(Just realized I forgot to crosspost these on LJ...)
Title: The Edge of the Map
(originally posted in IJ's No True Pair community in June 08; now making an LJ-side index for it too)
Fandom: FF7 and Fruits Basket via Kingdom Hearts
Pairing/characters: Sephiroth and Tohru
Warnings: Dancing mushrooms
Prompt/challenge you're answering: Tohru and Sephiroth with the title, "The Edge of the Map."
Notes: I really, really wanted to make a gif-icon of KHSephiroth's 'blink' moment in the conversation with Sora and Goofy for this fic, but I haven't got the tools to get it out of video. Sigh... ^_^
When he'd watched the girl set up her little tent on the outskirts of the castle grounds, he'd wondered how many hours she would survive before the Heartless took her. He'd been mildly surprised to find her still alive the next morning -- apparently roasting mushrooms for breakfast; a cluster of the things had cropped up, and...
...no, she wasn't cooking them; she was warming them.
The mushrooms were leaning toward her campfire and making happy bouncing movements. In perfect synchronization with each other.
And then the arm movements started.
The mushroom-shaped Heartless standing in a ring around the girl's campfire were, in fact, grooving.
Also, he could have done without the sight of a cluster of mushrooms performing synchronized pelvic thrusts.
...And people thought that he was disturbing.
Sephiroth left before the lot of them could decide that some sort of fungal orgy was the next step on the path to mycelic enlightenment.
When he returned on the morning after and she was still alive, he knew there had to be something very peculiar about the girl. Maleficent had certainly never mentioned anything about an eighth Princess -- but then, it stood to reason that if each world had a heart, each world ought to have a princess to speak for that heart as well. Perhaps some of them were less powerful than others, and so Maleficent had targeted a particular crop of princesses to optimize her results?
Still, this one had survived two days outside the village's defenses on her own, and to all appearances she had even domesticated a dozen of the more ...questionable Heartless. To have overlooked this one's strength -- that was a strategic flaw which should be corrected.
...It was a strategic flaw for Maleficent, certainly. But his only concern was with Cloud. If he provided Maleficent with an unexpectedly strong Princess who had escaped the witch's reckonings, would that earn him custody of Cloud? Or would it reduce her dependency on his strength so that she would continue to use Cloud's life as the leash that kept him marginally at her side...?
It used to be easy, he remembered, to think through things like this. Before Ansem had lost his mind and his world with it; before they'd all been plunged into the Dark and he came back ...flawed. Haunted.
Things like this used to be clear, before the voice started muttering in his head and--
A blur of shadows in motion caught his attention away from the chattering headache that always started in when he thought too many thoughts of independence and leash-breaking; Sephiroth shook his head sharply and then brushed his hair back from his face, settling in to wait.
The strength and purity of her heart had gathered the small ones within hours; of course it was only a matter of time until the larger ones began to arrive as well.
(And it made him feel oddly smug that the greater Heartless were just as taken aback by the little white mushrooms' synchronized pelvic gyrations as he. He'd never previously seen three large bodies, a wyvern, and a swarm of darkballs cluster together under cover of a shattered wall left by some great battle, peek around the jagged outcropping of stone at the girl's crop of thrusting mushrooms, and then mumble to each other in utterly disbelieving tones with a great deal of head-shaking.)
Within a few hours, the area was positively seething with Heartless; even the girl had noticed them, and she looked worried enough that it seemed clear she did recognize the creatures' lethal potential. Then Maleficent hadn't simply chosen to disregard her because she was too mentally impaired to be of any use; that would at least have provided some explanation.
She huddled close to her fire, in the center of the ring of gyrating mushrooms. Sephiroth stretched his wings a bit, scattering a handful of feathers, then shook the cramps out and refurled everything neatly. It wouldn't be long until his curiosity was resolved, one way or another.
The arrival of the eighth wyvern must have tipped some critical mass in the Heartless pecking order; they'd gone from eyeing her mushrooms to eyeing each other, and then suddenly they were all swarming her campsite, fighting among themselves even before they arrived, all eager to gather her heart for their own. Sephiroth lifted himself lightly to the edge of the shattered wall, wanting a better vantage point.
The Keyblade she pulled out of the air wasn't a surprise to him -- though it seemed to be a surprise to her; she stared at it in shock, then smacked a darkball away from her mushrooms, and then yelped when it burst and sent a heart drifting toward the heavens. While she stared at it, one of her little white mushrooms threw itself between her and a large body; its yelp of pain caught her attention back. The large body shook itself, rumbled, and smashed through the line of her protectors, crashing straight through her improvised dancing garden.
She was shouting something predictably, tearfully incoherent about her friends -- it was as though light-sworn hero types all read from the same script, really -- and as the little white mushrooms burst into clouds of bubbles and bouncing gems that swirled toward her Keyblade, the wyvern pack decided that ignoring the princessly speechmaking would give them the jump on her both literally and figuratively. They bounded through the other Heartless, sending dark blobs flying; one crashed through her fire, another straight over her tent.
He hadn't known human eyes could go so wide.
"MOTHER!" she screamed, and slew the wyvern that had crushed her tent with a ball-bat approach to swordplay that had him shuddering, but--
That was a plea he couldn't just ignore. If this princess knew Mother, then that changed everything.
He vaporized a swarm of darkballs with three sharp flicks of his blade and impaled another wyvern on the backstroke, striding across the ground toward the sad remains of her camp; her gyrating mushrooms' gifts had coalesced into some painfully golden flare of magery, and...
...Ifrit's steaming unmentionables, what was it with this place and talking, singing animals?
There were a dozen -- no, thirteen -- of them, dancing some complicated runic thing about a wheel of stars -- time symbology or space symbology or both? -- and they tore through Heartless like wet paper.
In the meantime, the princess dropped her Keyblade in the mud, dropped to her knees, and scrabbled through the remains of her tent. In the middle of a war zone, with her talking-animal summons reaching the end of their spell cycle.
Perhaps she was too intellectually damaged to be of any use after all, Sephiroth thought, and began decimating the Heartless she seemed to have forgotten entirely in her state of witless panic.
It didn't take long to finish off the lot of them; he flicked the Masamune's blade through long habit, even though Heartless left no blood behind, and let it dissolve back into shining tendrils of power that he gathered into one gloved hand. The girl had found a small rectangular object and was cradling it to her chest, rocking back and forth with sobs in a gesture that echoed, oddly, inside his mind.
"Mother?" Sephiroth asked, listening for a voice that didn't belong to the sniveling girl.
She apparently hadn't even realized he was there; she squeaked, spun around, slipped in the mud, and landed on her rump, staring up, and then further up, at him. Her jaw worked silently, but nothing intelligible came out.
"You cried out for Mother," he prompted; that little object of hers couldn't contain much, but -- if it held anything at all, maybe it would appease that howling-begging-pleading voice that had come with him out of the Dark. "Is She intact?"
The girl squeaked again, and her face was turning a peculiar shade of pink; her eyes seemed to be caught somewhere around the crossed straps in the center of his chest, until she shut her eyes and shook her head and tried again. "It... it broke her frame... um. I need a new frame for her."
Frames, he recalled dimly from a world of courtiers and military protocols before the madness -- frames were used for portraits, not for biohazard containment. But no one cried out in mortal terror over a mere portrait -- and, really, the only difference between a microscope's slides and a double-layered frame was scale; there could be a much larger sample preserved within two full plates of glass. Not to mention the kinds of illogical events that happened around mirrors with delusions of poetry and dancing paintings and so forth -- all in all, a frame might well be a more sensible method of genome transportation than he'd realized.
"I'll find a new frame for Her," he assured the princess gravely, and opened a portal into darkness.
The little hand that clutched at his wing like a life preserver stopped him short, though; he looked down at the girl's hand, one brow quirked.
She let go abruptly, and her face was turning odd colors again. "Um! Thank-you-very-very-much-sir! My name's Honda Tohru and it's an honor to make your acquaintance and everything but um I think you just saved my life and I can't just let you go around doing things for me like that because Mother said I have to grow up to be a good girl who pays her debts and er I don't suppose you have a kitchen that needs cleaning or anything, I'm really good at kitchens by now -- I've got lots of experience at kitchens..."
As she blathered on about her kitchen experience, with additional credentials offered in the way of bathroom and window maintenance, Sephiroth sighed to himself a bit. Perhaps Maleficent had neglected to collect this one because she already had a housekeeping-type princess in Cinderella -- a quieter housekeeping-type princess, at that.
Or, perhaps, Maleficent hadn't wanted to permit him any sort of encounter with a princess who carried Mother with her. That thought was worth further pursuit; he waited for an opportunity to cut in to the conversation.
And waited some more.
Finally, because the girl was beginning to wheeze from lack of air, Sephiroth reached down and put a hand over her mouth. She squeaked again, and blinked preposterously large eyes up at him, but it seemed to have stopped the flow of words for the moment.
"How long have you had custody of Mother?"
Cautiously, he let her go, prepared to intervene if the word-flood seemed likely to sweep her away again. She took a deep breath, which wasn't reassuring.
"It's not custody, sir, it's just -- she's my mama, she's... always been there. Until she died, I mean. But I still have her with me -- I take good care of her, if that's what you mean, sir? I keep her frame dusted, and -- um -- I'd never let anything happen to her before this, but... it's been..." She gulped hard, and corrected whatever she'd been about to say: "An adventure! It's been an adventure, seeing a new world, all by myself, and -- well -- they didn't have any spare rooms in the village, and I'm used to living in tents and things, so I came out here and -- er -- it's... been... adventurous. Very adventurous. Also a little scary but I'm not complaining at all, I promise! I'm sure it's a lovely world you have here, sir, and the, uh, the wildlife is... obviously very happy here too, since there are so many of them, and..."
Sephiroth decided a strategic reapplication of the hand was in both their best interests for the moment.
She talked as though the swarms of Heartless were nothing more sinister than an overpopulated clutch of rabbits or something.
He'd always known that Princesses of Heart were unlike any others in the worlds. He just hadn't fully appreciated how very warped a mindset was produced by such an irrational, mind-altering infusion of unshakable optimism.
"What am I going to do with you?" he asked, brows furrowed together.
Giving her to Maleficent was out of the question. Even aside from the bargaining chip that an eighth Princess gave him, the thought of a cheerful optimist so far out of touch with the world's reality speaking with someone as power-starved as Maleficent -- the girl would probably encourage her to follow her dreams or some such, and the potential for disaster inherent in a megalomaniac on the receiving end of the world's best-intentioned pep talk... well. She was not going anywhere near Maleficent; she needed to go somewhere that competent warriors could handle the swarms of Heartless that her heart would attract, somewhere that her additional draw would go unnoticed by Maleficent's minions, and--
--and the girl had pulled his hand away and was talking again. Something about polishing floors this time.
"...I don't imagine you have very many knick-knacks, you just don't seem like a knick-knack sort of person, sir. But if you do have any I can dust them for you. And I make a really mean negi-don!"
"A mean what?" Sephiroth asked, because he couldn't imagine this child making a mean anything.
"You've never had negi-don?" she asked, sounding far more startled than he thought that question deserved. "All right, sir, take me to your kitchen! We're going to fix this right now."
"I don't have a kitchen," Sephiroth said.
"What do you mean, you don't have a kitchen? Even Shigure-san had a kitchen, though it was mostly the garbage-collecting room before I got to it, but, really, if you don't have a tent, I'm sure you have a kitchen in there somewhere. --You don't have a tent, do you, sir?" she asked, suddenly anxious.
"No, I don't have a tent."
"Right, then. So where's your kitchen?"
"...I don't have a home."
It shouldn't have been humanly possible for those eyes to get any wider, but somehow they did. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I'm sorry -- I wasn't thinking -- you're not from here either, are you? Those lovely wings of yours, of course you're not from here -- did the dark things eat your world too...? I'm so sorry!"
And then she launched herself toward him and attached herself to him. And her face was leaking, all over his chest, and -- this was simply NOT an acceptable state of events, Sephiroth thought, trying not to label the scrambling sensation at the back of his ribs something as weak and vulnerable as 'panic.'
"Stop that," Sephiroth ordered, staring down at her. "Stop crying."
As though a Princess of Heart had any reason to take orders from him -- but then, he suspected that she might not know that.
She actually tried, which surprised him. She scrubbed at her face with both hands and gulped back unpleasant-sounding substances and tried to offer a wavery smile. "I'm s-sorry. It's just... it's so sad, that you don't have a home." And then she took his hand and patted it. "Let's find you a home, all right?"
No wonder Maleficent hadn't wanted this one. This princess was clearly even more insane than he was; and on his good days, he recognized that that was saying something. Sephiroth ran a palm down his face, and decided that it was time to start using the very small words.
"Wait just a moment. You're a Princess of Heart, and I am Cloud's Darkness," he told the girl. "You're not supposed to... to..." He waved one hand vaguely. "To rescue me, or to leak on me, or--"
"Wait, what?" The girl shook her head quickly, palms to her pink cheeks. "Oh, no no no no! You've got the wrong person, sir! I'm definitely not a princess; you might want Saki-chan for that, or maybe Yuki-kun, and oh wait Ayame-san would be horribly offended if I didn't nominate him, so I should nominate him too of course! I think Ayame-san would make a very nice princess. But I'm definitely not princess material. I'm very good housekeeper material, though, so I don't want you to think I'm useless -- and someone needs to find you a home! It's not safe out here, you know," she said, terribly earnest, and Sephiroth found himself struggling with an entirely irrational impulse to find the nearest wall and beat his head against it.
"I know that," he said. "I'm not certain you appreciate the danger you place yourself in. Keyblade or no, you can't keep living out here in a tent. You'll keep drawing swarms of them, and sooner or later Maleficent will notice. Not to mention the dangers inherent in -- to be blunt -- attempting to attach yourself to me."
"What's a Keyblade?"
Only the lingering insistence that he was now by default the most sane person left in the conversation kept him from turning around and availing himself of that crumbling wall. "If we're going to continue to have this conversation," he said, "I'm going to end up presenting you with some form of Keychain. I know it. That's how these conversations always go. But I suspect that I shouldn't even be able to touch a Keychain. We need to find you someone who can give you this information with--" a straight face, among other things, and-- "without potentially world-infrastructure-damaging conflicts of alignment."
The girl blinked at him. Loudly.
Sephiroth dug a hand through his hair, thinking uncharitable things about whatever fairy godmother had clearly gotten too far into the fey-scaled alcoholic beverages in order to be absent without leave through this level of fairy-godmother-invoking event. He summoned another portal before the situation could spiral even further out of the realm of reason, caught her by the wrist, and dragged her through.
Of all the people Aeris Gainsborough had expected to find on her doorstep, Sephiroth would have been very low on that list. Before she could even summon a shielding spell, though, he'd thrust something -- a girl -- at her.
"Deal with her," he said, glaring. "I'll be back for Mother later. I can't deal with this."
"You're used to dealing with heroes. She's a Princess of Heart. You deal with her."
As he stalked off toward the castle, all his feathers bristling, the girl Sephiroth had pushed at her took a deep breath and started to talk.
"My name's Honda Tohru and it's awfully nice to meet you! Are you one of Sir's friends? It seems like he's awfully grouchy about something -- maybe it's the weather, maybe he's having a bad feathers day -- but he saved my life and I'm awfully grateful, and it's so sad that he doesn't have a home. And I was thinking, maybe if we can find him a home then he won't be rained on and he'll have a place to sleep and people to come home to, and I can cook him some negi-don and he'll feel better? Homes make everything better, really they do..."
Slowly, Aeris started to grin.
ETA: Series index here!