Eyes of Clay
Disclaimer: Nothing—characters, setting, or the quotes—belongs to me.
A/N: I've been searching for the perfect story to use the Tam Lin quote in—it started off in an Aeris/Zack, then into an Aeris/Sephiroth, and finally ended up here, my first fic really featuring Tseng in more than a bit part. It seemed to fit his and Aeris's situation the best. (I really like writing creepy love stories like this). It's AU; the timeline's all messed up if you pay attention. I pulled the "Had I known but yesterday…" quote itself from the book "Dogs of Babel," which I highly recommend you all read. Finally, I listened to a lot of Feist, Joshua Radin and Third Eye Blind (old school!) while working on this. Hope you like it!
"Had I known but yesterday what I know today, I'd have taken out your two grey eyes and put in eyes of clay. And had I known but yesterday you'd be no more my own, I'd have taken out your heart of flesh and put in one of stone."–The tale of Tam Lin
"Mad love was more love than madness; left to itself, it pursues itself in the void of delirium." –Foucault
Tseng found the curled scrap of paper in the ruins of the confessional. It was old, and brittle, and almost ripped in two, but he remembered it with a clarity that surprised even him. It was an illustration, the heavy impression of a woodcut slicked with black ink, and it was of a fearsome woman. Her hair was wild, framing a heart-shaped face with narrowed eyes and a mouth twisted in pain. One slim arm was outstretched, pointing at whomever was on the other half of the paper. She wore heavy draping garments, dripping with jewels, leaves and flowers.
But the artist, name lost to time and indifference, had obviously loved the impressive butterfly wings most of all; they loomed over the woman's head, veined like stained glass, extending from her shoulder blades. She was savage and terrible, but beautiful in the way a storm is beautiful, or a hunting beast.
Staring at the thin paper lying in his palm, Tseng felt his throat constrict. It was an illustration of the fairy queen, an illustration from a book of tales he'd given Aeris years ago.
With a little digging, he found the rest of the page: a girl, ragged looking in comparison, clung to the chest of a tall, handsome knight. Their expressions were shocked, frightened, a little defiant, pitifully human before her immortality. The fairy queen was by far the most detailed of the three figures.
Tseng sat down on one of the dusty pews and cast his eyes over the pool of Lifestream-infused water, the yellow and white flowers.
He liked to come here alone, without the other Turks, who hadn't known Aeris nearly as long or as well as he did. And he never came when Cloud or the rest of that group were here. Cloud knew he visited, but out of an unsaid respect to Aeris they peacefully and discreetly avoided one another. For a while Cloud had lived here, making it impossible for Tseng to visit; from the looks of things, he'd moved out, moved on.
He looked again at the pieced-together illustration, a smile touching his lips. It had been a long time since he's thought of these tales.
Her favorite fairy tales were never the ones that other little girls liked—rather, the ones he imagined other little girls to like, since he never had had much occasion to deal with them, before her.
Normal little girls probably liked to hear about handsome, brave princes on golden chocobos and beautiful damsels being rescued from their lives of scrubbing the floor. Or kindly talking animals, or children outwitting ugly witches—stories that removed them, even for a moment, from the hardship that was life in Midgar.
But Aeris's favorite fairy tales were the ancient, gruesome ones, the ones featuring serpent-tongued beasts that nestled against you as you lay awake in bed at night. People died, in imaginative, torturous ways. Foolishness and stupidity were punished, goodness was not always rewarded and evil won, and won often.
He asked her once, when she was still quite young, why she preferred these stories over others. She was balancing on the rusted tracks in the train graveyard, and turned to look at him over her shoulder, green eyes light and, as always, glowing.
"Because they're truthful," she answered solemnly. "They don't try to make life any better than it really is. They're sad, but they aren't pretending to be happy…so they're beautiful."
How old had she been when she said that, 7 or 8? She always seemed to have a mature view on death, one that he had tried hard—and failed—to emulate. Perhaps because he had been the cause of so many ugly deaths; he was the wolf, he was the wicked old crone. Perhaps because he was only human, and she was…more.
Nonetheless, her answer satisfied him and so he continued to read her the stories her mother refused to tell. When her thin book ran out, Tseng searched long and hard for a book of these tales, and finally found one buried within the remains of a public library in Sector 3. It was an old heavy tome, with a leather cover and stiff yellow pages and faded black illustrations, but Aeris loved it just like he knew she would. Her eyes glowed, he remembered—unlike the eerie, unnatural shine of Soldiers' eyes—a color found yet in nature. It was easy to characterize her in terms of the Planet she helped save, green eyes like a quiet pool in deep forest, hair like rich coppery clay, lips the color of seashells' insides. Even as a child she was beautiful.
Back to the story, she used to remind him anxiously, when his thoughts strayed. Tseng laughed to himself. She had so many little quirks, so many secrets—did Cloud think he had known her? He barely scratched the surface of who Aeris was. The sharing of fairy tales was something that only Tseng and Aeris knew, one of those trivial things that come to define a person after they're gone. This book had been but one other side of Aeris.
A few of the tales, he remembered, he knew from when he was a child, but the book had stripped them of all their polish, paring them down to bare, capricious bones:
Sweet little virgin Red Cap met the wolf, yes, but he wasn't a wolf—he was a dashing young man who devoured her in a much different way. Even if there had been a woodsman, it was doubtful that Red would have wanted to be saved. She never left the dark woods again, transformed into as much a wild animal as the wolf. Or was there death in that tale? Did Red Cap, in rage or lust, turn the tables on her hunter, and kill and eat the wolf?
One of Aeris' favorite stories, though, was one that has stayed with him over the years.
A little mermaid saved a handsome prince from drowning and hopelessly fell in love with him. She traded a sea witch her tongue for a pair of legs. Walking caused her endless pain, like a thousand needles on her soles, yet she danced for him. In vain, for he loved another—a temple girl, who he thought saved him that stormy night. And so they married, leaving the former mermaid in the shadows, unable to speak, unable to cry, a shell. But now her sisters appeared, bearing a knife—if the little mermaid slayed the prince with the knife she could become a mermaid again, happy, safe underwater. She had a strong heart—a foolish heart?—and rather than murder him, she returned to the ocean to die. She became mindless sea foam gracing the tops of waves. The end.
Aeris would barely breathe as he read that tale, transfixed. Tseng found it all a little heavy, especially for a child—the tongueless mermaid, suicide and revenge, the unhappy end for the heroine—but then, Aeris was never an ordinary child. Her fathomless eyes hid her heart from him, even though as a Turk he'd learned to read body language, nervous tics and speech patterns. He knew from his frequents observations that she had been shunned by the other slum children, for speaking of the voices in her head one too many times, for predicting the death of one or another of their relatives; she'd learned to keep this amazing information to herself, even now that Shin-Ra wanted to listen.
Aeris stopped begging for him to recite the tales around 13 or 14, when her body began to mature to catch up to her mind and she began to live out her own fairy tale, complete with a knight in shining armor, talking animals, villains. Many villains.
Back to the story, the silent pool and the flowers reminded him, for her voice was gone.
Other tales even stranger Tseng had since forgotten, remembering only bits and pieces that sound like the echoes of nightmares.
To save her brothers-turned-ravens, a girl journeys to the sun and moon and stars, and to a mountain of glass, and cuts off a finger to enter their hidden kingdom.
A wolf whose stomach is cut open and filled with stones, much to the rejoicing of lambs.
Girls who wept pearls, or were turned into geese.
And a fairy queen who has her love, a human knight, stolen from her by a tenacious human girl. That one, he held close to his heart, as he now held the remnants of the illustration.
When the book he gave her finally ran out, Tseng began telling her some of his own fairy tales. He had a good lyrical sense and the old myths of Wutai to draw on. Sometimes he was the monster under the bridge or in the clouds; sometimes he flattered himself into being the knight. Reno was a natural for the wolf, the rogue, the trickster. Aeris was the princess, the scullery maid, the cat, the hare, but always the heroine.
Tseng cast his eyes over the broken pews, the flowers floating on the clear water. Sunlight streamed down through the holes in the ceiling, and for a moment he almost thought he saw her there, smiling her enigmatic smile at him, arms clasped behind her back. Shame welled up from his gut, gripping his throat, stinging his eyes. He blinked and she was gone. He would never be able to live down what he had done to her, even though he tried to apologize, tried to tell her at the Temple of the Ancients what had laid in his heart for so long, that in betraying her he had betrayed himself and his own feelings—but rightfully, she had turned away from him. It was the last time he saw her alive.
She hadn't understood back then. How could she? She forgot sometimes that he was a Turk, and he made it his business to see what others did not. She never knew…against his will, he remembered that first day, a cold burnt autumn morning when the pale light limned everything in silver.
One day, one day, he had thought she would feel something for him. She would realize all that he'd done for her, all that he had risked for her, and she in gratefulness and love would come to him. There could never be any other who was as dedicated to her as he was, he knew this with every fiber of his being. Perhaps because he hadn't said it, she didn't know. She had to know. Hadn't he proved it through his every action—every inaction—in dealing with her?
He had long ago stopped believing in any type of god; their place was filled by an earthbound angel who could charm flowers out of the ground. A goddess who could never reject him as she was good and kind and he would surely die without her. Or…?
All of these thoughts ran through Tseng's mind as he stood in the shadows of the church's doorway, deep brown eyes locked on Aeris. Her green eyes had taken on that intensely bright, mischievous glint they did only when she was being completely uninhibited—a look that had been increasingly rare as of late. Her laughter fell like raindrops that he greedily drank in. That too, rare as flowers in Midgar.
Jealously smoldered in his breast. Who could possibly make her that happy? Despite her friendly nature, she was a loner, and never brought anyone to the church. Tseng suddenly spotted the man, and his blood, always cold, turned to ice.
She was not with that flirty Soldier who'd been trailing her like a lost puppy, but with the pride of the Shin-ra Electric Company: General Sephiroth himself.
The look on his face was unbelievable. Tseng had never seen him look relaxed—only cold and blank, or filled with the fierce rage one has to acquire to live on a battlefield and not go mad. Those thin, pale lips were actually curved upward into a smile, a real smile, slight as though it was. Aeris, dressed all in white and wrist-deep in warm soil, laughed and talked softly to him. What could they possibly have talked about? Did Sephiroth spin tales of warfare for her? Or did Aeris see in him a creature from one of her fairy tales, a legend in his own right?
Tseng never knew, because he fled before either could catch sight of him. His chest ached as though he'd been shot and when he looked down he half-expected to see blood blossoming against the white of his shirt. Nothing. He took a breath and felt hollow. Pushed it away.
But the next time he returned, this time bearing a new packet of seeds, the General was there again. The easy atmosphere of their last meeting was gone; Sephiroth held Aeris to the wall with one arm, his black-gloved hand splayed against her collarbone as though he were the pin and she the butterfly. Aeris was talking lowly, quickly but not frantically, trying to convince him of something. The air fairly hummed with power, power and heavy, charged emotions that he would not name. Tseng, frowning, reached quietly for his gun, though he had his doubts if even a direct headshot would kill Sephiroth.
Her voice got even softer, and Tseng stopped, watched in amazement as small tendrils of wispy green energy—the Lifestream—rose from her flower bed to curl about her legs and caress her face like he had always wanted to. Sephiroth took a step backwards, dropping his arm and the hardness eroding from his face into something like surprise. Aeris smiled tenderly, her unbound hair clinging to her figure as she placed two slight fingertips on Sephiroth's jaw, and the man jolted as though he had touched a livewire, his hand snapping up to press hers more fully to his cheek. In that moment Tseng knew he had lost.
He'd always thought of Aeris as that fey creature of his tales, the fairy queen. But of course she never lost anyone she sunk her claws into; anyone she wanted was hers. More than assassins and generals would fall into ruin under the luminous gaze of those green eyes. Did that instead make her the greedy human girl, all too easily influenced by the treacherous heart?
Tseng didn't know and he didn't care, not anymore. With a grimace he turned away, not daring to look back. His thoughts narrowed down to one sharp, thin point; it was strange that it was the words of a fairy tale that bubbled up in his throat, after he hadn't thought of them for years. The tableau: The fairy queen rages as the human girl clings to the knight, but finally must acquiesce. Before she turns her white chocobo to vanish into the forest, she fixes the knight with burning eyes and says two lines, only two lines to encapsulate all her emotion, two lines that had lain dormant inside him until this moment, in grief and fury:
"'Had I known but yesterday what I know today, I'd have taken out your two grey eyes and put in eyes of clay.'"
He had allowed himself to imagine it for a moment, Aeris's brilliant green eyes dulled forever by his hand, never to see flowers again. Better she be robbed of sight that allowed to gaze with love upon someone else. She would be the heroine of her own story, eyes put out by a spurned lover. Wouldn't she like that…?
Tseng swallowed the last line, and his own anger. Aeris was untouchable; in that regard, she was the fairy queen. He couldn't hurt her physically—he couldn't finish the poem. But he could bring her in to Hojo, finally, a betrayal more foul than outright death. At least in death one felt no pain.
The day the plate fell, he returned to the church. He took out his gun and pointed it right at that little girl's forehead. Aeris, coy at first, the inhuman creature that she was, soon realized that today would be different. Tseng's eyes were flat disks, blocks of ice; it was as if he didn't know her. He wished he didn't know her. In exchange for a little girl's life, the fairy queen allowed herself to be shackled and humiliated and taken away to a prison of glass and metal.
He loved it. Seeing her humbled, at his mercy, gave him a rush of headiness—finally! Finally, she would be forced to feel something for him, even if it was hate. Finally, he was the one who had the upper hand. He loved it. He twisted the knife harder. And he slapped her across the face.
As she crumpled into the seat, hand to her cheek, Tseng finally whispered the last line that he had kept hidden deep within his weak heart. Malice poured like honey from his lips.
"'And had I known but yesterday you'd be no more my own, I'd have taken out your heart of flesh and put in one of stone,'" he said, smiling.
Aeris gave a strangled sob, her eyes even wider, more horrified. She turned away and pressed her head to the glass, paler than snow.
It was the fearsome declaration of a selfish, vengeful love, and one that she had never wanted to hear.
Tseng sighed, and wondered if he should have sat in the ruins of the confessional instead, that memory only one of his many sins. A certain type of madness seemed to overcome him whenever he had been around Aeris; any emotion he was feeling at the time heightened and out of control. His love for her, a mere desperate passion. It didn't lessen the regret he felt when he thought about her, and how cruelly he had treated her.
Had he known but years ago what he knew today, watching Cloud Strife and his merry band move on without her, he never would have struck her in the helicopter. She never would have been in the helicopter in the first place, she'd be standing happily by his side, and they'd be far, far away from Midgar. He would have done everything right. If only he had known.
Tseng put the illustration down on the pew, smoothed it a little but refused to look at it again. His hands shook.
She was never supposed to die; she was timeless, like the ocean. If anyone deserved a violent death, it was he, who had killed so many, drowning already under the weight of all his guilt. But he would die before he told the secrets he saw act out in the church; he knew that he was the only one to know of Aeris and Sephiroth's previous relationship, whatever it was, and he would take that knowledge to the Lifestream when it finally was his time. Cloud, who saw the world in clearly-marked boundaries of good and evil, would never understand the strange magnetism that had, even for a brief time, existed between a General and a flower girl.
Looking back now, Tseng had been so wrong—Aeris wasn't the fairy queen. She wasn't the knight, she wasn't the desperate human girl. She was in a different story all together. She was a sea creature stranded on land that, unable to take up the knife and filled with too much love for a mortal heart to bear, had to return to cold waters.
Tseng looked to the patch of sky visible through the roof, and imagined what she might say right at this moment if she was not sea foam, lonely and dancing atop grey waves somewhere far away.
Back to the story, your story, she whispered, smiling at him before vanishing with the tide.
A/N again: I have a weird thing for sea foam, huh? (See "The Pounding Sea" if you're confused.)