Sephiroth groaned, arching his back in an attempt to tease the knots from his spine.  It was still dark out, and the damp ground radiated a dim aura of cold through the worn bedroll.  It was warm enough, though; the blanket created a comfortable seal, trapping body heat within.

                Aeris made a small discomfited noise and snuggled closer, fitting herself into the curve of his body.  Obligingly he wrapped himself around her, pulling her close and nestling her head against his shoulder.  He squeezed her, enjoying the soft, comfy roundness of her figure, and she emitted a soft trill of pleasure.

                Pleased, he reached up to stroke a loose curl of her hair, winding it between his fingers.  She snuffled, then twitched.  "Mmwrf?" she muttered.

                "Shh, it's nothing," he whispered, stroking her cheek.

                "Bllrrff," she grunted, and pulled away enough to roll over.  Lifting her head, she blinked sleepily at him.  "Hey," she said softly.

                He smiled back at her.  "Hi."

                "Mmm," she replied, once more snuggling against him.  Slipping her arms around him, she deftly wove her legs between his, rendering their bodies a contented, cuddly tangle, her hands sliding slowly down his flanks.  "Mmm," she said again, as her hand wrapped firmly around his erection.

                Sephiroth sighed, arching his back again for an entirely different reason.  He gasped as her fingers clenched, which earned him a low chuckle.  He reached up, intending to grab her shoulders and roll her onto her back—

                --but his hands encountered wet meat, gristled with veins—

                --and there was so much blood

                Sephiroth sat bolt upright in his bedroll, gasping for air.

                "Um, good morning," came Aeris's voice from a short distance away.  He whipped his head around; she crouched across from a new fire, the small iron skillet she carried dangling from one hand, her skin intact.  "Uh… would you like an egg?"

                He blinked stupidly, trying to reconcile himself to waking reality.  "No."  He shook himself, grasping at threads of normality.  "I've always thought it's terribly unsporting.  They ought to at least get a chance to run away.  Besides, isn't that awfully disruptive to the natural order of life and death or some such?"

                She grinned, holding up a pair of speckled blue eggs.  "When you find a nest, take half and leave half.  The Planet only requires so much bird poop."  With a practiced gesture she cracked both, dumped their contents into the pan, and lifted it over the flames.  The sizzle reminded him of the sound of blood splattering on metal floors.

                Running a hand through his hair he leaned forward, bracing himself on his heels.  It had been a nightmare; not exactly unfamiliar territory, though he had not remembered his dreams at all for many years.  He snorted with wry amusement.  How stereotypical of me.  I awake panting with fear from a dream of domesticity.  Never mind the strange conjunction of images; it was all just garbage, a glimpse of his brain doing the nightly filing.

                Aeris divided her attention between him and the eggs.  "You know, I think that's the first time I've ever seen you sleep naturally," she said casually.  "I was kinda beginning to wonder if you did."

                He stretched; the ache in his shoulders had been no dream.  "You really only need four hours a night," he yawned.  "You ought to try it.  Evil never sleeps, while virtue is ever vigilant, and all that."

                She snorted.  "This particular bit of virtue is perfectly content to bask in the security 'evil' provides if it means a good night's sleep."  She attempted to flip the eggs, frowned, and leaned back slightly.  The fingers of her free hand curved and the fire leapt in answer, resuming its dance a few inches higher than it had been.

                Unaccountably, his spine prickled.  "Have I ever mentioned how unnerving it is when you do things like that?"  Sephiroth tugged his pack over and rummaged out a few strips of dried beef.

                "It is?"  She looked chagrined.  "I'm sorry.  I usually don't… most people… well, you seemed so… well, I just won't do it anymore."  She nodded decisively; the fire snuffed itself immediately.  "Oh!"

                He nearly choked as he struggled between swallowing the bite he'd taken and snorted out laughter.  "My, my," he coughed, thumping his chest, "don't they teach you sylvan guardians anything these days?"  Her horrified expression made him laugh all the harder.

                "I must have been out that day," she muttered, grabbing a fork from her pack and jabbing experimentally at the eggs.  "I knew I should have enrolled in Fire 101 instead of Dealing With Obnoxious SOLDIERs 211.  And to think, I could have majored in Saving the World as opposed to Putting Up With Sephiroth's Crap."

                He smirked and leaned back against his bedroll, gnawing on the jerky with a surprising degree of contentment.  Girls who claimed to speak with the earth and wielded magic, aliens, long lost fathers, plans to assault the headquarters of the most powerful military force the world had ever known single-handedly… it was all in a day's work, evidently.

                Though why I believe him… if I do… But he hadn't disbelieved Vincent, which was the important thing.  While he certainly understood the concept of parents, it was something he had never internalized; he had to have come from somewhere.  It was a pathetic little tale, as tawdry and low-class an origin as that of any Third-Class conscript, and hardly seemed like something that could involve him.  But it was hard to disregard Vincent's intensity, his mad, single-minded devotion.  Lucrecia must have been a remarkable woman.  Perhaps it was her Sephiroth took after.

                He scowled, annoyed with himself.  As if I could take after anyone after all the work that's been done on me.  You don't hear of golden chocobos warking wistfully about their lineage.  There was so much more to him than man and woman had provided; he had thought himself entirely unique until he had encountered Aeris.  Not that they were precisely the same kith, but she was as close as anyone was ever likely to get.

                Was that why he had truly become interested in her?  The idea that there was another—that there might be a place he belonged?

                And why exactly have I been overwhelmed by a fit of sentimental nonsense?  I didn't know that then; I just wanted to know what she'd done to me in the lab.  The rest all came later.

                But that touch, like so much else, remained unexplained.  She had laid hands on him to heal, and that was an unusual experience in itself, but not the same.  He rarely removed his gloves in her presence, and that phenomena seemed to want bare flesh.  He was more than a little unnerved by the results; it was lust and winter and completion and fear and… magic.  Because as much as it disturbed him, it still drew him; there was something there that cried out for exorcism, for mastery, and it twinged a little more each time she pulled a trick like she had with the fire,

                He almost wished that he were insane.  It would at least be comforting.

                "Penny for your thoughts?"

                He smiled briefly.  "Chicken feed for a phoenix?"  The embers of the fire still glowed, winking orange and amber in the brightening daylight.  It hadn't died, then; merely obeyed.  "I wonder…"  Materia.  Magic.  Was it really all that different?  Was it merely another sort of muscle to flex?

                Sephiroth sat up, hands clenching loosely in his lap.  Embers; it would be easy enough to lean over and coax them into flame with a breath, making good on their promise of fire.  Or perhaps he could just will it so.

                His fingers curled. 

                The crisped twigs obligingly flared to life, small, wavering tongues of flame that quickly stabilized, then shuddered into near non-existence.  They rose again, slowly this time, blazing with an unnatural yellow-green heart.

                "Show off," Aeris breathed unsteadily.

                Concentration broken, the sickly flames winked out.  Sephiroth stared at the remains of the fire, his mind curiously still.  He had done that.  He had called that to life.  What an interesting development, he thought distantly.  How utterly mystical of me.  He laughed, a little shakily.  "Well, I'm sure that one will go over well at the next board meeting."

                Aeris searched him with her gaze, eyeing him a little warily.  Finally she shook her head and began to repack her things.  "I don't know, Sephiroth," she said quietly.  "I really don't know."

                "See?  I told you it was creepy."

                Her lips quirked in a wry smile.  "Point."

                Banishing all thoughts of it for now, he stood and gazed into the distance.  With any luck, they would reach the outskirts of Midgar today—mustn't forget to don the hooded cloak.  If all went well, they could be in the Shinra complex this evening.  Their problems would be solved—or they'd be dead.

                He wondered if it was fatalism or good sense that made him almost wish they would fail.