Cloud peered cautiously into the half-light of the cave. Mythril caught light and twisted it, reflected it in myriad directions and casting shadows where there should have been none. For the unwary traveler, the dark corners held more than potholes and sharp rocks. Already, Avalanche had faced half a dozen minor skirmishes with what Aeris repeatedly called 'unnatural creatures' with a tremor to her voice. "It's clear," Cloud led the way into a wider cavern to find himself shockingly mistaken. He found himself staring at a head of black hair atop a blue suit on the ledge above him. He bit down on frustration. The figure with its back turned to him could only be Tseng.
Before Cloud could even think about signaling Avalanche to silently back up, Tseng turned. "Well, well, you finally caught up to us."
"Cloud, why'd you stop? Oh...," Aeris recovered from her stumble, planting her feet firmly on the ground, her face a mask of determination. She felt the rest of the group gather behind, the soft chatter replaced by cold wariness.
"If you think you're going to take us in, you've got another thing coming," Cloud's voice held a quiet rage. A quick glance showed him Rude standing in a corner and no exit but the one Tseng stood before.
Tseng's answering laughter echoed around the cave, more chilling than the air. "No, as much as I'd like to, I have other orders. The new president doesn't think you're worth the time, although I can't say the same for Reno. He's not happy about the way you left him after your last little get together and he's itching for a rematch."
"He deserved it! And I wish I could have done the same to you!" the Cetra's voice was laced with an uncommon venom.
Tseng seemed amused, "Ah, Aeris. The new president has no interest in you, I'm sad to say," his smile grew sinister, "I'm going to miss seeing you." He quickly noted how Cloud and the black man moved to flank her, and behind, the other woman erased a quick look of hurt.
Before either party could speak a blonde woman in blue rushed into the cave, breathlessly addressing Tseng, "Sir, word from the patrol troops just came in! Sephiroth has been spotted going towards Junon Harbor!"
"Elena, mind what you say and where you say it," Tseng's leer turned into a scowl. He turned to address Avalanche, "I'm sure you have better things to do than eavesdrop on Turks' assignments. Rude!" He turned to leave, followed closely by the eager blonde woman. Rude gave Avalanche a cursory glance before exiting, as if trying to unnerve them with his shielded gaze.
"Damn those Shinra freaks!" was all Barret could say after they left, and the rest were inclined to agree. Cloud was thankful, though, that they at least had a clear destination now.
A silver haired man stood near the edge of the woods, biting down a scream of outrage. A sword swung, a tree fell and a certain Turk's days were numbered.
Instead of blinking blindly into the sunlight in an attempt to survey the terrain, Aeris focused on the grass and the myriad wildflowers at the mouth of the cave. The pale, milky white blossoms, the vivid reds and violets, even the green grass, were all bathed in the warm golden light of early evening. She sighed happily, ignoring the rest of the group as they squinted into the sunlight trying to pick a direction. She bent low to caress a small silky petal and hear the planet hum. Wherever there was life in flower, the planet fairly sang. She did not notice that the others had been waiting for her to finish for quite some time.
"Hm, what? Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to keep you waiting," She stood hastily, growing sheepish when she saw the strange, blank questioning look on Cloud's face. "Hey, I miss my flowers, okay?"
The light came back to Cloud's eyes, as if he had just woken up. With a small nod, he turned towards the open plain.
A swordsman lay high in a tree, staring up at the stars through the canopy of leaves. He needed no rest, but yearned for the sleep he could no longer have, for sleep might have brought him dreams of an emerald eyed girl sleeping in a small tent on the plains, under the stars.
It was mid-morning and Sephiroth was hunting high in the trees. He moved with fluid grace from one bough to the next, searching, pausing only to pull his hair gently away from small branches. He knew now exactly what to get Aeris. Now, he just had to find it and he had to be quiet while looking. The puppet's little group had made its way into the forest earlier that morning and although it suited Sephiroth's purposes to have them close, an encounter with Avalanche was not what he had in mind.
What he was searching for was rare, prized nearly beyond naming by those with a leaning towards such things. When he had first learned about it during the interminable hours of lessons long ago, it had been nothing but a useless fact, of no importance to one who would be a warrior. But now it was a treasure worth seeking. He was so caught up with his search that he nearly missed the voices approaching, beneath the canopy of leaves. He stopped to dead stillness poised gracefully on a deceptively slender branch, leaning into the wind to catch the words that floated down.
"Damn, it's hot as Hades here! I'm about to start growing a horn!"
"You wouldn't feel so bad if you didn't think about it," the puppet's voice answered.
The first voice continued with a huff, "Now how am I supposed to not think about it?"
The voices were drawing nearer, almost directly below. Swift, like a gazelle in the treetops, Sephiroth began to move, the only sound being that of leaves rustling. He glanced backwards for a moment to gauge how far ahead he had moved, not sensing what was right in front of him until he ran into it. Whip-fast, he turned in time to see the branches shudder as whatever he had crashed into tumbled to the ground with a shrill scream.
"What's that? Something's up ahead!" The voices behind him approached even faster. He looked down to see a young girl with a Wutanese shuriken picking herself off the ground just in time to confront the puppet and his friends. He used to clamor of the ensuing skirmish to mask his escape into the green canopy.
Sephiroth stalked into the little ring of tents that was the Avalanche camp, his offering cradled gently against his chest. The remains of a small fire glowed softly in the center, the scent of the roast that had been cooked on it still lingering in the cool air. Ordinarily, Sephiroth would have cursed the carelessness of not setting a night watch, but tonight, the puppet's negligence suited his purposes perfectly. There was no need for sleep spells and he had gotten into the camp with ease. He paused in the center of the ring, looking at each tent in turn. The puppet slept in the one to the north judging from the fragmented dreams coming from it. Loud snores from one direction and the smell of fur from another. He stood for a moment observing the remaining two. That one there, pitched in a patch of now-closed wild blossoms. It had to be the one.
He focused his will and slowly, the zipper moved upwards, one soft click at a time, so many heartbeats passing between one click and the next. Finally, when the anticipation became almost too much, the tent was open just enough for a six-foot tall SOLDIER to pass through. Stealthily, he slipped into the tent, careful not to wake the sleeper within.
It was a tight fit, trying to get into a one-person tent, without touching the other person. Even in the dark, he could see the honey brown braid that confirmed that his guess had been right. She had snuggled herself far into her thin sleeping bag and lay huddled on one side of the tent. Sephiroth was thankful. She had left just enough space for him. He lowered himself to the ground beside her and pillowed his head on one arm, holding his gift to her in his other hand. His position left him a few scant inches away from her, but still he did not touch her, observing her in silence.
She was sleeping on her side, facing him, her beautiful face just as he remembered. He had not been this close to her before and he hoped she could not hear his heart pounding in her sleep. He could hear her soft breathing. Dear Gods, even in the darkness she could take his breath away. Almost shyly, he put his gift before her.
It was a milky white forest rose, a large blossom, as rare as the girl he was giving it to. Its thick, satiny petals had just the faintest tint of rose and its perfume was beyond compare. It was hardly worthy of her, he knew, but it was the best he could do under the circumstances. Gently, he trailed the flower from her forehead, down her cheek. She stirred, and for a brief, terrifying instant, Sephiroth hoped that she would wake, that those fluttering lashes would reveal her eyes, if just for a moment. She settled back down to sleep and Sephiroth was left to wonder what might have happened if she had woken.
His eyes moved downward as he admired the curve of her body beneath the thin cover, then back up to her delicate little hands, which were lying so close to his face. He closed his eyes, brow furrowing, struggling to contain his desire. What would it be like to feel those birdlike little hands on his face, running through his hair, caressing him all over? He wished there was enough room for him to curl up with the near pain his desire was causing. He could hardly breathe as it was, for he knew that if he tried, his breath would come hot and hard. How hard would it be to roll her beneath him and thoroughly taste her?
She stirred again in her sleep and the covers slipped to reveal one perfect, creamy shoulder. Sephiroth put the flower beside her and got out of the tent as fast as he could.
A green eyed girl, last of her kind, woke to find a beautiful white blossom before her, with no sign of how it had arrived there. Her companions knew nothing about it and claimed that there were more important things to think about. Still, the young blond man had looked at her so intently when she placed the flower in her hair with a smile.
Nightfall found Avalanche inexplicably still in the woods, with Barret complaining loud and long about the navigational skills of a certain blond leader. "Now I knew something wasn't working right on the inside of that spiky head. These woods ain't so big that people have to spend a whole day in 'em and still not get out!"
Cloud sighed as he tried to get a small fire started. "Come on, Barret," Tifa answered for him, "All these trees can be confusing."
Yuffie, the latest addition to the group piped in, "That's no reason to be walking in them for so many hours. I bet Cloud here has had us walking in circles all day."
Aeris looked up from her tent. "Now if you two would quit complaining, you might be able to put your tents up faster," she said, with a pointed glance at the Wutanese-style tent that seemed about to fall over, "Besides, we're sure to be near the end by now."
"Or the beginning," Barret grumbled.
Near a river some distance away, a tall man with hair that caught the moonlight congratulated himself on keeping his puppet and the lovely girl traveling with him in the woods. He stepped into the water to wait.
Avalanche lazed around the fire, all anger at Cloud having disappeared with their hot meal of wild rabbit. Tifa sat before her tent, proudly assessing the effects of her cooking. Barret sat half-dozing with contentment. Yuffie was apparently too full to keep up what they had come to recognize as her usual stream of chatter. Red was licking his chops, contemplating the flames, while Aeris was her usual smiling self. Cloud, however, still looked a bit edgy.
"Cloud, are you all right?" Tifa asked.
He looked up, dazed, "What? Oh, yeah, I'm okay." He gave her the closest thing to a smile she had ever seen on his face.
Sensing that the two needed some time to talk Aeris excused herself to take a little walk. Cloud looked up, startled, " Aeris, how far are you planning to go?"
"Not too far. Don't worry. I doubt there's anything in here that's scarier than what I used to run into in the slums. I just want to get some cool air."
"Oh. Well there's a stream a short walk in that direction," he pointed over his shoulder, not questioning how he knew.
Yuffie giggled, "Careful, Aeris. You take Cloud's directions and you might never come back."
Twenty minutes later, Aeris was still picking her way through the shrubbery, her path dimly lit by moonlight, trying to find the stream. She had half wondered if Cloud had just gotten his directions mixed up again, but now she was sure she could hear running water. The trees began to thin and soon, she found herself beside an inky stream, fairly wide, its water sparkling as it caught the moonlight, carrying its stolen sparks of light quickly out to the sea. Aeris hurried over to its banks and chose a large rock that was almost a boulder to sit on. She removed her boots and dipped her aching feet into the icy water, playfully kicking up a small splash. Playing in a river was a novelty to her.
She was so caught up with watching her feet under the water that the sudden splash of something large rising from the water in front of her took her completely by surprise. She jumped in shock and only managed a short, shrill yelp before losing her balance and falling into the water. The icy water that had soothed her feet filled her throat, chilled her to the bone as she hit the bottom of the shallow stream. She sat up with a jerk, up to her shoulders in freezing water, her heart drumming inside her, her breath coming in harsh gasps as she searched at the water around her for any sign of the intruder. The moments stretched out. For the first time Aeris noticed the eerie silence. There were no crickets, no chirping from nocturnal birds. There was nothing but the sound of her own breathing. As much as the silence unnerved her, it lasted just long enough to convince her that there was nothing out there.
She was just about to laugh at her silliness when there was a large splash not two feet from where she sat. She was too shocked to scream as a tall pale being rose from the water and looked directly at her with eyes that glowed with green fire. Aeris' breath caught in her throat. Then, the figure held something out to her and spoke, "These are yours, I believe." She willed herself to look away from those eyes. He was holding her boots, now as sodden as she.
When she made no move to take them, the man stepped closer. Every alarm in Aeris' head went off and she reached over hurriedly, taking her boots as quickly as she could and retreating to her boulder, giving the man no excuse to come closer. All the while, she felt his eyes on every part of her, acutely conscious of how her clothes clung to her figure. Without a word, the man retreated to the other side of the stream and sat in the shallow water, his eyes never leaving Aeris. He reached behind himself, gathering his hair in his hands, then proceeded to wring out the excess water, seemingly completely absorbed in the act. "I didn't mean to scare you," he said softly, his voice a low tenor, "I was only bathing."
Aeris had never taken her eyes off him, watching for any threatening behavior. Now she found she could not take her eyes off him for a completely different reason. He was breathtakingly handsome. He was quite tall, she was certain, and well built. She turned her face away, blushing hotly as she found herself looking past his strong arms and shoulders to the rippling muscles of his chest and stomach. When she dared to look once more, she forced herself to look only at his face, hoping that he would not see her staring. He had a strangely beautiful face for a man, with fine features, but what caught her eyes most were his brilliant green eyes. Aeris feared that he would be able to see right through her if he turned them on her again. They were the color of the lifestream itself and in the dark, they seemed to radiate with an inner light, like Cloud's, but much, much brighter. Was this man a SOLDIER, sent by Shinra to capture them?
Satisfied with his hair the man let go of it, paying no mind to how much of his long tresses sank back into the water. The top was drier now and it drew the moonlight to it in a unique way. Something about the color seemed odd, yet strangely familiar. Aeris would never be sure just how long she sat shivering in the night air before it came to her. From the rare instances the media had managed to get a shot of Shinra's reclusive Great SOLDIER before his apparent death, she recognized the figure sitting before her, lounging in a stream as if he had all the time in the world. She wondered how she could get away. He was on the opposite side of the stream, but his speed and strength were the stuff of legend. If she tried to leave, would he get angry? What would he do to her if he did?
He stirred just as she was gathering her nerve to run, rising out of the water like a river god of old. Aeris stared at the sight, mesmerized by the sheer grace with which he moved, and looked away hurriedly as she realized that he was completely nude. He turned his back to her, walking towards the trees, not in the least bit self conscious about his state of undress. As Aeris stared at him across the water, she felt a surge around her, of one drawing energy from the stillness for a spell. Before she could move away, she felt a wisps of a strong, warm wind, reaching her from the other side, although she was not their target. The former General's hair swirled around him, revealing long strong legs, long muscular thighs, revealing much more than Aeris dared to look at, as the water flew off his skin in a shimmering mist. As he vanished behind the trees, Aeris struggled to regain her breath, fumbling with her bootstraps.
She managed to get her damp boots back on her feet and begin walking towards the camp. Before she reached the trees she heard a soft voice right behind her. "What kind of gentleman would I be if I let a lady walk around soaking wet?" She turned with a gasp. He was standing right behind her, clad in his uniform of soft black leather. She had to tilt her head far back to look at his face. The alternative was to stare directly at his nearly-bare chest. She wondered if she dared to run, then questioned whether or not she really wanted to. Before she could decide, she felt the surge of magic and the gathering of the wind, focused now on her. She was enveloped in a delicious warmth and a lovely tingling sensation as the water was pulled away from her. She gasped, torn between holding her skirt down and wanting to wrap her arms across her chest as the spelled wind dried her thoroughly.
The wind died down, leaving her warm and dry. With all the courage she could muster she looked up to give thanks for the service. The odd look in the SOLDIER's mako eyes stole her words away. He spoke before she could, "I will escort you back to your camp." It was not a question but a statement of fact and Aeris knew he would not be denied.
She nodded, forcing herself to speak, "All right." She almost could not keep her voice from shaking. A certain softness reached her new escort's lips, the barest hint of a smile. She turned wordlessly to lead the way, all the while wondering what she had gotten herself into. He walked at her side, parting the branches for her. She kept her gaze straight ahead, but all the while she could feel his eyes on her.
Questions ran through her mind like wildfire. Did he want to kill her? If he did, why all the pretence at being nice? Was he planning to abduct her? Would she suddenly find his gloved hand across her mouth and his body atop her own? That he had not laid a finger on her did nothing to ease her fears. What if he just wanted her to lead him directly to Avalanche so he could slaughter them all? Her heart leapt to her throat with this thought.
No, it would not happen. She would not let it. He could do whatever he wanted to her but he would not touch her friends. She turned to face him, looking him straight in the eye as she spoke, " You don't have to walk with me any further. I will be fine from here." She braced herself for the consequences of her words.
He advanced on her with long strides, his face unreadable. She backed away, determined not to let her fear show on her face. She took two steps backward before she felt a tree at her back. With one stride her escort closed the distance between them leaving her no escape unless she actually dared to touch him to push him out of the way. He looked down at her pale face with burning eyes, leaning in towards her until she could feel the warmth radiating from his skin, smell the leather that was part of his scent. Her breathing was shallow. She feared to inhale too deeply, lest their bodies actually touch. She barely suppressed a whimper as his gloved hand came up to caress her cheek. She closed her eyes, trying to force the blush she knew he could see from her face. When she dared to look up at him again, she glimpsed something like a self-satisfied smirk before he lowered his face to hers and gently touched his lips to hers.
The softest of moans stirred in her throat. She was sure that she would fall if not for his hand on her arm, steadying her. His kiss was soft, sweet. It was tender, not insistent, not taking any more than she was willing to give. It was only then that she realized that she had responded with equal tenderness. He released her the moment the desperate whimper escaped her, showing no remorse for what he had done. He stepped back, clasping her tiny hand in his, then actually bowed to her, brushing his lips against her fingers before letting go.
"Safe journey," he said, smiling, then turned and disappeared into the woods.
Aeris went straight to her tent, claiming exhaustion. She huddled into her sleeping bag, curled up in a tight little ball, trying to stop from shivering, trying to convince herself that her lips were not tingling.
Sephiroth tore through the forest, almost whooping with joy. He had seen her, spoken to her, kissed those glorious lips...and she had kissed him back. He fell to his knees at the riverbank, praising the heavens. Skies above, he knew he had scared her, but he had impressed her too. He saw how she had looked at his body. And he had seen her soaking wet. Few sights could compare to that. He stripped himself hurriedly and plunged back into the stream, swimming back and forth in the water, thankful that it was cold. Soon, soon, he swore, she would be his.
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