Disclaimer: I own as many FFVII characters as flying monkeys.
The streets of Costa del Sol vibrated at night. The dozens of clubs packed into the town's hot spot like eggs in a crate may have had top notch soundproofing systems to keep the noise under the legal limit but the throbbing beat of music shook the asphalt with an upbeat tropical rhythm. The result was an unsafe, unsteady pathway for the weary, inn-bound traveler.
Or at least that was the reasoning Barret was using to explain why the street seemed to keep moving out from under his feet. That and the high pitched whooping noise that was coming from an indeterminate somewhere. Never mind that maybe, just maybe, he had swallowed a few too many drinks trying to prove himself tougher than the blond currently draped against his shoulder. One thing was certain; dead drunk and passed out, Cloud was no featherweight.
Barret swore. The stupid thing about out-drinking a buddy was that if you were still at least partially sober and wanted to be able to live with yourself in the morning, you ended up hauling his sorry ass home. And in this case the sorry ass was also a spiky one. Barret swore again when Cloud's head lolled forward, tickling his nose with the mess of blond hair.
"Goddamn it, boy! Why da hell didn't you just fess up that you can't hold your liquor worth shit, huh?" Barret stopped to adjust his grip. "Now you're drunk off your ass," he wheezed, "out cold," he shored the smaller man up a bit, "and falling all over me! Goddamn it, boy!" Cloud's head rolled limply off Barret's shoulder in reply.
A slight misstep on Barret's part sent Cloud's weight backwards and the blond fell towards the ground. Only his comrade's one-handed grip on his arm kept him from hitting dirt. Barret froze in position with Cloud's wrist in his grasp, completely unsure about his next move. He could feel Cloud slowly swaying behind him but could not figure out how to pick him back up. The fog in his head was winning. He could hardly think. "Aw, hell!"
"Barret, don't drop him!" Tifa ran up from behind, scooping the soldier up as best she could and repositioning him with an arm across Barret's shoulders before moving to support him from the other side. Barret stared intently at her, then squinted, trying to adjust his focus. What was Tifa doing there? Barret had a nagging feeling that she was supposed to be somewhere else but he could not remember. Tifa stepped forward but was stopped short when Barret did not move. She turned to look up at him questioningly.
"Something the matter, Barret?"
The question in his mind could not quite form itself into words. The whooping sound had become a loud whining. If he listened hard enough, he could almost hear words in it. Later he would reflect that he had not given Cloud his due credit for getting him this fuzzy before passing out, but for now, his friend's brown eyes quietly demanded a response.
"How come the street's moving?
Tifa sighed. "The street isn't moving, Barret," she said, stepping purposefully forward and dragging her little entourage with her, "You're just a little dizzy right now. You'll be fine in the morning" Barret accepted her response for exactly eleven steps before he stopped again, raising himself to full height and hoisting Cloud to tiptoes.
"Barret! What is it now?" Tifa protested weakly.
The gunman drew a breath, pausing for full dramatic effect. "Weren't you doing something important?" he announced to the deserted streets, finally able to squeeze out the words he could not before.
Tifa sighed again, muttering a quick prayer for patience before answering, slowly. "Yes, yes, I was."
"Oh," Barret seemed to shrink. "Did you finish it?"
Tifa started walking again. "No, I suppose not, but she's not hurting anybody and she seems to be following along fine without me to hold her hand."
Barret did a spin that would have made a dancer proud, flitting his large form out from under Cloud's arm to face the way he had come. Tifa shrieked beside him as Cloud sank to his knees without the bulk of his support. Barret was too busy staring at the crazy person behind them.
Yuffie was hanging one-handed from a lamppost, grinning insanely and emitting the mysterious whooping, whining, wailing sound. She seemed to think she was singing. The words were an incomprehensible mix of Wutan and the continental tongue, slurred either by alcohol or the little purple umbrella she had in her mouth. She had more tiny umbrellas tucked behind each ear. Barret was still sober enough to be alarmed at the sight.
"I think Yuffie's drunk."
Tifa glanced up at the starry heavens for help, struggling as she was under Cloud's weight. "Please, just let us get back to the inn before they all fall over." Behind her, Yuffie began to sing about being a pretty princess.
She sighed, "Yes, Barret?"
"She isn't old nuff to drink. How'd she get that way?"
Tifa adjusted her grip on Cloud and succeeded in heaving him up out of the dusty street. "I told you at the club, Barret. She was flirting with the bartender and told him she was legal in Wutai. Now come over here and help me with Cloud." Barret turned back hurriedly to take his share of the burden, feeling sheepish at abandoning his responsibility.
"Sorry, Tifa. I'm not thinking too clearly right now. I feel like it's coming and going, you know, my common sense." Tifa nodded at him with understanding in her face, all the while internally pleading for the inn to magically appear at the corner.
The whole thing, the whole 'night on the town' thing, had gone terribly out of control. There was no denying it. Tifa trudged onwards, growing wearier of playing 'shepherd' with each step. They had lost track of Yuffie almost the moment they stepped into the club and Tifa, feeling some sort of responsibility for the girl, had run off to find her. After an hour's unsuccessful hunting among the writhing, throbbing, sweating crowd on the dance floor, Tifa had returned to the table the men had claimed, only to find them well into their macho little alcohol game. Barret had seemed none the worse for the wear at the time but Cloud had already been bobbing and weaving.
"Itsss not over, Teef. Not till Ah'm da lasss one standing," Cloud had waved her off with his empty shot glass when she 'suggested' that he had already lost. It had not helped matters any when she finally spotted the ninja girl, getting a little too friendly with a young, sly-eyed bartender. The man had not been too happy when the 'Big Sister' showed up, glaring murderously at him before pulling the tipsy under-aged girl away, but he did not seem inclined to argue either.
"Aww, Teeefaa, I was only straightening his bowtie," was Yuffie's protest. Didn't that girl have any idea of the danger she had put herself in? And now it was going to be 'Tifa. Tifa, Tifa' all the way back to the inn. Really, how had she managed to get into this situation? Aeris had been right to take the opportunity to rest. But then again, the situation could have been much worse without someone to look out for the rest of them.
Tifa mused wryly on the strange logic of it all. She was a trained fighter with the endurance to put up with hours of any physical ordeal. Aeris was just a flower girl and, Tifa was fairly certain, had no experience at handling herself in bars and clubs. The truth was there was no one better in their little group than Tifa herself to get the rest of them back to the inn safely. They certainly were an odd bunch to be heading out after a crazed killer. Tifa drew in a deep breath, gearing up for the final stretch as the inn came into view.
Barret was moving with more purpose now. Cloud showed no sign of waking before the next ice age but Tifa supposed he would be alright in the morning. Late morning, she corrected, remembering just how hazy he had been before he passed out. His bravado was going to cost him when he finally got up. Hopefully he would actually learn something from it. It was so like him, always trying to prove himself, the lengths he would go to for just the chance of a little notice or approval, so much like him.
"Yippity skippity! Home we go! That's home, right, Teef? It's home, isn't it?" Yuffie began skipping in wide circles around her teammates, bouncing around as if she had eaten rocket fuel for breakfast, threatening to explode upwards any second.
Tifa sighed again. "Yes, Yuffie, that's where we're going." At least it appeared that the bartender had not slipped any kind of sedative into Yuffie's drinks.
"Yay! Man, am I tired. Aren't you tired, Tifa? I'm tired, but I still wanted to stay. My gawd, that bartender was so cute! Oh man, if I wasn't already.well, never mind. It don't matter. I'm the Snow girl! I'm the Snow girl! Nobody gets near me cuz I'm the Snow girl!" Yuffie erupted into a terrible imitation of song, repeating the last phrase over and over, right up until they reached their doorway. Luckily, the streets were deserted, or Tifa was sure they would have had a few rocks thrown their way.
Barret silently took Cloud's weight upon himself as they edged along the main corridor of the inn, able to act fairly sensible even if he could hardly articulate, while Tifa fished out the keys. She struggled for a moment in the darkness before pushing the door open into the small hallway that separated the two bedrooms of the little suite.
"I'll get Cloud into bed. Can I trust you guys to take care of yourselves?" She tugged Cloud to the room on the right.
Barret leaned one arm against the doorframe for support. "I'll just get a glass of water and I'll be okay again." He noted the weariness in Tifa's eyes as she nodded to him. "Hey, don't stress yourself out over Spike there. He's a tough little nut. He don't need nobody to baby him, just somebody to keep his ass out of trouble."
Tifa smiled softly at what was Barret's gruff concession to sentiment. Yuffie had already vanished into the other bedroom and judging from the silence, must have finally passed out. Tifa was grateful that the girl had not seemed to have woken Aeris. She focused on hauling Cloud over to the narrow bed close to the door and dropped him unceremoniously onto it. He landed on his stomach in an undignified sprawl, in no condition to protest the treatment.
"Oh, Cloud," she mumbled through her exhaustion at him. She pulled the lone chair in the room to the side of the bed and began unlacing his boots. She was slumped over in the chair, fast asleep, when Barret found her.
He moved as quietly as his large frame would allow across the wooden floor. Stealth was not his strong point, but he did not want to wake Tifa. He tiptoed past the blond's bed, past the sleeping form of Red XIII curled up on the floor, past his own bed to the open window that afforded him fresh air and a view of much of the beach.
His vision was a little fuzzy still, but his head felt much clearer. He stared out at the beach, stretched out like a grayscale landscape before him. There was no way to make out any details in the dark. He could see the surf breaking, crisp white against the inky black ocean. The sand looked just like a sidewalk, cleaner than the ones in Midgar, of course, and smoother too, if one didn't count the boulder in the distance.
Barret narrowed his eyes, slowly puzzled. He did not remember seeing any boulder on the beach during the day. What the hell was that? He studied the amorphous black shadow for a while, dully wondering what it could be. It was when the shape shifted to allow the distinction of the silhouette of a head, with arms wrapping around where a neck should be that he realized what it was.
"Whoa!" He stepped away from the window, glad it was too dark to see any details. "Damn kids! Anytime, anywhere, they just got no restraint!" he muttered, turning away as quickly as he could manage to sit on the bed and start working on his boots. "Gotta make sure I have that talk with Marlene when she's old enough. Don't want her getting into trouble." Barret's thoughts were taking an uncomfortable turn. But then, any thought related to Marlene growing up made him shudder. He collapsed backwards onto his pillow, thankful that he at least had a few more years before he really had to worry about it and let sleep come.
She was beautiful in the morning.
It was the first fuzzy impression in Sephiroth's mind as he woke from the sleep he had craved, for years it seemed. A blessed restful sleep, with soft, hazy dreams, fading from memory even as he opened his eyes, resting them first upon the one who had afforded him such respite.
She rested securely in his arms, short wisps of hair forming a fine veil over her face, her expression mirroring the serenity he felt inside. In an unintended move, fleeting and so very tender, he brushed the hair out of her eyes, gaining a soft murmur, though she did not wake.
He could feel the sun's first weak rays upon him, more brilliant than warming in the early morning. The salty air was still cool, carrying the faint cries of rousing sea birds. On rare mornings like this, the world seemed a gentler place. Sound, light, even thought, all were muted, softer, as if all existence wished to extend one restful moment for two lonely people who had somehow found each other.
Sephiroth hovered on the edge of sleep, in a half-dreaming eternity where there was no other but the woman curled up in his arms, seeking his warmth in her sleep. Slender hands brushing against his bare chest were enough to make him wish to never wake again.
All his plans, his destiny, his birthright, it could all wait. If he could have this moment, he needed nothing else. His mind stubbornly warded off the impending awareness, though it seemed to knock louder upon the door with each breath. There was a twinge of something - loss? - deep inside. What little part of him that had already woken knew that this rest, this peace, could not last forever.
She would wake, as would he, and if they wished to avoid detection, suspicion, and awkward, hopeless attempts at explaining, especially for her, they would have to soon. That little realization was all it took for consciousness to get its toe in the door. Sleep slid away.
"Aeris! Aeris, it's time to wake up," he nudged her gently. She shifted and seemed about to rise, but she simply rolled over instead. Sephiroth frowned a little, and if he had known it, would have been glad that she was still sleeping and could not see his pout. He nudged her again, calling her name. The girl settled back against his chest and instinctively grasped his warm arms closer to her body.
Sephiroth made a sound between a grunt and a purr. He would have liked nothing better than to lie right back down to sleep, but it was no longer the right time and place. For a moment, the idea of waking her up military style crossed his mind, splashing cold water on her, or rolling her roughly onto the sand, but he doubted she would be happy with that, and it would not get him any closer to his goal.
"Aeris, we have to go. The early swimmers might be out here any minute! Come on, little one, time to go! Cloud might be missing you already." The effect was instantaneous. Aeris sprung up with a look of utter alarm, eyes wide, but still seeing whatever dream she had been immersed in. Sephiroth frowned, trying to squash the unease in his chest. Why wake at the mention of Cloud?
Aeris blinked and rubbed the sleep from her eyes, then looked over at Sephiroth, giving him a gentle smile that eased his worry. She was still clearly tired. Sand did not make the most comfortable bed. He rose gracefully and Aeris could only stare at the way the clear morning sun caught his hair, lighting it to a luminescent silver fire. This was what angels looked like, she thought, and dared to hope that if she had a guardian angel, he looked like the man before her.
He leaned down and picked up her foot. In a moment of fuzziness Aeris tried to pull away, before realizing that he was helping her with her boots. He slid one on and fastened it tight, frowning in distaste at the unsightly footwear. Aeris guessed what he was thinking. "Mmm, they're my gardening boots!" she protested weakly. He smirked at her and appeared to be holding back laughter. Being laughed at, even quietly, was not Aeris' idea of starting the day.
Before she could argue, Sephiroth brought her bare foot up and quickly kissed her ankle, staring at her with half-lidded eyes as he tasted her skin. Any protest she had died in her throat, smothered by the thrill. She sat in amazed silence as Sephiroth put her other boot on, hands moving with a spare efficiency, like a good soldier's should, though it seemed they strayed a bit higher than necessary, fingers lingering longer on bare skin than they should have.
Sephiroth helped her up and led her to the water so she could splash some water on her face. It was ice cold to the touch. When she turned around, the warrior had already fastened his coat and was busy repositioning his armor. Wordlessly, he held a hand out to her. She took it, savoring the feel of soft leather at her fingertips, and let him lead her along the sand, back to the stairs.
The way to the inn was deserted, most people taking advantage of the long tropical days and sleeping in. The sunlight was still too weak and cold to attract anything other than ocean birds to the shore. Aeris let the man at her side lead her where he would, never pausing to question how he knew which inn to lead her to. She could only focus on his gentle grip as questions struggled to reach surface of her thoughts and died half-formed, drowned in the serenity that had welled up in her. It was not long before they stood in the shade of the inn's doorway.
"Can you make it to your bed from here on your own?" Sephiroth asked, taking both of her hands in his. She stared at him, wondering at the concern that seemed to shine out from behind the mako glare in his eyes. Funny how she had not thought he would be capable of such a feeling. He waited patiently for her answer, but she could only nod in response.
He smiled as he brought her hands up to his lips to lay soft, moist kisses on her fingertips. Later, alone and late at night, Aeris would wonder where he learned to steal a girl's breath away so well, but for now all she could do was make a wordless murmur. Sephiroth put his palm to the door and with no motion, the knob clicked and turned on its own. As the door swung open, the warrior bent down to press a kiss against the girl's forehead, as tender now as he had been passionate the night before. Then he gently ushered her inside and turned away.
A pang of bittersweet longing flowed into Aeris' heart where before there had been peace tinted with the recent, unexpected delight. She did not know how, despite his mind's attempt to silence it, the warrior's own heart echoed the sentiment. She watched him walk away until, though he had stayed in her line of sight, he simply was not there anymore, then turned to find her bed.
She wandered down the hall in a daze, too sleepy still and too confused by his actions, by hers, to make any sense of what she was feeling just yet. The door to Avalanche's suite was surprisingly open. Or perhaps not. Maybe he had done that one too. It was remarkably quiet inside, but then, none of her teammates were really inclined to get up early unless they had to. They must have had some night, she mused as she tiptoed down the hallway to the suite she was supposed to have shared with Tifa and Yuffie, and hoped that they would stay asleep for some time yet.
She pushed the door open slowly, fearing that any creaking would rouse her friends. It swung open noiselessly to reveal Yuffie slumped diagonally across the closest bed, fully clothed and on her stomach. Aeris smiled a little at the sight, too tired to realize that her friends might have noted her absence in the night. She didn't even notice the unmade bed near the window, where Tifa should have been.
Instead, she slumped down to her own bed, fingers fumbling as they worked to undo Sephiroth's work on her feet. Yuffie had not even managed to get her own boots off. Aeris flopped back onto her pillow, not even bothering to climb under the sheets. The warmth they would have given, though infinitely more familiar, was not the kind she sought to recover. She settled in, quickly sinking back into her world of dreams. The bed was soft, so very soft, but even as sleep reclaimed her, Aeris couldn't help feeling that there was something....missing.
A lone figure strode through the grass, heading toward a narrow pass in the mountains, his mind at peace, so rare for him. Slowly, the calm was over- ridden by other thoughts, the memory of soft, sweet skin, gentle gasps of surprise, fleeting touches along his chest, slender fingers in his hair. Peace drowned beneath the sudden surge of desire. He wanted more, craved it, and would not stop till he had drunk his fill of the slender body he had held beneath him that night. Deep within, his mind burned at the thought of her.
And deeper still, another mind burned with unholy fury.
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