Chapter 11 – Despair’s Desire

<<–Preamble/Prelude
<–Chapter 10                                                                                                Chapter 12–>

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.

“Bones mend. Regret stays with you forever.”
-Patrick Rothfuss “The Name of the Wind”

Chapter 11 - Despair's Desire

Sephiroth kept his watch over Aeris all through the quiet night. He’d removed her coat, but didn’t touch her clothes, sore shamed to just have the thought. The moment he placed her on the bed, the Cetra locked her arms around his neck. Sephiroth murmured, “Don’t worry, you’re safe. I just need to remove my boots.” She smiled to the promise in his words and let him go as she rolled to her side. The firelight shivered still in his glow til he shut his eyes to that pain. Opening to her, the heat in them changed as the once general undid silver buckles. Slipping the leather off his shoulders, Sephiroth shook his hair as it shimmered the night. He hung the long coat in the wardrobe where it pooled like oil on the dark wood. Clad only in pants he slid in beside her as Aeris gave a soft peaceful sigh.

All he could think as she lay in his arms was that he didn’t deserve this joy. It would be taken. It had to be as all those he had slain cursed his name. All but one and she was nestled without fear in her murderer’s full embrace. Her lashes were dark and soft on her checks as the sea breeze soft ruffled the curtains. Tiny hands curled against his chest, and Sephiroth held tight to the mask. A smile still ruled the Cetra’s face as he traced her lips in his light. The utter joy would disappear if this little flower now knew my thoughts. How dare I think such? My heart is unworthy. Is a monster allowed to love a rose?

Daylight broke in unblinking green as Aeris murmured his name. The gleam was muted behind closed lids as pain squeezed them hard to close, but being robbed of her vision caused greater torture and he couldn’t bear that for long. Her now messy braid twisted over his arms and her bangs brushed against his bare skin. He wanted to wake her with kisses, gain her consent, and press her beneath him on the bed. Revulsion stayed hidden behind the mask lest he wake this innocent flower. Dawn did this gentle, bringing peaceful sleep to end and summer eyes to wash his face.

“Did you sleep well, little one?”

“You know I did, Sephiroth.” She smiled up at him, and he lifted her chin for a full and morning kiss. His hand slid to her cheek as he tilted his head to not miss an ounce of taste. Not even the night could rob her of sweetness, and he wanted it all on his tongue.

Aeris thanked the world she was lying down for her legs would’ve given way. Her dear friend hummed a bit in her ear, but she heard laughter in the tune. Delicate hands ran over his shoulders like alabaster smoothed by time. She spun in a limbo that wanted the kiss, but also the sight of him before. Time brought the latter as she traced a small finger down muscle that shamed a mountain. Sephiroth caught her hands gently to rub her soft skin, leaning his forehead to hers. Her bangs were a bit haphazard from sleep, but they still tangled with silver light.

“How did I win against this strength?” she half-mused to his sad smile.

“You had your own and it was far greater. Purity against corruption.”

“How is this corruption?”

“How is it not?” He sadly kissed her hand. “In the darkness we’re all shadows, but you carry the light inside. It’s the reason that you bested me, but I was too blind to see.”

“You’re not blind anymore though, Sephiroth,” Aeris replied staring up into emerald so deep.

“No, I can’t be, little flower. There is power in names and power in blood, but there is also power in truth.”

She kissed him this time, and he pulled her close as if she contained all the truth in the world. The fronds of his lashes shivered her skin, and the kiss lingered long after its end. Maybe angels just have long lashes, she thought hiding the giggle as he tilted his head.

“Oh!” Aeris realized looking down. “I fell asleep in my dress?”

“In your coat, as well, little rose.” He palmed her cheek bringing her gaze back up in immediate need for his light. There was rue for that, but Sephiroth didn’t know how to remedy such a desire. “I…removed that,” he said glancing aside.   “I hope you don’t feel violated.”

“No, of course not. I know you’d never do anything…anything against my will.” There was a small smolder like haze in the dusk, and Sephiroth took the kiss that was waiting there. She squirmed against him before it was half done, and he had to let her go to his guilt. Aeris sighed and rolled to sit on the other side of the bed. Looking over her shoulder, she tried smoothing her hair, but the mess was too great to salvage. Her protector sat up as well, his back like an iron wall. Silver strands trickled along the sheets, and she wondered what now brought him grief. Her bag was near the fireplace so she had to come around. Holding it she stood before the once great general whose head was bowed toward tightened fists. Unafraid and undaunted, Aeris stepped forward to kiss him on the cheek, and slivered eyes that could follow a snowflake still widened in surprise.

“Why are you so kind to me, Aeris?” he asked, catching her fingers before she could go.

The flower girl cocked her head to the side with her free hand to her hip. “Why wouldn’t I be? And what I’m doing isn’t really ‘kind.’” She blushed and the shadow of a smile touched his lips. “I…like kissing you.” He let her hand slip through his palm so she could go shower and change.

When the Cetra returned he was standing by the window, one wrist clenched hard behind and full gloves on both his hands. Her bones would be pulp in such a clutch, and at the sight of him there she lost breath. In the space between her shower and now, he’d become the Great General once more. His shoulders were still impressive without the pauldrons, as leather flared below the knee. Boot buckles gleamed like fresh minted coins to the rivalry of coat clasps like ice. They both lost to the cascade of long hair for the sun turned it to frosted silver. His face was obscured by this winter shroud as Aeris softened her approach.

He’s looking north, she thought in sorrow. Ever north towards despair’s desire. Does his sight stretch across the great expanse? Can he see the snow that must surely fall there? Can slivered eyes cut through the mist that obscures what he has to find?

The carpet beneath muffled her step, but Sephiroth still turned his head. Aeris’s hand squeezed to her heart as her feet locked to the floor, and the once general’s lips parted in slight as he lowered bright, burning eyes. Gone was the drab of dead leaf brown, replaced with the color of pearl. It near matched the skin above her breast and the smooth, slim limbs at her sides. The skirts of her dress were softly ruffled, trimmed in blue and lace. It just covered her knees, and he tried not to imagine the length of her legs going up. Reversing it, Sephiroth observed her feet, which were lifted in slightly heeled sandals.

She’s light to my darkness…and was sad to his soul. Even standing in shadow she beams. The heart that never quavered sank deeper than stone in the murk of a bottomless sea. Her hair had been braided once again with the pink ribbon to adorn. Even though it matched no hue on her dress, it still fit perfectly. There was only one thing he could say to this vision, and “You’re beautiful, Aeris,” rang low.

You say that…” she whispered. “You of all people, who could be beauty’s king…”

“No, little rose.” He turned to her fully. “Innocence is always better. Only through innocence can beauty be true.”

“I’m not so sure, Sephiroth.” She shook her head slow. “Guilt and sorrow somehow magnify, though I wish it wasn’t so, I can’t deny, and call my eyes both liars and blind.”

“Come here, little flower,” he murmured. “I want to see you in daylight and not framed in corruption, though I don’t deserve either sight.”

Aeris’s feet unfroze from the floor, and she wet suddenly reddened lips. She could decry his defilement with her words, but knew greater comfort lay in her presence. He stepped back from the window and took her hand to spin her around in the dawn. The ruffles and lace flared up to mid-thigh, and the great general froze his heart against want.

“I love this dress, Aeris,” he spoke this aloud. But I’d love it better pooled soft at your feet…

“It’s similar to one I used to wear a very long time ago. I was being a bit nostalgic the day I found it, but felt luckier they were selling such in the slums. I know it was wasteful to spend gil on a memory, but I couldn’t pass it up. It’s not quite alike, but it’s close enough with the blue trim on the edges.”

His gaze was static as he held her hand, remembering the other dress. Aeris squeezed his fingers to show she understood, as he pulled the flower maid closer. The pink and the red were a few feet away hidden in her bag. It bore blood too old to smell, but his memory never failed to provide.

“It’s alright, Sephiroth…” Aeris murmured, looking up with sunlight splashed on her cheeks.   She could smell leather and warm, winter skin, and that shut her eyes with a smile. “You always smell lovely even without soap. I guess that’s because you’re an angel.” The giggle leaked between her fingers, but suddenly ceased when he lowered his head. “Oh…I always forget. That title bothers you, too.”

“That title bothers me worst of all,” he admitted and she laid her other hand on his. “The ‘great general’ is gone. ‘Hero’ is a lie, but ‘angel’ is an abomination. I’m neither hero, nor angel, nor remotely great. The most I can be is useful…useful to you, little rose.” When he peered up, Aeris choked back tears at the need in hollow light. “Let me be of use to you…” His large hand covered hers so that both were sandwiched in between.

“You know you’re much more than that to me, Sephiroth.”

“And you know you’re much more than kind.”

She squeaked as he pulled her into his arms so they both could face the sea. “Forgive me, Aeris,” he immediately begged. His fingers had locked over her belly, black leather gloves tainting the white.

“I already have.” Her face tilted back as he leaned over, kissing her brow so the sun envied her smile. “You know by now how much I love your strength. I wouldn’t be here if not for you.”

Sephiroth could only shake his head, remembering what that strength had once wrought, but her exuberance was just too much, and a half lift came to his lips.

“I love it when you smile, too,” she admitted behind closed eyes, and mirth broke with a chuckle as his hair tumbled over to tease her throat and breast. You’ll leave her soon. Cold will be your due, as it was then so it will be forever. His arms tightened around her, and he sealed Mako eyes, but fate mocked him with the truth. Aeris laid her cheek against his chest with a sigh of utter contentment, and peering down again afforded her protector a view few men would ever protest. The once spoken words, “I’m falling for you,” meandered into his memory, and Sephiroth was glad her eyes were soft shut for he struggled with his mask to full shame.

“There’s…something about this place, Aeris,” he decided, cupping his palm beneath her chin.

“Something bad?” She blinked back up and summer green quivered like a storm.

“No,” he assured her, rubbing her lips with the tip of a leather clad thumb. “Something pure…as if it were washed by the sea.” He lifted his face with narrowed gaze to the waves and the great sky beyond. “Do you remember the girl in Sector 2…the one who called me ‘imminent darkness?’”

“Yes…” The shiver had not left her eyes and moved now to her skin. He held her tighter in his arms and her fear quickly stilled.

“Do you remember what she said about the kingdom and the foundation?”

“Yes…I didn’t like that place and I didn’t like those words. They make me now think of the in between. It’s like she knew there was something there…waiting.”

“You never have to go back there again, neither slums nor that dark space. I didn’t mean to remind you of horror. I was trying to use it for contrast. Here…in the Whispers, there are no shadows save the ones we cast ourselves.” He half-veiled his eyes looking down at her and his lashes could not obscure light. “It’s as though this place were made for you, Aeris. The sea and no Mako power.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“I am, little one. The reek of that permeates everything it touches, but here there’s only the sea.”

Aeris squeezed her eyes tight and concentrated on the Planet’s soft sung song. There was always that sorrow overall for what had and was being endured, and even a shadow, a fluttering gleam of what lay in the future. The Cetra never dwelled on the latter long. It made her head spin, but in this one place, in this small town, nothing drained the heart of the world or relied on stolen souls.

“I like it here, if just for that.”

“I knew that you would, Aeris.” He slid his hand beneath her chin.. “I was thinking since you’re so…gorgeously dressed…” Emerald cloaked her from head to toe. “That we could perhaps go downstairs for breakfast instead of ordering here.”

“But…you would have to hide yourself.”

He nodded with rue tinged smile. “I’m used to that, little flower. Concealing it all behind the mask.” He stared out and his pupils grew smaller, cutting through time to the past. “I don’t even know what I could’ve been had not horror taken my mind.”

“I think you’d be this,” she said softly, laying her hands atop his arms. “This right here. Exactly as you are. You can’t hide yourself from me, Sephiroth,” she promised and his jaw clenched tight. “And one day soon, everyone will know what you truly are.”

“I’m afraid no one will see me as you do, Aeris.” He slipped gloved fingers in between hers, staring down at black leather and the slim white that clung there without fear. Light held in darkness. You should let her go…but she fits in my embrace like she was born to be there. Sephiroth squeezed her soft middle tight. One day…there will come another whose arms she fits in, as well, and she’ll look even happier than she does right now… He made himself believe it. It had to be the truth as he tried to release his little rose. But it couldn’t be done. He couldn’t let go. His arms still stayed tight around.

“Aeris…” he whispered and she lifted her head, eyes shut to the brightest of smiles.

“Hm?”

“Please, little flower…ask me to let you go.”

“Why would I ever do that?” She frowned slightly. “You know I love being in your arms.”

“Because if you don’t, I never will, and we’ll stay like this for all time. “But,” he continued, laying his hand so gently against her pale throat, “if you ask me, if you wish, if you struggle to get away, I have no choice but to let you go. I’ll never hold you against your will.”

She opened her eyes and tears swam through green like clear fish in a summer lake, and he thought again, Soon you will leave her and she’ll be happy and joyous and free. The forced belief made his heart ache as a low bell tolled the hour.

“We should probably go soon before I’m lulled by the sound of your poor broken heart.”

Sephiroth lowered his head to lay lips her brow, but she turned in his arms for full kiss. He wanted her soft skin beneath his free palms, but knew how dangerous that would be. “After breakfast,” he murmured on her lips, softly pressing his teeth against, “perhaps we can look at that house.”

Standing on her toes, Aeris lifted herself to meet him once again. He clutched the base of her braid to the flower girl’s gasp and slanted his mouth to claim her deep. She clung to his shoulders as the once general eased his breath along her neck, just barely grazing the shivering skin with the edge of his teeth. It would be abominable to leave a mark there, and he wouldn’t embarrass her here.

Splayed upon his shoulders, she gulped air in the resonance of her protector’s low laugh. “Only you can draw that out of me, Aeris.” He kissed her smooth cheek and swept his little flower up. Her heels had been lifted anyway with toes almost a-dangle, but this was dangerous as well.

She laid her cheek against his neck where the high collar curled. “That house…” she remembered then sitting up. “You mean the one we saw by the shore?”

He nodded, untrusting himself to speak. Her lips were wetter than a spring morning and blushed as pink as a new budded rose.

“Can we go look at it today?”

“Of course, little flower, but we should contact who owns it first.”

He turned then, carrying her toward the bed so slowly as if that would help. Sitting her down, he leaned above pressing his brow to hers. If you knew little rose…if you knew what I wanted, horror would melt your dreams. I can never have you. You’re not for me. I should be flayed for even having such thoughts. Aeris laid a palm to one of his hands and lifted her other to his face. Sephiroth sighed and clutched her wrist before sitting beside her on the bed. The little Cetra leaned immediately to his side as he picked up the room’s phone.

“I thought we were going downstairs for breakfast.”

“We are, Aeris. I’m calling the number that was on the sign.”

“What sign?” She ran silver hair between her fingers, letting it tickle the soft inner skin.

“The one in front of the house.” He half smiled at her distraction.

She jolted up with frosted locks spilling through her hand. “…you remember that?”

“Yes,” he replied, pressing the digits. “I saw it last night when I looked back.”

“In utter darkness…from far away you both saw and remembered the number?”

“Of course I did.” He tucked the phone between his ear and shoulder as it began to ring. “It looked like a place you would like.”

The Cetra replaced her hand on his with adoration lifting her eyes.

“You’re the pinnacle of creation…you know that, right?”

The second tone was fading away as he bent down for a swift, soft kiss.

“No, little flower,” Sephiroth told her, “but you most certainly are – Yes, hello?” He sat up and Aeris shut her eyes, pressing still damp lips.

“The house by the shore on the edge of town. Is it still available?” The general wrapped his right arm around the flower girl and picked up a pen from the nightstand. “Today.” He wrote down a name. “Noon will suffice.” Then the time. “We’ll meet you there.” He twirled the pen in gloved fingers. “Very good. Until then.” And hung up the phone.

Aeris was giggling behind a small hand, and a silver brow arched to her mirth. “What amuses you now, little flower?” he asked and she squeaked trying to stifle the laugh.

“It’s just…you’re so direct but polite.”

He turned toward her while crossing his legs, and Aeris leaned against his side.

“There was no reason for me to be rude.” He halved his eyes still offset by her grin, which grew even wider at those words. “But why waste my words in idle chatter, when I could spend my time talking to you?” The knuckles on her cheek were warm beneath the leather, and she blinked to capture fleeing tears. “Well,” Sephiroth conceded, brushing an escapee away, “we should go to breakfast. You’ll want to eat and we’ve an appointment at noon.” He stood and offered her his hand, which Aeris readily took.

The Chatham’s little bistro boasted bright tall windows with their panes flung to the slow churned sea. The breeze was persistent, but not too cool to which Aeris was quite thankful. She’d left her coat in wary optimism that the Whispers were allowing to grow. Remnants of dawn clung to the horizon, bled from ascending sun. Sephiroth stared at the orb with unblinking eyes and pulled the sun block from his pocket. He laid it on the table as Aeris blew steam off the top of her tea.

“You always remember the little things,” she told him, tentatively clasping the handle.

“If you’re to stay here, you’ll need to remember. Your skin is too pale to forget.” He flicked his gaze back her way, brushing silver locks aside. His coffee was so molten it cut tiny fissures in the ceramic beneath his hand, but that mattered little to a man who could cup living lava til it turned to stone. He drank it as almost an afterthought while retrieving the note and the pen. Emerald gleamed down even in sunlight to show where his focus lay.

“I almost forget that you’re left-handed,” Aeris mused, propping up her chin with one hand.

“Yes, little flower, I always have been.” He penned a few words before folding the slip and stowing it away.

“Can you write with your other?” Curiosity burned her twice as hot for the query and the inscribed.

“I can,” he admitted. “I was…taught to use both.”

Aeris winced at his hesitation. “Oh no…not that again. Please don’t tell me there was more torture.” She reached forward to clutch his free hand, and the once general just wanted to lie.

“My whole life was torturous, my little flower…until the day I saved you.” He cupped all her fingers in his gloved palm with residual warmth and his own. The flower maid squeezed as hard as she could, wishing to drive that truth out. “It’s alright, Aeris,” Sephiroth assured her. “Truly, little rose, it’s alright.”

“No, Se—” She caught the rest in a gasp, her green eyes darting wide. The little restaurant was empty save for their server who was gathering the breakfast plates.

“That’s alright, too, Aeris. If you did say my name, they still wouldn’t know it was me. They can see I’m here, but they can’t see me…at least not as you do.”

“A-Are you still beautiful though,” she had to ask, “in any other eyes?”

“I’m shocked I’m beautiful in yours.” His pale lids lowered the screen of his lashes, but that didn’t obscure what he saw. “But if they do, it’s probably more so since they don’t see my truth.”

“There’s no way they could ever see your full beauty without it, Seph.”

Her blush bloomed bright as a half smile lifted the corner of his lips.

“Is that your name for me now, Aeris?” He thumbed her tender palm.

“I-I’m so sorry, Sephiroth. I didn’t mean to offend. I’ve-” Lifted hands tried to hide her nibbled lips. “I’ve been thinking of you like that in my head for a while now…”

A soft laugh drew his smile full. “It’s alright, Aeris. I’m not offended. From your lips to my ears it’s so sweet. You’re the first to call me that.”

“Who would dare?” she barely breathed, lowering her face in the heat of her cheeks.

“Obviously you would, little flower.” He reached across to lift her chin. “You’ll be the only one…”

She blinked hard, peering back up at him where silver hair swayed in the breeze. Her other hand crept into the curl of his and her protector would not shun this gift. “Would they hear the sound and just not remember?”

“That or it would sound like something else not the curse that it’s become.”

“Then how in Midgar-”

“Did they know it was me?” He shrugged, running a finger along her wrist. Enhanced senses allowed him to feel it but slight so he stopped before greed prompted more. “I was asleep when they caught me then.” His pupils near vanished so thin did they shrink. Who else could’ve accessed that place? he thought with a jolt for what it could portend. It doesn’t matter right now. Only this task does. Seeing her safe before your next…

“You being tortured is never alright.” Aeris squeezed his great hands again, and Sephiroth hid dark thoughts behind silver hair.

“I picked it up quickly. The writing that is. It’s a different sort of delicacy than what I need in order to wield the sword.”

“You…can use that right handed, too?” She didn’t shiver so much as still. He glanced up through his fallen hair and regret tinged emerald light.

“I can if needed. They demanded perfection and I could give no less…”

Breakfast arrived to bring him reprieve from at least talk of the past. He sipped coffee that could’ve melted steel while she buttered toast and gazed out at the sea. Aeris was half afraid it would disappear, and her dreams would dissolve back to Midgar.

“Miss?” Sephiroth queried as he turned to the server who jumped as if she’d just noticed him there. The mask was in place as perfect as ever, and Aeris realized her hands were free. “Is there another way to the edge of town besides walking along the seastrand?”

“Oh, do you mean to Kes’s place?” she asked placing the teapot down.

He raised his brow. “Kes…yes, that’s his name. He has a house for offer.”

“That’s easy, sir, just follow the Cobblestone Way north. It stays high til it dips you down. You’ll be able to see the roof from the bridge and the back wall has stairs to the shore. There’s a door in there but I suspect you’ll want the front that faces the sea.” She slung a hand to her hip with a satisfied nod. “I’m glad he’s finally letting it go. He bought it, you see, for his pretty, young wife, but she wanted the house more than him.”

The great general gazed silent to neon green on his cheeks like jaded tears. “That’s quite a shame to spend gil on something that will only leave bad memory.”

“It is,” the woman agreed, swiping away some spare crumbs. “Better to start anew. You need anything else?”

Sephiroth turned to Aeris who shook her head with stained lips from that morning’s strawberries.

“That is a shame,” the flower girl murmured once the waitress had left.

“Misfortune can lead to treasure,” he said with a frown, “for each in a different way.”

“I suppose,” she conceded, lifting her mug where the steam was now wispy and warm. “Although – what is this tea??”

The very first sip made her cheeks mimic rose so the best gardener would sulk in envy. Shutting her eyes, Aeris inhaled the rich brew, which invited another taste. “There’s flowers in it.” She knew right away. “I’d be ashamed if I couldn’t tell that.”

Sephiroth half veiled his eyes as a smile crept up reaching high as bright emerald in smolder. He focused to weed out summer and sea, catching swaths of the steam as it curled.

“It’s earl grey touched with lavender. May I, little one?” She nodded and turned the handle around so black leather brushed her hand. The lack of heat didn’t deter the taste that spilled over his tongue. He only blinked once looking down at the cup, but Aeris beamed in that brief cut of light.

“It’s subtle and soft, but its strength comes from that, and it lingers like wine on your tongue…” The Mako burned to the shadow on his words as the sliver found only her.

“I-It’s delightful,” she said retrieving her cup, but leaving her other fingers for him. “You mentioned my poetry last night on the beach, but failed to praise your own.” A larger gulp helped wet a throat that had turned suddenly dry.

Sephiroth chuckled and pressed her small hand between his two so careful. “It’s a shame we’re in public.” The gleam swayed so low. “This tea could near rival that ice cream.”

“I could stay here on just the merits,” she murmured, “of this wonderful tea alone.”

The sun was half high when breakfast was done, lining each crest in a moment of gold, but the foam remained silver and Aeris almost imagined it shushing the light as it mocked. Sephiroth drew twenty gil from his pocket and laid it under an empty mug.

“Did you always tip so generously?” Aeris asked, brushing a napkin against her lips.

“I believe I did,” he replied as he stood and offered her his hand. She smiled as she took it still amused by this manner. “When the occasion was so called.” He led the flower maid through the empty tables that shone for later guests. “Money never meant much to me.” Sephiroth chanced a glance down and a rent bled through his heart for her face. “I was paid too well for that.” A tinge of regret brought on by the past had him lifting her chin.

“People tend to remember good tippers,” she told him as the sun cast their shadows before.

He covered her hand and sadly promised, “They won’t remember me.”

Behind the counter in front were premade sandwiches and they bought a few for later on. Afterwards Aeris thought it wise to retrieve her travel bag, and Sephiroth agreed and let her small hand slip through his leather bound fingers. She glanced back at him in the midst of the stairs, and he placed a smile upon the mask. Aeris returned the look true, bouncing soft up the steps.

Without those frail fingers Sephiroth squeezed his fists, breathing deep in attempted calm. If she likes this house then here she’ll stay so long as this place is safe. He half wished a monster would burst through the door. But I’m the only monster here… The once general whirled to seek the front desk, telling the clerk they’d abide for more nights.

“You and your wife must like it here, then?” she smiled looking right through neon green.

The intake of breath was as sharp as the blade, and Sephiroth turned quicker than could be followed. Facing the stairs, he slid his gaze sideward. “What she likes is all that matters.”

“Well,” the woman laughed gnawing at her pen, “that’s always the way of it, right?”

He said only, “Hush,” as his breath caught sweet summer, and the desk clerk went back to her book.

A line of worry crossed her face for he wasn’t where she’d left him, but a low called, “Aeris,” brought instant smile, and she half skipped down the stairs. Sephiroth couldn’t understand, he just couldn’t fathom why she looked so happy, but as his flower approached, he still caught her small hands and pulled the maid into his arms. The desk clerk was still occupied by her reading so he gave Aeris a swift, soft kiss. It wouldn’t do to shame her even though no one could see what he truly was. The Cetra laid her fingers against his cheek, sliding them down as he stood tall once more.

Outside the flower girl sighed in relief to the gentle warmth of the day. The ceaseless sea breeze tossed both silver and chestnut, but didn’t make her regret her left coat. Long leather rippled below his knees, and Aeris cocked her head to the side. “You won’t be too warm?” she asked as they walked down steps cut in reflective black stone.

“I’ll be fine, little flower,” he assured as their images danced beneath their feet.

“Well,” she considered, “when you do go north…” She chewed her lip and laid a hand to his chest. “You’ll need better clothes or at least a shirt. Something to cover this winter skin…this pale and flawless skin…”

Sephiroth clasped her wrist gently with lids lowered to her concern. “My temperature’s constant, Aeris. No cold could break this heat.”

Aeris parted her lips, but there were no words as he released her other hand. The leather was still smooth in her soft palm, but she wanted something more. Tugging at the thick skin as they walked, she tried to hide her frustration.

“What are you doing now, little flower?” he asked amused despite heavy thoughts.

“I want to hold your hand not your glove.” She picked at his wrist, but the fabric beneath his bracer wouldn’t budge. Her pursed lips were stern as she looked up. “Why do you still remain bound?”

Falling to one knee much to her surprise, he brushed a knuckle against her cheek. “Because I am bound, little rose, by promises made to you…and my mother.”

“Oh…” Her sternness melted to his face raised in grief, but the inn was lonely so only she saw. Before summer green he loosened his wrists and slipped the black skin from his hands.

“Do they hurt you?” she asked, tapping the metal.

“No,” he assured her quickly.

“Would they hurt me?” Aeris persisted and Sephiroth sighed standing up.

“They probably would, little flower. They’re too heavy for you.” He took her hand then and she was appeased.

Leaning against his arm, Aeris shut her eyes with a sigh. “It’s funny…” she mused, lifting her head as the sea breeze cooled her face. “You’d think your palms would be all callused, but the skin’s actually quite smooth.” He gave a low laugh, tying their fingers together as they passed a row of sea blue houses. Only the youngest of children played in the lanes, their elders ensconced in school. That was set in the mountain on the upper south end and took up two full tiers.

To Sephiroth and Aeris their meandering through town was almost like a holiday. Sand smoothed stones gave way to cobbles and everyone they passed was polite. Only a small town where life was in flourish could such kindness be offered to strangers, though the flower girl wondered if her protector had “persuaded” everyone to be nice. At the very thought she felt like an accuser for he’d told her those days were done. It’s because of Midgar, the flower girl thought. My mistrust grew and blossomed there. Crossing a bridge, Aeris gave a little gasp for a roof lay right at their feet. Sephiroth smiled for her juxtaposed but without any children to suffer.

“I never thought I’d see the world from this view.” But joy turned to guilt in the midst. He lifted her chin and shook his head, moving close to allow the foot traffic.

I should be bound and chained in a bottomless pit, yet I’m here hand in hand with this rose. I shouldn’t be allowed to breathe the air of this world I once tried to destroy. They don’t see her clutching a monster’s hand, and none will know I was ever here…

“Oh Seph, look! I think I see it!” She slipped his grasp to almost skip down the sea wall stairs.

His truncated name from her lips called an indulgent smile. He followed her down and around the corner where it grew cooler in the shade. Cold bumps blossomed on Aeris’s skin, but she barely noticed them so entranced with the house. Sandaled feet sank in powdery sand, and she half stumbled before he caught her. Rubbing her arms, he drove his warmth in and steadied the Cetra as well. For a moment she thought she might split in two with both him and here to fascinate.

It near blended in with the grey stone wall if first sight could be believed, but as Aeris blinked in the still climbing sun, the true colors split off from the plain. Made of sandstone and granite like most of the town, the latter swept sight with the subtlest hues. The flower maid’s lips were set in slight smile as she swayed slowly in front of the house. Her ankle almost turned, but she righted herself before Sephiroth could catch her again. Clicking a tongue, she removed her sandals, letting her toes embrace the warm beach. Like the Whispers themselves stone steps led up to a porch now instead of a square. The sand still swirled over, borne by the breeze and unswept to lie as it wished. Pillars supported a balcony above, and the Cetra’s hands clasped peering up. Many a sunrise could spill all its splendors through those clear, glass doors. Shutters surrounded that mimicked a sea the shade and softness of wrinkled blue silk.

Aeris lowered her face against clasped hands before peering back over her shoulder. Her protector was watching only her with head bowed and eyes burning low. I…I had my back to him again. But that memory seemed so far away, and the place between no longer ached. Leaving her shoes where they lay in the sand, she half-ran into his embrace. Dearest friend…what’s happening? How is this now a wonderful thing? Her answer was laughter like myriad bells that harmonized with the sighing sea.

Sephiroth bent to kiss her bare shoulders, his hair caressing uncovered skin. The house only mattered to his eyes for what it meant to her. Her joy in its sight would’ve been more than enough, but then she’d near flown to his arms. Now she was shaking and he was alarmed, holding tighter to ward off the breeze. Then his enhanced hearing caught what couldn’t be, muffled in buckles and leather.

“Love, love, love…”

“You…love this place? That’s what you mean, isn’t it, my little flower?”

She smiled up through salt reddened cheeks, and he lifted his eyes to the house. The sight filled the slivers thin as thorn for they could not hold what dwelled below.

“Yes, Sephiroth…I love it so much.”

“But you haven’t seen the inside yet.” Her innocent assurance brought the ghost of a smile, and he was able to look back down. Soft lips glistened pink and it was too much, he tasted them full til he stole every gasp.

“The inside’s…as beautiful as the without,” she said with sweet stolen breath. He stood back up, but she had his eyes now though they tried to hide behind lashes. “I’m good at judging that.” The wind tumbled locks of silvery white over her cheeks with a sigh. Aeris twisted a strand around her small fingers, his scent unhidden by sea or shore. “And when I do see I know for certain, I’ll love it even more.” She faced the house again, but now in his arms, skin quaking beneath that touch.

“You’re shivering, Aeris.” He took her hand still holding her in his arms.

“I’m fine,” she promised even as her vision fogged from heartrending grief. Please, she prayed as he rubbed her hand. Sea salt and tears are the same. He can’t possibly tell the difference…please don’t let him know.

Sephiroth shut his eyes when she turned away, but nothing fell for they were dry. I won’t have to temper my strength anymore nor be so gentle as this. One errant squeeze… He shook his head so silver hair slithered against her neck. Aeris arched her spine, tilting back her head as the breath slid between her lips. It took just one arm around her waist to pull the flower maid closer. I won’t have this sweet innocent to whisper forgiveness or softly say my name. It’ll just be me, my guilt, and my sorrow forever ever more… His lips parted, but the words turned to wind as a far clock began to chime. What could be said? How could heart’s ease be garnered from this truth? Being gentle isn’t a burden…it’s allowed me to touch this pale rose.

The scrape of boots against wind tossed sand pulled his attention to the wall stairs. A man clung to the railing, squinting across as he held his cap against the wind. His mouth twitched as he noticed the pair below so the stairs were a trial he had to surmount while the eleventh bell hushed the sea.

Sephiroth stood to his full height, following the labored descent. He resisted the urge to plunge through the man’s brain and hunt out fell intentions. She’d be appalled at me for that and this is not a threat. Aeris tightened her grip on his great hand, eagerness flowing from her fingers. Sliding his gaze back down to her, he bent swift to her ear. “You mustn’t seem too eager,” he whispered with a kiss to the corner of her mouth. She shut her eyes, but it was too brief and he was standing over her again. Her protector locked his arms around as the man shuffled in approach.

The general gave the mask a prideful cast that staunchly refused to waver. The town’s belief of their false status was reaffirmed in this one. That is best until I know that she’s safe. Gods willing her “dear friend” won’t whisper the secret and render her ashamed. But Aeris played along better than he could imagine, near melting into his embrace. He had to shut his eyes for the span of such whimsy that such joy could be the truth, but reality had crushed him too many times to cling to blatant fantasy. Neither human vision nor quickest camera would’ve seen that briefest blink.

“You’re the one who called?” the man asked as the breeze relinquished its clutch on his cap.

Sephiroth gave a nod in response, direct and almost curt. The man reached out a hand and the general took it keeping his other around the Cetra. Aeris for her part raised a brow as he gave her a brushing glance. “I’m Kes,” he said, “if you didn’t know that.”

“And I’m Aeris,” the Cetra replied. She shot a glance up at Sephiroth, and hot neon poured from his eyes. Kes at least had the grace to blush behind his weathered cheeks. He tipped his hat a bit grudgingly, and Aeris remembered what they’d heard.

“I trust the outside suits you well?” he spoke to Sephiroth again. Aeris considered that being ignored, though rude it might be, was far better than being threatened.

“It’s more for her,” the general replied lifting his hands to the flower girl’s shoulders.

“Of course it is,” Kes spat the words as if they’d rotted in brackish seas. It could’ve been the wrath from unleashed emerald, but the man took a quick step back. Rubbing his neck with a salt worn palm, he gave a rueful glance back up. “I’m…sorry, miss.” It was sincere. “Let me show you the inside.” He used the porch railing as a crutch, hauling himself up the short stairs. The door opened with a twist, and Aeris almost startled in the belief that Sephiroth had unlatched it.

“I-It’s not locked?” she managed to say as Kes peered over his shoulder. Squinting he tried to take a quick measure, but that was beyond his talents.

“There are no locked doors in the Whispers,” he told her. “We don’t have any need for them here.” He continued his stare and the question was bounced a few times before finding his tongue. “Where are you from?”

“Midgar,” she answered, seeing no reason to lie.

“That hole,” Kes snorted. “It’s still standing?”

“It is…though what lies beneath slowly fades.”

Something in her voice stilled any more query, so he pushed open the door.

Aeris gave Sephiroth’s hand a tight squeeze before following their host. The once general thought, Don’t fear this one, my rose. If he meant any harm I’d snap his fool neck, but make him apologize to you first.

The floor was hard wood of deepest mahogany and merely shushed under two sets of feet. Aeris let go of her guardian’s hand as the cool wood seeped through her soles. Light laid a line between the drawn curtains that Kes then unleashed on the room. A bay window to rival the Sunlight Suite opened wide to the whispering sea, while a cushion of dawn red lush and plush beckoned weariness to take rest. Aeris wanted to lay with her head on pillowed ends, but she stilled her feet to just stand in the sun. The waves wrinkled and winked through crystalline glass and the maid knew that she had to be dreaming.

Sephiroth looked up as he shut the front door, observing that there was a lock. The ceiling spanned the stories in the open floor plan and up two steps sat the kitchen. Silent as shadow he ascended brief height, slit eyes taking in every detail. The upper cabinets would be a bit high for her, but that could be remedied with a step stool. Duller than sea foam with black ebon knobs, they mimicked the glossy floor tiles.

“It’s open, you see?” the owner was saying as Aeris stood entranced by the sea. “High ceilings here and plenty of light and more than you’d need of the shore.”

“I can never have enough…” the little Cetra replied then bit her tongue in afterthought.

Sephiroth sighed slightly shaking his head, but couldn’t help the gentle smile.

Kes nodded in what could’ve been slight respect, limping over to the dining table. Fake flowers adorning shimmered in dust, and the man rubbed a stiff leaf with his fingers. “I’d have all of this cleaned for you two of course.” He wiped the lint on the edge of his jacket.

“Dust has never bothered me,” Aeris said, forcing her gaze from the window. She cocked her head with a little grin at sight of the fake blossoms. The pantry door was ajar before Kes opened it wide, the space large enough for three of her. My poor guardian though… She found him without thought. He’d be squeezed like a heart locked in stone. She suddenly remembered his dark, iron cage and her hands swift flew to her chest. Sephiroth narrowed his eyes as he stepped down, wondering what held her so troubled.

Beside the pantry was another room and Kes hobbled through the open doorway. Aeris ran a hand over the wood dining chairs, dust flying away in her clutch. It’s as real as this moment. He’s not in a cage…and neither am I anymore.

The little room was a den in the corner of the house, boasting two windows instead of one. Not that they rivaled the one facing the shore even doubled and cornered within. The floor here was carpeted to match the bright sands, and the walls were a peaceful deep blue. There was even a powder room tucked in the corner, and she was dumbfounded by this luxury. A careful hand descended to her slight shoulder, and Aeris laid her palm over smooth, winter skin. The smile just shone at his very presence as she tilted her head back to see. Emerald and black shards swept over all, concentration ruling his face.

There’s nothing here, he thought, nothing here to harm her and everything to bring her joy. A tautness was crinkling the edge of the mask, but he nodded as the man led them out.

“Let me show you the upstairs,” Kes said, and Aeris fought a gasp for her breath.

“I forgot…” she told her guardian as the owner tackled that task. “I just can’t believe…” The Cetra shook her head. Sephiroth drew her close for just a brief moment, but anticipation’s tremble made him release her too soon.

The three bedrooms mimicked her mother’s house (plus one), but the light wasn’t sickly and wane. The master owned the windows and balcony seen from the sandy perch outside. As below the upstairs was furnished so a canopied king ruled this space. Sephiroth laid his hands to the flower girl’s shoulders, and she looked back and up with a smile. Their host opened the curtains here as well to reach the balcony door, and Aeris slipped from the once general’s grasp, but reached back right away for his hand.

“Further view here,” Kes said without need, stretching his right foot with a grimace. The wood slats were warm so blessed by the sun beneath the Cetra’s unshod soles. She stepped forward to lean against the rail, reality blending with once empty dreams. The wind tossed her braid and ruffled her skirts, and Sephiroth gave his gaze to the sun. White was invading the blue of the sky with darker brethren beneath. He could smell the soon storm and remembered her reaction in the depths of that last angry night.

The other bedroom was half the first one’s size, but had a bay window to its credit. Then the one in the back had a balcony if smaller that faced the sea stone stairs. Besides even that it held a back door that led to the top of the wall.

“There’s no basement of course.” Kes wiped at his brow. “Not this close to the sea.” He gestured down the long hall to a second set of steps. “But there’s an attic to make up for that. Now I’m done with stairs, at least going up, but you can have a look if you wish.”

Aeris almost danced up them to the wide sunlit space that was high enough for Sephiroth to stand. It was filled with the scent of cedar and rose that helped offset its emptiness. The flower maid bit her lip as he wrapped his arms around her, shafts of sunlight framing this grace.

Kes was sitting by the downstairs window rubbing his foot in the speckled light. The little maid’s steps made his eyes flick over as she sat on the opposite end, while the man dressed in black with his silver frost hair stood right by her side.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting to know how much, if you’re interested at all.” His voice was casual as he massaged his toes beneath the fabric of his shoe. Aeris almost clasped her hands before they wavered soft down to her lap. Sephiroth remained impassive though his pupils were sharpened to cut.

“Y-Yes,” she admitted. “I am interested. How much would it cost to rent, a-and would utilities be included?”

“Utilities?” Kes threw his gaze up at her. “You mean like electricity?”

“Well…yes.” The flower girl rubbed her hands, sudden shyness creeping in. Warm palms descended to her thin shoulders, as their host chuckled without spite.

“No one pays for power here, miss.”

“Wh-What do you mean no one pays?” Her fingers did curl to her chest at that as Aeris leaned forward so stunned. Sephiroth who’d turned his attention to her slid his gaze to their host in stark light. There was no trick or lie in his words or their shade, and behind the general’s blank face, he was curious.

Kes gestured toward the ocean and shore as the sea breeze swirled the sands. “Who would charge for the wind to blow? That’s like demanding gil for the waves. They both just happen. Why would we charge? We learned our lesson from corruption.”

“Oh gods…this explains the windmills.” Aeris covered her cheek. “How could I be so dense?” A soft squeeze to her shoulder quelled self-deprecation, but not all the questions on her tongue. “But…what about the conversion from air to light.”

Kes waved that away like an inquisitive fly. “It’s nothing, miss. You could take a tour. We have nothing to hide.”

“Where I come from,” Sephiroth’s said, low voice stilling the motes in the sun, “things such as that were kept shuttered by shadow as secret as blue to the blind.”

The man’s fingers dug deeper into his foot as he turned away from brief emerald light. “W-Well, we…tried to learn better, sir, and not do what caused…well you surely know your history. I won’t insult you be saying it now.”

“Indeed.” I do know, he said to himself, turning back to his little flower. I was the horror called forth from the dark, but you will never know that. That’s the blessing you enjoy thanks to her. You’re all…you’re all lucky, and my little rose will be the same. She’ll live among you and be of you…that’s the greatest gift I can give.

“Anyway miss.” Kes stretched out his foot with a grimace denouncing his pain. “It would just be rent I’d be needing from you, and that’s 500 gil a month.”

Aeris folded her hands quietly and made herself meet his eyes. “I’d have to…think about it,” she told him and Kes gave her a shrug.

“Think all you want. No one wants this place. They say it’s too close to the sea…as if there was such a thing.” He snorted halfway under his breath. Louder he said, “Just so you know, everything’s included.” His gaze caught a wave sparkling in the now misting sun. “We never even slept in the bed…”

“That seems very generous,” the flower girl acquiesced.

“I’d also of course fix anything needing fixing before and during your stay. My right foot’s a bit crooked from too many battles with that craftily quiet sea, but I’m sound enough for handiwork.”

“Again thank you.” Aeris meant the words as her mind so softly swirled. She suddenly stood needing the sea breeze to clear cobwebs of thoughts away. Kes hauled himself up with a glance to the general not wanting to be caught rude again.

“Well like I said, you take your time. No one else has even looked.” A grudging smile cracked his lips as he showed them to the door.

The wind had picked up but the sun battled through, and Aeris shut her eyes to salty breeze. She’d have to check her mother’s gil and see what she could do. Then strong arms slid around her waist and the worry went flitting away.

“We’ll contact you soon,” Sephiroth told Kes, the man waving off any urgency.

“Now or then, it doesn’t matter.” He hobbled back toward the sea stairs, pausing at the bottom to squint back. The once general kept his face placid, eyes leaking neon bright. Kes tapped his good foot against sanded stone, nodded to Aeris, but addressed Sephiroth. “I bought this house to please my wife. May you have better luck.” With a grunt he hauled himself up the stairs before Aeris’s blush was blown away.


Author’s Note: The lavender tea so found in this chapter actually exists!  It is found here on Solstice Brews sold by my friend and fellow writer Katherine McIntyre It’s called Lady Grey’s Libations and yes, it
is that fantastic.  It’s the best earl grey I’ve ever had; the lavender seals the deal.  I will shamelessly plug for friends, and I need to buy some more myself.

Chapter 11 The Whispers and the Dreaming Sea will be posted next Friday June 12 as per usual.  A million times thank you for all your support!

<–Chapter 10                                                                                                Chapter 12–>

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6 thoughts on “Chapter 11 – Despair’s Desire

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