Title: Fairytale Endings: How to Design A Happily Ever After
(part 1, or kind of 2, of ??)
(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: Aeris and Tohru
Rating: PG 13
Prompt/challenge you're answering: Tohru and Aeris as the main characters in a fairy tale
Warnings: Not drinksafe. Occasional profanity. High dosages of Aeris.
Author's notes: (sweatdrop) possible record holder for laaaaaatest entry ever? This is a fic from the June round; I told myself I needed to get this done before the new rounds came out in January, though, so here I am starting on the 30th and trying to finish by Dec. 31... and failing, of course. I knew this was going to be a monster in many, many senses of the word. This section is one of the pieces that comes chronologically before Zack's arrival, and there are more parts after that. (Also, normally I spell her name Aeris because my first introduction was through FF7, but it's spelled Aerith in Kingdom Hearts, so I swapped over for this fic.)
One of the most remarkable things about Miss Aerith, Tohru thought, was the number of people she knew -- people both human and not, of course, not that Tohru was ever the type to hold a person's shape against them. But occasionally it made figuring out what to call a person a bit challenging.
She'd learned that honorifics didn't mean anything here, that no one knew -san from -kun and that everyone went around calling each other just by their personal names alone, which seemed unimaginably forward to Tohru. She'd finally compromised on calling Miss Aerith Miss Aerith, because Miss Aerith just didn't answer when called Miss Gainsborough. Fortunately, Mr. Strife and Mr. Leonhart didn't particularly care what she called them, so Tohru could get away with being respectful.
Yuffie-san did know honorifics, and she was so delighted to be called -san despite how young she was that Tohru wasn't about to take that happiness away from her. But she insisted on Tohru using her personal name too, because she was determined that they were going to be good friends. That was fine, because Yuffie-san really was a bit young to call Kisaragi-san; Kisaragi-san ought to be her father or her older sister or something, and so Tohru didn't feel as awkward using her personal name as she did with Miss Aerith.
And Uncle Merlin was so grandfatherly that he insisted on being Uncle, because Mister made him look around confusedly for someone else, or at least so he said. Tohru could pretty much manage Uncle Merlin without a bobble, because he'd gone ahead and told her what to call him, so that was all right.
...But then there was Mr. Sir.
Miss Aerith had explained that he only had the one name, because he'd been labeled by the people who'd genetically designed him, not born into a proper family. But that only made Tohru feel worse about it. It wasn't like Tohru was calling him by his personal name on purpose, but it still felt awfully forward just to walk up to someone with a story like that and use his name like -- like he'd given that gift to her freely. Because he never had given her his name at all, let alone permission to use it, and... well.
Once, she'd very shamefacedly tried to call him "Mr. Sephiroth," and she thought she might have died of embarrassment even before he looked her and did that thing with the eyebrow. It was just excruciatingly embarrassing, and she never tried it again.
He did that thing with both eyebrows when she'd settled on Mr. Sir, but at least Tohru felt better about herself. Because names were important, and Mr. Sir was the most reserved, most aloof person she'd ever met. Even more so than Mr. Leonhart, and Mr. Leonhart was Up There in the list of people who did very good jobs of being formal and imposing. So she couldn't just call him by his personal name, not when he'd never given it to her.
Miss Aerith giggled quite a lot, but Tohru felt like it was better to have Miss Aerith giggling at her than at him, because Mr. Sir didn't handle being giggled at very well.
There were a lot of things he didn't handle very well, really, even though it might be cruel to make note of it.
Miss Aerith had told Tohru a little bit about how their world had died, and why Mr. Strife hated Mr. Sir so much, and it was just awful to think that the people who'd made him had driven him to that much rage and that much despair, to the point where his heart had broken and he'd broken the world's heart with it.
Miss Aerith knew so many things about so many people that Tohru was continually amazed. She knew that Mr. Leonhart used to have another name but that he didn't like people using that name, so it was better for Tohru to call him Mr. Leonhart than to pester him with his original name like Yuffie-san did. And Miss Aerith knew what the gentlemen did in the Coliseum -- she called them 'our boys,' but Tohru thought of them as 'the gentlemen,' because they were all older and awfully serious and they all had distinctive swords and Tohru thought that maybe they were Princes of Heart on quests, until Miss Aerith told her that there was no such thing as a Prince of Heart.
There were Princesses of Heart, and someone named Maleficent wanted to collect them, and so Miss Aerith thought it was awfully important that they keep Tohru a bit of a secret, even though Tohru was convinced that she couldn't possibly be a princess of any sort since Miss Aerith said she wasn't one either.
"I'm more the fairy godmother," Miss Aerith said, with a smile that was a little too mischievous for Tohru's comfort. "You know. Granting wishes, doing magic, stuffing people into frilly dresses to send them to balls where they're supposed to find their happily ever afters whether they like it or not, that sort of thing."
Tohru nodded earnestly, and rubbed a smudge of flour off her cheek before she went back to kneading the dough for the weekend's bread. "I think that must mean Ayame-san is a fairy godmother too," she said. "He's very, very good at making princess-like dresses for people."
"Did he make one for you?"
"Then there you go! You have a Keyblade and you have a dress; you're all set."
"N-no, not really," Tohru stammered, kneading even harder at the dough. "I mean, Ayame-san made dresses for everyone. Including his little brother, who wasn't very happy about it. Ayame-san's just, er, unique that way. --But if there's going to be a ball, Ayame-san would be a great deal of help," she added quickly, because she didn't want to be disloyal. "Ayame-san looks quite a lot like Mr. Sir, except without the wing, so I'm sure any of the dresses he made for himself would do nicely for a Happily-Ever-After Ball. And Mr. Leonhart is about Yuki-san's height, and so is Mr. Strife..."
"Because of course we can't let them go to a ball in all that black leather," Miss Aerith said, grinning quite a lot.
"Of course we can't," Tohru agreed. "And -- are you sure you're not your world's Princess of Heart?"
"No Keyblade," Miss Aerith said, but she didn't seem too upset by it.
"Then that leaves Mr. Strife and Mr. Sir," Tohru said, thinking hard. "Mr. Sir has very good hair for a princess, of course, but there aren't all that many princesses with wings, let alone princesses with wings on just one side. But maybe it's because we're still in the middle of the story, since no one has found their happily ever after yet?"
"I'm sure that's it," Miss Aerith said, cutting some rather odd little stick figures into the top of her pie for venting. "And they could use a little help with their wardrobes, all three of them. If you are what you wear, then we've got a civic obligation to get a little less grim depressed bondage and a little more happy pastel into their lives."
"But they seem to like their black leather," Tohru said. "They seem very, er, attached. Extra attached."
"Yes, but it's for the good of their stories," Miss Aerith told her in a conspiratorial tone."There's never been a Princess of Heart who wakes up in the morning every single day and says to herself, 'I'm going to tie myself up in black leather with about fifteen extra belts for the three hundredth consecutive day in a row!'"
Tohru nodded thoughtfully. Miss Aerith knew so much about the rules having to do with the Princesses of Heart and their stories! Perhaps it had something to do with being a fairy godmother. Ayame was like that about bright colors reflecting bright spirits too.
"So obviously we have to throw a ball now, because any of them could be a Princess of Heart in disguise," Miss Aerith said, and her grin was a little terrifying. "Balls make princesses come out of their closets quite nicely. With a bit of fairy grandmotherly assistance, of course."
"Don't you think Mr. Strife might object to dresses in his closet, though?" Tohru asked, a bit anxious. Because surely that was what Miss Aerith had meant to say, that princesses' dresses came out of closets for balls and such. Although now that she thought about the stories again, princesses' dresses mostly came out of fairy godmothers' magic, not closets, so maybe she had meant--
"Leave Cloud to me. I have ways," Miss Aerith said, airily. "And you don't think Sephiroth would object to a dress?"
"He doesn't seem like someone who minds being pretty," Tohru said, completely earnest. "I mean, he can't object too much. It has to take a lot of effort to care for all that lovely hair of his -- and that swoopy coat is almost a dress in itself. It's just like Ayame-san's favorite coat-dress, aside from it being all black of course. Ayame-san would never wear something that drab! But Ayame-san buttons his collars up much more than Mr. Sir does, and I wouldn't call Ayame-san prudish about anything really, so -- I'm fairly sure he has to be doing things like that at least a little bit on purpose. ...I'm certain Mr. Sir has better princessly instincts than Mr. Strife does, anyway."
Miss Aerith put her pie down, because she was laughing too hard to finish her artwork.
"Mr. Strife is awfully cruel to his poor hair," Tohru pointed out, in the name of honesty. "I'm sure it would be much less shaggy and pointy-out-ish if he weren't so determined to cut it himself, wouldn't it? And someone should get him a mirror when he tries. Also I think someone needs to teach Mr. Strife and Mr. Leonhart how to replace their buttons, because they seem to think their clothes will fall off if they don't tie them on extra enthusiastically."
"That might explain those belts," Miss Aerith admitted, still giggling.
"And I'm positive a ball would be better for them than that awful Coliseum," Tohru added, brows crooked together. "Nobody tries to kill each other at a ball. Nobody even gets hurt, unless your shoes fit badly, which we can fix before it starts. And nobody's happily-ever-after ever came from people hurting and killing each other. Not for the people who lose, or the people who care about them, and not even for the people who win, not really. Not when their happiness comes at the price of someone else's pain. Sooner or later, someone is going to come and take their happiness away for the sake of their precious person who suffered, and it never stops. All in all, balls are much better for providing happy endings for people's stories."
"You're right," Miss Aerith wheezed, thumping a hand against her chest to dislodge the flour she'd inhaled while laughing. "You're absolutely right. So -- how much control of your Keyblade do you have? Do you think you could summon your friend Ayame to give me a hand with all these dresses we're going to need to make?"
Fiercely intent, Tohru said, "I'll try my best, Miss Aerith."
One thing Miss Aerith didn't know was how to use a Keyblade, which was unfortunate because neither did Tohru. It was apparently more complicated to summon your friends' hearts than just standing there and wishing really hard.
Tohru wished and wished until she gave herself a truly spectacular headache, and Miss Aerith gave her a cup of chamomile tea and a cheering-up talk, but she couldn't help feeling like a disappointment. Because her friends' hearts had been left in her keeping after Mr. Sir had rescued her, Miss Aerith thought, and Tohru had to take extra special care of their hearts, and she had to know how to do things like summoning if she ever wanted to see them again.
When she asked Mr. Strife how to summon lost friends' hearts, he looked -- stricken, somehow, like she'd accused him of something that hurt, and she hadn't meant that at all. By the time she was done bowing and apologizing, he looked even more uncomfortable, and stammered some kind of excuse, and all but ran out the door.
When she asked Mr. Leonhart, he just looked at her. He did the thing with the eyebrow just like Mr. Sir, too.
At first she thought she hadn't explained herself well enough, so she tried explaining some more about her friends who'd apparently been mushrooms for a while before they found her and the attack by the Heartless things and the spell they'd cast and the singing and dancing and how nice it was that Kyo-kun even had a place in the dance because he never did before and she wanted to be able to talk to him to tell him how nice it was, and also she wanted to talk to Ayame-san, though she couldn't exactly say why because Miss Aerith said it wasn't a good idea to talk about it too much ahead of time, like maybe she thought it would be bad luck or something, Tohru wasn't quite sure why, but in any case she did need to talk to Ayame-san very badly and so she needed to make this summoning business actually work, and she kept explaining for quite a while.
Mr. Leonhart just kept looking. With extra dots, somehow.
Tohru asked him how he did the thing with the dots, because Hatori-san didn't like talking much either and it would be a terribly useful trick for him to know, she'd love to be able to teach him whenever she saw him again, except that Tohru herself wasn't much good at dotting because when she opened her mouth things just kind of fell out, so maybe Mr. Leonhart would be a better person to teach Hatori-san about the dots because he really was awfully good at them and--
Mr. Leonhart left, abruptly, moving almost as quickly as Mr. Strife had.
...And they'd both forgotten their lunches.
Tohru had been needing to straighten out this hurting-each-other business at the Coliseum anyway.
When Leon escaped Phil's clutches and managed to catch up with Cloud at the Coliseum, one look at the man's eyes said everything he needed to hear: burning-blue, spooked, almost hunted.
Cloud looked back at him with those haunted eyes, and apparently recognized the same thing in Leon's face.
In unison, because acknowledging what they saw in each other would be entirely too embarrassing, they turned to stare out at the latest round of combat in the sands.
After the match was over, so that enough minutes had gone by in silence to bandage their pride a little bit, Leon said, "She brought lunch."
"I told Phil she was his doing."
Obscurely nettled that Cloud had seized on the barely-verbal side of the discussion, because that meant that he had to be the one doing the talking if the conversation was going to be had at all, Leon crossed both arms over his chest. "He's your Darkness, Cloud."
"Couldn't you have stopped him sooner? Like, say, before he handed a whole new living arsenal over to Aerith?"
Cloud rolled his eyes a little. "Have you ever tried arguing with either of them? Let alone both of them?"
"Yeah," Cloud said, dryly. "That's what I thought."
For once, Sephiroth's best stare slid off Phil like blood off well-oiled battle-leathers.
"Leon says she's your fault," Phil said. "You fix this. It's not my job. I just keep the place running. I make the rosters, I schedule the fights, sure, fine, whatever. I don't get paid enough to handle Princesses of Heart on a crusade."
He gestured wildly at the inside of his office, where the mentally defective cleaning-Princess had pinned a ten foot tall two-headed granite-black rock titan against the wall by sheer force of enthusiasm.
"...But really there are all kinds of fun games that people can play that have winners and losers and betting and so forth and they don't have to involve any maiming or bloodshed at all. I like dai-hin-min myself because you can play with anyone, and you could get really big cards so that people could see from anywhere in the stands -- and oh that's an idea, just turning the cards over would be an event in itself! And barring the danger for really big paper cuts, which I'm pretty sure we could solve by being good about padding the card edges, there wouldn't be anyone hurt and --"
"No," one of the demon's heads said on cue.
It didn't derail her for more than a fifth of a second, and she used that fractional second to take another deep breath.
Sephiroth noted with an unsettled mingling of approval and apprehension that she'd learned to take merciless advantage of any moment's hesitation in her opponents. Clearly, the flower girl had been teaching her well.
Unfortunately, the evident downside of this was that the flower girl had been teaching her well.
"All right, no big cards -- they'd be awfully hard to shuffle, I do see your point there -- oh, I know! There's rock-paper-scissors! Anyone can do rock-paper-scissors! Anyone with hands, that is, and I'm sure we could think of some way to make accommodations for the ducks--"
"No," the demon said again. It was only a small rock titan, as rock titans went, and the head that currently had charge of the thinking looked toward Phil and Sephiroth in hopes of a rescue. Phil promptly turned another Significant Look on Sephiroth. Sephiroth ignored them both.
"But why not?" the girl asked.
"...No?" It seemed that Phil had told the heads to 'just keep telling her no,' and the demon wasn't entirely certain what to do with a question to which 'no' didn't actually apply. When in doubt, though, it did follow its instructions to the letter. Commendable in a well-trained foot soldier, Sephiroth noted, but it took more than blind obedience to handle even a novice Keyblade Master.
"But it's perfect for having tournaments with. It's fast and simple and it's not expensive at all," the girl said, warming to her sales pitch. "No equipment to buy, no shields to replace, barely any training for new players -- just think of how that could help reduce your household expense budget! Or your Coliseum expense budget, anyway."
"And the most interesting part is that anyone can win! I could even beat someone as big and strong as you at rock-paper-scissors, and that kind of outcome would definitely confuse the people making the predictions, which Shigure-san assures me is nearly always the best way to try to win at gambling for anything but hearts, although around here I suppose gambling for hearts is more of a consideration than usual--"
"No," the demon repeated, a little desperate. He couldn't fit any further back into the corner than he'd already gone.
"Anyway, it's really easy to have a rock-paper-scissors tournament," the girl said, terribly helpful. "We could do it right here! Just watch!"
The little girl made a not-very-intimidating-looking fist.
The ten-foot-tall, thirty-ton, combat-hardened rock demon flinched.
"You're the badass who takes on Keyblade Masters; stop her already," Phil groaned, and shoved Sephiroth into the room by main force.
The girl turned at the sound of Phil's voice, and then she lit up at the sight of Sephiroth.
"Princess," Sephiroth said, resisting the urge to rub at the sudden headache knotting itself in his temples. "Please stop tormenting the rock titan."
"It's unkind to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent," he said, wearily.
"...Oh!" And then she turned around and bowed to the thing. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Rock. I hope I didn't hurt your feelings?"
The rock titan made a small whimpering sound.
"Come," Sephiroth said, gesturing toward the door. Phil would clearly need some privacy to remonstrate his thirty-ton bully for its inability to hold its own against a small girl armed with a schoolbag.
Beaming from ear to ear, she trotted over to follow along at his side like a well-trained terrier. "Mr. Strife and Mr. Leonhart forgot their lunches," she informed him, "so Miss Aerith let me bring them along, and I made one for you too, Mr. Sir, if you don't mind. I mean, if you don't have a home then you don't have anywhere to cook food properly for yourself, so I thought I could help a little bit and..."
"Lunch?" he echoed, startled despite himself.
The thing she thrust into his hands was very ...pink. There was a disturbing caricature of a small white cat without a mouth on it.
Sephiroth wondered if the thing had been created as a remark upon the bleak irony of an illustrated creation's existence -- without breath or dimension, it could never matter that the thing had no mouth since it would never be able to consume the food its container was designed to hold each day. The grim, mocking pathos of eternal Sisyphean torment as symbolized by the existential dilemma of a representation of life etched upon unliving material was... almost amusing, in a very Heartless sort of way.
Except that he already knew the girl well enough to know that she would never think such a thing, let alone select it as a... a gift of sorts.
So if it wasn't meant for a bitter commentary on the nature of existence, then what on earth...?
"Happy Kitty?" Cloud said from the shadows, and there was something resembling a smirk in his tone of voice.
"Oh - Mr. Strife! I have your lunch too--" She dug around in her bag, then produced a lavender thing marked with a caricature of some sort of flying white floppy animal with enormous ears.
"I thought you should have Fluffpuppy because he likes the sky too; he always sticks his head out the car's window when Happy Kitty takes her friends driving. And Mr. Leonhart has Cococat because, well, mostly because I thought Bunny-wuv was a little too, er, girly for someone to give to grown-up gentlemen like yourselves, and..."
There was something raw and nakedly unguarded in Cloud's gaze then, something that said just kill me already; kill me and get it over with, so that I don't have to deal with the rest of this.
Sephiroth glared right back: Not a chance in hell. Or out of it, either.
He wasn't about to give Cloud the opportunity to escape that easily, not when Cloud had no intention of returning the favor.
The liberally inflicted pastel things had gone over just about as badly as Sephiroth had expected. All three of them kept scowling at nothing in particular, avoiding looking at each other because any opportunity for mockery provided by the others' ludicrous little plastic things were offset by the awareness of one's own ludicrous little plastic thing in turn. And then there had been the food -- carefully hand-carved little frolicking apple-bunnies and perky little egg chicks and the like, on a festively colorful background of tulips and daisies and whatnot.
It was appalling, he thought, biting the head off a sausage-puppy so the godsbedamned thing would stop looking at him.
The fastest way to handle the situation was to pretend none of it was happening and to get it over with so that it could be not happening as soon as possible. But the three of them were the best in their field; after the initial fight-or-flight reaction passed, they'd all settled on the same instinctive strategy. All three of them sat down to eat their lunches with carefully slow-paced dedication. Because having their mouths full meant they weren't expected to say anything to anyone, least of all each other.
Then the girl took a deep breath, and put her own rainbow pastel bunny thing back into her schoolbag, and tried again.
"All right, maybe rock-paper-scissors won't work at the Coliseum level. I do see Mr. Phil's point about the need for larger gestures in a place that big. But I don't think blood is the best signifier of who wins. I think it's the worst signifier, really. There has to be some more civilized way of deciding who wins these things..."
"Princess," Sephiroth said, tired-voiced. "We are warriors, all of us. Combat is what warriors are for."
"But -- who wants to watch people hurt each other?" she burst out. "Who could watch people hurting and bleeding and think that that was fun? It's not fun! It's horrible! It's cruel and it's -- it's just horrible that you have to hurt each other, and that you have to hurt other people, and that they hurt you, and they keep holding more fights even if you win, so there's never an end to it unless someone dies, and-- and--!"
All three of them stared at each other uncomfortably, hoping against hope that one of the other two would know what to do about a Princess of Heart sobbing her eyes out over their means of living.
Cloud broke first; he patted her head gingerly, awkwardly. She twisted around and threw herself at him, and proceeded to leak salt water and various less pleasant substances all over his black leathers. He stared down at the back of her head, blank with sheer panic, and then tried patting her again.
Staring out at the arena with a scowl fit to scare away thunderclouds, Leon pulled a reasonably clean sword-polishing rag out of his jacket pocket and held it out in Cloud's direction. Cloud took it and patted at her face a little.
Sephiroth wondered what she expected them to say, really. She gave a team of hardened warriors boxes of small cuddly animal-shaped food that they were intended to bite the heads off of without blinking, and then she cried on them because they did their jobs? There was nothing they could say -- it would be ridiculous to apologize for the lives they had led, when they would have died far sooner if they hadn't become the best at what they did. If they hadn't trained to war, to the arts of death, then none of them would have survived long enough for her to weep over.
It was beyond absurd even to consider it. But she hadn't left them any other way to continue the discussion.
Killing her to stop the noise and the headaches would be effective in the very short term, but it would be a waste of a potential power-piece that he could still use against Maleficent if any of the three of them could ever handle her properly.
Cloud tried patting the girl again. "Tohru," he said, embarrassed, "fighting is just what we do. We do it because we're the best in the worlds at it. If we weren't, if nobody fought, then there would be even more worlds destroyed by now."
"I know," she sniffled, and took Leon's gun-cloth and blew her nose into it loudly. "But that's different. There's a difference between protecting people and -- and having to fight just because someone wants to watch people h-hurting and dying and-- it's not right!" She scrubbed both hands over her face and stared around at them, searching for comprehension. "It's horrible that they make you do this. It's horrible that they can't be satisfied that you defend people from the heart-eaters, that you have to fight when there's no need. And -- and Mr. Sir doesn't even have a home to go to when they're done making you risk your lives for them to laugh at! Surely they owe all of you that much!"
"You suffer under the misapprehension that Hades and his crew actually care," Sephiroth observed.
She gulped back something unpleasant-sounding, and dropped her chin a little. "I know they don't care," she murmured. "They watch things bleed and die and they call it entertaining. That's -- that's sick. But even if they're sick, even if I can't convince anyone here that it doesn't have to be like this, even if I can't stop any of this from happening -- it's still wrong that you don't have a home to go to! That, I can help--"
"Oh hell no," Cloud said sharply, and took her by the shoulders. "No. Tohru, you've got no idea--"
"Are you going to give him a home?" the girl asked.
"Then I will," Tohru said, as though it were as simple as that.
"Tohru, listen to me," Cloud said, and shook her by the shoulders. "He's -- he's my Darkness. He's nothing but Darkness, not anymore. He's a murderer, and a monster, and a living curse--"
"My family threw me out," Tohru said, with her little face streaked with tears and a stubborn set to her chin. "And when they did, it was a family of cursed monsters who took me in. And I was happier with them than I ever was with my perfectly human aunt and uncle."
"It's not the same," Cloud said, his face tight and unhappy.
"Mr. Strife, right now I don't care." She scrubbed a hand across her face, and said, "I think the monsters are the ones who laugh and cheer when they pay money to make you hurt each other because they can. I think the monsters are the ones who send you out to fight for your lives against each other, because they think there's no fun in it when it's not real people who are bleeding in front of them. But Mr. Phil won't let me change that. And you won't let me change that either. So I'm changing the part I can change."
Cloud shot a desperate look at Leon, who unfolded himself from his lean against the wall.
"I'll take him," Leon said. "I'll take him home. You shouldn't have to."
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Leonhart," Tohru said, a little shaky, "but I can't let you do that."
"You don't want him, sir," she said, trembling. "A home is where someone wants you to be there."
Startled despite himself, Sephiroth said, "Why?"
She blinked those enormous eyes. "Mr. Sir?"
"Why would you want me? What is it you want?"
"I -- I don't understand...?"
"Maleficent wants a strategist and a Dark mage," he said, struggling to remember patience in the grasp of such sudden, incalculable uncertainties. "Hades wants a warrior who can kill nearly anything and make it a spectacle. You don't want either of those things, do you? You're a creature of Light, a Princess of Heart -- what use am I to you?"
"Oh," she whispered, both hands creeping up to cover her mouth. "You're just like me, aren't you, Mr. Sir?"
"What?" Cloud demanded, incredulous. "Tohru, he's nothing like you!"
"He is," she insisted. "He's just exactly like me. No one wanted me unless I was useful, too."
Cloud's hands unknotted from their grip on her shoulders, stricken. "Oh, gods..."
"No one but Mother," Tohru corrected herself, scrupulously fair. "And Mother was special." She took a couple steps forward, and offered him both hands, open, empty, palms up, unthreatening. "Will you come home with me, Mr. Sir?"
He still hadn't received a satisfactory answer -- or, at least, not a comprehensible one. "What is it that you expect from me, Princess?"
There was something a little sheepish in her smile, and something a little mischievous -- the flower girl had been supervising her upbringing, after all.
"I really don't think I'm meant for a princess," she admitted. "I mean, there's never been a princess who lived in a tent. And the only princess who cleaned things so much was Miss Cinderella, and it's Miss Cinderella's story -- that is to say, it's already been told; I'd hate to try to push my way into her story like a selfish little girl. But Miss Aerith says that with a little more training I can help her with her fairy godmotherly duties, and I think I'd like that. Because a lot of people from all these injured worlds need to find their happily ever afters. They shouldn't have to lose their happiness and their homes and their families forever. So I need someone to practice on. I know a happily ever after is an awful lot of work to arrange, and I'm not very good at it yet, because I haven't actually finished anything. But I thought I could start with lunches, and homes, and maybe with quilts too, because quilts are good for learning to sew with, and I could work my way up to being really useful if I try my best. So I need someone to give my very first happily ever after to, and I thought that you could definitely use one, if you don't mind that it's my first try and all and that it's going to take me some practice to get it right."
Leon had one hand over his face, and his shoulders were shaking. The sounds coming from that direction involved a suspiciously high proportion of pffffffffts.
"You... er... you wouldn't mind if I tried to make a happily ever after for you, would you, Mr. Sir?"
Leon choked, and coughed, and turned away to look out at the stadium; Cloud pounded him on the back with a little too much force to be strictly helpful, but he was glaring at Sephiroth as hotly as the sun.
Sephiroth considered for a moment. Clearly, he knew what Cloud expected him to say -- but it was still important to consider this from all angles.
She clasped both hands together in front of her, leaning forward like a puppy straining against its training leash. Her eyes were just as blue as Zack's had been, Sephiroth thought, though easily three times the size.
In the end, it was mostly pragmatism that tipped his hand, although he did have to admit the desire to watch Cloud twitch played some small role as well.
"I accept," he said, and watched the sun break in her face like she'd never truly smiled before.
"Thank you, Mr. Sir! I promise I'll be the very best fairy-godmother-in-training you ever saw! I'll work really really hard, I promise! By the way, do you like blue or green better?"
"Miss Aerith says that in order to help people create their happily ever afters more efficiently, fairy godmothers are responsible for redesigning their charges' wardrobes in accord with the principles of--"
Now Cloud was grinning. Sephiroth leaned forward and put a hand over the girl's mouth before anything worse could fall out.
"No dresses," he said firmly. "I have to be able to fight in what I wear, Princess."
She blinked at him a couple of times. "Oh, that's right," she said, and she sounded rather too disappointed by it.
Belatedly, Sephiroth was beginning to reconsider the wisdom of having left this impressionable creature unsupervised in the flower girl's clutches for as long as he had.
"Still," she said, perking herself up again by sheer force, "which do you like better, blue or green? Because it's got to be dangerous having all that hair flying around loose when you move so quickly, and I thought I could find a few ribbons, some hair clips, I'm very good at braiding--"
"Stop right there, Princess," Sephiroth said, dropping his voice half an octave to make certain he got his point across.
Cloud seized him by the arm. "Hurt her," he murmured, "and there is no pit in hell deep enough to hide yourself from me."
"I understand," Sephiroth replied, still watching the girl because she was clearly the more immediate threat. "But hair ribbons are beyond the pale."
The corner of Cloud's mouth twitched suspiciously.
"I'd be honored if you'd feel free to call me Tohru," the girl said, "since we're going to share a home and all. Please feel welcome to my family, Mr. Sir!" And then she bowed, and waited.
If there had been anyone competent in the exchange of social niceties present, Sephiroth would have asked for advice at this point.
But, instead, he was standing between Cloud Strife and Squall Leonhart.
Sephiroth sighed a little, and took a blind guess.
"Thank you for your welcome, Tohru," he said, and bent his head slightly -- social custom or not, that was as much as his pride would allow. "And stop calling me sir. I am no longer what I once was, and not to be honored as though I had not fallen."
"'Bastard' works," Leon suggested.
"Mr. Leonhart!" The girl stomped her foot in vexation. "You're not helping!"
Cloud reached over and cuffed him, more through obligation than any actual disagreement.
"Thank you, Mr. Leonhart." And then she scuffled her toe around on the ground, looking conspicuously anywhere except at Sephiroth.
Cloud sighed, and cuffed Sephiroth this time. "Give her your name," he prompted under his breath.
"She knows my name."
"Just give it to her. She's weird about names."
Sephiroth studied her bent head for a moment.
"You may have my name to do with as you wish," he said. "After all, there is no further harm that could be done to it now."
Tohru straightened abruptly, eyes wide. "Oh dear," she said. "I'm going to have to fix that too, aren't I? It wouldn't be a proper happily ever after otherwise."
Sephiroth thought he could be forgiven for boggling a bit. Leon's shoulders were shaking again, and he thumped one bootheel against the wall as the only expression of mirth he'd permit himself.
"Do you have any idea what you've just committed yourself to?" Cloud asked, arms crossed.
"A little," Tohru admitted, scrubbing her toe on the ground again. "But if Mr. S-Sephiroth trusts me with his name, then I have to do my best! Oh - and I should go tell Miss Aerith that he said yes, and--"
"Wait, she was in on this?" Sephiroth asked, startled again.
"It's her home," Tohru said simply. "And she knows so much more about how the rules work here than I do. We made a list of what we think the three of you are going to need for your happily ever afters--"
"Oh, shit," Leon said under his breath. He wasn't laughing anymore.
"--and I thought the most important thing would be not having to hurt each other all the time, but I should have known that would be too big of a task for my very first day on the job. So I'm going to have to keep working on Mr. Phil and Mr. Hades. But finding Mr. Sephiroth's home was also important, and Miss Aerith agreed I could give him ours if he'd let me, and so--"
"Aerith Gainsborough," Sephiroth said. "The flower girl. The one I..."
"Yes," Tohru said, and her eyes were very deep and very clear. "She told me about that."
"And you still want me there?"
"More than anything," Tohru said. "Because we didn't trust anyone else not to want to hurt you because of it."
Sephiroth glanced over at Cloud. This ran deeper than he'd anticipated.
Cloud's mouth twisted. "I gave up trying to understand how much she could forgive years ago."
"I don't understand this," Sephiroth said, fighting the urge to find a wall to put his back against so that nothing else could leap out at him unexpectedly. "I don't understand why you want this. Either of you."
"You don't have to understand yet," the girl said, her eyes full of sympathy. "I didn't either, when the Sohma family brought me into their home. It's hard to understand until you've had a real family. But it gets easier to accept. The problem is that... then it gets harder to live without." She blinked hard a couple of times, and pushed her chin up a notch higher. "So that means we have to take extra care not to let anyone take our world away this time!"
"Ah," Sephiroth said. "There. You've lost your world, and want a warrior close at hand in case the Heartless swarm again. That is rational. Though -- I'm certain you could have chosen better than myself."
"No," Tohru said, and smiled up at him. "Mr. Strife and Mr. Leonhart already know that they belong. They know that Miss Aerith worries about them, that she welcomes them home when they come. They know that they're important. That they're loved, and valued, and that we're glad they're safe. So that's why I chose you. Because you didn't have anyone to give you that concern, or that trust."
"There's a reason for that," Cloud muttered.
"I know. That's why I chose him too. Because someone has to want him for himself."
And if that wasn't an uncanny echo of Zack's way of thinking -- "I should never have left you defenseless in her hands," Sephiroth muttered.
"But you'll still come, won't you?" Tohru said, reaching for the way that the flower girl asked questions that made them commands, but not quite making it. There was too much hope in her voice, too much wishing, and not enough confident assurance.
"Yes," Sephiroth said, heedless of Cloud's renewed glare. Then, carefully, he added, "Thank you."
"You're welcome!" she said, delighted. "So you'll come home this evening, right? What would you like for dinner?"
"I don't know," he said, uncomfortable with its truth. 'Liking' hadn't been much of a consideration for anything, once he'd been reborn in the Dark. And food had never been worth considering for its own sake; it was only a means to pursue his ends. Military food, he recalled dimly, had certainly never had concepts such as 'liking' applied...
"Well," Tohru said, as irrepressible as ever, "how about we surprise you?"
"Don't," Cloud said immediately. "He doesn't take surprises well."
"Oh -- no, nothing jumping out of a cake or anything, I promise--"
"Jumping out of a cake?"
"Don't worry," the girl said in all earnestness, "it won't be that surprising."
"I'll hold you to your word," Sephiroth said, and she had the nerve to giggle at him.
"So we'll see you at home for dinner, then, right? All of you?"
Leon cleared his throat, already shuffling a foot back toward the door; Cloud reached over and nabbed him by the collar, and said through a fixed grin, "We'll be there."
"It's a promise!" Tohru said happily, and left skipping. ...Skipping.
"You're not getting away that easily," Cloud said under his breath to Leon. "You're going to help me talk sense into Aerith."
"Good luck with that," Sephiroth said dryly, and shrugged off Cloud's glare.
"If you hurt either of them--"
"I know," Sephiroth said.
"What the hell were you thinking?" he demanded, scrubbing both hands through his hair helplessly. "Is this to control me? Are you going to threaten them in order to keep me on a shorter leash? Because it goes both ways--"
"There's nothing you can threaten me with now, Cloud," Sephiroth said, indulging his taste for smugness.
"Two words, asshole. Hair ribbons."
Sephiroth blinked, and then he laughed. It was quite gratifying to see Leon grab at the handle of his gunblade at the sound.
"They made lists, Cloud. Lists. For all three of us."
"By sharing the girl's living space, I expect I can exert some level of influence over the distribution of the appalling lunch boxes and the bright sparkly decorations she devises." He let himself smile then. "Don't threaten me with hair ribbons when I can suggest to her that you secretly adore pastel colored lunches and knitted caps and small fluffy plush animals, but are just too charmingly embarrassed to admit to it."
Cloud stared at him in a blend of outrage and horror that was truly satisfying.
"I'll see you this evening, then," he all but purred, and turned back toward the fighters' preparation rooms.
"Not if I kill you first," Cloud muttered.
"Oh, but you're not going to," Sephiroth tossed over his shoulder, shamelessly luxuriating in his victory. "Because then you'd have to explain yourself. To both of them. At the same time."
"...You son of a bitch."
Dinner went about the way Leon had figured it would. He stopped Cloud from making any desperation moves four or five times on the trip from the Coliseum to Aerith's house. Their surprise dinner involved beef pot pie, which Sephiroth kept eyeing warily until Aerith cut into it and proved that there really wouldn't be anything bursting out of it. Dessert was ice cream and strawberries.
It looked as though Sephiroth had never eaten ice cream before, either.
Whether he liked to admit it or not, he was starting to think that maybe -- just maybe -- the girl had had a point after all.
Of course, when Cloud signalled him to keep the girl distracted while he tried to talk Aerith out of letting a psychotic mass murderer with delusions of godhood stay in one of the guest bedrooms for the foreseeable future, Leon dutifully went along with it. Because if it had been Rinoa, he'd have wanted Cloud to do the same for him.
All the same, he hoped Cloud appreciated the bomb he'd thrown himself on for friendship's sake. When the girl had run out of chatter about her ideas for improving the Coliseum and was starting to get fidgety about the fact that she wasn't helping Aerith wash the dishes, Leon gathered his nerve and asked her to tell him about her curse-bearing friends from her home world.
Three hours later, when Cloud had grimly acknowledged defeat, the girl was still talking.
Leon, meanwhile, was praying to all the gods that she never discovered how to summon the one with the dress fetish.
He all but dragged Cloud out for a drink, because Cloud was going to have to get used to the idea of Sephiroth alone with the girls some time -- and because Cloud hadn't been on the one on the receiving end of far too many speculations about the interconnection between bright satin dresses and happily ever afters in the fairy godmother guide book that hadn't yet been written but which Tohru thought she ought to compile while she was learning as a favor to anyone else who wanted to pick up the trade and came from princess-challenged worlds like hers.
Sephiroth would keep for a couple of hours at the least; Leon wanted to get moderately to severely drunk before he had to face that girl again.
"He's going to kill them," Cloud muttered into a drink that was glowing faintly blue, and finished it, and poured another glass straight from the bottle. "And then I'm going to kill him, and then I'm going to kill you for not listening to me when I told you so, and then... I don't know what I'm going to do then..."
"He's not going to kill them," Leon said. "He's still working out the strategic calculations. Aerith's a healer and the girl has a Keyblade. They're worth a great deal more to him alive."
"If you're wrong--"
"I'm not wrong," Leon said, and took another swallow of his whiskey. "If nothing else, he has to work out how he's going to get the girl to give us pastel-colored lunch boxes full of food shaped like small cute animals in front of Hades first."
Cloud turned a little faster than he should have, and clutched at the edge of the bar. "He what?"
"If he gets the god of the underworld to witness it," Leon told him grimly, "we won't even be able to kill ourselves to get away from the mockery. Hades will have all of eternity to rub it in."
Cloud slumped forward, his forehead knocking against the bar with a dull thud. "I hate my life."
"I told you you should've killed him years ago," Leon observed.
"I did. The son of a bitch doesn't stay dead."
Leon turned the glass between his hands, watching the light glitter and refract through the whiskey and ice.
"It does make a certain twisted kind of sense," he murmured. "The world's most unwilling princess has just chosen the world's most unlikely knight."
"Shut up," Cloud muttered into the surface of the bar.
With a crooked grin, he lifted his glass toward the light, then drained it in one toss. "Here's to irony."
Cloud blinked at him sideways, then picked his head up just long enough to drink down his own glass of glowing blue ...stuff.
"Here's to irony," he agreed. "Kill me now?"
"And leave me alone to deal with your Darkness when he's found a brand new weapon?" Leon took Cloud's bottle and took a swig from it, then tried desperately not to choke. "...Not a chance in hell."
"Thanks for nothing."
ETA: Series index here!