Note: I think of Aerith's theme as right for a lullaby, if it had words, and the chocobo toys are based on the real ones sold by Square-Enix, though I'm pretty sure those say 'Ages 3 and up'. ;)
The night air was still and not as bitterly cold as it could have been, though still bracing after the cabin's warmth. "We can stop here," Sephiroth said. "The ground's okay for it."
"Ground's okay a little further up too, right?" Angeal kept walking, wanting some distance for what he had to say. Sephiroth felt the thickness in the air around them. He kept his peace.
"Here's okay, right?" Angeal asked. Sephiroth nodded and helped him upturn the water into the stony depression beneath the trees. Angeal looked down at the layer of ice below. "Does it ever really melt here?"
"In the summer."
"That's what, two days in August?"
Sephiroth shrugged and waited. Sure enough, Angeal had something to say. "So where did you and Aerith meet?"
Sephiroth's stomach dropped to his shoes. "In the lab," he said, hoisting the bucket over his shoulder. He couldn't look Angeal in the eye right now.
"The lab, huh?" Angeal folded his arms and scratched his chin. "And here Gen and I were thinking all that lab time was bad for your social life." He began the slow walk back to the house. "Wouldn't have thought cruising for lab techs was your thing, but if that's what works for you." Sephiroth kept walking.
"Can't blame you for picking Aerith up," Angeal continued. "She's very pretty."
Sephiroth stopped behind the house to get wood from the shed. "Just spit it out. I can tell Genesis set you up to something."
Angeal kicked up a little snow. "You can?"
"You're not one to pry unless he makes you."
Angeal cleared his throat and moved closer to get his share of the firewood. "Fair enough. Gen's of the opinion that she looks a little young for you."
"She is." Sephiroth stopped at the corner of the house, where he would be out of sight from inside. His voice was almost lost in the night. "I've done a very bad thing, Angeal," he said. "I've been trying to make up for it."
"By bringing her to live behind Gaia's back? Hiding your little mistake from the world?"
"No!" Sephiroth threw a black look over his shoulder, then seemed to hunch in on himself. "It's not like that."
"Then what is it like?" Angeal asked, moving past Sephiroth. He stopped some distance from the front door. The light from inside was brighter now. Through the window they could see Genesis attempting to play peek-a-boo while Ella looked on, unimpressed.
Sephiroth came up beside Angeal and stared through the window. "Hojo."
It was so obvious Angeal could have hit himself for overlooking it. "You brought them here to keep them safe…" he murmured. "Your wife and child….."
"We're not married."
Angeal dropped his firewood and got ready to swing. "What the hell do you mean you're not married?"
Sephiroth stood his ground but he held his firewood and bucket up closer to his chest. "Would you please stop jumping to conclusions."
"Give me a boost here and I won't have to jump," Angeal said. "How could you knock a girl up and not do the right thing?"
"She wouldn't want me!" Sephiroth said. They could see Aerith in the kitchen now, covering the leftovers, smiling over her shoulder at the game Genesis and Ella were playing. Sephiroth exhaled deeply, lost hopes fogging the air. "It was never… never like that with us."
"So what was it like?"
Sephiroth looked away.
Angeal took a few deep breaths. "Well, whatever it was like, you have responsibilities now."
Sephiroth turned around, frustrated. "And I'm doing everything I can to live up to them." Behind him, Aerith paused to stroke her shawl.
Angeal bent down to pick up his load again. "I guess you are. Still, did you even offer?"
"Offer what, exactly?"
"To marry her. At least give her the option of turning you down."
Sephiroth almost choked. "Angeal, this is between her and me. Please, let it be."
"I guess," Angeal said. "Poking my head too far in your business, am I?"
Angeal straightened. "Still, a kid should have a father around." He thought of the Buster sword, and everything it meant to him, resting in a corner by the fire.
Sephiroth shrugged. "Elle will have to make do with me."
Angeal snorted and made for the house. "Come on, you're not that bad at this daddy stuff from what I've seen."
"I don't know," Sephiroth looked in the window again. Genesis was trying to get Elle interested in some sort of clapping game.
"Don't know what?"
"If I really am her father." He caught the look on Angeal's face.
Angeal had to stop for this. "Sephiroth."
Sephiroth swallowed. "Yes?"
"Did you sleep with Aerith?"
He looked away, turning pink. "Yes."
"And she had a kid with your hair?"
"Yes." The blush deepened.
"It's not rocket science."
"She is mine," Sephiroth said quickly. "My responsibility. They both are, I'd never let them fend for themselves, but…" Sephiroth frowned hard as he measured his words. "It's… I don't know." He shrugged, giving up. "Hojo."
Something else fell into place. "Seph," Angeal said, "when you said you met Aerith in the lab... She wasn't working there, was she?"
Sephiroth swallowed and gave the slightest shake of his head. "I don't know if it was something that man did that made Elle look like she does. He's been trying to recreate my process all my life."
Angeal whistled. "Well, shit."
Sephiroth nodded, but still felt the need to say, "Don't use that language in the house."
"Of course not."
They stood together, arms laden, looking in through the window. Genesis seemed to be acting out a story, most likely Loveless, using Elle's chocobo toy collection as the cast.
"You're being a good father, Sephiroth," Angeal said, full of conviction. "And you are a father. She looks like you and I don't just mean the hair. She has your face."
Sephiroth stayed a little longer looking through the window at Elle's features and wondered how Angeal could tell.
"Ella, sweetie, don't eat the Hero. His big part's coming up." Genesis tried to pull the little book-reading chocobo plushie away but Elle wasn't giving it over.
"Ella," Aerith said, "don't put toys in your mouth." A touch of her hand and Elle put the chocobo down and yawned. "Look at you, so sleepy."
"Guess I shouldn't be getting her riled up before bedtime," Genesis said.
"Back with the firewood," Angeal said, tromping through the door. "Speaking of bedtime…"
"Ella and I sleep in the loft," Aerith said, "but it's too small to hold all of us."
"No kidding. Angeal alone would fill the whole thing."
"We can't all have your figure, Gen," Angeal said, rolling his eyes.
Genesis blew Angeal a kiss. "Plenty of room to spread our sleeping bags right here," Genesis said. "I'm loving this fire."
"Good," Angeal said, filling up the woodbox. He glanced at Sephiroth and shared a look with Genesis that convinced him that everything was in order. "Guess you won't complain when you have to poke it in the middle of the night."
Sephiroth was busy making sure the door was locked properly. He made his way around the cottage, drawing the curtains in what was clearly part of a routine. When he was done he sat down on the bench beside Elle. She turned her head to look at him, clapping her hands with excitement. He sighed. "She won't go to sleep easy tonight."
Genesis actually looked sheepish. "I did rile her up then, didn't I? Perhaps a bedtime story will do the trick." He reached into his pocket for the book he always had with him.
Sephiroth smirked. "That should do it. She'll be out like a light."
Genesis glared at him. "You know what, Ella," Genesis said, slipping the book back where it came from. "Where's that storybook you got today? Let's read something from that."
Sephiroth's lips turned down a bit but he couldn't exactly say why. He had meant for the stories to be read to Elle, and Genesis had more experience than any of them with reading aloud. The stories Sephiroth had heard Aerith telling came from somewhere deep in her head.
Genesis came back from the table and set the book down on his lap so Elle could see the pictures. "Let's see, what should we read? Oh, here's one you'll like, Ella. 'The Little Cinder Girl'."
Sephiroth's eyes drifted as Genesis read. Aerith sat on a chair with a load of laundry beside her, folding cloth diapers, and matching up pairs of thick woolen socks. The shawl she still wore reflected a glimmer from the firelight the same way her hair did. If Sephiroth listened closely, in Genesis's dramatic pauses, he thought he could hear her humming the tune he had first heard her singing softly to her newborn, nestled in a sleeping bag with her in an icy mountain cave.
Angeal was busy laying out sleeping bags in front of the fire. Aerith and Elle had spent their first night in the cabin there too, curled up on the floor with a storm raging outside, fire blazing as quickly as Sephiroth could make it on short notice. He had left them there with all his gear early the next morning, thinking to make a quick run for more supplies. It took him two weeks to return. His heart still felt a pang when he thought of it. He had been sure he would find them frozen, or starved.
But Aerith had rallied somehow and begun to make the place a home. Guided by who knew what, she did laundry, and swept the hearth. She gathered wood and tended the fire, eked some sustenance from the old winter garden and turned dried military rations into a decent porridge to tide her over. And Project Lifestream turned out to be as resilient as her mother, surviving her birth and the bitter cold.
"And they lived happily ever after. The end." Genesis leaned back in his seat, looking utterly content. Then he began to snore. Elle patted the pictures in the book and gurgled.
"Hey, there," Angeal said, rising from an attempt to assemble chocobo toys into a sensible herd. He took the book from Genesis's lap and quietly closed it. "Gen, you put yourself to sleep."
Gen shook awake. "What? How long was I out?"
"A few seconds," Sephiroth said. "You snored."
"Did not," Genesis said, yawning. "I am tired though."
Aerith rose and set her laundry aside. "It's about bedtime for Ella and me too." She made to lift the baby but Elle protested, sprawling across the seat to cling to Sephiroth.
"Hmm," Sephiroth said, reaching out to steady Elle.
"She misses you," Aerith said, beginning to look sleepy herself. Elle pulled herself into Sephiroth's lap and leaned against him. Sephiroth's arms came up automatically but when he caught Angeal smirking at him he stopped stroking her hair, feeling the blush rising again.
"Maybe you should get Elle on up to bed," Angeal said. "I can get Gen settled in down here."
Sephiroth held Elle out for Aerith to take. "Are you coming?" she asked. "She won't sleep well without you once she knows you're here."
Sephiroth had to resist the urge to glare the look off Angeal's face. "I'll be up in a minute."
"So, you sleep in the loft too," Angeal said, after Aerith had gone.
"The stovepipe runs up that way," Sephiroth said. "It's warm."
"Of course," Angeal said, fluffing out Genesis's sleeping bag some more. There was a lilt in his tone and a curve on his lips. Sephiroth sorely wished both would go away. At least Genesis was too tired to add to his troubles.
Angeal soon had his hands full getting Genesis stripped down enough to sleep. "No, no, Gen, not your shorts. Young ladies in the house, remember? Keep it decent."
Genesis groaned and slumped into his sleeping bag, feet to the fire and rump in the air. Angeal cleared his throat. "I'll get him tucked in, promise."
Sephiroth's lips were drawn tight. "Goodnight," he said simply and walked up the narrow stairs. Angeal's eyes did not follow him all the way, a small mercy.
"First one foot," Angeal said, "then the other and there, you're all snug as a bug."
"Nnnghyeah," Gen moaned, rolling over in his sleeping bag. Angeal brushed red hair off Genesis's forehead.
"You're still on firepoking watch, don't think I'm letting you off because you're acting cute."
"Hm?" Genesis roused halfway. "Everybody went to bed?"
"Okay." Genesis rolled closer in his sleeping bag, crossing the gap between his and Angeal's. He snaked a hand across to reach for Angeal. "I want a baby."
"Gaia," Angeal groaned. "What do you expect me to do, lay you an egg?"
"Would you? I'd take good care of it."
Angeal stroked Genesis's cheek. "How about you just borrow Seph's kid once in a while?"
"Think he'd let me?" Genesis yawned. "I'd like that. Somebody's got to teach her about hair and makeup." There were two spots of high color on Genesis's cheeks, but the translucent pallor of the rest of his face was softened by the fire's glow. Sleep reclaimed him too quickly and Angeal thought his breathing was a bit labored, but he looked happier than he had in weeks.
Aerith already had Elle settled in for bed when Sephiroth reached the top, ducking his head to avoid the rafters as he worked the latch on the safety gate he had nailed into place himself. Their bed, such as it was, consisted of layers and layers of blankets and bedrolls spread across the floor. The new green one lay on top. The stovepipe rising through an inexact square in the kitchen ceiling kept the loft warm enough most nights, especially when Aerith pulled the draperies she had strung up across the open end to keep the heat in. So many little things she had known to do to make a life away from civilization, just as she had known how to birth, how to mother. Sephiroth wondered how, but would not ask.
"You came up," Aerith said, unfolding the old grey shawl that had become Elle's baby blanket. "I thought for a moment you might stay downstairs."
"Do you want me to?" Sephiroth turned to go.
"No, no, Elle will fuss." Aerith went to the low shelves that served for her wardrobe and pulled out an old flannel nightgown cut like something a woman in her eighties might wear. Sephiroth averted his eyes and tried to banish the wisps of memory. He had known the body now being shrouded in that shapeless frill sleeved sack, had known the touch of the skin beneath and the curve of the hips. He felt the sharp prick of shadow pain in his arm again.
He took a deep breath to steady himself and looked at Elle, lying peacefully in the center of the bed, her little white mage chocobo toy in one chubby baby fist. He could not see anything defining in her face, not even a trace of Aerith. Elle's face looked like any other baby's to him. Some father he was.
Aerith turned around, smoothing her hair back before taking her side of the bed. "Aren't you coming?" Sephiroth cleared his throat. "Fine, fine," Aerith said, amused. She turned on her side and gave Sephiroth some relative privacy.
He had pajamas in the wardrobe. Aerith always made sure they were washed and dried and ready for his next visit. He pulled them on in seconds, making up for her lack of body shyness with a double share of his own.
He took the other side of the bed and together they framed Elle between them, keeping her warm and safe on all sides. It was the way they had done it since her birth, most often with Sephiroth lying awake at a polite distance beside them both, sword within reach, his own body shielding them from the wind. Elle batted at Sephiroth with her chocobo in her sleep. Sephiroth wrinkled his nose at the blow and pulled the grey shawl up to her chin. "She's grown," he said.
"Babies tend to do that, I hear," Aerith said, one finger caught in Elle's little hand. "I think she likes her storybook." Sephiroth could only manage a nod. "How long will you stay this time?"
Later had apparently come. He had no choice but to think about it. "Angeal and Genesis can't go back," he said.
"I noticed," Aerith said, turning towards the ceiling, simply knowing in that way she did. "They'll have their strength a while yet, I think. There might be time to help them."
"It's only Gen who's sick," Sephiroth said. He wondered at the sad look Aerith gave him. She soon turned her eyes away, and raised herself on one arm to brush Elle's hair away from her face. The question still hung in the air between them. "I might be here a while," Sephiroth said.
Aerith smiled. "Elle will like that."
Sephiroth's eyes drifted down the curve of Aerith's body, draped in flannel. He cleared his throat and looked away. "Will you like that? Me here, with my friends?"
"What's not to like? They've been good company and Genesis looks like he'd be a good babysitter."
Sephiroth curled his toes beneath the covers. "I just don't want them getting the wrong idea about you and me."
Aerith blinked and shook her head. "It can't be worse than the truth."
Sephiroth wanted to fling the covers away and run, run out into the snow and keep running until he froze. It was what he deserved. "I'm so sorry." It came out as a whisper. He felt the needle in his arm again, and the burning that spread through him. He almost trembled on the bed. "I'm so, so sorry."
A hand on his cheek brought him back. Aerith had reached across Elle's sleeping form and touched him with no hesitation. "Sephiroth," she said, "it's not your fault. They did it to both of us. They did it to both of us."
He closed his eyes and began to tremble in earnest, seeing the doors slide open again, seeing the girl, weak and drugged, lying on the bed. He heard Hojo's laughter as the heat overwhelmed him. Then only whispers of memory till morning, when he woke with the ache of a strenuous night and the girl nearly insensate beside him.
He heard strange words in a sweet voice, a language he had heard before but did not understand. He opened his eyes. Aerith was singing to both of them, singing the haunting lullaby he had first heard on the mountain. She stopped when she saw his face. Her eyes looked too bright, but in the dim firelight from below, he couldn't be sure. "It's okay," she said, "It's okay. You got me out. You came for me. That's all that matters." But the damage had already been done.
He cursed himself for the thought, sure no decent father would ever think so. "I'm sorry," he said again. Aerith stroked his cheek and resumed her singing. Eventually she went quiet. Her fingers still pressed against his cheek. He wanted very badly to hold them and spill out the promise he had made to himself, that he would make everything better.
"I remember some of it," she whispered. He had thought she was asleep. "Just a little bit, in the morning, when they came to take me away." The drugs had still been in his system then. He remembered, not clearly, but enough for his insides to want to gnaw their way out.
"You put your arms around me," Aerith said.
He shivered at the nerve of him.
"You wouldn't let them take me," she said.
He made his own skin crawl.
"You told them…." She smiled. "You told them to go to hell and leave me alone. That you wouldn't let them hurt me anymore."
His breath stopped in his throat.
He remembered that. His mind at half speed and his limbs swimming through jelly and still he had tried to keep her from more harm. And failed miserably, when a needle took him in the arm again. For weeks afterwards, it haunted him, his failure and Hojo's taunts over the loss of his precious self-control.
Aerith's fingers brushed his forehead, smoothing his hair and stilling his thoughts. "You tried to protect me, even then," she said. "You tried. That's what I remember."
"I took your life away," he said past the lump in his throat. "There's no going back to it."
"They took my life away, Sephiroth, not you." Aerith moved her hand to Elle, to stroke the little baby fingers and feel the fluttering beat of the tiny heart. "You gave me a new one."
Sephiroth swallowed. Then he reached out and let his long fingers rest on Elle, just barely brushing Aerith's hand with his own. He couldn't bring himself to look her in the eye yet, but the pressure in his chest had eased.
Aerith began to hum her ancient melody again, even though the baby was already asleep. Sephiroth closed his eyes and listened, letting the words he could not understand wash over him. It came to him in the half-dreaming place between wakefulness and sleep. This time he had come to stay.