Chapter 9 – The Devil You Know

<<–Preamble/Prelude
<–Chapter 8                                                                                                  Chapter 10–>

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and settings are all property of Square Enix so I can take no credit nor claim any ownership of that. I do take some credit for the story’s plot.
Artwork Disclaimer: The featured artwork for this chapter is entitled Seraph Awakened and was created by Deviant Artist AiRen-SC. All rights belong to the artist, and the work is used graciously and with permission here.
Author’s Note:  I made a macro for this chapter’s quote quite a while after I wrote the chapter, mind you, but it was just too close to the source to not render a visual representation.  Found here on my tumblr blog.

“And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light…”
-2 Corinthians 11:14

Sephiroth Seraph Awakened

Aeris screamed as she slid to the ground, feet scrambling wildly for purchase. Clawing at the black soil with ragged nails, she tried to turn and run, but Sephiroth was far swifter as he broke his stone’s pose, searing the air with his eyes. The face he wore now was only for killing. Empty save beauty and pale. It was what he’d been made for, his reason for being, and she was a task to be fulfilled. He slaughtered those men in the depths of the slums in order to get to me! To kill me in this world of shadow he surely calls his own. This was the trap. This was the turn. This was the betrayal. The Planet was not here to warn her and she’d fallen like a fool for this ploy. Oh dear friend, when I die in the darkness, will I find my way back to you? Or will my spirit wander this abyss and become a swirling shade?

It was this terror that stilled Aeris’s struggles as she folded her hands to pray. At the sight of her defeat, he picked up speed and his eyes could’ve burned down world. If she blinked she’d miss her death again on the end of unyielding steel. He leapt through the air and her eyes streamed with tears as she waited for doom to descend. Over her he flew and that wing spread wide as Sephiroth turned the sword in his hand. The momentum from speed had him sliding with grace as the Masamune’s swift arc awoke roar.

The…thing that had thrown him from her side gushed blood so black it steamed. Darker things spilled as he rolled to his feet avoiding the wash of entrails. Aeris turned her head to catch a mere glimpse of ageless horror that slunk through her mind. A moment longer would’ve lost her to soul rending madness, but she was saved as Sephiroth swept her up and slid back through the seams of the world.

 

*

 

He stepped through the foam where the lonely sea made endless love to the shore. Wind-borne waves broke at his calves, but his boots were high and both they and his coat were thick and waterproof. The surf sloshed against as he walked through wet sands, which hushed softer than tears at his neck. Aeris clung there with her eyes tight shut, completely encased in his arms. The Masamune and monster were both back in between, the one writhing around the other. Sephiroth would never tell her that. She’d no need to envision that dance… The flower girl dug her hands beneath soft winter hair. She prayed and prayed and prayed again that this was not a dream. Damp sands left his prints for the next sweeping wave as a hard sob shook the small form.

He stopped in his tracks and turned to view his little charge’s stricken face. Fear had drained her cheeks of color that not even tears could return, but she still raised her head and kissed her savior over and over again. Cheek, brow, and temple all were blessed by her salt stained lips, and Sephiroth shut his eyes for a moment unsure how to bear this pain.

“I thought…I thought…” she sputtered and choked.

“I know what you thought, little flower.” She’d fallen back against his neck, and he laid his own lips to her brow.

“You came back to save me…not to kill me. I’m so sorry, Sephiroth.”

“Hush, little one. What did I tell you? Never apologize to me. I don’t deserve it and I won’t have it. Not now not ever from you.” He covered her cheek with one of his palms and Aeris sniffed, lifting summer streamed eyes. “You were terrified of the monster that had taken your life.”

“But you weren’t the monster in between. How many times have you saved me now?”

“It will never be enough.”

“No, Sephiroth, you’re so very wrong. What…what was that thing?”

Sephiroth shifted his eyes away to look up at the sun. The sky that attended was so blue by the water, it could’ve stolen its hue.

“The horror that’s swimming in my veins…the darkness that echoes my own.”

Aeris’s breath went from whisper to gasp as she sat upright in his arms. “No, no, that can’t be! I called down what destroyed it myself.”

“Evil never dies,” he reminded her sadly. “I’m living proof of that.”

“You’re not evil,” she insisted still stubborn and he very nearly smiled. “And you never were. You were just another pawn.”

“That may be, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the horror’s returned.” The sea breeze picked up and streamed his hair back as it ruffled the bow in her hair.

“What will we do?”

We will do nothing. You’ve already done too much.” He touched her face and shook his head, as the sandy hill crested up. “You lost your life. You lost your friends. You lost your very future…” Sephiroth jerked his face away, but Aeris had seen something there.

“What is it?” She tried to turn him back, but it was like trying to move a statue. Covering her hand, he sighed to return, but those moments had gathered grief.

“Your friends, Aeris…Strife and Valentine. That is how they died.”

A strangled cry tore at her throat, as she tried to comprehend. “H-How do you know this?”

“Like calls to like. Cells call to cells. The moment I saw it the past was laid bare. It is a piece of the abomination…just as I am.”

She kissed him them and took the foul words to destroy them with her purity, and Sephiroth stopped for this could not be unanswered though the moment was far too brief. Aeris ran fingers through his long bangs so similar to her own. “So you’re not the only one who can go in between?” she asked to half-veiled emerald.

“I’ve always carried these cells within so I’ve always been able to do so. I don’t know if either of them could…but they would’ve heard the scratching.”

“The…scratching?”

Sephiroth sighed as he looked up at the wall that now loomed grey before. A part crumbling staircase narrowed his eyes, and he wondered what they’d find at the top.

“I didn’t tell you about it before because I didn’t want you to worry…” Aeris was staring hard at him now, white bright around summer leaves. “In the basement of your house there’s a crack in the wall and through it I heard a scratching like a myriad claws of a thousand trapped rats dying in darkness below.”

“Oh dear gods…” the flower maid whimpered, “I-I know that crack, but I never heard anything within. It was always been there even before w-when my mother was still alive. I never felt anything…” She let her mind open fully, and her dear friend murmured confused. The Planet hadn’t even seemed to notice her absence and only trilled nonsense when she tried to explain. It was as though she’d been taken out of time when Sephiroth had pulled her between.

“I don’t think you’d be able to, little flower, now that I know what it’s from, but your friends would’ve heard it like I did, and they found a way to seek it out.” He bowed his head regretful though he wasn’t the direct cause of their deaths.

Aeris’s eyes found fresh tears again as she laid her cheek against his. The flower girl barely noticed that he was carrying her up a high stone stair. “You were able to defeat it…just by yourself.”

“I doubt it’s dead, little flower, and even if it were, the very implications of its existence are far worse…I felt it.” And Aeris had to imagine the shudder that still barely quivered his form. He reached the top and from the height sought the sky and all the sorrow it now contained. “There were many, many experiments, Aeris.” He lowered his head. “Before they finally produced me. I hide my horror within, little one, and you call this pale veneer beauty. I told you evil never dies and something has woken it again.”

“But who would do that?” She pursed her lips then and gave him a sideways glance. His grim expression said all too well that they shared the same somber thought. “But they’re all dead,” Aeris insisted, “and the tower is empty. That’s all in the past.”

“The past will never leave use, Aeris. It sleeps beneath our skins. Someone has touched what should have never seen the light of day.” The heavens were as empty as the mask of his face as he scanned the unfathomable distance. “It seems I must face the false mother again before I can find the true…”

“Not alone,” she told him. “You’ll need help. No one should face that alone.”

“No Aeris, not from you.” She looked so hurt the agony was blinding as he forced Mako green from the sky.

“That’s not what I meant,” he told her gently. “You’ve done enough. You’ve done your part. This fight is meant for me.”

The flower girl gave a huffing sigh and he balanced himself between grief and desire. She suddenly shuddered and he held her close as a cold breeze broke on his arms. “I thought it was over…” Aeris whispered, and Sephiroth shut his eyes in despair. “I thought the world was safe. I thought the worst was past…”

“Things like that…they never die. They will always be here, Aeris. Ever hungry and ever gnawing at the very heart of the world.” The Cetra shook so violently he cursed his direct tongue.

“What if…” She trembled but forced herself up so that she could face emerald green. “What if all worlds have such darkness living and gnawing at their hearts?”

“Shh,” he admonished his eyes so growing wide that white held what couldn’t be fear. “Don’t speak of such things, little one. That horror is not for you to bear.”

The city at the top of the wall was quiet, and Sephiroth stepped slowly to look around. It was the off season, early spring, but still Costa del Sol owned its solace. Too many buildings were boarded up with wood that looked a hundred years old. The shore over the wall was even empty of those who preferred a cooler clime, and his sharp gaze caught a few broken chairs sticking out like white bones in the sand. The streets were covered in grains so blown from the shore with no sweepers to clear it, and through every window was only desertion with signs that hung crooked and warped.

“It’s all so…empty.” Aeris’s sigh was lost in the shush of the sea.

“I suppose my apocalypse was not good for business.” Sephiroth swept his gaze through the streets searching someplace for her to rest. Though he could be swift in the between he didn’t want to risk her again. If it had to be done, he’d return them to Kalm, and they’d figure it out in the morning.

A taller building rose ahead, encroaching eve enhancing wane light. Sephiroth pushed the hair from his face as he approached to see sign unobscured. The doors were open, which saved him the trouble of having to kick them in. Though it had been finer in its heyday, the hotel wore its age like vintage. Yellow lit chandeliers hung on their cords like gilded acrobats from the high ceiling, and though the door disturbed grumbling dust, it fell unseen upon rose and cream carpet.

“Ah gods, guests!” the counter clerk said, stowing a questionable book aside. “W-Were you looking for a room?” Neon green widened on an expressionless face. “O-Of course you were,” the man spluttered, turning attention to his computer screen. “Why else would you walk into a hotel unless you wanted a room? U-Unless you just wanted dinner?” He only glanced for a moment at the blank, pale mask before he began furiously typing. “Erm, name and stay length?”

A plastic card slid on the countertop as a low voice said, “One night.”

Between thumb and pointer, the clerk tentatively took it to the tap the information with twitching fingers. “A-And you’re holding a young lady, so I guess that’d would be two.”

Aeris jerked up to peer around, surprised Sephiroth had let him see. He’d shifted her easily to one arm to retrieve the card from his pocket, and the Cetra leaned against his epaulet with a little half-made smile.

“How about the Sunlight Suite?”

“Sunlight sounds more than lovely.”

The clerk’s grin twinkled book-tired eyes. He rang the bell amongst the clutter so zealously the former general almost muted his ears. From a corner room a bellhop near sprinted, wringing his hands to keep them from shaking. At Sephiroth’s neon glare he stood stock still as if he were bound by the light. His outfit was silly and very old-fashioned, but it fit with the air of this place.

“Show our guests to the Sunlight Suite.” When the desk clerk spoke, the other man jump-turned. “Oh and make sure you wake the cook.”

The bellhop gave them a scurrying glance as Sephiroth tilted his head. He always wondered what people made of him when he wore his glamour.

“Oh… you don’t have any luggage.” The man’s shoulders slumped.

“Nothing that should trouble you.” Sephiroth indicated Aeris’s travel bag.

“Okay…well you can follow me then. I hope you don’t mind stairs.” The first hallway was dark as if the lights didn’t realize evening had caught them up. The stairwell was lit though if a bit dim, not that that mattered to Mako eyes. “Sorry there’s no elevator.” The thick carpeted steps muffled his feet, while black boots made not one creak. “We’re the oldest hotel in Costa del Sol and the only one still open now.”

“I noticed the city seemed quite deserted even for the season of spring.”

The bellhop reached the first landing and turned to climb up the next set. “Well, it is the off season, but my grandmother told me that after the…incidents people craved luxury less.” He glanced over his shoulder to expressionless face as his guest quickly flicked his eyes down. The woman he was holding nodded to acknowledge with sadness enough for them both.

“Many residents moved away as if they were tired of decadence. Not that far from what I’ve heard.”

“Where did they go?” Aeris asked.

“The Whispers, miss. It’s just slightly south, but the wind and the climate are better.” He was trying to hide the fact he was winded after just two sets of stairs. His guest was carrying a maid in one arm and had not even broken a sweat.

“The Whispers?”

“Yes, it’s a quaint little town just recently built, well, recent like the last fifty years. I’ve never been there myself.”

“It sounds quite sweet…” The flower maid smiled, and Sephiroth turned to catch her eye.

“I’m sure it is, miss.” The bellhop nodded. “Business has been picking up year by year. That’s why we still remain. Just a skeleton crew now of course, but in summer we’re a bit livelier.” He paused on the third landing to hold up the wall, while mopping his brow with a sleeve. “Rumor has it there’ll be a train to there before the end of the summer.”

Puffing up the next set of stairs, the bellhop flung open the door at the top. He caught his breath whilst thumbing through keys still flushed when he found the right one. The room straight before them was what he unlocked, pushing open the double doors. Sephiroth ducked below the lintel and stepped into rosy dusk.

The bay window spanned the full length of the building and faced the west where the day died in joy. Aeris sat up to his measured smooth steps, while the city erupted in light. It was hard to remember how empty it was when the setting sun filled every shadow. The flower girl laid her head against flawless skin and hair that shamed brightest sea foam.

The once general turned back toward their host. “This is more than acceptable. Thank you for bringing us here.” He retrieved a fifty gil note, and the bellhop’s breath stumbled in shock. Between thumb and forefinger he grasped the money rubbing its surface to prove it was true.

“Th-Thank you, sir.” He stowed it away and brushed off his uniform.   “Once the cook’s finished I’ll bring you some dinner. Sorry there’s not really a choice. He just tends to make what he wants.”

“That’s no trouble,” Aeris said with a smile. “At one point we had too many options. Sometimes it’s nice to have too few.” Her grin widened as she saw her protector stiffen the mask on his face.

Relief loosened the bellhop’s shoulders. “Good then, well I’ll be back …and I’ll make sure I knock when I am,” he added in afterthought.

The door clicked closed and they were alone to bathe in the radiant light. Sephiroth carried Aeris closer to the window where the dusk unending did spill. She shut her eyes to the murmuring Planet, the song ever sung in her head. The flower girl wondered if he’d be able to hear if he delved into her mind. Not that he would do that now…unless perhaps I allowed. She turned to grief that had leaked through the mask though it could not disrupt the glory. His hair was awash in the colors of the dusk as emerald bright eyes cut through. She’d yet to see anything quell the gleam that should’ve set lashes afire. His one arm around her was just as steady as it been when he’d first swept her up.

“Do you never tire?” the Cetra asked softly.

“Not really, little one,” he replied. “I could hold you in my arms for days and run to the ends of the earth.” Sephiroth laid his brow to hers, as Aeris passed a hand through his hair. “In fact…in this moment I find myself never wanting to put you down. I hope that doesn’t frighten you, Aeris.” He wrapped his other arm the maid and sealed Mako behind shut lids.

“Why would that ever frighten me now?” Silken hair danced between her fingers. “Nothing can ever hurt me so long as I’m with you. You keep proving that over and over again…I never should’ve doubted.” She pushed herself up using his shoulders and peered around with unconcealed awe. “So this is what it’s like to see things so high. It’s such a regal view…”

Sephiroth shook his head before kissing her brow. Her sincerity was unreal.

“It’s funny. Cloud was right about that…” She expected the stiffness as she laid her cheek so smooth alongside his.

“Right about what, little flower?” The words measured themselves like a stingy cook.

“At one point he said that your strength was impossible to describe. The Great General Sephiroth…and now here I am held safe in your arms.”

“Not so impossible he was unable to best it and you more so, little one.” He kissed the cheek that was laid to his own seeing green light spill soft on pale skin. “This ‘Great General’ was waylaid by you, and I see no shame in that. My greatest grief is for what I did to you, your friends, and this very world.”

“Sephiroth, you can’t discount intention and what you were forced to endure.”

“I see you’ve been thinking about former suitors.” Amusement mixed with pain in his voice. He envied how she could slip through the past with protection from horror and grief.

“Oh stop that!” Aeris lifted her head, shaking the bangs from her eyes. “We never even kissed.” She blushed. “I mean…he tried to…only once, but I was tired of puppies.” She slid a small hand to his cheek and he covered it with his own. “I thought maybe I’d try generals next…”

“That’s quite a leap, don’t you think, little flower, from puppies to generals?” Sephiroth pulled her closer so that their brows touched and her fingers slipped between his own.

“I know…” she murmured, “I’m being quite proud.”

“No, you’re not being proud enough.”

He kissed her anyway so the subtle words of hatred were swept away by this tide. The sun relented to starlight, which gave day its last respect to sprinkle the firmament from afar. What street lamps ignited could shake neither this light nor the one by the window side. Sephiroth slanted his mouth hard over hers to slake unquenched thirst, and Aeris made a soft, little sound, sliding slim fingers through silver. Silk brighter than moon washed over her skin in envy to pulsing starlight, and he answered that with a tug to her ribbon so chestnut cascaded down. With one hand he gathered enough locks together to tilt her head farther back. Exposing a creamy throat to his mouth as she dug fingers into his hair, but Sephiroth refused to go past this boundary and lifted again for a kiss that asked for entry before claiming her so slow. Aeris flung her arms around his neck, as he found the side of hers again. A little cry that held no pain heralded the slight press of teeth, and the low chuckle teased her reddening ears as she pulled back to meet his brow.

“I can’t…” She fought for sweet stolen breath. “…think of anything else when you’re kissing me. Not horror, not dark…not even the Planet.” She blushed as it laughed in her ears.

“I can’t lie, little one,” he murmured, brushing the bangs from her face. “With you in this moment, I’m merely a man, a very lucky man, and not a lab engineered monster.”

“You could never be ‘merely’ anything, and you’re never ever that.”

He tossed his hair and she shut her eyes as it swept sweet over her skin, but his face lowered in grief brought it to her own as Aeris laid a hand to his cheek.

“You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen,” she said before biting her lip. “You had to have loads of admirers…in addition to your fan club.”

“They were vapid though, Aeris,” Sephiroth sighed. “There was nothing of substance within.”

“They had to be better than that Follower of Seph…that Phaedra Levanah girl. Something about her shop just wasn’t right, the Planet was muffled and-”

He kissed her before the shudder could form, and Aeris proved her words in that moment. The darkness all faded as she shut her eyes to afterimage of silver light. When they finally parted, Sephiroth sighed to reluctantly set the flower maid down. She half fell upon the window ledge for her heart was still drawn in the kissing dance and couldn’t fathom how to power aught else.

“I’m going to wash the sand from my hair,” he told her, “unless you wish to shower first.”

The little Cetra’s head was thrown back against the wall with the memory of lips on her skin. There was no chance now of keeping her feet to accomplish such a task. There was black dirt beneath her nails, and that soured a bit of her reverie, but still Aeris managed to wave a hand, which he caught as he crouched before.

“Stay here in the starlight, my little flower. If you could only see what it does to you.”

He kissed her hand like a gentleman would and went to perform his ablutions. Aeris shut her eyes when he left her listening to the water run. She remembered how he’d stood by the window in Kalm, bare-chested to the morning light and imagined him slipping black leather from his shoulders, white skin emerged as though from cocoon. He’d hang his coat carefully not wishing to steep it in damp or too much steam. Then to his high belt he’d turn his attention before reaching for the one at his pants…

The Planet’s full laughter jolted her up to the red heat of blush on her face. You’re naughty, dear friend, she admonished so trying to lay the blame on the world, but Aeris was too honest and then felt ashamed to have not said her prayers for this day. Pulling herself up on the large cushioned ledge, she knelt with bowed head and clasped hands. The shower behind could just be soft rain and not contain her beautiful protector so washed in white, sliding large hands along porcelain skin…

Aeris made herself see the babes in the slums huddled together for warmth. Though she had no power to sidestep, the Planet could offer her sight of what it bore on its face. There were fewer urchins this new nightfall, and she shed tears for the missing’s fate. Her mother’s house was lonely, but it still stood intact. Even now with knowledge neither she nor the Planet could sense the evil below. This troubled her so she moved her mind to the peace of her church. In the red ruled night, it was still a haven, and the bloody glow could never dim that. Bittersweet tinged the back of her throat for amongst grimness there was always that light. The flowers within still grew in droves though they missed their mistress’s touch. Will I ever see you again? she wondered with fluttering heart. Though I could grow others elsewhere, you were my hope and my joy. You showed me light could blossom from darkness in this and the last life.

“What do you pray for, little one?” a low voice murmured, and Aeris whirled around with a gasp. His coat was unbuckled and the epaulets gone as dried moonlight spilled over one shoulder. Her reaction made him freeze in place, hands raised to show no harm. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you, Aeris. I…didn’t realize I spoke aloud.” He bowed his head and long lashes splayed in shadow against his cheeks. “Those are your private thoughts with the Planet. I’ve no right to-”

“No, I’ll tell you.” She climbed down to stand before him, and his light alone broke the dark.

“You will?” he whispered, shaking silver aside.

“Yes.”

“Why would you do that, Aeris?”

“Because you asked…” She played with her hands. “I-I don’t really know. Maybe because I’ve been too long alone with only the Planet to hear my thoughts.”

“I shouldn’t have said it. I shouldn’t have thought it. I shouldn’t wonder about your prayers.”

She stepped forward and took his left hand in her two. Always she was shocked at how warm he was for skin the white of ice. “It’s okay to question. It’s okay to wonder and it’s okay to dream.”

“Not for me, little one.” He soft threaded their fingers.

Especially for you,” she declared. “You’ve been denied that for far too long.” She laid her head to his chest, and he held her closer with his free right hand. Aeris shut her eyes with a smile, her cheek to his skin, as Sephiroth stared unblinking down. She tilted her face up to meet his gaze with no fear for sliver split light.

“I love the way you look up at me, Aeris.” The words broke through his layered wall. She wet her lips and he fought to maintain a semblance of his mask.

“I love looking up at you, Sephiroth. I love that you’re so tall…I love that you’re so gentle and yet so very strong.”

He released her fingers and let that palm cover half of her lovely face. Aeris smiled and turned her head to place a soft kiss there, as the hand by her waist clenched to a fist that could’ve crushed a man’s skull. “You asked…what do I pray for. Mostly for answers, a way to help the desperate poor.”

“Mostly?” he questioned hearing the shadow that lay beneath her words.

Aeris squirmed a little bit, and a silver brow lifted high. “I already know what you’re going to say…but I also pray for you.”

“Why would you do that, little flower?”

“You deserve joy and peace.”

He lifted her chin while shaking his head. “I deserve memory and pain.”

Aeris sighed with tiniest smile. “Which is why I pray for you in hopes you’ll see the truth.”

“You know my truth, little one. You felt it between your bones.”

“That was never your truth, Sephiroth. The truth is what I see now.”

He bent down low to taste this truth from her giving lips, and in the midst of this, the bellhop returned with a gentle knock on the door. Sephiroth lifted and turned his head, calling out, “Come in.” The doors were flung open and the man fumbled in dragging a cart laden with platters. Aeris sighed as her protector swept over to hold the door for their host.

“Thanks again, sir,” the bellhop huffed. “You’re really far too kind.” Sephiroth kept his silence at that. As if now noticing darkness, he snapped his fingers to bring the room to light. Chandeliers similar to the vintage lobby hung in grace above, and the man was too busy managing his burden to notice that small bit of magic.

Aeris blinked and whirled around finally noticing their environs. A massive king sized bed stood as the centerpiece of the room. Complete with four posters and shimmering veils, the Cetra couldn’t help but blush. In the far corner near the huge bay window stood a mini bar, and the wall behind the bed was only a divider that stretched as wide as the headboard. Behind this was another full room with an antique dining table. This was where the bellhop headed with his clattering, rickety foe.

“I thought there was no elevator,” Sephiroth said as the man dressed and set the table.

“Well, there’s a dumb waiter,” he admitted, shuffling trays from cart to wood. “Not that I can fit in there, mind you, but it does make room service easier.” Grinning despite the blank expression, he brushed off his hands with a sigh. “Well there you go.” He gave Aeris a nod. “When you’re done just leave everything here and I’ll be along to collect it.” He touched his cap and refused more money before leaving them again to themselves. Even after that they could hear him whistling as he walked back down the stairs.

“What a cheerful person,” Aeris observed as the once general’s gaze burned the door. This was something else he had almost destroyed, and he almost winced as he heard, “Sephiroth?”

He turned back and she was sitting at the table, head tilted up towards him.

“It’s alright, little one. I was just thinking…thinking about-”

“The past?”

He nodded while Aeris softly sighed and gestured to the seat across. Sephiroth took it and almost half-smiled at the strange tides of fate. In lives before he’d given the orders with no question that they’d be obeyed, but with a mere motion of her tiny hand, she’d commanded the great general.

Two candles stood sentinel on the table’s edges and the lights within were dim. Sephiroth flicked his gaze between the two wicks, as Aeris asked, “Will you light them?”

“Truly, little flower?”

“Well,” she considered, “he did make an effort to bring them along.” She swung her legs beneath the high chair and her smile could’ve made the spark.

Sephiroth crooked two fingers up and flames burst from purple wax. Her cheeks were flushed a seashell pink that bled down to her lips, and the once general turned his head to the shadows shutting bright eyes to not light his pain.

“You must be…so happy that they can’t see who we truly are.”

She stopped her legs and gazed up in confusion. “Why would you ever think that?”

“Aeris…” He allowed a sliver of green to sink in the hollows beneath his eyes. “They obviously think that we’re together. I can’t begin to imagine what shame-”

“Stop it!” She clenched her small fists now as he faced her, hiding surprise. “There is no shame, nor would there be if they could see you as I do.”

Sephiroth searched her face full of innocent anger that he’d slander himself in this way. Then he lifted away the top of the platter to reveal their evening meal. Sea bass and scallops ingeniously paired with watercress and squash.

“Oh, I’ve never had this before!” Aeris almost squealed clapping her hands in delight. Her protector shook his head at her ire given way to exuberance. “Now are you going to eat?” she almost accused.

“A little.” And this time he did smile.

There was wine like black velvet so he poured her a glass and as an afterthought one for himself. The candles flickered as Aeris tasted what the sea had to offer. It was different, but seasoned well so savory blended with salt. The wine was more bitter so she stuck out her tongue as he laughed before pouring her tea.

“Sephiroth, can I ask you something?”

“You can ask me anything, little flower.” He sipped slow at his glass that sparkled in the flames to reveal a ruby heart.

The candles danced soft in summer green as she licked chamomile from her lips. Suddenly shy and he cocked his head to the side wondering what had paused her query.

“The fire. You can just…create it, can’t you?”

The stem was crushed to glittering sand as Sephiroth caught the cup ere it spilled. His eyes stretched to the white as the mask fell in place though the edges were pulling in. “This is not good dinner conversation, Aeris…”

“I know. I know. I’m sorry-”

“How many times do I have to tell you, little one? Never apologize to a monster.” He stared at the broken cup couched in his hand and quickly drained the rest.

“About as many times as I must tell you that you’re not a monster.” Her hands were pressed on either side of her plate as the flower girl leaned slightly forward. “I guess I could apologize for apologizing, but that would be even worse.” He parted his lips to her smile, laid down the glass and caught her hand. One lost drop spilled on the white cloth, and he turned away from remembered blood.

“Aeris…” He squeezed then kissed her fingers. “I cannot deny you…yes. I already know what else you’re wondering…why didn’t my flesh burn.”

She let her hair cloak her face so that she could look up behind. He’d said she was genuine, but she could scarcely believe her thoughts were so easy to read.

“It won’t affect me nor anything I’m touching, which is why my clothes remained intact. That would’ve been quite awkward.” He only smiled because her blush would’ve lit the night sky.

“S-So if we’re touching skin to skin-”

“Do you trust me, little flower?”

With all my heart, she wanted to say, but could only glance up to assure. He took her hand and kept a firm but gentle grip on delicate fingers. Pulling it forward, he felt her resistance and immediately stopped. Looking over, he saw her bottom lip worried between her teeth.

“You don’t have to do this, Aeris. I understand if you don’t trust me.”

“No, no, it’s not that. I-I do. I really want to know. Please continue, but thank you for stopping…when you felt that I was scared.” He nodded while barely holding the mask.

She did wince slightly in hot expectation, but felt only a cool buzz on her hand. It made no sense that his skin was warmer when its hue could shame new snow. Her soft palm was above the candle where the lick of the tongue was the worst. Slowly he lowered always watching for any hint that his powers were failed, but she only held awe and that something else that brought his heart sweetest pain.

Leaving the candle to flicker in spite, Sephiroth examined her palm. He ran a long finger soft up the center as she shuddered and held back a gasp. “Are you hurt, Aeris?” He snapped his head up, but it wasn’t pain on her face. His lids half lowered to the smolder of jade as he started now at her forearm.

“Please…” she whispered and his lashes wove green as he kissed fingers, palm, and wrist. “Your touch is like feathers backed by steel and you wear your beauty like a halo.” She wasn’t drunk from those few sips of wine, but still her mind felt muddled. The Planet pulsed softly a comforting song that promised her all was well.

“I supposed I should be glad in that,” he replied, tracing the bright veins in her wrist. “It’s the only crown I’ll ever have. It’s a miracle to me, Aeris that you would trust your fragile hand to mine.”

Her eyes squeezed closed as she concentrated hard on not biting through her lip. Even duel firelight flickered high could never rival his own. She looked up to the bright hot emerald while his thumb now stroked her palm.

“You can just…command the fire like you command everything else.”

“Not you, my little flower. Never you. You are not mine to command.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Aeris whispered laying her hand over his own. He stopped his soft torture to hold hand to hand over the remnants of dinner. “So you’re saying if you commanded me that I wouldn’t obey?” It was a shy little smile that would’ve been coy if worn by any other.

Jade and emerald swirled round the sliver as he rubbed her tender skin. “This is also not appropriate dinner conversation, and I’d never command you, Aeris, nor force you in any way.”

“Whenever you speak, whatever you say, your voice carries a certain compulsion. It’s as though you were created to command and be instantly obeyed.”

He lowered his head and the flames made silver a palette for their light. “I don’t purposely do that, Aeris. I…was given a powerful will.”

“Maybe it’s just natural.”

“There’s nothing ‘natural’ about me, Aeris. Remember I told you everything I am was carefully designed.”

“No, not everything Sephiroth. This right here.” She squeezed his hands. “This is only you.”

He smiled his sorrow for her sake and replied, “Well my strong will made things far worse when it was twisted by an alien desire for purposes you too well know.”

The flower girl looked up through chestnut bangs. “You should…just try to command me to see if it’s inherent. Just something you want me to do.”

What I want you to do I could never command. That would be more wrong than what I have wrought. But he raised his head as his hair slid aside, released her hands and said, “Come here, Aeris.”

In the little Cetra’s heart the Planet thrummed slow as it whispered Go to him, child. She stood without hesitation, trailing her fingers along the table as she walked. Thorn thin pupils followed her motion, the innocent sway of her step, but he half-veiled his eyes in quiet surprise when she climbed onto his lap. Around her as always he circled his arms to pull the flower girl close, and Aeris breathed deep where the smell of leather mixed with winter skin.

“Why did you obey me, little one?” he asked.

“Because I wanted to…”

Sephiroth shook his head and silver locks slid slowly over her breast, caressing the pale flesh that was exposed as he clenched his unworthy hands. “You enjoy playing games with corruption, don’t you?”

“I enjoy being with you.”

“You…enjoy feeling safe and protected,” he tried again to rationalize.

Aeris peered up through the moonlit cascade. “All because of you, Sephiroth.” The former general shut his eyes to her sweet voice saying his name. He didn’t deserve that, not from her, this innocent rose he had slaughtered. Aeris felt his agony as she twirled a lock of his hair. “Do you know what it means to be sitting here…in this beautiful place with you? A week ago I couldn’t remember the sun or even dream the sky held such stars, but because of you I not only see that they’re true, but I’m allowed to bask in their light.”

“You’re not going to let me hate myself, are you?” he whispered down in awe.

“Never.” The flower maid touched his cheek. “I won’t because you don’t deserve it.”

For just an instant hope gleamed softly in the corner of Mako eyes, and just as quickly the dark past crushed it, but he could not forget it had bloomed. Aeris gazed up and wet her lips, and he knew what she was expecting, but it was difficult enough to ignore her warmth as he desperately searched for distraction.

On the tray by the side a small platter glistened, weeping as though sad to be ignored. Sephiroth cupped it like a brandy glass, slightly distracted from his desire. He registered the cold against his palm, though it didn’t dim his heat. Placing the platter down, he lifted the lid wondering what else their host had brought. Inside was a creamy delicacy slightly melted with rounded tops like furrowed snow.

The flower girl gasped with both hands to her mouth, and Sephiroth looked down at her oddly.

“What is it, Aeris?” He cocked his head to the side, looking between her and the strange desert.

The Cetra grabbed his hand and smiled wide to the apples of her cheeks. “Don’t tell me you don’t know what this is!” Sephiroth raised a brow with a slight shake of his head.

“Oh…dear…gods even I’ve had ice cream and I’m just a poor slum girl.”

He resisted the urge to remind his little flower that she was the true daughter of the Planet saying instead, “Remember, Aeris, I wasn’t allowed to have anything sweet.” He closed his eyes but memory could not be shut out as his lips became a thin line. “They…taunted me with it, though they called it a test. Something about ‘negative aversion.’ I was placed in a room with a table over laden with what could only be a child’s sweet feast. I could approach. I could even sit down, but the instant a morsel passed through my lips, I was shocked into unconsciousness. I will tell you, little one…that’s no short journey, and when I woke I was shocked again. The collar they’d locked around my neck made the one in the slums like a brush of your lips.”

Aeris was crying into his chest, and he regretfully stroked her soft hair. She clenched her fists in helpless anger, as he swept chestnut waves from her face. “Why must your past make everything awful?”

“I told you I wasn’t made to be happy, little one, and their ‘treatment’ did work. Even as an adult I had no taste for sweets. I didn’t think of them again until the hotel in Kalm.”

She sat up and fiercely wiped her face, glaring up at the memory he still wore. “This is basically the best thing that you’ll ever taste. It’s like…frozen heaven on your tongue.”

“Somehow I doubt that, little flower,” he murmured while thumbing her open lips.

“W-Well…” Aeris stuttered, “i-it’s the best thing that you’ll ever eat then.”

One brow went up. “We could argue about that, too, little one, but the conversation would not be polite. Let me taste what you’ve so highly praised.”

He took one of the spoons and scooped some of it up, cool vanilla to sweat between flames. To Aeris’s surprise he brought it to her, but she wouldn’t refuse the offer. Shutting her eyes she cleaned the spoon, before the kiss caught her from above. He glided his tongue along her own to not miss an ounce of taste. This moment battled the dark past behind as he covered her cheek with his palm. Sephiroth swallowed the cold from her tongue and lips until they warmed beneath his mouth, tilting up her chin he nibbled the remnants as Aeris remembered how to breathe.

“Little flower,” he murmured, “you may just be right, but I need another taste to know.” Her lips were half parted as she leaned against him no strength in her now to sit up, but she took the chilled offering, holding half in her mouth as he bent to her again. Slowly he spun his tongue against hers as the borrowed sweetness filled them both. He buried a hand beneath her soft hair so he could reach deeper within. The soft moan from her throat pierced through memory as her fingers spun around his long bangs. Running the tip of his tongue over her lips, Sephiroth lifted his head so trailing silver licked soft over her skin.

“Let me have a taste,” Aeris whispered and she took the spoon this time. He half smiled as she lifted it high, but allowed sweet frost coat his tongue. Then she reached up to throw her arms around his neck as he lowered his brow to hers. She pressed her rouged lips hard to his, and Sephiroth answered her full. Sliding his hands between her shoulder blades, he awoke a tremor at his touch. Ever cautiously his hands traveled downward to circle her waist, while Aeris slid fingers through his always smooth hair, the sweetness still staining their tongues. Each bite of the treat yielding this higher taste that was too delicious to swallow, and by the time it was done, jade seared through the dim left by the now crackling candles. He slanted his mouth over hers just to be sure no remnants of ice cream remained, kissing her so incredibly gently yet with such power it brought her to tears. Then he rose with the flower maid in his arms and only one thought in his mind.

When the bed came to his view Sephiroth stilled in stark shock. Aeris was kissing his brow and cheeks as his eyes seared that canopied king. He turned to her with lowered head as her soft lips pressed to his.

“I’m sure you’ll want to shower now,” he reminded the flower girl. She blinked confused at his sudden chagrin for that had long been forgotten.

“I…I suppose,” the little Cetra acquiesced. “It is getting late.”

Sephiroth slowly put her down trailing his hands along her waist, and Aeris looked still back and up with wonder on her face for his height.

“I really do love looking up at you,” she said, “and I love feeling safe in your arms.” He had to honor her words by wrapping her in them as she shut her eyes to utter bliss. “Alright…” Aeris patted his hand and he let her go, though only she sighed for the loss.

The once general dimmed his hearing for the water’s soft flow, but he could still hear her singing. Chestnut hair would be plastered to her pale thighs as soap trickled between her breasts… He whirled to return to the dining room, narrowing eyes on the broken wine cup. Finding a paper pad and pen, he wrote, I broke a wineglass. Please accept my regret and take the portion out of the bill. Sticking it on the table as her voice rose in crescendo to an obviously well known song. Sephiroth shook his hair out of his face and returned to the main room. Stars painted the huge bay window as if begging to be allowed in. He opened it to a welcoming breeze though it didn’t stir the heat from his face. Her travel bag was sitting near the bed and Sephiroth remembered her book. He could read to her again, an enjoyable act with a far less dangerous ending. Opening the satchel, he peered within, and emerald froze at flash of pink.

It was wrapped in clear plastic and still bore her old blood, which was as faded as the fabric. He held it up to his eyes and saw the great rent that had torn all the way through. Why would she bring this? Why bear this pain? She could’ve left this memory in Midgar. He did not tremble for he was too strong, but a shock to his neck would hurt less. This memory is for her. It’s not for me. I shouldn’t have looked through her bag. He put the dress back as it had been before and sat on the ledge to wait.

Aeris’s skin was pinkened by heat as her hair was dried by the same. Her nightdress covered her, but he could imagine the perfection that lay beneath. She looked troubled for a moment til she caught sight of his darkness near the window side. The little maid hurried over and clutched his hands, and Sephiroth stood up as she pulled. Bemused as she led him to the bed and sat beside him there.

Aeris leaned against his arm and ran her fingers through silver light. The breeze from the sea blew salt scented night to tangle their bangs together. He bent down to kiss the top of her head where the smell of damp summer still clung. The Cetra shut her eyes as he shook his hair back and it swept across her cheeks.

“I can read to you again from your book of poems, that one you seem so fond of.”

Aeris sighed, glancing down to her bag. “No…I’ve read through it so many times and that poem so many more. It’s incredibly old. The title of the volume was long worn away before I was even born. Even the name of the poem on the page and the author are too faded to see.”

He cocked his head at that.

“Yes, I think even for you, Sephiroth. Light can only see what’s there. I think it’s a love song of some sort, not a happy one though, more forlorn. But there’s a certain whimsy in it. It’s as though the poet recognized pretense and revels in its poignant embrace.”

“I could certainly tell you of pretense, Aeris.” He laid his hand over hers as he turned to the window. “I lived with that most of my life.”

“What do you mean?”

“Among the elite,” Sephiroth sighed and looked back at her, “pretense is more common than air.”

“Tell me about it…” Her voice had grown small as if asking for the shyest secret.

“Tell you about what?”

“Tell me something I could never know…” She almost begged and Sephiroth lowered his lids. “Tell me what it’s like to be elite.”

“You are elite, little flower.” He softly squeezed her hands.

“You know what I mean, Sephiroth…I mean life above the plate.”

The past will always haunt us. He lowered his head to press against hers, stirring memory behind bright eyes. “If life it could be called. Isn’t it strange, Aeris? There’s no real life in Midgar. Below the plate you rot. Above the plate you flaunt and no one truly lives.”

“Was it really that terrible?” Her face was stricken and he gently laid a hand to her cheek.

“Terrible? No, little flower. It was just a game nobody wanted to play.”

“Then why did you play it?”

He could only smile and shake his head at how innocent she was. You would be horrible at such a game, and that alone makes you beautiful. “It was just what you did in order to survive, as if survival were all you could hope for. It was always a show, an ever performance and the foundation was rot and greed. Once you learned the steps of the dance, you were always sliding around it, trying to avoid getting too much on your skin. Corruption was everywhere, hidden beneath perfectly manicured hands and festering in the wine of every toast. You have to understand Aeris.” He tightened his grip but was still ever careful as she looked up. “They knew what they were doing. Never have doubt of that. They knew they were killing the Planet.” He shrugged. “But it was profitable so why would they care?”

“I was always afraid of that…” she whispered as her dear friend soothed her mind.

“And those who could afford to live above never gave a thought to the true cost.”

“Wh-What did the elite think of the slums?”

“They didn’t think of them at all.” He rubbed her hands softly, as Mako light cut through his lashes. “It was all just accepted. There were people below, and they lived down in darkness, but suffered in silence so none could see.”

“There are children.” Aeris’s voice became sharp as his sword. “Children who were born and died down there without ever once seeing the sky. They live there still. They’re different but same, and nobody even cared?!”

“Yes…” he admitted with his head bowed again as though this, too, were his guilt. “I know this, little one. I saw them the day I rescued you, but none of that mattered above. So long as they didn’t see it, it didn’t exist. It was all so pretentious, so foolish, so fake, and I played my part, as well. When in Midgar I took off my killer’s mask and put on my elite. They look remarkably similar, but it was a necessary change for there were functions to attend.”

Aeris’s anger melted into a surprising storm of giggles. “I’m sure you would’ve had at least one or two ladies hanging off both your arms.” Even in the midst of everything, she grinned brightly up at him. “I couldn’t imagine you having any trouble with that. They must’ve fought tooth and nail just to catch your attention.” Her smile dropped like a paralyzed bird as she bowed her head blinking hard. “I’m sure they were lovely though and very well dressed. You wouldn’t even look twice at someone like me…”

Sephiroth tilted her chin to his gaze and emerald full seared her face. “No, Aeris, I wouldn’t look twice. At first glimpse I would be caught.” He bent forward and kissed her brow, hiding the memory of what he’d been told. They’ll say you’re beautiful. They’ll want your attention, but they will never love you. I wouldn’t learn why until much later, but by then my soul was lost. Beauty isn’t for you and neither is love. No one could love a monster. Your own mother fled from your sight.

“I just can’t believe,” she breathed out slowly as the press of his lips cooled her brow, “that no one up there cared a bit about those down below.”

He half smiled again to her innocence in thinking the best of the world. “There were some,” he began and she peered up in hope and he sighed to have given it false. “I don’t know if it was because they cared or because they couldn’t live with not caring, but they would leave Midgar and everything it stood for never to return. I know because careful track was kept of such things. Who stayed, who left, who died. I myself was happy to go out on campaigns and be the general in more than just name.” He rubbed her hands as if in apology to his next words. “There’s nothing quite so real as blood, and that’s life’s greatest horror.”

“I…” Aeris swallowed searching his face, but still seeing only what he was now. “I bet no one ever questioned you when you gave commands.”

“No, little flower. No one did. My orders were absolute.” The smile was crooked on perfect lips. “You’re the first to ever question, admonish, or defy. It’s…” He peered beyond her through the wall, expression still in concentration. “It’s refreshing though I don’t agree with your limitless grace.” She squeezed his hands to his soft laughter. “Are you trying to hurt me, little flower?”

Aeris clicked her tongue. “You know I wouldn’t nor am I able. Not in this way at least.”

He kissed her cheek as his hair stroked her skin, a sensuous whisper on her throat. The Cetra gasped and he only didn’t smile because memory weighed him down.

“My…last mission, you know which one, was truly supposed to be that. Going insane was not my preferred method of retirement. I was tired of my employers. Tired of greed. Tired of corruption, yet I became the most corrupt. I became what I hated. Then I hated everything in turn.”

“You let the dark in,” she whispered, “because you believed it was special, but now…” She just smiled and even in Mako light it was the purest thing he’d ever seen. Aeris almost didn’t get her hands free in time to cover up the yawn, and the clock on the night stand revealed the late hour and guilt cloaked him for keeping her awake. The flower girl leaned against Sephiroth’s side, and he just couldn’t leave her yet. Wrapping the small maid in his arms, the former general scooped her up as he stood. A humming sigh was his reward as she full sank against his chest. Cradling her in one arm, he pulled back the bed clothes and went to lay Aeris down. Before her could slim arms stirred to slide around his neck. Sephiroth couldn’t see her expression, but could imagine how she clung with stubbornness far surpassing her strength.

“Do you want me to hold you, Aeris,” he asked, “until you fall asleep?”

“No,” she insisted tightening her grip. “I want you to hold me while I do.”

She shook soft chestnut waves away, and Sephiroth slowly blinked. “If that’s what you wish, little flower,” he murmured. He laid her down and stood above for long moments. The joke had to be hidden somewhere in her face, but Aeris was as genuine as ever before so he climbed in by her side. Slipping one arm beneath and the other above, he pulled her back into him warmth. “Is this alright, little one?” he questioned looking down in some concern.

“It’s more than ‘alright,’ Sephiroth,” she assured him, tilting back to see his face. “Every day I’m with you I somehow or other end up in your arms.”

“I’m luckier than I deserve to be for that, Aeris.”

“I don’t think you’re the lucky one.”

Sephiroth carefully tightened his grip, and Aeris laid her palms on his arms smiling in joy he couldn’t fathom. Jade light burned through half-veiled lids as she wriggled herself even closer. He wanted her more than godhood and glory, though he’d never wanted those things, but then he looked at his hands, his bloodstained hands, and knew it could never be. Lifting one up he snapped his fingers and all lights but the stars went out.

“You should go to sleep, little flower.”

“I know…I should.” But she turned to kiss him instead. Green fire roiled between his lashes as her mouth slanted over his, and as before he led the dance after she began it. Aeris ran fingers through sea foam smooth hair as his hands locked at the small of her back. She gave a squeak as his mouth found her neck and he rolled himself above her. Pinning her wrists above her head with one hand, he bathed her in Mako light. Her lips were parted and blushing from kiss, her eyes shut as she waited for more, but Sephiroth froze like his skin’s flawless marble for what was revealed before.

The buttons of her night dress had parted from embrace with only two still holding. They were at her breast, but it was enough for him to see the flower girl wore no bra. Below that in splendor for his unblinking view was her exposed and minute waist. It flared out to welcome wider hip, and he thanked whatever gods would listen that she wore underwear. I shouldn’t be looking, he thought in guilt, but couldn’t bring himself to turn away. I shouldn’t be allowed to be anywhere near this perfect, innocent rose.

“Little one…” he whispered and she smiled up through silver hair fallen like snow. He released her wrists and indicated her bareness.

“Oh!” Aeris gasped and he saw now her blush went much farther down than her face. She went to cover herself ‘til she saw gleaming green and her reflection in their light. Sephiroth slipped back to his side, but in his eyes she did remain. Aeris laid a soft palm over his hand and to his surprise took his wrist in her grasp. Her let her lift it and slivers tracked the motion of her placing it on her waist. Never was there smoother skin that lay beneath his palm, and the former general pulled her close, sliding his hand to the small of her back.

“What would your friends say if they could see this? If they saw you…with me?”

“I really don’t care,” Aeris declared. “If they knew the truth. If they knew what you’d endured…”

“That doesn’t erase what I did.” He touched her face to draw her gaze back up. “They would always hate me, Aeris. There is no changing that. I deserve it all as I deserve the enmity of the people of Midgar.”

“Those things don’t matter anymore!” she insisted, laying fists to his leather clad shoulders. “They don’t…they don’t matter at all.” She buried her face in the crook of his neck and Sephiroth wrapped his arms around.. If it wasn’t for his enhanced hearing, he wouldn’t have caught it, so muffled in leather and skin. “I think…I think I’m falling for you…”

“Oh, little one…” he whispered, forcing the words. “You’ve just been lonely for far too long. You’ll be amongst people soon. Someplace safe and somewhere beautiful. I’ll take you there just as I promised, and you’ll need a monster no more…”

“Stop it! Stop doing that to yourself! You’ll never be a monster to me.”

Sephiroth slid his fingers slow through her hair before she blessed his hand with her lips. “I’m already fallen, little flower. You don’t want to follow that path.”

Aeris answered his grief with hope shining in her summer eyes. She reached up to bestow one final kiss before nestling herself against his chest, asleep long before the first flash of white melted in emerald green.


Author’s Note:  So this turned into another fluffy chapter after all.  Next Friday May 29 will see Chapter 10 – A Heart Made for War, which heralds one of my favorite if not my favorite parts, though I do bear a bit of guilt for that.  As usual thank you all so much for your likes and support!

<–Chapter 8                                                                                                  Chapter 10–>

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6 thoughts on “Chapter 9 – The Devil You Know

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