He would wait for her, he decided, however long it took. Sephiroth knelt down by the fire and reached out his hands, flexing his long bony fingers in the fierce warmth. He glanced up again at the faintly ticking clock on the mantle. Its filigreed hands pointed at one and eleven. The last silver glint of the painted moon in the moondial slipped into the case as he watched. She had been gone a very long time now. Sephiroth closed his eyes, silently cursing himself. Why had he even allowed her to go out, alone, in the first place?
The lands around the Crater were still treacherous this time of year. He imagined her crumpled in the meager shelter of a snowdrift, blue with cold, her eyes glazing over as she slowly froze to death. All it would take would be one slip, one misstep. Of all the stupid, foolish things…he swore again to himself. He looked at the sooty bronze kettle hanging in the fire. The water in it gurgled and thumped, boiling heavily. He had evaporated off two pots of water already but what was one more? Two clay tea tumblers sat on the hearthstone, casting a pair of dark curving shadows. Sephiroth shifted uneasily within them, letting the velvet bands of shadow slide over his hands, his face. He looked up at the clock, down again. It was everything he could do not to mentally calculate what the windchill would be at this hour.
Sephiroth grasped one of the tumblers and dragged it back and forth over the hearth, grating the unglazed bottom of the vessel against the stone. It made a harsh sound that he liked, congruent with his agitation. One single minute more, he vowed, and he would go out into the winter night to search for her.
There was a working at the outer lock. Sephiroth snapped to his feet as soon as he heard it, and hurried across the wide expanse of the chamber and into the narrow entrance passageway that led toward the entrance. He made it just in time to see Aerith stiffly pushing the outer door, a massive slab of scarred wood, shut behind her. Her mittened hands went to the inside lock, gripped it. She set her feet in preparation for a vigorous shove.
"Let me do it," he said, stepping toward her.
She startled at the sound of his voice and clutched protectively at the large willow basket that was dangling on her arm, placing it before her like a shield. She twisted her body to put more space between them as he approached.
Aerith said nothing, only looked at him stonily from behind the cornflower folds of her winter cloak. Then she turned and jammed the lock closed. Melting snow clung to her like beads of glass, glittering in the dim light as she briskly moved past him.
"How was the weather?" he said, looking at her. It was a safe enough topic; perhaps it would even incite her to speak to him. He had not heard her voice, or any other human voice, for weeks. He busied himself with checking the heavy iron bolt, locking, relocking it, waiting to see if she would answer.
Aerith leaned her heavy wooden staff, the one she always carried with her when she went out, against the tottery driftwood table that was just inside the threshold. She pulled her mittens off, then placed her basket on top of the table and began to unpack it. Her hands moved in agitated bursts.
"The winds are quiet," she said at last. "It is clear, very cold. The stars are out, for once." Her voice sounded far away, as if she were speaking in a dream. Perhaps she was pretending it wasn't him she was speaking to, but just someone, anyone, else. "Baral has moved his caravan again, just a mile past the rim of the Crater," she said, "I bought a little food, some bread, dried fruit. There wasn't much to choose from, he must be getting ready to leave again. " Besides the customary packets and jars tied with the merchants' trademark red string there was an object wrapped in several layers of muslin and paper, a sphere as large as her fist.
Sephiroth had crept to the edge of the table, staying just within her peripheral vision. She had just spoken more words in the last three seconds than he usually heard from her in over a month. He studied her closely. Her behavior was strange, she seemed vaguely unsettled, nervous. Had something happened to her, at the merchants' camp, out in the night? He lightly touched the sphere, making the paper it was wrapped in crinkle.
"Is this a new materia?"
She answered without looking at him. "Hmm. I should be so lucky. It's incense resin. The air in here is always musty." The wretchedness in her voice, although closely held in check, was palpable.
"Is that why you were so late, you were bargaining for it?" He knew as well as she did that coming to a set price on anything but the most common item sometimes took hours while the merchant chattered on, pouring cup after cup of syrupy black tea.
Aerith buried deeper into the folds of her cloak. "No…it was a beautiful night, that's all."
"You could have been hurt."
"But I'm not." She looked at him fiercely for a second, then back at her unpacking. Although he couldn't see it, he knew that behind her cloak her jaw was set in an attitude of subtle, but definite, defiance. Before he had time to say more or to soften his prior words, she had brushed past him and was stepping down the passageway to the central space of their subterranean home. He watched her walk away, delicately, painfully; a softly swaying shadow backlit by the glow of the fire in the next room.
She should not have spoken to him, Aerith thought angrily to herself. Dignifying his existence with her words was more than he deserved. She pulled off her scarf and threw it over a bench by the fire and began to unbutton her cloak. The night had made her weak, that was all. The starlight had been so beautiful on the smooth velvet sweep of the snow, the sky above her vast and clear.
She closed her eyes for a moment, her heart wringing. How dearly she wanted to be a part of it again, to hear the mighty voice of the Planet resonating like a gentle earthquake in her bones, to feel the presence of her mother, guiding her. But now there was only silence, her internal landscape a void, her murderer her only company. She swallowed painfully against the lump in her throat. Of all things the silence was the worst. Sometimes it was all more than she could bear.
Aerith sighed. The walk back from the merchants had taken much more out of her than she had expected. Pain was chewing her alive now; it had been warning her all day, but she had not heeded it. She pushed one of the large padded armchairs a little closer to the fire and sat on it. Cringing as familiar pain burned her lungs, she pulled off her cloak and swept it open on the floor before the fire. Another fresh spray of agony crackled under her sternum and shot down her back like electric fire and she pressed her arms to her ribs, riding it out. Carefully, gingerly, clenching her teeth, she began to unlace her boots and one by one pulled them off. Exhausted and sick, she sat back in the chair and clenched a cushion to her belly. Her face was grim as she rocked, almost imperceptibly, back and forth.
Sephiroth watched her from the doorway, hidden in the shadows. She was hurting again, he knew. As far as he could tell it was something she always had within her, some days worse than others. She went to great lengths to conceal her pain from him and fiercely denied anything when he asked. Sometimes he would catch her, though, sometimes only read it in the intake of her breath or the way she held her body when she thought he wasn't looking.
He entered the room, remembering to make noise to let her know he was coming. He looked at her, just for a second, then ran his eyes over everything else in the space that remained. It was the sum total of everything they had gained over the last year, but even so, it wasn't much. The only furniture in the high cavernous space was a pair of dusty wingback armchairs with a spindly table between them, a velveteen ottoman that had most of the stuffing coming out, and a few low benches he had made from driftwood. In the corner closest to the fire there was a heap of tattered books that Aerith had bought, by the pound, from the merchant. A little gold ormolu clock, in an elaborate style that might seem at home in a baronet's country estate, kept its time on the mantle.
Next to the clock was the spent shell of an Earth Morph materia. The materias' power had been unstable to begin with; they had used what little remained to create their home. Now it was only a sphere of glassy rock, dark and lifeless. Aerith looked at it often, searching for a glimmer of light within it that meant its power was returning, but every day she looked and every day it was empty.
With its cavernous spaces and high arced ceilings, the odd string of stone chambers that they lived in had the desolate air of a once great manor house, all its treasures stripped and looted, the bare shell now inhabited by squatters. The dark smell of damp stone and mold remained year round, and nothing, not even the hottest of fires dispelled it for very long.
Even so, it was infinitely better than it had been in the early days, when they had had nothing. They had been grateful for a dry place to sleep, then, any place at all that would be safe against the many creatures that stalked the catacombs, fierce and thirsty for blood. At least now they had a door they could bar, a place for a fire, some semblance of a normal life, stark as it was. It was something.
"How are you feeling?" Sephiroth asked Aerith, the same question he always asked.
Aerith stared into the fire, her eyes far away. He waited, standing behind his empty armchair. When she did not answer him he began to trace the outline of the floral design on the splitting damask. Minutes passed. Finally he turned away. She would not speak to him again, for who knew how long. He would accept this.
Sephiroth knelt on the flagstones in front of the fire and took the kettle off its hook. Even if she had spoken to him, he thought, the answer would have been the same. She was fine, she was always fine. The lie was a familiar one, but still, it grieved him. How many times had she spoken it now, the same words dropping from her mouth like dew? Regardless of her words, her eyes and her body always showed the truth, trembling with the effort of what they had to deny. Sometimes, when he looked at her, the depths of pain reflected in her eyes made him want to tear himself to shreds.
He poured tea from the kettle into the cup he had prepared for her, then placed it onto the table for her to take.
Aerith said nothing, only quietly picked up the cup and brought it to her mouth.
It was the least he could do, he thought, settling in the other armchair and surreptitiously watching her sip her tea, just to minister to her a simple human comfort in one of the few ways she would allow. It was worth that much, to try to heal instead of destroy. It was unsteady business; it felt grossly unnatural, just like everything did since his rebirth. But still, in spite of all they had been through together in their initial struggle for survival, or anything he did now that proved his continued attrition, Aerith kept her distance.
Who would blame her, he thought, after what he had been, a madman, a murderer. He tried to think back, to make sense of it. Memories of his former life came back to him randomly, out of order, in pieces. There were still long periods of time that remained unaccounted for. What he could remember seemed completely separate from himself, as if it had happened to someone else. But it had been him, he knew, all along. He had been nothing more than Hojo's bastard child, Jenova's puppet. He still remembered that much.
Sephiroth cursed to himself and squeezed his eyes shut, crushing away the memories with a force of will. Sometimes it felt as if he was drowning in blood, in death. His past clung to him like wet silk, no matter how hard he fought, he never felt free of it. Through clenched teeth Sephiroth exhaled and opened his eyes. It was better not to think about it, if he could. He turned back toward the fire, watching it burn steadily in the hearth he had made.
Aerith was relaxing now, her pain fading into a dull throb. She fiddled absently with a loose ringlet of her auburn hair, her legs curled up beneath her. She prodded the cushion she was holding under one arm and took the last sip of her tea. She made a face. It was bitter in spite of all the sugar in it and she was sure she had gotten some of the dregs. A few minutes passed in gentle silence and gradually her pain ebbed even farther. She sighed, this time a soft exhalation of well being.
Secretly, Sephiroth noted his approval. The Salix bark and other herbs he had infused into her tea were easing her pain without making her overly lethargic.
"Shall we burn some of this?" he asked her, showing her the ball of resin. She nodded, but still would not look directly at him. Sephiroth pulled out his ivory handled knife and began to shave off the outer layer of the resin, exposing a darker amber heart that smelled spicy, like cloves. He leaned over and cast a large handful of the shavings into the fire. They ignited instantly in a shower of sparks, leaving only a spiraling of blue smoke and a thick cloud of scent that crept across the room. Aerith smiled to herself as she breathed in the heady fragrance.
"Will you be going to bed soon?" he asked.
"Yes, "Aerith said, nodding slightly.
Sephiroth rose. It was bone chillingly cold in the caves almost year round; a fire needed to be started in her room so she wouldn't wake in the middle of the night, freezing. He walked down the corridor to her room in the dark, recognizing by feel the slight rise and fall of the uneven floor. He came to the familiar dip in the floor where the hallway split, turned to the right, and brushed the heavy curtain aside. Aerith's room. It was small, cozy even, a cell they had hewn with earth magic, like the rest of their home, out of the dense gray stone of the Crater. She had made it her little nest. A mahogany sleigh bed, piled with embroidered pillows and a blue silk eiderdown, took up most of the floor space.
Sephiroth smirked to himself in the dark. The bed and its trappings had been a gift he had given her, he remembered. She had smiled unabashedly then, the hard lines of pain in her face fading immediately into surprise and radiant joy. If only she knew it had cost nearly twice a working man's yearly wages and twice that again to convince the merchant to bring it, in pieces, to the edge of the Crater so he could carry it down. But what did it matter? Gil and precious stones were abundant enough, and it wouldn't do for her to sleep on the cold stone in the damp and mold like she had had to do, like they both had had to do, in the early days.
He remembered again the smile she had smiled. It hadn't been for him, he knew, she had just been pleased. But still she had looked at him, met his eyes, for the barest of seconds, and her eyes were full of light and happiness. No one had looked at him like that before, that he could remember. It had felt like the breaking of the dawn. His heart stabbed with strange pain at the remembrance of it.
He picked his way toward the soft glow that came from several materia that Aerith had left scattered on the low stone hearth. He searched among them, rolling them around like oversized marbles until he found the one he wanted. He knelt in front of the hearth and built a nest of kindling. The materia he had chosen smoldered warmly in his hand like a coal. Elemental magic swirled greenly within it, waiting. Sephiroth took a moment, focused his mind, and silently called forth its power. At his bidding the materia swelled to life, a little too strong, engulfing the dry twigs and sticks in a roaring tower of flame. He carefully added some heavier logs and waited for them to catch. It was silent except for the fire and his breathing. For all he heard he might have been alone, just a solitary man crouching by a small fire in a cave a mile beneath the surface of the earth.
Sephiroth looked at his hands, at the spare powerful shapes of the muscles and tendons bunching under his pale skin, the long shapes of the bones. He made a fist, released it. Old scars caught the light, showing clear and white where they crossed each other again and again. More of them chased their way up both of his arms in a brutal calligraphy of battles half-remembered, dragons he couldn't remember slaying. Perhaps it was better, he told himself, not to remember anything more than he already did about the life he led before, who he had been. Perhaps, if it hadn't been for Aerith. She was the exception around which everything revolved and changed.
Not that they were completely dissimilar. Her blood, her being, like his own, did not truly belong to the Planet. Neither of them, it seemed, had been quite human enough to pass through the Gate to eternal rest after they died.
Sephiroth shivered as he remembered the pain and horror of his rebirth. No matter how he had argued his case, the Gate would not let him cross. It had cast him back, violently, uncaringly, its high hollow voice twisting a promise like a needle in his ear: if he returned to it a second time, he would be destroyed. Why he had not simply been annihilated in the first place was a mystery. Perhaps the Gate had not wanted to bother itself with him, a lab-bred piece of filth, any more than it had to.
It had spat him up on the shore of the Lifestream like an old peach pit, as indifferent to his suffering as it was to everyone else's.
Weak and naked as a newborn baby, Sephiroth took his first gasping breaths in dank mud, unable in his frailty even to turn his head. His eyes burned blindly with scalding green light. Sudden nausea and a horrible ripping pain balled him up like a wad of paper; he vomited uncontrollably again and again. Strange shrieking cries, the cries of a tortured animal, echoed off the walls, and he tried feebly to kick at whatever might be attacking him, terrified of what he couldn't see, of the thought of being helplessly eaten alive by whatever creatures were out there, lurking unseen in the dark.
He vomited again and gasped for breath, water sluicing through his sinuses. More shrieking beat him down, the echoes booming back a thousand fold. He waited, his brain reeling with pain, blood in his ears. At last the deafening cacophony dulled and faded. Dimly he realized that the sounds he had heard was his own voice, broken in his agony.
Reality smeared and expanded, opening into great endless voids of pain and silence. Who knew how much time passed, then. Seconds pulled out into centuries with the incredible labors of breathing, of coughing liquid out of his lungs. Images and memories crackled in his brain, frightening and uncontrollable. He shivered. It was cold, so very cold. He tasted mud and blood and bile, there was grit on his teeth and on his tongue. He could barely feel his hands and feet, could barely feel his body at all. Second death would be upon him soon, he thought, and then it would all be over, forever.
Then, through the screaming haze, thought he heard a voice. It was soft and calm, unlike all the other voices. It was impossible to tell where it came from, his hearing was so distorted. Suddenly he felt a warm weight on his skin, pressing his wrists, his throat. Hands pulled at him, turned him over onto his side. Blind as a worm, he tried to move, to defend himself from whomever had seized him, but his body would not respond. Cloth settled over him, covering his nakedness. Above the smell of his own sick he thought he smelt something soft, impossibly, the scent of flowers and, deeper still, the sea. Someone sat him up and spoke to him in a gentle blur of sounds. Cool clean water was poured over his mouth and he drank greedily, hungry for life.
It was Aerith. He knew it from that first touch, sensing it as strong and sure as he knew the moon was round. It was strange how fate twisted. The murdered and the murderer meet again and instead of vengeance, as should have been his lot, he received…mercy. Even now, he could never understand it.
For weeks he had drifted in and out of consciousness; curled like an embryo under a ragged cloak of moth eaten wool, only waking to take some water or eat some of the tasteless starchy paste offered to him. Gradually his Mako-shocked neurons began to regenerate and he slowly regained his speech, his hearing, his sight. Aerith remained a benevolent shadow just outside the reach of his vision. She did not touch him unless it was absolutely necessary, and he remained as undemanding as possible so that she would not have to.
Even after, when he was well, she remained a quiet presence that would never come too near, but also would never leave. They had continued together, for two years now, living like ghosts, bound by silences that would not bear the weight of examination.
Sephiroth added another log to the fire. With any luck it would burn through the night. He padded back into the main room.
"I've lit the fire, it should be warm soon," he said to Aerith, in a low voice so as not to startle her. She continued gazing into the fire, wrapped in a snowy silence that he knew he would never penetrate.
He bent forward and plucked her teacup from the tabletop. "Have more tea before you go to bed." Another dose would help her get through the night.
Aerith did not show any signs of having heard him. Her small white fists were curled under her chin, like an infants'. Where was she now, he wondered, what place did she go to, to be free of him, be free of this place? He watched her blink, slowly, her eyes golden, reflecting the fire.
Silently he refilled her teacup and placed it on the table before her. He settled into his own chair and feigned intense interest in a crumbling Wutainese philosophy book as Aerith began to stir. She got up, very gradually, one arm crossed lightly across her ribs. She took her teacup and padded in the direction of her room. She paused for a moment and turned to look at him, her eyes flickering over the outline of his form.
"Good night," Sephiroth said to her, his mouth tight. Wordlessly, Aerith bowed her head and disappeared into the darkness.