Heart of the Matter

It was almost as though time hadn't touched her. That aura of gentility that'd captured him all those years ago still flowed through her as she made her way towards him. For a moment, he could ignore that the landscape looked like they'd been thrown in the depths of Hell just to focus on this dream come true. How many times had he wondered over the past four years if they'd ever see each other again? With him still being a wanted man, the most he'd hoped for was to only see her from afar. To have her this close was more than he'd ever dreamed of.

She stopped before him, reaching out a hand to touch his face. "You need to shave," she smiled.

His resolve crumbled and he pulled her tight into his arms. "You're alive," was all he was able to manage, trying hard to keep it together considering that they had an audience.

"The Turks have sort of been guarding me," Aerith told him, pulling back to look him in the face. The fire helped to illuminate the green of her eyes, like a river of mako. "I'm not sure why, though. Everyone's been really hush-hush about it, tip-toeing around me like I might crack. I'd like some straight answers for once but that might be too much to ask from them."

Behind her, Zack could see Elena drawing herself up to retort but Reno slapped a hand over her mouth and shook his head.

Just then, another explosion shook the ground and a picnic table was launched twenty feet in the air. "Ooohh! Ahhhh!" the group watched, cheering as the structure fell back to the ground and splintered. At the same time, swooping to rejoin them was Vincent, running a few steps to catch his balance before folding his wings back in.

The others took a step back as he advanced.

He held up his hands. "I come in peace. Figured you'd need my help."

"You know, it wasn't until you even showed up that I realized you were missing," Yuffie admitted. Vincent almost didn't believe her as this was coming from the girl that'd all but jumped his bones the first day they met, but the others were nodding as well.

"I think you're becoming expendable," Tifa whispered to him.

Vincent actually took a dramatic step backwards. "N-no! Never! I'm needed!"

From nowhere, Barret slipped on a pair of glasses, pulling a sheet of paper from his pocket. "According to a recent survey, your popularity rate has dropped five percent."

"Right, and what's yours?" Vincent countered.

"Um, ahem, we're…not talking about me," Barret said hastily, tossing the glasses and crumbling the paper.

"Whoa boy, we have company," Cid interrupted.

Coming towards them from the flames was Sephiroth. The irony of the image and its likeness of that fateful night in Nibelheim weren't lost on Zack. Except this time, Sephiroth didn't hold his sword aloft; instead, it dragged on the ground, and in his right hand at that. If Zack remembered correctly, Sephiroth was a lefty.

He advanced calmly enough but when he got within ten feet, an effort was put forth to keep him from coming closer. The safeties of both Vincent and Barret's guns clicked off; Cid twirled his lance into a ready position and Yuffie dislodged a six-pointed star from her back. Tifa tightened her leather gloves, cracking her knuckles.

But Zack was most proud when Aerith revealed a retractable three-piece rod, a look of determination replacing her serenity. He could've kissed her. He himself finished off their defense with the Buster Sword. He'd had hopes of only talking with the ex-general but if he had recovered his memories, Zack was also ready to finish what they'd started four years ago.

Instead though, Sephiroth never raised Masamune. Even if he had other attacks in his arsenal, Sephiroth continued his slow plodding towards them. Without blinking, he stepped past them and kept moving until he jerked to a stop directly in front of Aerith. A small smile spread on his lips as he closed his eyes again and began to hum in a low pitch, much like a cat purring.

Dumbfounded, the rest lowered their weapons. "I think I missed something," Vincent said, scratching a gold claw under his headband. "What's wrong with him?"

"If I had to take a guess, it looks like the fall into the mako eroded his braincells," Tifa ventured. "It's almost like he's regressed to being a child."

"No, that's not right," Aerith said softly, now cupping Sephiroth's face. Zack only barely managed to not punch the man. "It does seem that his thought process has become more juvenile but it's as though he's drawn to certain things on instinct. He and I have never met and yet it's like he knows me." Continuing to hold his face, she experimentally called out "Sephiroth!"

Sephiroth stopped humming and opened his eyes. "Good evening, Aerith Gainsborough of the Ancients."

Without completely meaning to, Aerith screamed and violently shoved him away, running for cover near Zack. Sephiroth began to scream too, crouching and holding his hands over his ears as though trying to block out his own voice and ward off a possible attack at the same time. His keening continued until he realized that no one had made a move towards him, in which he finally grew quiet and turned to face Aerith again, this time saying nothing.

"…da fuck just happened?" Barret eloquently voiced.

"I say the guy's a nutcase and you should give him here," Reno called out from the helicopter. In the pilot's seat, Elena started up the propellers. "Shinra will take him off your hands. And you need to come back with us too, Aerith."

Aerith shook her head. "He knew my name. And he called me something…an Ancient. What is an Ancient?"

Reno took too long to fix his features and in that second, Aerith connected two and two together. "It's why you've been detaining me! Whatever these Ancients are, it's what you want. Sephiroth is probably one too which is why you want him back as well. Well, on behalf of Ancients everywhere, I refuse to let anyone dictate my life any longer! Long live the Ancients!"

Reno was about to say something but Elena said something to him first. Turning back, Reno shrugged. "Whatever. We'll find you eventually. It's what we're good at. Till then, ciao!" He slammed the door of the helicopter close and the craft took off into the night.

Left in the quiet, the rest turned to each other, shrugging. "Now what?" Tifa asked.

"Oh, my everything hurts…" came a mumble at the ground, in which Cloud blinked awake. Zack rushed to help him to his feet, letting him lean against him as that simple action nearly exhausted him. "What happened? Where are we? Who's the new chick? And what's Sephiroth doing here? Wait, Sephiroth?"

Sephiroth showed no signs of having even heard him, staring instead behind him back into the flames. Cloud turned to look with him and yelled when two stumbling forms started coming towards them, their clothes ripped and one of them limping while dragging a foot.

"Walkers!" he yelled, looking for anything he could use as a weapon. "Aim for the head, it's their only weakness!"

"Right, the Final Fantasy VII Edition," Aerith said with a grin.

"Wonder if we could pitch that to Square Enix…" Yuffie mused.

But instead of rotting corpses, the two figures revealed themselves to be Lazard and Genesis. Both wore a self-satisfied smile. "That's one problem solved," Genesis said once he drew close enough.

"Two problems," Lazard corrected, staring intently at Sephiroth. "Now there's only one more thing to do."

Zack was torn between wanting to stop them and morbid curiosity. These two looked like a good breeze would knock them over and yet, they still moved with vitality, eagerly approaching the general. Just as they drew level though, a river of soft blue orbs streamed from two points within the flames behind them and flew overhead. They landed softly within Sephiroth, who giggled and began his loudest humming yet.

"Poor little remnants," Genesis tsked as the last of the orbs entered the ex-SOLDIER's body. "The idiots didn't think far enough head to realize that to summon the next closest being to Jenova required all of her cells. That meant themselves as well. Good thing for that though…they would've kicked our asses otherwise."

He reached out and yanked a handful of the dirty, unkempt hair, opening his mouth.

"Eeehh, I wouldn't do that…" Zack tried to warn him, his face turning green.

But Genesis proceeded to eat the hair, even going so far as to lick his fingers. "Ahh, I feel more alive already!"

"Great, now that the guinea pig has tried it and hasn't died, I'll go next," Lazard declared, roughly ripping the hair off Sephiroth and eating it. Zack took it as a good sign that at least Sephiroth flinched.

However, midway through their meal, Genesis began to cough, doubling over and grabbing his chest. He stayed that way for several minutes, until his cough became a hack. Then he hacked again, his shoulders twitching with spasms. Lazard frowned, making no attempt to help. "If you mean to tell me that the hair is actually making things worse, I'm going to kill you myself. You're supposed to be my taste-tester."

"It's hair, what do you think it tastes like?" Cloud asked, shuddering as Genesis' coughs grew stronger.

"Salvation!" Lazard said triumphantly, brandishing the wilting locks. "This is our final hope. They're not mass-marketing this stuff, you know."

"Sephiroth's hair?" Cid asked dryly.

"One man's hair is another man's cure," Lazard said haughtily, but his expression quickly changed when Genesis gave another particularly violent hack.

"Please don't do it," Vincent murmured, shaking his head.

Too late. Genesis coughed up a hairball.

Much gagging and an indefinite amount of time later, they were able to bring themselves back to a semblance of control.

"This fool done ruined my dinner before I even had it," Barret muttered weakly, unable to look in Genesis' direction.

As for Genesis, he was looking forlornly at his hairball. "Damnit, my body's rejecting it…"

"No shit, Sherlock, it's hair!" Zack yelled, pointing at the slimy mess in the grass. "It's not meant to be eaten!"

"I'm just fine," Lazard declared, doing a small twirl to show how he was unaffected. "In fact, never better. I actually feel the cells repairing my body."

Genesis paused for a moment, his eyes slowly widening. "You're right…I do feel better. It actually worked!"

Cloud raised a finger. "Um, question. So why aren't any of us dead? Don't all of us already have Jenova cells in us?"

"We do," Lazard clarified, wiping his glasses on his shirt and perching them on his nose. Already, the gray color of his hair was fading back to blonde. "You two don't anymore," he addressed Cloud and Zack. "That ritual was strong enough to pull the Jenova cells from all of us. None of us standing here were born with Jenova cells. Even Genesis was only injected with them after his birth. So, while more painful than having a tooth pulled without Novocaine, the cells were still able to part from our bodies without completely destroying us to return to the next embodiment of Jenova. Save for the mako, everything in you is now you. And since we've just ingested Sephiroth's hair…" Lazard said, looking appreciatively at the man, "We've now absorbed a more…wholesome version of what each of us had been injected with. With that, Jenova has countered the Geostigma."

"I could've sworn that the Geostigma was caused by people being infected with Jenova cells that had fallen into the Lifestream," Aerith contradicted him.

"I'm sorry, who's the one with Geostima again?" Lazard challenged.

She sighed. "I'm not trying to be a know-it-all, but maybe…you guys have made it worse. I know you two look better, but maybe it's just going into remission. I'd look into getting seen to."

Genesis laughed, ruffling his full, red hair again. "Right, we're supposed to be dead. The best doctors in the world are employed by Shinra."

"There's plenty of holistic and herbal healers out there," she suggested.

Genesis dropped his hand to stare at her as though she'd suggested walking on the moon without an oxygen tank. "I'm not eating a fucking leaf to see if it makes me feel better. I ate some of the cells from this broad—" he gestured to Sephiroth—"and now I'm healthy again. As far as I'm concerned, case closed. So, if you'll excuse me, I'm heading to Costa del Sol to get my tan back."

He unfurled his black wing and tried to flap and for several seconds, nothing happened. Instead, he over-exerted himself and fell into another coughing fit. He struggled even harder and finally, he rose a few inches off the ground, the wheezing cough following him as he sagged through the air, looking more like a miserable flu victim who grew wings.

"Riiight," Lazard said, watching him as he left. "I guess…I'll keep in touch." He spread his own wing, white from the Angel cells that still lingered within him. To his credit, he actually made it into the air and slowly flew away over the horizon.

And then there were…nine.

"We no longer exactly spell 'subtlety'," Zack commented, looking around. "Maybe some of you should go back home?"

Barret shook his head, looking grim. "I've gotta see this through to the end. I miss my baby girl, but how would I look to my followers if I turned tail and ran when I'm this close?"

"Who said anything about overthrowing Shinra?" Cloud asked.

Vincent, Cid and Barret raised their hands. "Think of it as a side-quest," Vincent clarified. "Sure you don't have to do it, but you feel better once you have."

"It detracts from the overall mission," Cloud pointed out to him, not expecting resistance from Vincent of all people.

"What mission?" Cid came to Vincent's defense. "My mission was to kill that silver-haired sideshow freak but even I'm not so rotten as to kill someone that can't even defend themselves. So, I'll wait around for him to get his memories back, then run him through with my spear."

"And then?" Tifa prodded.

He shrugged. "Even with the Rocket Town fiasco, I've got a nice 401(K) saved up. Think I'll retire early on a tropical island where the women walk around shirtless."

The men nodded sagely at his wise plan.

Yuffie raised her hand to say, "I'm just here for the materia. I think I saw those Sephiroth knock-offs with some. So if you'll excuse me…" She tried to act cool but her excited walk betrayed the hopefulness of treasure as she made her way to the now smoldering remains of the park.

Zack looked at the others and realized that none of them would leave. Zack wanted to get answers out of Sephiroth, answers that he'd been unable to even ask four years ago what with his life immediately in danger. Tifa and Cloud both had an equal stake in this and Sephiroth would follow where ever Aerith went, it seemed.

And Vincent…

As though reading his mind, Vincent declared "Hojo will be wanting Sephiroth back. The Turks have essentially said as much. With him now being mentally unstable, Hojo would make it his duty to 'fix' him. Even if he becomes a complete genetic freak, like me. Which is what I'd like to discuss with Hojo. And…" He took a deep breath. "Possibly save Sephiroth from the same fate. Even he doesn't deserve to become what I am."

So it's settled.

Was it only a little over two weeks ago that he and Cloud escaped the lab? Six days ago that they'd partied in Cosmo Canyon? Last night that they'd left Rocket Town? It all seemed almost a lifetime ago already.

Yuffie came back a moment later, her knapsack glowing with the materia orbs. "This time, I declare that these are mine," she said pointedly, looking particularly at Zack. He held his hands up in innocence, grinning.

"I say we head east," Aerith suggested, perhaps inspired by the irony of the sun starting to rise over the distant mountains. However, it was as good of a direction as any as they'd already moved almost as far west as currently possible.

With a tearful goodbye from Cid to the Tiny Bronco, they set out yet again with higher hopes, feeling a little closer to finding a resolution.

Forgive me again that this has been dragged out for so long. I'm aiming for this to be finished within about 25 chapters. If nothing else, this will be finished in 2013! Anywho, leave your yays or nays in the little box below.