Safe and Sound

Two days of nonstop chocobo riding brought them back to the eastern continent. Most had protested using the birds again in favor of just flying, but Vincent reminded them that with Sephiroth in tow, security would be too difficult to get through. Not because he was supposed to be dead (although that too would cause quite a stir), but there were still his extremely obsessed fanclubs who would draw too much attention. Last thing they needed was for them to congest the airport with their clinging and screams for an autograph. As if airports weren't already hellish enough.

So, using some leftover greens from their time in Cosmo Canyon, they acquired enough steads to traverse the ocean between. But of course, only Sephiroth could look that noble riding an eight-foot bird, Zack frowned, watching his perfect posture. The only thing that ruined it was the un-Sephiroth -and-yet-still-Sephiroth grin on his face. Multiple times, Sephiroth had leaned forward and cooed something unintelligible to the chocobo, making it happily coo back and fluff its feathers. And a regular Dr. Dolittle too.

But at last, they touched down in a small village that he'd never been to before. It'd been Vincent that had guided them and he hadn't bothered to tell them where exactly they were going. However, the entrance sign informed them that they were in the town of Kalm. Kalm…something about it tugged at Zack, a memory that he'd all but forgotten. If he'd never been here before, how could it be so important?

"I need to ask for some directions," Vincent told them, distractedly tucking back in his wings and doing something that might've been his version of primping. "We're in the right town but I'm not completely sure where to go here. All of us asking around would look suspicious."

"…speaking of suspicious, shouldn't one of us ask instead?" Tifa said, trying to give a kindly look to him. "You…don't exactly give the message of subtlety."

Vincent examined his hands, his eyes resting on the gold claw. "You might be right. Fine, I assign you to the task. There's a bar here and I need for you to ask about someone for me."

Tifa nodded. "Sounds easy enough. I used to work at a bar, I know how to ask for information on the low."

"And that leaves the rest of us to do…?" Yuffie figured to ask.

"Nothing," Vincent replied shortly and ushered Tifa away from them to whisper in her ear, leaving Yuffie to huff indignantly.

The rest waited outside the appointed bar, trying to lean on the wall and blend but nearly every person that passed them gave them suspicious looks. "Maybe some of us ought to actually go inside so that we're not just standing around?" Cloud suggested.

"I'm agreein' with ya," Cid put in, rubbing the stubble on his chin thoughtfully as he eyed the bar. "And frankly, I could do with a tall, cold one. I ain't had a drink since I left Rocket Town."

"That was only last week," Zack told him.

"And you were drinking at the Gold Saucer," Barret added.

"Both of you shut yer traps! If I want a drink then I want a drink! Doesn't matter how long it's been!"

"Doesn't that sort of mean that you have a dependency?" Aerith quietly asked.

"You should try substituting it with something else," Sephiroth added, surprising them. "Every time you feel like a drink, just count the night stars…" he trailed off, looking blissfully up at the sky.

"It's two in the afternoon, moron," Cid notified him. Sephiroth frowned, as though this obvious concept hadn't occurred to him, then shrugged and continued to stare up at the only visible star—the sun.

Vincent was thinking about going in to check on Tifa but she happened to come out the door at that moment…and with two other people in tow.

"Look what degenerates I found inside," she announced and pushed them forward. With an uncharacteristic stumble from both, the others gasped at the sights of Lazard and Genesis.

Genesis cast a scathing look at Tifa before brushing himself off. "Fancy meeting you all here. We're just returning from our vacation in Costa Del Sol, isn't that right Director?"

But Lazard didn't look refreshed. In fact, neither did Genesis. If anything, both looked worse than the last time they'd seen them. Their hair was white with graying skin. And in the case of Genesis—and only Genesis, not Lazard—he now had crow's feet. The former Director didn't even make an attempt to hide his misery.

"The cells backfired," he told them to answer the unasked questions. "We felt fine for the first few days. But then, we started to regress again and faster this time."

Genesis hid his face in a hand, theatrically throwing out the other one as though to ward them off from looking at him. "Right in the middle of my beach party too...everyone ran away from us like we were monsters! People call me grandpa now! And then when I cross the street, there's always some woman older than me that's asking if I need assistance! And just this morning, someone slipped me a nursing home pamphlet, like how you'd shop for an apartment! We're nothing but old fogies to the rest of the world now."

Lazard grunted and cast him a look that he didn't see. Picking up the story where Genesis refused to, he told them "Sephiroth's cells weren't the cure for the Geostigma. I still have a person or two on the inside of Shinra that I can trust and they ran some tests for me. Turns out, Geostigma is partially made from Jenova's cells. I figured that even with that being the case, an antibiotic could be made. But…that won't work for this. Nobody can think of a cure and any cure that could be made would take too long. I had estimated I wouldn't last the year…and looks like I was right."

Genesis sniffled. Sephiroth sniffled too, his green-gold eyes filling with tears. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry," he told his old friend.

At that moment, Aerith's pocket gave a pulse, causing a large ripple down to her feet. She froze in fear, clutching her hands around her body as though she had to hold herself together lest she shake apart. However, when it happened a second time, she gripped the hem of her dress in her hand, ready to throw it off if that's what it took.

"I think I like where this is going," Cid muttered.

"Pervert!" Yuffie screamed, swinging harmless fists at him.

"This game was created by Japan, there has to be one," Cid shrugged her off.

But with much coaxing from Zack, Aerith let herself go and dug into her pocket to see what was reacting so violently. It turned out to be the translucent materia given by Yuffie. "What's wrong with the water materia?" she wondered to herself.

"How many times do I have to say that there's no such thing as a water materia?" Zack yelled, but a look from Aerith caused him to quickly lower his tone. "I mean…I know it seems likely that there should be one if we have materia for electricity, earth, ice and fire but there isn't one. That being said, it does contain water properties so—"

"It's a water materia," Aerith simplified, not caring about the finer details.

"More specifically, it's called Holy," Barret announced suddenly. Everyone turned to look at him and even he looked surprised that he knew that. "I remember mentioning that weird materia when we were in Cosmo Canyon. One of the people there told me about it but said it was just a myth, that only the Ancients could ever use it. Well…until just recently, I thought all the Ancients were dead but lookie who we have here in front of us."

"Holy has immense healing powers that were thought to have been lost forever," Lazard added, looking hopefully at the materia. "Kind of wished you had've mentioned this knowledge when we first met…would've saved us some agony."

"And how was I to remember all of that?" Barret defended himself. "I was stoned half the time I was there! Hell, by the next morning, I wasn't even sure we'd had the conversation! Some funky little materia wasn't really all that important, especially if the only people that could use it belonged to some dead and forgotten race."

"…that kinda hurt, Barret," Aerith informed him.

"My bad."

Genesis strode forward and clasped his hands around Aerith's. "Onegai shimasu! Please, I'm too young to die old! And my Japanese speech impediment is starting to get worse! I now keep asking random people if they've heard of Yellow Fried Chickenz. I don't even know what the hell a yellow fried chicken is, or if that's really just a chocobo! You're our last hope. If you really are an Ancient, please…be kind enough to save two fools."

Put on the spot, Aerith meekly nodded. She'd never used materia before but went back to the simple basics of what materia was. It was condensed mako. Mako came from the earth. And what minimal information she'd gathered thus far about Ancients seemed to suggest that they were the guardians on the earth.

The Holy in her hands began to bubble before bursting a geyser of water twenty feet in the air. She squeaked and dropped the materia but it didn't decrease in force. Lazard and Genesis stood under the spout, enamored with the green vapors that left their skin as finally, the Geostigma was cured. The gray was chased away by their proper colors in which Genesis gratefully plucked a genuine red hair from his head (no L'Oreal necessary) and smiled. He looked at Aerith and nodded. "Arigatou, gozaimasu. And this time, I actually know what that means."

"So, now what are you two going to do?" Zack asked them as the last streams of Holy stopped and the materia became quiet again. "No offense, but neither of you have reputable reputations anymore."

Lazard grinned brightly and said, "We were thinking we could join you!"

A collective "NO!" was shouted back.

"…it was a joke," Lazard said, but even so, it stung. "But seriously…I think I want to become an accountant. It'll never be as glorious as being the Director of SOLDIER but that's fine with me."

Unabashedly, Genesis announced, "I want to be an exotic dancer."

At the lack of any protest, he became appalled. "Wait, you guys really think I'm that vain? Wow, I must really act like a dick!"

"…ya think?" Tifa muttered and even Vincent snorted.

To gain lost ground, Genesis drew himself up proudly and announced, "I'm actually going to use the fortune I inherited upon the departure of my poor parents death to rebuild Banora. And Shinra saved me the trouble of kicking out all the poor people that lived there. I've always wanted to make it into an exclusive community. Between the Banora White Company and real estate, I foresee myself retiring at twenty-seven."

With that, he gave a wave to them before unfurling the remaining wing and taking to the sky.

Lazard looked on enviously. "I wasn't born with Jenova cells like him so the Holy removed the Angeal cells within me. Shame…flying was so much more convenient." Digging a hand in his pocket, he found his usual white gloves and casually slipped them on. "So Zack, did you ever accomplish your dream of becoming a hero?"

Zack shook his head and held his hands up. "Not for me to answer. Besides…I don't think there's a defining moment where you can say 'I'm a hero.' It's something that's just there."

Lazard examined him thoughtfully for a moment before throwing back his head and laughing. As he walked past him, he briefly clapped a hand on his shoulder. "I still say that unattainable dreams are the best kind."

Zack grinned back and watched his former boss leave. It'd be the last time he'd ever see him in person.

"We have something we need to finish here," Vincent reminded them, already beginning to lead the group again. "Tifa announced that the person we're looking for is indeed in this town."

"You gonna tell us who that is?" Cloud attempted to ask.

Vincent opened his mouth as though he was about to say but suddenly Zack yelled, "So he finally did it!" and pointed to a building within the busy shopping quarters. There, a shop was tucked between a clothing outlet and a grocery store boasting Kunsel's Best Tech. Zack remembered that Kunsel had never fit in within SOLDIER. He probably could've made a decent Turk what with his computer hacking skills but that would've been as far as it would've gotten. He was happy to see his friend had realized his own dream. And with people desperately wanting to get away from everything Shinra, they were more than willing to take a chance on the new guy.

"Kunsel was my roommate in SOLDIER," Zack explained. "I'd forgotten that he'd said he was from Kalm."

Kunsel's modest tech shop would soon morph into the mega corporation, Best Buy, which would then help play a part into the eventual bankruptcy of Circuit City.

The stores soon turned into suburban houses on the outskirts and the area grew quiet. Reading from a piece of paper, Vincent anxiously scanned each house until it'd seemed he'd found the one he was looking for. With a powerful gust, he took to the sky all to perch on a home, wrapping his wings around him and crouching down.

"You may go in without me," he said quietly, burying his face in feathers.

"You're the one that knows this person," Tifa pointed out, looking at the home nervously. Any minute, someone would likely open the door and wonder who the hell all these people were in their front yard.

"If I didn't know any better, I'd say he's shyyy!" Yuffie cooed.

Vincent's red eyes only blinked back.

"I think you're right!" Aerith added, putting her hands behind her back and smiling up at Vincent. "C'mon, Vincent! No need to be shy. And if you want some privacy, we'll even go away and wait."

"Do not leave me here!" He growled, but it fell short as his voice uncharacteristically rose in pitch. Nervousness wasn't an emotion he was used to.

Ignoring the others, Cid strode up to the front door of the house and rang the bell. "We ain't come all this way for you to get cold feet. If this person is supposed to be our last hope then we're throwin' everything we have at 'em. Because win or lose, this is the last stop that Cid Highwind is traveling with that." And he pointed at Sephiroth.

"I have a name," Sephiroth informed him but at that moment, the door opened.

They were met with an older woman nearing her mid-fifties. It seemed they'd interrupted her in the middle of cooking as she had an apron on and was taking off an oven mitt. "Is there something I can do to help you?" she asked them, genuine concern on her face, as though wondering if perhaps they were travelers down on their luck.

"Uh…" Tifa stammered, and inadvertently looked up back at the roof.

In a flurry of red and black, Vincent jumped down onto the porch. The woman screamed but he quickly put a hand over her mouth and almost roughly backed her into the entranceway. The others filed in as well, closing the door to avoid a scene.

The woman hysterically fought Vincent and he'd give her some credit that she would've bested him had he not been genetically enhanced. Her nails scratching his face hurt like hell. But his wounds healed within seconds and soon enough, she'd tired herself out. Slumping back against the wall, she stared up at him and trembled.

"Lucrecia, it's me," Vincent told her, not removing his hand just yet. "Don't you remember me? Think hard."

With wide eyes, she slowly nodded. He nodded back, sighing. He took his hand away and waited on her next move.

She only put her hands over her eyes and slumped helplessly to the ground. "I couldn't forget you even if I wanted to. And trust me…I wanted to. More than once, I wanted to go back to Shinra and have my memories erased. But I told myself I was done with Shinra after what they'd done…to you. And to…"

Her breath hitched as she slowly wrapped her arms protectively around her middle. "It was all on the same day…your death, Vincent, and his birth. To keep you from interfering in the experiment, Hojo transformed you. I could never forgive him after that. And I could never forgive myself for giving my only child to him. For even having my child with him."

Vincent's face twitched but he swallowed his equal disgust. "At the time, you thought that what you were doing was bettering science," he said and he wasn't sure if he was trying to comfort her with that statement.

Clearly, she didn't think so, giving a harsh laugh. "That's no excuse. Dating Hojo was the worst mistake of my life."

"Ew, they actually dated," Cloud breathed to Zack, who also shuddered.

Suddenly though, Lucrecia sat up, pulling herself to her feet again. "Vincent, who are all of these people? Do they work for Shinra?" She took a step back, as though getting ready to run.

Vincent reached out a hand, taking one of hers in his. "Each of their backgrounds relates to Shinra, but none of them are employed by Shinra now. But…there's one person here that I'm sure would want to meet you. And I'm going to apologize now that I didn't write ahead to warn you that I was arriving but I think you'd need to see it to believe it."

He stepped out of the way as did everyone else, finally revealing the silent Sephiroth that'd been hiding since they'd come in. He pulled self-consciously on the end of his shirt before nervously sticking his hands in his pocket. Then realizing that some form of gentility was expected, he struggled to pull a hand back out all to give a feeble wave and a muttered "Hey."

But it was almost too much for Lucrecia. She put both hands over her face and burst into tears, breaking away to run somewhere further into the house.

"…did I do something wrong?" Sephiroth asked.

"Let's give her a moment," Vincent suggested and led them down the hallway and into the living room.

Eventually, Lucrecia emerged from somewhere else and sat with them, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. She didn't look at Sephiroth, instead addressing Vincent again. "Why did you bring him here?"

"I'll go if you have a problem with me," Sephiroth snapped and made to leave. "Who the hell is this old bag anyways?"

Without looking away from Lucrecia, Vincent informed, "Your mother."

This caught his attention. He slowly sat back down again and leaned forward in his seat, squinting at the woman before deciding "I look nothing like her."

"I'd consider that a blessing," she told him quietly. "Be glad that you don't look like your pathetic biological parents."

Sephiroth mulled that statement over before something occurred to him and this time, he really did want to run if his conclusion was correct. "Are you telling me…that you…and Hojo…" And then suddenly, he switched tact and yelled "What'd you even see in him?!"

Lucrecia shook her head and buried her face in her arms. Sephiroth could care less if it hurt her to go back down that memory lane. He'd had his share of bad memories too, she could join the club. Right now, he needed answers.

"I saw…revolution," she said and had it not come out with a bitter laugh, he would've thought she still believed in that vision. "Hojo had wanted to prove himself worthy of being the head of the Science Department. It sounds pathetic now, but studying under him was an honor. You don't have to forgive me for being infatuated with my idol. But when he picked me to be the catalyst of his project, it was more than I could've ever hoped for. I could see the accolades decorating my walls, the headlines in the newspapers. I was going to be part of something big. People were going to take notice of me."

She took her face out of her hands and looked up at Sephiroth, truly looked at him. "Everything changed after I became pregnant. I honestly thought there was something between Hojo and I—"

She ignored the gags that followed this statement and Cloud's interruption of "Not interested!"

"When he told me to be careful of over-exerting myself, I thought he was concerned for my well-being. But the only thing he ever cared about was his precious specimen. This became most apparent a few days before your birth, Sephiroth."

Sitting up straighter, she looked over to Vincent, who had taken up a spot against a wall. His profile read that he was calm, keeping his arms and legs crossed as he leaned against the wall, but he'd buried his face in his collar, making only his eyes visible. "You tried to warn me," she told him and he gave a grunt that might've been an agreement. "You tried to show me how naïve I was being. At that time, you and only you had Sephiroth's best interests at heart. By the time I'd come to realize what I was doing, it was too late. Hojo had forced you to become another side experiment to keep you out of the way. And then…Sephiroth was born."

"Oh joy," Sephiroth deadpanned. "And what a beautiful little bundle I was."

"You were," she told him without the sarcasm and he frowned at her, not expecting her to give a comment on the matter. "You looked like…her. Like Jenova. You look nothing like either Hojo or myself. But yes, you were beautiful. You still are."

Sephiroth blushed and looked away. "…thanks?"

She smiled kindly up at him, but it quickly faded as she continued. "I didn't even get to name you. At least, not fully on my own. I had a few names in mind, and while 'Sephiroth' was on the list, Hojo made the official decision and reinforced it by documenting it in all of our notes. Secretly though, given my way…I would've named you Gabriel. But Hojo said that there was already a Project G underway. So…Sephiroth it was."

Sephiroth would never, ever admit it but it was maybe the one thing to be thankful to Hojo for. He enjoyed the uniqueness of his name, which was so entirely his own, he didn't even need a last name. Besides, he couldn't see himself slaughtering people on the battlefield with the angelic name Gabriel. He wasn't a religious man, but it just seemed wrong.

Then again, somehow Angeal had managed it.

It was without warning that she got up and came over to him, her eyes flitting over him anxiously. She finally settled for staring him in the eyes, something he'd had to learn to get over quickly, both due to his position and to satisfy human curiosity. "I also never held you," she informed him. "Never spoke a single word to you until this moment. After everything that happened though, I didn't feel like I should be your mother anyways. I quit Shinra immediately afterwards and have been living here for over twenty years. To everyone else, I'm a childless widow who makes a modest living off her baking. I've told that lie for so long, sometimes I could almost believe it. But then a new story about something at Shinra would hit the papers and I'd come back to reality."

Sephiroth didn't know what to say to any of this, but thankfully Vincent spoke for him. "We've lived in the past too long, Lucrecia. I, by thinking I could simply live in the darkness to bear my sin of not being able to save you. You, by being constantly reminded of the child you gave to science. And Sephiroth…well, by his entire existence. We've all been consumed by this regret and it's impaired all of our lives."

"Dilly-dally, shilly-shally," Tifa told them and everyone jerked to stare at her as though she'd spoken a new language. For all they knew, maybe she had.

"And that means…?" Zack asked her.

"Dilly-dally, shilly-shally!" she said vehemently and they actually flinched back. "Don't you think it's time that you did the forgiving?"

Vincent was the first to get it and smiled his thanks. "I think she means that we need to get over our pity-party and learn to move on. Being with them—" he gestured to his trustee comrades—"I've learned that I don't have to handle everything on my own. No man can. Sephiroth's had a major breakthrough, but now lives without a clear purpose. I think you two could heal each other."

Mother and son stared at each other, turning the question over. "I'm a little old to be moving in with my mother, huh?" Sephiroth said but with no malice. It'd seemed that they'd crossed that bridge.

Lucrecia instead did something she'd wanted to do over for over twenty years. She pulled him into her and hugged him. Not the stiff hug of a stranger, but a deep embrace, pulling his head down so that he could lean against her shoulder and rocked him gently. Unknowingly to her, it was a first for both of them; Sephiroth had never been hugged.

"You're never too old for family," she whispered in his ear softly, stroking his hair. He took advantage of the shoulder to bury his face either to cry or from embarrassment. Maybe both.

While still holding him, she smiled at Vincent and mouthed "Thank you."

He nodded back to her and quietly gestured for the others to follow him out the house. Zack paused and wondered if they should say their goodbyes but he didn't want to break up the bonding moment. Besides, it was a good image to go out on.

But Zack realized that now that he'd fulfilled his goal, he too lacked a clear purpose. Everyone had been fixated on helping Sephiroth but now what? Zack had started this entire adventure with the desire to become a mercenary and the motto "do whatever, whenever, for the right price." Aerith certainly wasn't clingy but she wasn't going to accept him traveling all over the globe for random assignments, some of which might be of questionable legality. Some day (and maybe not in a distant future either), he'd likely have children. It would be imperative that he stuck closer to home.


"Want to meet my parents?" he suddenly asked Aerith.

"Did you even have to ask?" she said, nudging him playfully. "And I want to meet baby Zack. Let's see what makes him oh so fearsome."

He smiled, knowing his parents were going to do cartwheels when he brought her home. "So Cloud, what's next for you?" he asked his longest companion. Cloud still had the freedom to become a mercenary if he wanted.

But instead, Cloud announced, "I'm really looking to start up that delivery business I told you about. I know it sounds stupid, but people are getting scared to travel between cities with the increase of monsters. I have a bike I stole from Shinra a few years back that I stashed in a garage. That'll give me a set of wheels to get started. "

"If you'd like, I'm looking to start my own Seventh Heaven bar," Tifa told him. "Until both of us get fully on our feet, how about we run it as a double business?"

Cloud very quickly agreed, nodding deliriously at the recommendation.

"I ain't seen Marlene in weeks," Barret told them, looking off in the direction of Midgar. "Think it's about time to check on my baby. I can burn Shinra to the ground another day. I live in Midgar, I have all the time in the world." He looked at Aerith and held out a fist. "Tell your momma I say thank you for looking after her."

Aerith met him halfway, completing the fist-bump and ending with both of them doing a dramatic hand explosion. "No prob, you know she adores Marlene."

"Wait, you two really know each other?" Zack asked enviously.

Barret grinned and informed "Aerith and I go way back. Anyone that lives in the Slums knows Aerith."

She smiled modestly and gave a curtsey. And Zack could only seethe.

Cid chewed thoughtfully for a moment on a toothpick before hooking his thumbs on his belt loop and staring wistfully out in the distance. "Guess I could head home. I mean, I still ain't giving up on my mission to get rid of Sephiroth," he said with noconviction. "But I guess I can wait a little longer on that. Create that air cruise line I've been talkin' about…"

Vincent had been staring back in the direction of Lucrecia's house, seemingly not listening. He pulled out of his trance with a sigh before muttering something under his breath.

"Care to share?" Yuffie asked casually.

"I said, I want to get laid," Vincent said louder. Yuffie squealed and ran away (which is surprising given her initial disposition), and Vincent only shrugged. "You try sleeping for twenty-seven years and tell me how you'd feel."

All could only nod and agree.

"Yeah, well I say all of you guys are lame!" Yuffie taunted, sticking her tongue out at them…while ducking behind Tifa. "I'm going home with my loot richer than all of you! Then I'm going to continue my reign of terror. I'll expand my piracy campaign across all the seven seas! They shall fear my power! One Piece has nothing on me!"

The same old.

With a final trade of phone numbers and goodbyes, they each headed their separate ways. Cid back to Rocket Town. Barret back to Midgar. Tifa and Cloud to a rather new city called Edge. Yuffie back to Wutai. Vincent to wherever it was he'd need to go to get laid.

And Zack and Aerith resigned themselves to the long ride back to Gongaga. It'd come to be that everyone would meet once a year…or more, if the world just so happened to require saving. It was a long and thankless job but someone had to do it.

But that would be later. For now, Zack pointed their stead back west and together they rode their chocobo gloriously off into the sunset.

I have this image in my head of Sephiroth with his hair tied back and wearing an apron, using a rolling pin as he assists his mother with baking ^_^