Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII is the property of Square-Enix. No profit is sought from this work.
"So this is the shade of your love?"
The girl was more discerning than he'd thought. Sephiroth braced for censure and received only her thoughtful sigh. "It must be hard," she said, "to be always hiding."
Sephiroth held her gaze. "Are you not reviled by it?"
"Gaia cares not much where men cast their judgments," she answered, "or their affections," and she returned to tending her garden.
Zack was in love with Lady Aerith. It was a playful affair, carried out in the open in the courtly manner and utterly beyond reproach. He wrote poor sonnets and could barely tune a lute. They both laughed themselves sick at every poor turn of phrase. Sephiroth heard it all from his window and could not say which part hurt him more.
"I'm not trying to steal him from you," Aerith insisted. "If he offers his heart to me the only way he can, it is because it was still his to give."
Sephiroth turned away, all feeling bleeding out of the wound her words had made. She put a hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it away.
Aerith turned away. "Perhaps he'd have given it to you if you'd let him know you wanted it."
Zack was young and for all the comforts the Keep offered, he chafed at the bit soon enough. Sephiroth gave him a quest to soothe his soul. Perhaps finding Aerith's mother would ease the situation for them all.
The leaves turned gold and fell without Zack there to see them. The harvest was brought in and the household settled in for a well-provisioned winter. Zack rode in on a still night through drifts of snow, clutching a rag to his side to staunch the red flow. Aerith tended him herself and wept as she did.
He floated on a green tide and reached for the fireflies above him. Further down he heard voices of all he'd loved who had gone before. It would not be long now. He wanted to see them.
A woman's voice, shaking with grief, cut through the night. "Not yet," she said, and brought him away.
Sephiroth rode to Lord Godo's lands with more fury than was good for the cause. His request was simple, but for the sake of pride Godo was inclined to be difficult. "She was among my portion of the spoils," he said. "Surely you don't mean to deprive me of my share."
"She's your washerwoman, not your bedwarmer," Sephiroth stated. "You'll find a replacement soon enough." Still, there was the matter of some recompense. Sephiroth had come prepared. "I have two of my own trained warbirds to be left at your disposal."
Godo made a show of pondering. "Two birds for a washerwoman. I'm not sure it quite meets the mark. The sheets have been ever so soft lately."
Sephiroth swallowed. "I am prepared to leave my own bird, Ifalnah, in your care." One for the other and well worth the price to have her back, her warmth, her eyes, the touch of the only mother he had ever known.
"Done!" Godo slammed his goblet to the table. Sephiroth was too numb to feel the loss.
The trade had been a sham and all his hopes for naught. The woman was not who he remembered though she was exactly who Aerith had wanted all along. Their reunion was tearful and warm. Aerith reassured Elmyra that she was well-treated and some work was found for the old biddy, who couldn't bear idleness.
Sephiroth tried to warm himself in Aerith's smile, even though she was not who he had thought after all.
"What's it like having a mother-in-law?" Zack asked, strong enough for light riding in the spring thaw.
"Aerith is happy," Sephiroth said, looping the reins on a branch. His new bird was black, well-trained as they all were, but lacking Ifalnah's spirit. He sighed and Zack pretended he had not heard.
"As long as she's happy," he said, "that's all you need."
Sephiroth grasped Zack's hand and pulled the young man close. "You're all I need."
Aerith knew something had changed between them. She read it in hurried gestures and a guilty glance. She pretended not to mind as she sat at her window, day after day, weaving and embroidering small linens for the babe she might never bear.
Elmyra was a good woman, Sephiroth had to admit. Tireless, industrious and not overly talkative. He began to grow accustomed to her and the more he did, the more he saw that something was wrong.
They did not match, mother and daughter, they did not match at all.
"She's gone," Aerith said when he asked, never raising her eyes from the loom. "Elmyra found me and raised me as her own."
"You should have told me," Sephiroth said. "There's no shame in being a foundling."
"There's death in being a witch," Aerith said, setting her needle aside. She closed her arms about herself. "That's what they said about my mother. They took her away and put her to the stake." She waited for Sephiroth's answer and gained only shifting shadows. "Will you have me burned too?"
For the first time since he had brought her to his home, Sephiroth stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. "You gave Zack back to me. There's no dark witchery in that."
When the gold leaves returned so did Ifalnah, with a note that though the beast would be ridden by none but his master, he'd done enough riding himself among the hens in the herd to have earned his keep all the same.
"Post Script," read the note, "You should have told me the old woman was your mother-in-law. For the sake of the racket that must cause in your household, I'd have let you have her back for free."
"If you can't choose, I will," Zack declared. "We can't continue like this."
"Can't we?" Aerith asked. "Gaia cares little for man's arbitrary rules of love. We all come knowing and willing to this. That's all that matters."
Sephiroth sat with his palms curled on his knees, silent, because his decision had been not to decide at all.
Zack settled under the covers and slid a hand down his lover's fire-lit skin. "It does work better than I thought it would."
Aerith pushed backwards to fit closer against him. "And this way Sephiroth gets the heirs he so badly needs."
Sephiroth put an arm around them both and sighed. "So you say, my Lady, but if the little ones turn out dark-haired, there's going to be talk."
. FIN .