Fandom: FFVII (Marriageverse AU)
Characters: Aeris/Sephiroth, OCs
Chapters: Prologue | Ch. 1 | Ch. 2
Summary: Aeris and Sephiroth suffer a loss terrible enough to threaten their love.
He met them at the foot of the hill in the graveyard where the little plot lay. Aeris had brought the sapling, of course, and a watering can. Sephiroth had brought himself and a military issued shovel from supplies. Aeris shook her head when she saw it. “We do this with our hands,” she said, leading the way up the hill.
The mounded earth had begun to sink, settling, and the grass around the edge was growing brown at the tips. This was a time for harvesting, not planting, but Sephiroth supposed for Cetra it made no difference. Aeris let go of Ella’s hand and knelt on one side of the small grave. Sephiroth took his cue from her and knelt on the other, quietly bearing the cold that seeped from the earth to his knees.
There were no words, no magic, just planting. Aeris reached into the earth with her bare hands, curling and scooping dirt out from high point in the center. Sephiroth hesitated one moment before he joined her, scooping the earth away from the other side with his longer, larger fingers. The dark brown crust of dried earth on top gave way to rich, damp black, where a living thing could grow from what was left of the dead. Between them both, they made a furrow in the ground, deep enough for strong roots to set and for the little tree to grow straight and tall. Through it all, he stole glances at her, tracing the curve of her lips and the slant of her brow, setting them into memory.
She seemed subdued now, as if the fire that had burned him had burned itself out. He knew better than to trust that. But she seemed at peace in a way she only was when her hands were in the earth. He wished his own peace could come that easily. Cloud had offered him a match once or twice, but his heart had not been in it.
Aeris reached for the seedling, nearly a foot high already, but so very slender. “Will it take?” Sephiroth asked.
“Yuffie brought it over,” Aeris said, which was not really an answer. “One of the Wutai varieties.”
Sephiroth frowned. “Cherries in late summer then?”
Aeris’s hands shook as she worked at the knot securing a small growth bag around the root end. “Eventually. It blooms in the spring. Not this spring, it’ll be too young. But someday….” Her hands stilled. Her head bowed down. “I wanted to make sure he got his cherries.” Sephiroth thought of discarded pie in the cafeteria.
“He asked for some,” Aeris said, so quietly Sephiroth thought he had imagined it. “He was hungry and he kept asking for cherries. I had them all cut in half for him, with the pits out, but the doctors wouldn’t let him eat anything. They were considering surgery and they wouldn’t let him have any. He was so hungry.” Her hair hung forward, hiding her face from view. A drop of water landed on her thumb but she brushed it off and went back to readying the little sapling without a word.
Sephiroth looked away, wondering what else he had missed in those last agonizing hours, what else Aeris had had to bear alone. If this was some sick punishment for all his past wrongs, it was doubly cruel to drag Aeris into it. He felt the cold weight inside him shift, resting ice-sharp edges against tender places. Aeris freed the little tree from its damp bag and held it in her lap a while. Sephiroth made a study of her downcast face, noting the distance in her eyes and wondering what she saw. She felt his eyes on her and returned to herself, glancing at him and just as quickly looking away. She threaded shaking fingers around the sapling and held it out to him across the valley they had made in their lost one’s resting place. She did not have to say anything.
Sephiroth reached out, hands deceptively steady. His fingers brushed against hers as he shouldered his share. They set the sapling in the earth, mindful of its tender roots. Their hands kept brushing when the tree was in the ground, as they shored up the dark earth around it, and every touch was electrifying and precious because it could have been the last.
Sephiroth sat back on his heels when they had finished. Aeris had her eyes on the tree and her mind far away. Damp trails dried on her face. Sephiroth had been so intent on the planting that he had not let himself see the tears fall. He would have wanted to brush them away. She might not have wanted him to. Just as well. His hands were dirty anyway. “Is that it?”
“Almost,” Aeris said. “Hold out your hands.” Sephiroth obeyed wordlessly, eyes on her face, searching for the light glimmer of damp eyelashes. She reached for the watering can and poured a stream onto his hands. Water rained down between his fingers onto the dirt below, watering the sapling at the roots. Aeris set the can down and knelt over the small plant, whispering something to it that Sephiroth did not understand.
He swallowed and reached for the watering can. “My turn?” Aeris nodded, and he poured the water for her while Ella danced her little circles in the grass around them both, chasing something only she could see.
Aeris came back to the office with him. They made the long walk with the dirt on their trousers and dust of the grave still under their fingernails. Ella had wanted to be picked up, and she clung to Sephiroth’s side the whole trip through the base. He pretended not to see the smiles and hopeful glances the soldiers sent their way. Everyone knew he was living in the office now but not even the brass would bring it up, under the circumstances.
Aeris made straight for the couch, sitting down in the fading light with her arms around herself as she stared at the floor. Her face was a mask. Sephiroth flipped on the light and wondered if he had any of that vodka left. “Can I get you anything?” he asked, settling Ella in his chair and pulling out the coloring books and crayons he kept stashed in the bottom drawer.
His wife looked up at him then, almost hopeful. “Tea, please?” He put the kettle on and set out clean china, rustling up the last of the lemon peel tea Aeris liked, and finding some instant hot chocolate for Ella. There was not much to say anymore, he supposed, leaning back on the counter while the kettle boiled. Aeris still wore her ring though, and maybe that meant something. He busied himself pouring and stirring, gave Ella her cup and a cookie besides. He handed the good teacup to Aeris and kept the old one with its familiar chip for himself. He sat beside her on the couch and tried not to think of the last time they had shared the space.
Steam swirled up from their mismatched cups, meeting in the middle in a way they themselves could not, not yet. Aeris thanked him quietly for the tea and they sipped together while Ella colored outside the lines and drew a blue chocobo on Sephiroth’s desk. “Ella, don’t,” Aeris said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sephiroth said. “It scrapes off better there than from the walls.”
“It’s not a good habit, though,” Aeris said, curling her feet up under her.
“I suppose.” Sephiroth finished his tea and contemplated another cup. “How’s she been?”
Aeris shrugged, setting her own teacup down. “You saw. She was quiet until the funeral, and then it was like nothing had changed.”
Sephiroth watched Ella rearrange his desk supplies into a defensive wall around her masterpiece. “Just like her father after all, eh? Completely heartless.”
“She’s not heartless,” Aeris said, casting a brief glance in his direction. It did not have the fire he expected. “People come and people go at her stage. The world’s still too new.”
Sephiroth took that in. “She’s turning four soon,” he said, offering Aeris the cookie plate.
“Not for a couple of months.” Aeris waved the plate away, looking like she couldn’t bear the thought of food.
“Should I bake her cake as usual?” Sephiroth held on to hope.
The barest ghost of a smile reached Aeris’s face. “I guess. She won’t eat any other.” Just as quickly, the smile was gone and something somber cast its shroud over her. “Sephiroth-.”
“I’m sorry,” Sephiroth blurted.
Aeris shook her head. “What are you sorry for?”
“I’m sorry I’m not the best father,” he said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.” I’m sorry I can’t give you all the children you want. I’m sorry our children are so few and not strong.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” Aeris said, sinking back into the couch as if she could slip between the seams in the leather and utterly disappear. “And you’re not a bad father.” It seemed she could not look at him, so he did not look at her, to spare her the discomfort. When he next dared to look her way, she was sitting with eyes half-open, her body nearly abandoned as she was drawn into deep communion with the Planet.
Sephiroth sipped his tea, nibbled half-heartedly at a cookie and waited on the outside. There were parts of her he could never touch, places she went that he couldn’t follow. Ella clambered down from the chair and came over to join him in staring at her mother. Sephiroth picked her up and settled her between them. “Don’t disturb Mommy,” he said. “She’s listening to the Lifestream.”
Ella frowned. “Is she looking for Eiran in there?”
Sephiroth blinked. It was something of a shock to hear the name now. He had avoided saying it, even thinking it, imbuing it with the kind of regard reserved for the sacred because it had to be true. His son had been part Cetra and so much like his mother. Aeris said she could not feel him anymore, that he had moved on early, but some part of him might still linger, beloved of the Planet. “Maybe.”
Ella looked puzzled at the ways of grown-ups, but seemed to come to some sort of acceptance of their quirks. “Okay,” she said, then stole the half-eaten cookie from Sephiroth’s hand and skipped away.
“Hey!” Sephiroth said.
Aeris blinked, returning to herself. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Sephiroth said, tapping one foot. Ella grinned at him before ducking behind his desk to enjoy her loot. “Are you…?”
“I’m fine,” Aeris said, rubbing her arms. She looked around, taking in the failing light outside. “It’s getting late.”
Sephiroth nodded, looking down at his feet. “Will you get home safely?”
“Of course,” she said, rising from the couch. “Ella?”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Sephiroth said half-heartedly, feeling something stir at the fact that there was still lightness in the world. “Time to go home.”
“Okay.” Ella popped back out and bounced to attention. “Are you coming too?”
Sephiroth choked, looking anywhere but at Aerith. She said nothing, but he noticed how she wrapped her arms around her middle. “We’ll see, Ella,” Aeris said. “Come on now.” She looked up at Sephiroth as Ella dutifully took her hand. “Sephiroth…,” she began. He hardly dared to look at her but when he did, he wanted to believe that there was a dimming of the rage that had lit her eyes for far too long.
“I’ll… I’ll call you when we get there,” she said at last.
Sephiroth nodded, feeling suddenly as low as his shoes.
“This place is a dump,” Admiral Haskell declared.
“I tidied,” Sephiroth protested, feeling the censure that could only come from military types. Haskell had begun working her way up the chain of command in the Navy at a time when women didn’t, and it showed.
“You got cookie crumbs on your rug there,” she said, “and is that crayon all over your desk?”
“I’ll have you know I like the chocobo,” Sephiroth said, steepling his fingers. He had not moved the perimeter around it either, even if it had meant shifting his chair a bit to the right to get room to work.
Haskell sighed and grabbed a chair. “How are you doing, Sir? I mean, really.”
Sephiroth maintained his rigid posture. “I’m fine.” Haskell stared him down. Or tried to. Sephiroth was still the SOLDIER he had been raised to be, with too many years of command behind him to be stared down by some aging sailor, especially one as prickly as Haskell. She would break first, she always did. But she put up a good fight.
“It won’t last forever.”
Sephiroth sighed. “How do you know?” He wanted to turn his chair away from her, but he appreciated the effect of being backlit while his guests stared owlishly into the sun. He could observe without being so observed in return, and what he observed was that the steely-haired battleship was looking remarkably sympathetic. He would have almost called it a ‘grandma face’, but never out loud.
“A woman knows,” Haskell said it with authority before her voice softened again. “Take it from another mother, at least. She won’t shut you out forever.”
Sephiroth sighed. “It’s a little different, Virginia. Yours was grown when the war took him.”
“Doesn’t make much difference to a mother when it happens,” Haskell said, “and spare me the rubbish about Stan doing all the work, it’s old news.” She shook her head. “I may not have been the kind of mother your Aeris is, but I know she can’t stay mad at you forever. She loves you too much.”
Sephiroth shored up the defenses around Ella’s blue chocobo. “I don’t know why everybody’s so sure about that.”
“Because it’s obvious,” Haskell said, discreetly refraining from pointing out how. “The whole base is rooting for you, you know. For the both of you. You’ll get through this.”
Sephiroth set his hands on his knees and resisted the urge to twitch his fingers to match what his toes were doing inside his boots. “I wish I could see how.”
There was that ‘grandma face’ again. Haskell looked past Sephiroth, out into the blazing sunshine. “I know what got me and Stan through it. We still had our girls. We had good times to be grateful for with our boy, and we still had our girls. And each other.”
Sephiroth made a small sound as he eyed the blue chocobo on his desk. He had an urge to pull the crayons out and fill in some of the gaps in the coloring.
“Come on, General,” Haskell coaxed. “You know I’m right. You haven’t given up hope.”
Sephiroth tilted his head, maintaining his composure above the desk while his toes dug into the rug below. “What makes you think that?”
“You’re still sleeping on your couch,” Haskell said, jabbing her head at the furniture in question. “If you really had given up, you’d have requested quarters on base.”
Sephiroth scowled and resolved to fluff his cushion better so no one else would be able to tell.
Sephiroth straightened up in his chair, knocking over a few pens. “Ella? Sweetie, what time is it? What are you doing on the phone so late?”
“Mom said I could call.”
Sephiroth straightened some more. “She did? Did you want a bedtime story?”
“No, I’m not sleepy.” Ella did in fact sound as perky as ever, possibly even more so for the thrill of being up past bedtime. Sephiroth smiled into his phone, one hand on his chest where a strange tightness grew.
“Is Mom there?”
There was a knock on his office door. It came through the office and through the phone. Sephiroth bounded over, managing not to stumble over his own sleep-addled feet. “Come inside. Gaia, what are you doing here this time of night?”
“It’s not that late,” Aeris said, “and I’ve been here at night before.” She had, Sephiroth knew, but that had been years ago, before the children. Sephiroth felt a pang at the unbidden reminder that there were not children anymore. Ella shot past him, intent on digging out her crayons and finishing her still life in blue. Aeris settled herself in her usual spot on the couch and slid her shoes off her feet.
“Tea?” Sephiroth asked. “I don’t have anymore of the lemon peel. Oolong? Or maybe coffee for the drive back.”
Aeris shook her head. “Peppermint?” she asked, hopeful. Sephiroth nodded and went digging through his stash. He brought the cups over as soon as they were ready, before the tea had properly steeped.
“Is something wrong?” he asked. “Coming out all this way at this hour.”
Aeris shook her head, arms around herself. “Nothing’s wrong.” She looked at Ella, busy improving her father’s desk. She looked at the hot water, slowly turning greenish-brown at the bottom of pale china cups. “Seph.”
Sephiroth picked up his tea. “Ah.”
“I just found out today,” Aeris said. “I’d been wondering but I wasn’t sure. All those false alarms we used to have, you know.”
“Mmhmm,” Sephiroth said.
“I was going to tell you tomorrow, but I couldn’t sleep,” Aeris was saying. “The doctor thinks I’m… It was that time after the funeral.”
And the gears in Sephiroth’s mind began to crank so hard that sparks flew. The kid’s fucked from the start and You can't just replace a lost person and What if this one’s not immune either?
The cold knot that had slowly been retracting its coils shot through Sephiroth again right down to his toes. The image of a sheet pulled over a small body flashed through his mind. He set his tea down and sloshed half of it onto the coffee table.
He looked around his office, feeling as if those four walls could not contain him. Something wanted to come bursting out from deep inside him. He was afraid it was a scream. Meanwhile, Ella colored and Aeris warmed her hands on a cup of weak tea.
Aeris, Aeris… she had come all this way to tell him because she felt he deserved to know. But what did she want to do? Raise her children alone? Would he visit? Would she visit? What if the child really wasn’t immune. There had to be some way to tell before it got so bad, before the birth even. And if it wasn’t immune, then what? Would Aeris want to cut her losses, minimize her grief? Or would she still try, stubborn, for the Planet’s sake? And if she went through one more precious pregnancy for the sake of a child that could not live, could she handle it? Could he?
His toes began to tap inside his boots but he forced them still. He focused on his breathing, on his heart, and forced his insides to approximate his outside as much as he could. “What-" he began, but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and his voice rumbled as if hoarse from sleep. “What do you want to do?”
Aeris kept her eyes down as she reached across the gap, setting her trembling fingers against his own. “I want to go home.”