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[personal profile] jessara40k_lj
Title: Courtship
Fandom: FFVII Cetra Restoration AU
Rating: R
Warnings: implied slavery, het, implied slash

“Darres, Lewis, if you will come with me?” Zack didn’t greet them formally, as he was simply serving as a guide at the moment, instead offering a slight bow, watching as the two men stood, Darres showing more grace than Lewis did.

“What about our consorts, do you expect us to leave them behind?”

“Or did you just assume they’d accompany us?” Lewis didn’t sound quite as accusing as Darres did, but Zack could feel his cheeks heat with embarrassment.

“Ah, yes, I sort of figured Glen and Lazard would come with you, and I see you’ve already dismissed your bodyguards?” He didn’t want to be caught out again: these two men were pretty important, Aeris’ best options for a spouse who’d be reasonable, and he’d already messed this up once, in a way that he knew Sephiroth wouldn’t have done. Zack started leading the nobles and their consorts to Aeris as he spoke; Lewis and Darres could answer just as well on the move as they could standing still.

“Yes, of course. The Planet’s Heart has no reason to harm us.”

“I didn’t bring one, not here.” Darres glanced at Glen, an appreciative smile on his lips, making it clear without words why he didn’t think he’d needed a bodyguard.

“You honour us with your trust.” Zack picked a phrase that was almost ritual, to discourage any further conversation while still showing that he understood they’d paid Aeris a compliment. They seemed to pick up on his reluctance to speak further, and allowed him to guide them to the outer room of Aeris’ quarters in silence.

Aeris was standing when they arrived, and from the tension in her body Zack could see she’d been just about to start pacing, but she managed a welcoming smile as she stepped forward to greet them, managing to avoid giving precedence to either of her guests.

“Please, sit down, and I can explain why I wanted to see you both, together.” There were enough chairs for everyone in the room, but Zack knew how upset Aeris was about this, so when she’d sat down he went to kneel at her feet, leaning up against her legs, so that she could pet him to calm herself.

“Ah...should we be kneeling, my healer liege?” Glen sounded as if he resented the idea, and he was almost glaring at Zack. “You didn’t require your consort to kneel at your feet at the party you held last week.”

“And I didn’t ask him to kneel today. Zack?” Aeris looked down at him, hand stilling in his hair.

“I’m...not entirely happy with the reason Aeris asked you to come here. I know it’s necessary, but it makes me uncomfortable.” Even though he’d pushed for it.

“You summoned us to ask if we’d be willing to court you.” Zack thought he could read disbelief in the flat tones of Lewis’ voice, not the delighted surmise he would have expected.

“Yes, I have. In all honesty I need a spouse more urgently than Cloud does, since I am older than he, and I will not be fertile for as long as he would even were we the same age.” As she spoke Aeris began petting him again, and Zack shut his eyes to enjoy the caresses. “He agreed to allow himself to be courted to grant me more time with Zack, but it brought my situation into focus, and there are few with the qualifications to become my spouse.”

“But there are more than just two. Why single us out?” Zack could hear the care with which Darres controlled his voice, more than that he could hear the anger underlying that care. And if he could hear it Aeris could certainly feel it, even though her ears weren’t as sharp as his.

“More than two, yes. But I don’t think you realise quite how limited my range of choices really is. If at all possible my spouse should be a common-born high noble, and when Zack searched for me he only found thirteen unespoused between the ages of eighteen and forty. You two are the very best choices, but...I can’t choose between you.”

“What makes us the best choices then?” Lewis leaned forward, his interest clearly caught. “And why call both of us here?”

“She wants to play us off against each other.” Was that a hint of disgust? “You’re not worth fighting over, my healer liege, not for me.”

“Who would want to be fought over, to reduce herself to a mere prize?” Aeris laughed lightly as she spoke, putting the lie to her bitter words. “I don’t expect to ever come first in your heart should you choose to court me, you each already have a consort to be your beloved. That’s one of the reasons you two are my best choices, you’ll understand how much Zack means to me. There were other practical things, like credit history and that sort of thing, then I eliminated two of my options on the basis of appearance.”

“Because you didn’t find them attractive?” Lewis asked his question with an oddly deferential tone, compared to the way he and Darres had been speaking so far, and mentally Zack admitted that it was a change from the aggression Darres was displaying.

“One of them looked unhealthy, the other one looked too much like my brother to be a wise choice for me. The party I invited you to last week was not, in fact, primarily intended to learn about Rowan, although we passed all the information we learned on her on to Cloud. It was a happy coincidence that three out of the four of you knew her at some point and I could take the chance to help Cloud while getting a chance to assess your characters.”

“And you couldn’t decide between us.” Darres paused before continuing in a tone of faint revelation. “Ah, that explains Regis. You didn’t invite him as a decoy, he was the other spousal candidate you’d settled on, but you decided against him.”

“He didn’t want to talk about his consort.” Aeris stated her objection flatly, and it seemed to be enough to Darres and Lewis. “It is legitimate for both of you to court me at once, and that would give us more time to get to know one another. I can’t order you to do this, but I don’t want to have to select from whatever candidates the Triumvirate come up with for me.”

“You’d be put under pressure to espouse at some point anyway Darres, and I doubt the Planet’s Heart will try to restrict you as much as another spouse might.”

“And nothing says I can’t withdraw from courting you if I decide we won’t suit.” Lewis had a speculative look in his eyes as he spoke. “I’m willing to court you if Darres isn’t, and even if he is.”

“Yes, I’m willing. But we need to decide exactly how this will work. And Lewis, I’ll need some way to contact you quickly if I have to.”

After that it was just a matter of making the arrangements, and Zack tuned it out a bit until their guests left.
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