Two days passed on the road from the inn as they moved steadily north. Sephiroth's face was hardly sore now, though occasionally he felt a twinge around his cheekbone. Aeris had gotten him just right. It was hardly more than an annoyance, but it was enough of a reminder that he was acting less and less like himself.
Aeris wasn't talking to him, which both irritated and satisfied him by turns. He had finally decided that the best way to deal with her was to simply say as little as possible. His own actions confused him to no end. What had he been thinking?
It was strange. Ever since that moment in the Forgotten City, there hadn't even been a whisper from Jenova. She had been oddly absent from his thoughts, though there was definitely another presence lurking in the back of his mind. Sometimes he could hear what sounded suspiciously like humming. What had happened? What had changed?
He glanced surreptitiously at Aeris, who appeared to be lost in her own thoughts. He sighed and turned his attention back to the path.
For her part, Aeris had been avoiding his gaze, face flaming every time she thought about his words and the intense kiss they had shared. She stole a sideways glance at him. Thankfully, he seemed to be watching the road and not her. She stumbled on a rock, then inwardly cursed when she felt his eyes on her again, questioning. He offered his hand to help her over a scattering of boulders on the mountainside. Damn him anyway, she thought, I have more important things to think about. The Planet's behavior, for starters.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked, as if he didn't know.
"None of your business," she said peevishly. It didn't help that he seemed as confused as she was. He didn't even have the decency to be smug about the other day, which would give her a good reason to stay angry. It was difficult to sulk. He'd already apologized for his words once his own initial anger had faded. "Where are we going to rest for the night? You know this area much better than I do."
He waited for her to regain her footing before replying. "I want to get us over this ridge. Not far from here, on the other side, there is a stream and a good place to sleep." Once over the boulders, he released her hand. She felt the loss of his warmth as her fingertips left his grasp.
They topped the ridge, and she let out a little gasp of delight. The ground dropped away steeply from where they stood, revealing a small, hidden valley. The place looked completely untouched; no towns, no Mako reactors, no sign of anything living there but the native animals. A stream wound through the trees like a golden ribbon, catching and reflecting the last rays of the sun.
"I thought you'd like it," Sephiroth said, his deep voice soft and only inches from her ear. She jumped a little, and swore she could hear him smile at her discomfiture. "Let's head down." He indicated the path to their right and stepped away, motioning for her to precede him. His eyes glowed, narrowed in what she supposed was mirth. She was glad of the semi-darkness, hiding the blush in her cheeks from him. With a very unladylike snort, she stalked past him and began the descent to the floor of the valley.
They made camp not far from the stream. Aeris couldn't see it from her place by the fire, but she heard its comforting voice, lightly babbling over the smooth stones. She was left to prepare something for them to eat. Though he was a better cook, Sephiroth was also better about setting up their gear for the night. There wasn't much variety, but the food was filling. At least now that they were back to speaking to each other, the awkward silence that had been present for the last couple of days was gone.
When they were done eating, she stood, brushing the crumbs from her skirt. "You said there were no monsters in this area, right?"
He nodded. "This place is untouched by ShinRa."
"Good. I'm going to wade in the stream. My feet are killing me." As soon as she said it, she wanted to take the words back. She had been determined not to complain.
He frowned. "Don't be long. We're going to rest here for tomorrow, and then we'll have a much more difficult path through the mountains." With a practiced movement, he drew Masamune and rested it across his knees. Aeris tensed until he produced a cleaning rag and a bottle of oil. "Go on, before you get too tired. I have to tend Masamune, and then I'm going to rest for a moment. I'll take the first watch when you get back."
As she walked the short distance to the water, she prayed he hadn't noticed her dismay at the mention of more travel. For some reason, it was very important to make sure she didn't appear helpless and frail in front of him. Back when she had traveled with AVALANCHE, everyone had gone out of their ways to protect her. She'd been put to the rear of the group when she had to participate in combat, and that was only if she absolutely HAD to fight. No one had ever given her a chance to learn things or to fight for herself.
She sighed. She had been with Sephiroth for three days now. The time before that, the events leading up to her failed sacrifice seemed like stories out of an old book of tales. It was like being reborn as an adult, with her memories intact, to live a different path than the one she had chosen before. Despite his sudden mood swings and apparent internal worries, she still saw glimpses of...something in him. She knew he watched her when he thought she was unaware; that twice he had come and crouched by her bedroll as she slept, brushing an errant strand of hair away from her face. He confused her immensely.
She sat by the water's edge and pulled off her boots, then grabbed the edge of her skirt to keep it dry and waded in. The water was cold, but not numbing; the stones beneath her feet were smooth. She stood in the middle of the stream, turned her face upward, and closed her eyes. A smile played across her lips as she Listened, humming softly in tune with the music of the Planet's voice. Peace washed over her.
Sephiroth found her an hour later. She had been gone long enough that he had begun to worry about her. That in itself was yet another sign that he was different somehow, and the realization that he actually cared about his new companion made him uneasy.
When she came into view, he stopped short. She didn't see him; her eyes were closed as she swayed gently to some music he could not hear.
Suddenly, he found it difficult to breathe. He whirled away and willed his heart to slow its beating. The girl should NOT have such an affect on him! She was an Ancient; perhaps she was putting a spell over him-?
In disbelief at his reaction, he turned back to look at her. She didn't seem to know he was even there. Her eyes were still closed, her hand brushing her hair back over her ear. A smile appeared without warning along with a soft laugh, presumably at something the Planet said to her.
His will crumbled away and he moved toward her. He shed his black leather coat when he reached the water's edge. Ignoring the shock of the cold water rushing over the tops of his boots, he strode into the stream to stop just inches away from her. Then he waited for her to look at him.
Aeris came out of her deep reverie at the sound of splashing. She sensed him moving closer, though without the alarm she thought she should feel. What did he want? She opened her eyes with the intention of glaring at him, a cutting remark ready on her lips. The breath she drew to speak caught in her chest when she saw his expression.
The confusion was still there, but now outright desire had joined it. His fingers twitched at his sides as he fought conflicting emotions of some sort. One apparently succeeded, for his hands reached up to gently grasp her shoulders. Aeris panicked for a moment until the Planet soothed her with its loving song.
WAS WRONG BEFORE; YOU NEED TIME. WILL LEARN TO LOVE HIM?
Oh, gods, what is he-
YOU WILL TRY?
What do you-
His mouth met hers.
Oh gods, dear Friend, what are you doing to us?
No answer. Or perhaps it was lost amid the roaring in her ears as Sephiroth, former great General of ShinRa and man who had been ready to kill her less than a week ago, kissed her like he needed it to live.
His hand went to her waist and dragged her closer. The other threaded its way through her hair, tilting her head back and to the side so he could deepen the kiss. Her hands pushed at him, halfheartedly protesting, then went around him. His long hair tickled her arms, lifted by a breeze to form a billowing silver curtain around them.
The moment she stopped resisting and began responding, his hold on her changed. Now, instead of trying to prevent her escape, he supported her and pulled her against him. Aeris's mind quieted, muffled under the feeling of his arms about her and his mouth on hers.
Neither of them noticed the faint tendrils of green light slowly spiraling up around them from the ground. It bathed their skin in its soft green glow and glinted in his hair. The stream thickened, its glow intensifying, responding to the emotions and thoughts of the two people it surrounded. When they opened their eyes, it was swirling in a silent torrent about them, wisps floating between and around them, caressing their faces and drawing them back to each other.
"How did this happen?" he murmured, "When did we go from being enemies to this?"
"I don't know. The Planet-" Her voice broke and she buried her face against his chest. Funny, how the very person who threw her emotions into turmoil was also the most comforting thing around. "I don't know."
Sephiroth tilted her chin upward. "What does it say? I can almost hear you speaking with it."
"It keeps talking about bringing us together. I don't understand it. There was never anything, not even a whisper about this before." Aeris felt the sting of tears at the corners of her eyes. "Damn." She pushed him away and wiped at them.
WHY DO YOU CRY?
Because this is too sudden. I can't-
The panic in the Planet's voice staggered her. Sephiroth caught her before she could fall. "What?" he asked, concerned. "Aeris?"
She held up her hand and shook her head. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she was thankful for his strength. What do you mean? Dear Friend? What aren't you telling me?
There was no reply. Aeris's throat tightened. The whole world was turning upside down. The Planet, withholding information? Speaking in riddles, when it had always been open and straightforward with her? Thank the gods that Sephiroth was here…
THAT thought brought her up short. Since when was she glad to be near him?
"Aeris?" His query came as a low rumble. Strong arms went around her from behind, carefully as though she would bolt. She sighed.
"I don't know. It's not talking to me." She looked up at him. "Why are you acting like this?"
"I have no idea. It just-" he cast about for a reason, "-feels right. I can't explain it."
She nodded and relaxed back into the embrace. "That's how it feels to me. I'm just too tired. I can't fight with the Planet if it feels like being cryptic."
"So what do we do?"
The sound of the water flowing past brought her back to reality, and she actually laughed. "Well, for starters, maybe we should get to dry land."
And just like that, the tension was broken. Sephiroth grunted. "I wondered why I couldn't feel my legs anymore."
They retrieved his coat from the streambank and walked back to camp, boots in hand. Neither of them noticed the tendrils of soft green light that trailed after them, or how some of the wisps drew their hands together. They also failed to notice how, when he laid out their bedrolls, his was right beside hers. They talked like friends until Aeris began to fade.
Neither one noticed that her head was pillowed on his arm.
Aeris woke, alone, to the cheerful babble of the stream and the songs of morning birds. The distant noise of something whipping through the air told her that Sephiroth was probably doing katas not far from camp. She was lying under his coat, the pauldrons set nearby. Her head felt a little fuzzy inside, as though she'd had too much to drink the night before. When she moved, the world spun a bit. She decided to wait a little while longer before she moved.
The coat, for all its seeming hardness, was surprisingly supple and comfortable. The lining was soft and well-worn. He'd probably spent a fortune on it. How had she ended up under it, though? Hadn't he been using it as his own blanket? She thought hard, trying to place the events of last night into some kind of order…
She sat up suddenly. She, Aeris Gainsborough, had spent the night sleeping in the arms of someone who had been ready to kill her. Her enemy, because he was the enemy of the Planet. What had possessed her to do such a thing?
Aeris galvanized into action. She scrambled to her feet, gathering his coat up as she went. The sounds of his katas grew louder as she approached. He seemed to be chanting something in Wutaian under his breath with each sword stroke. She came up behind him. "Sephiroth?"
He executed a swift turn, focused as a hawk on its prey. Masamune's blade snapped toward her face.
The heavy leather coat fell to the ground.
Sephiroth had awakened to find his right arm occupied by Aeris's chestnut head. His other hand had curled itself pleasantly about her waist. Her whole body was somewhat alarmingly snugged up to his as if they slept like this every night. He managed to disentangle himself without disturbing her, but he couldn't stay in camp. He hated to admit it, but she had felt so good and warm and soft-too good, in fact. Katas normally cleared his head when he was confused; perhaps they would help him sort through his muddled feelings now.
By the time the sun had risen another few degrees, he had completed a full set of his exercises. He was still no closer to understanding the situation, so he shook off the sweat of his first workout and began another. This time, his movements were less fluid and more curt. Each stroke became sharp and hard until he felt like he was actually fighting against an invisible opponent. When a soft voice spoke behind him, he was so on edge that he reacted instinctively, whipping Masamune about at head level.
His brain barely registered in time that the speaker was Aeris. She froze in shock, his coat falling from her nerveless fingers. The blade stopped, soon enough to keep from killing her, but not soon enough to prevent a thin red line from appearing on her cheek.
With one movement, he sheathed the sword and closed the distance to her. Before the cut could bleed he covered it with his hand. "Gods, Aeris, I'm sorry. Dammit, are you all right? I wasn't paying attention-"
"I-I'm okay, really," she replied shakily. "It's not bad. It doesn't even hu-ow!" She winced as the salt from his sweat stung the wound.
"Come on, you should wash it in the stream." He reluctantly pulled his hand away and began to lead her toward the water, then looked back at her when she didn't follow. "Aeris?"
She closed her eyes and said a few quiet words. Sephiroth gaped in amazement when the cut vanished. The only trace of its existence was the smear of blood on her cheek. She opened her eyes again and smiled at him in mild embarrassment.
"What was that?" he asked. Gingerly, he touched the spot to find her skin whole and uninjured. "How did you do that?"
Aeris shrugged. "I've always healed like that. Small wounds are nothing. It's when I get really hurt that it becomes difficult." She blushed and looked down. "Oh, dear, I dropped your coat. I'm so sorry."
He halted her from bending down to retrieve it. "Don't worry; I'll get it. I've never seen anyone do that before. Except for me."
"Really?" She tilted her head to the side, reminding him of a curious bird. "I didn't know that. I've always been able to. I think it's because of my connection to the Planet. Though I never heard of someone else healing like that. It seems like such a Cetra thing to do."
Sephiroth's head snapped upward at the same time she gasped. Realization dawned on them both, but she voiced it first.
"Oh, gods and Planet both, Sephiroth, that's it! You really are part Cetra!"