displeased.

The jangle of beads alerted him to the fact that Nanaki was still there, and he turned quickly to face the wise-eyed beast, who was regarding him with tilted head.

"Uh. Hi."

"You're traveling with Aerin, right?"

Nanaki turned to give the swordsman a sour look. "Cloud, be polite."

"Yeah, I am," Zair interrupted. He swallowed. "She didn't tell you about me, did she..?" The beginnings of fear and betrayal were beginning to creep across his face. Nanaki noted with some confusion that the boy was again staring at Cloud.

"She did not," Nanaki said, and watched the boy's face clear immediately. "Your scent is on her."

"Ah..." Zair rubbed the back of his head. "I guess close travel does that. Heh."

"Was there a reason she didn't tell us?" Cloud said coldly. "What do you have to hide?"

"Cloud!" Nanaki snapped irritably as the boy paled. "You're frightening him half to death!" To Zair, he shook his head and rolled his eye. "My apologies. Cloud is rather overreacting, I think. He's afraid to let you and Aerin travel together, lest you indulge your 'rabid teenage hormones'." Nanaki's voice became heavily sarcastic towards the end.

Zair gaped for a moment, then flushed, standing up to glare at Cloud. "Do you honestly think I...?! You of all people, Cloud...! You should KNOW I would never do that to a woman I wasn't MARRIED to!!"

Cloud's icy expression slowly melted and changed, became a strange expression of disbelief and wonder and confusion. "...And how would I know that?" he asked, honestly curious, without a touch of hurtful edge to the question. "I don't know you..."

"Yes you do!" Zair had hoped for a slower, easier revelation, but Cloud's assumption had stung him deeply. He savagely ripped out his ponytail holder, leaving his long hair free to do as it would, and then tore off his leather jacket, revealing the sleeveless blue turtleneck beneath. "You KNOW me! Picture me a bit bigger, Cloud! More muscles, squarer chin, glowing eyes, that scar you were always curious about... picture me with the Buster Sword, Cloud! Picture me in SOLDIER, fighting alongside Sephiroth! NOW DO YOU REMEMBER ME?!"

The look on Cloud's face said he did.

Seeing Cloud's shock, Zair's face softened and he calmed. "...I didn't want her to tell you about me because I didn't think... I could face you after all that happened. It's my fault... your identity problems... everything that went wrong with you... I could have stopped..."

"Zax, no," Cloud whispered, stepping forward, eyes wide and voice soft and thin with wonder and horror. "It wasn't... you *saved* me, Zax, I'd be *dead* if you hadn't..."

"I should have lived," Zair choked, his voice thick with guilt. "If I'd lived - Aerith wouldn't have thought I abandoned her... you'd have known who you were... I could have helped you so much more..."

"No, Zax, don't do this to yourself..." Cloud's voice had a strange little upturned edge to it, as though he were perhaps fighting off tears. He hung his head. "I... should be the one apologizing... I stole your identity... I wasn't strong enough to handle it when you died... so I chose the reality that... hurt me least..."

"Cloud, kid, come on," Zair urged. "Nobody could have survived that in one piece. You were barely conscious when I died... you did a hell of a lot better than a lot of other people would. Someone else might have just rolled over and died right there, but you, you managed to drag yourself to Midgar... you made yourself a life, even though you were practically comatose and you'd just watched your best friend die... hell, you didn't steal my life, kid, you just borrowed it for a while." Zair smiled gently and shook his head, reaching out to Cloud.

For the first time in all the years Nanaki had known the man, Cloud was on the verge of crying, silent tears running down his cheeks. He carefully bowed out, backing away from the two, letting them have their time. Frankly, he was relieved - Cloud had several years of identity issues to work out still, and this seemed to be a major step in that general direction. Nanaki figured it would be best to make himself scarce until the moment was over.

He cast one last curious glance behind him as he walked away, and saw that Cloud had broken down in Zair's arms. Nanaki's sensitive ears picked up a faint sob from Cloud, and Zair's gentle voice reassuring the man.

Nanaki shook his head and padded out of earshot.


Aerin dreamed...

She was alone, in a dark night... the only star shining in the darkness... striving to give her small light to the entire world... flickering, growing weak..

Don't be afraid.

Fiery wings with rainbow feathers wrapped around her, enfolding her in what felt like a motherly embrace. And she could feel, inexplicably, the strength seeping into her bones, her flesh, her very blood from the stranger's embrace.

'Who are you?'

You know me. The teasing voice had the sound of starsong and fire, a high trilling exultation of life in all its faces. It reminded her of the Candle. I am the Firebird. I am your patron spirit - an esper, your kind once called me. I burn away the old and give birth to the new. Do you know me now?

Aerin raised her hand slowly and it met feathers and an angled beak. Tentatively, she drew her hand down along the grain of the feathers, down the warm neck. ....Phoenix.

The bird sounded a thin, high note, confirmation and approval.

Why are you here with me?

You didn't honestly believe I'd let you battle the Crisis without help, did you?

What?

Even as she questioned, she could feel Phoenix's presence beginning to fade away - at first she panicked, but then an odd calm came over her, as she suddenly understood.

...You're with me.

She was still the only star in the sky, but now she had the strength to shine.

....always.

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