Titles: Tropical Fruit Cocktail (or "Waiter, there's a Tentacle in my Mai Tai." Or if anyone's got a better idea, please tell me? ^_~)
Author: chibirisuchan based on ciceqi 's Tentacleverse AU
Ratings: PG-13 to R in various sections
Disclaimer: totally not mine; never even played it in fact...
Also: Fanart by Dogmatix! Seph goes fishing - no cheesy hats involved. XDDD I'm not sure who's scarier - Seph or the fish! ...no I take that back; Seph clearly won, after all!
...yeah. More tentacles. Did I mention how they just keep SPAWNING? (I'm so not going to be surprised if it takes me several posts to get this all up.) And I so wouldn't want to go up against Seph OR Zack once they got hold of enough weapons to have one per limb... XD
not to mention: oh the meta, let me count the ways! This is an AU of an AU and a fanfic of a fanfic. Never mind the fourth wall, I think I need a sixth or seventh wall to break... I'm going to look up the LJ and IJ links to Coyo's Tentacleverse and link 'em back in as soon as I get the fic itself posted & proofed.
I decided I was going to call it a day at 7 sections because, well. And I wrote the last two of them in the past 48 hours, and BOY did I not see that coming a year ago. A year ago my outline went (approximately) 'Hojo has got more experiments and one of them makes a nuisance of itself and the boys take objection to this.' Until I started writing, I'd actually thought I was going to send Cloud out to deal with it so he could meet up with Avalanche and do the Start of a Beautiful Friendship thing. But the monster did its thing and Seph cleared his throat and eyeballed me and said I don't THINK so. And I remembered how pushy he was about anything to do with Hojo and I gave him the reins and... yeah.
Tropical Fruit and Nut Cocktail: Tentacleverse
Cloud wasn't quite sure even after all this time how they'd gotten to be where they were -- some of the details had gone by so fast it still made his head hurt to think about them.
They'd been in the Midgar area, because Sephiroth wanted to provide personal, first-hand encouragement -- well, motivation might have been a better word, because what he was applying was not exactly encouragement -- for Hojo to come up with a way of reversing what exposure to Jenova had done to Zack and to him. And they'd been muddling along for a while, Hojo trying to coax Sephiroth back into the lab and Sephiroth trying to wring progress out of him without setting foot -- er, not-foot -- in the building. It had all come around to a kind of wary equilibrium with a lot of glaring and a lot of paperwork. Somehow there was always a lot of paperwork. Paperwork seemed to be the one thing that hadn't changed, until everything changed.
Aeris really hadn't meant to break Sephiroth, when she told them all that she was pregnant. That was when everything had started getting confusing.
Because Zack had gone into a truly inspired and agonizingly embarrassing teasing-tirade about Cloud needing to be put out to stud for some reason that involved his hair's resemblance to a gold chocobo's crest -- and Cloud was still busy trying to wrap his head around the fact that apparently he was going to be someone's father, because the other two didn't exactly have the right parts for -- well, they had the right parts for mating with Aeris, just not necessarily for reproducing with her. At least, that was Zack's analysis, and Cloud supposed it made sense, aside from the chocobo crest part. It was just really ...confusing.
Cloud had been in the middle of trying not to stammer too much while trying to figure out how to ask Aeris if she was really sure, except he probably shouldn't ask because if anybody would know something like that about herself, it'd be Aeris.
And she looked so absolutely delighted that Cloud couldn't quite figure out how to say don't you mind that it wasn't Zack? I know you need children, I know you're the last Ancient, but I'm so sorry, I never actually stopped to think that this might happen, which was pretty stupid of me, because I know you love him best of all, and so I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking, and do you mind?
Which he couldn't really ask because it was so clear that she didn't mind, and neither did Zack, because he was in full teasing-mode with his grin turned up as bright as the sun, and it was kind of awkward trying to look at either of them. And so Cloud stared at his plate, which Zack took as a signal that his teasing was working, which meant that he obviously had to redouble his efforts.
It was only when Zack turned to drag Sephiroth into the "tease Cloud the ought-to-be prize stud chocobo" game that anyone realized something was wrong, because Sephiroth wasn't there anymore, and when Cloud stopped to listen for him, there was a familiar tangle of rage-fear-protectiveness-determination moving far too quickly toward Shinra Tower.
"Oh, shit," Zack said. He could 'feel' Sephiroth a lot more clearly than Cloud could; Cloud could get a general sense of direction and imperatives, but along with the tentacles, Zack shared ...more. All the teasing had ebbed out of his face, and he looked almost gray. "Shit, he's going to kill Hojo before Shinra can find out about the baby-- they'd try to experiment on--"
"Go!" Cloud and Aeris said at the same moment, and Zack didn't wait to discuss it.
Cloud never did learn what happened between the time Zack left and the time he dragged Sephiroth back, both of them looking considerably the worse for wear. Aeris had packed most of the important things by the time Zack brought him home. And she'd managed that around Cloud, who was wandering around picking up random things and trying to come up with a place to put them and getting distracted by all the questions that were bouncing around in his mind. Questions like clothes? You're kind of going to need different-shaped clothes, aren't you? and how soon will you need different clothes? and where do baby clothes come from? Babies grow awfully fast. And then there was should we take Zack's bowl of marbles? They're -- home, they ought to be on the windowsill wherever we are, but the baby could choke on them. And then wait, we don't want Zack to lose any more marbles. ...Except Sephiroth seems to have... um. Uh. Where were you putting dishes again?
They left their phones and their radios and anything that could have broadcast a signal that could be tracked, and they'd left Midgar before Cloud even had time to cast enough cures over the other two to deal with the aftermath of the argument Zack and Sephiroth had had. He was torn between wanting details and not-wanting details.
In the end, they'd agreed that if Sephiroth tried to run after he'd killed Hojo, the rest of Shinra would come after them to make sure their living weapons were either controlled or dead. If they just vanished, Hojo could complain about the lack of experiments all he wanted; Shinra would put up with misplaced but hypothetically reclaimable weapons in a way it wouldn't put up with uncontrolled weapons that turned on their makers. And so they all had to run with all the things Aeris had packed around Cloud's fussing while Zack was gone.
Zack had summoned up enough of a grin to tease about why Cloud had to be the one to catch chocobos for them. Not because Aeris shouldn't be wrestling birds twice her weight and the other two's tentacles were more likely to spook chocobos than lure them, because that argument might have made sense; no, he was on about the hair-as-blonde-crest thing again.
Cloud had had his hands so full between fending off the teasing, apologizing to Aeris and Sephiroth for Zack's noise when they were trying to be sneaky, and digging through their hastily-packed bags for chocobo-lure materia and some rather wilted greens snatched off the roadside that he nearly didn't have time to think things like Mom and Tifa and home and grandchild. Or at least, he didn't have time until a lot later, and by then, he'd almost gotten used to having the thoughts in the back of his head, so he could push them down when they ached a little.
From his years commanding the war, Sephiroth knew of an uninhabited island off the southwestern coast of Wutai. There were no towns for hundreds of miles in any direction; the nearest city was Cosmo Canyon, and the nearest port was Gongaga, and the shipping lanes never bothered with the western coast because everything of importance (in other words, everything with a reactor) lay to the east of the Wutai islands. The island lay mostly sheltered within the arch of a peninsula that protected it from the worst storms; it had streams and forest cover, but nothing worth mining or farming or fishing on a commercial scale, and so it had been left alone aside from an old shrine or three.
The first two shrines they'd found had fallen victim to the depradations of the war and its aftermath, damaged by combat and then left without worshippers to restore them before they were beyond salvaging. But when they got to the crest of the island, they discovered that the central shrine was in better shape; it had been built to Leviathan, and whether it was simply further from a battlefield or more assiduously attended, the damage had been roughly patched up before the island had been abandoned entirely.
Zack thought that a shrine to a sea god perched at the top of a mountain was hilarious; Sephiroth thought it ironic, that they would go to such trouble to put it beyond the god's reach lest the ocean's fury destroy it accidentally. When asked what he thought, Cloud shrugged, and looked around, and then up.
"I think we're going to need to fix the hole in the roof before the monsoon season," he offered.
"You are such a dork," Zack said, and ruffled his hair, which Cloud thought was profoundly unfair on both counts: accusations of dorkery from Zack was a clear case of the pot and the kettle, and Cloud had no defense from the scruffles either, because Zack was better armed -- uh, limbed -- for hair-ruffling and other pokes and prods and teases than anyone else on the planet. (Aside from Sephiroth, of course, but Sephiroth had better manners; that went without saying.)
It was really useful, though, having two people with that many extra appendages around when things needed holding-down-and-nailing or tying-down-in-the-wind or even hanging-out-for-laundry. But on the other hand, in some ways Cloud was the busiest of them, because none of the others could really go to the cities to buy supplies.
As the only one who both still looked human and wasn't wanted for experimentation just by existing, Cloud found himself having to be the sociable one who took a chocobo to the continent and made small talk with shopkeepers, despite his squirming certainty that Zack or Aeris would have been much better for the job.
Sephiroth, who was the only one who could have been worse for the job of "designated social butterfly," commiserated with his discomfort; the other two just laughed and told him that he'd do fine.
"Besides," Aeris said, "we'd have to talk Zack into wearing clothes again. That would be a tragedy." The avid appreciation in her voice made Cloud squirm.
"What?" Zack asked, sprawled utterly naked on the beach taking up as much sunbeam-space as possible, like a cat.
...Like a very strange cat.
...With a lot of extra tails.
"Uh. Clothes?" Cloud asked, because his mouth wasn't quite attached to his brain at the moment.
"The only stripes I want to wear around are the ones I come with naturally," Zack said with a shrug. "Tan lines are totally not cool."
Sephiroth, whose fair skin burned rather than tanning under the tropical sun, glared at him from beneath the arch of the tattered canvas sail he'd taken to carrying around like a portable beach-umbrella. Cloud, who was getting tired of being teased about how cute it was when his nose got sunburned like a permanent blush, went to curl up beneath the shade with Sephiroth. Zack just laughed and wriggled, and then wriggled some more, and Aeris made an appreciative sound.
So Zack started nudging at her buttons with a few stray tips, and Aeris pretended not to notice anything at all as her dress was coaxed undone and spread on the beach like an extra blanket and Zack kept inching closer and closer with that rich, appreciative, lust-happy grin on.
Cloud wasn't quite sure why underwear was different from a bikini, but somehow it was, and -- her figure had begun to change, her breasts fuller and heavier, a new pouting roundness cradled within the arch of her hips; and Zack brushed a tentacle over her skin with the kind of awe and tenderness that always made Cloud's breath catch short. She smiled up at him, perfectly at peace with everything he had become and everything she was becoming.
It should have been him, Cloud thought, feeling like he might throw up. It shouldn't have been me at all -- it always should have been him; I don't belong in between them, I'm just -- in the way. It would have been okay if I was just at his side, just like we've always been, but now I'm in between them and I can't stand it.
One of the troubles with the changes was that Sephiroth 'felt' both Zack and Cloud better than either of them could 'feel' anyone else. It fit a disturbing kind of calculation; Sephiroth had been the intended commander of Hojo's unnatural army, the central focus of the shared mind that wouldn't need something as limited and prosaic as words when orders could be given in an instant with a thought conveyed to his troops through the same deep, inescapable connection that had first drawn him to the horrible thing in the reactor.
And now Sephiroth was looking at Cloud, brows quirked sharply downward, and Cloud scrambled to his feet and backed away before he had to try to explain why this was all wrong to the one who'd never had a background in human relationships before he'd had to learn inhuman relationships on top of it.
The hell of it was Sephiroth of all of them would understand the awkwardness of not fitting into his place, but Cloud couldn't ask that kind of support from him either, not when Sephiroth was still so new to this and so painfully sensitive about what he didn't know. So Cloud flung a silent apology at him, and turned around and ran.
It was like stubbing a toe in the back of his head, when Zack realized he was gone and wanted to follow and Sephiroth stopped him, and stopped him again, and Zack's frustration tangled up with Sephiroth's partial, fragmented understanding and they shoved against each other's aching points and it ...throbbed, dimly, like something injured a week earlier that was just now reminding him of its existence. He shut his eyes tight and buried his face in his knees and started humming a nonsense-song under his breath, just to have something else to listen to.
At dinner, Zack turned the puppydog eyes on him so hard that Cloud couldn't even swallow; he pushed his plate back and tried to leave, and found tentacles around his waist holding him into the chair.
"Cloud," he said, and even his voice hurt to listen to. "What's wrong?"
"Me," Cloud said, because it was the truth. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I never meant to get in the way. You'd be a better father than I ever would; I should never have--"
"Whoa. Slow down there, kiddo," Zack said, and wound a lot more tentacles around him for good measure, because he got even clingier when he was distressed. "Seph told me that was what you're upset about, but ...I don't get it. I just don't. You know we love you, don't you?"
"I know," Cloud said, and gulped hard, trying to keep the tears in the back of his throat. "I know. But... it's just... the baby still should've been yours, so I wouldn't be in the way."
"In the way?" Zack asked, incredulous. "Cloud -- you're not in the way; you're the only way we have! I... can't be a father, not like this. I'm more grateful than I know how to say, that you'd let me share--"
"That's the problem!" Cloud said. "You should always be the one who knows he belongs! You're the one who's our heart, the one who's at the center of everything -- you're the one we all belong to. I don't have any right to be the one who did this."
Zack looked so absolutely bewildered that Cloud's heart sank. If he couldn't even understand the problem, how were they ever going to fix it?
"You're our heart, Cloud," Zack said softly. "You're the one who reached out to both of us, who told us we weren't still monsters, until we could believe it ourselves. You're the one who didn't run. Seph and I had been running from each other for years. We might still be at it if you weren't here. I don't know if I'd ever have had the nerve to go back to Midgar for Aeris, if you hadn't been there first, telling me that ...that I was still... someone you could love."
"That's not the point," Cloud insisted. "You might've looked a little different, but you're still you. You were the General's first friend, Aeris' first lover, my first... everything. You're the one who holds us all together."
"But we're all needed," Aeris said, from Zack's other side. "We're all important, Cloud. You too." With a hand resting upon her belly's still-slight curve, she said, "It may be selfish of me, when you're so upset about this -- but I'm very glad that you gave me such a wonderful gift. I've always wanted to become a mother. I think I'll be good at it."
"Oh, hell," Cloud said, feeling sick. "I -- that's not what I meant at all, Aeris, I'm sorry, I didn't mean -- I mean -- of course I'm glad you're having the baby! I just wish--"
"You wish it wasn't yours?" Aeris asked, gentle but unrelenting.
"Not exactly," Cloud said, head bent, staring down at the twine of Zack's coils around him. "I just... feel like you and Zack should have had the chance. Not that I wish it wasn't mine, but that I wish it could have been his... don't you wish that too?"
"But it will be his, because it'll be ours," Aeris said, with a soft smile. "A child for all of us. I think that's just as good."
"Given our present circumstances, for Zack to have fathered her child would mean that they would both be back in Hojo's grasp," Sephiroth murmured. "None of us could ever wish for that, I think. So I must agree with the others that this is the best of the potential conditions available to us, Cloud."
"Oh, sure, confuse the issue with logic," Zack said, chuckling. "You've got to be our heart, kid. Because Seph's clearly got the brains of the crew, and Aeris has our spirit. --And I guess I can see how you could get confused, because people talk about hearts when they talk about romance, but just think about it for a minute: I'm obviously our collective libido!"
And he struck an entirely too suggestive pose, complete with eyebrow-waggling leer and all kinds of ...positions, helpfully illustrated by a dozen tentacles at once.
Incoherent with spluttering embarrassment, Cloud's jaw opened and closed as he chewed over what he could possibly say to refute that.
...The trouble was, there was just no arguing with that; none of the rest of them had any chance at out-flirting Zack, not with the way he smiled. Out-flirting Zack just wasn't humanly possible, and Cloud would have put good money on it not being inhumanly possible either. And besides, there was no winning a hairscruffle-and-wrestling match with a guy who came with that many extra grabbing-and-groping options, either.
All in all, Cloud figured he'd pretty much lost that round.
As the days slipped by into weeks, they settled into the island life more comfortably. Sephiroth had discovered that he and Zack were easily twice as fast in the water as they were on land, and the fish didn't really have a chance.
Zack liked the jungle more than the bay, though; the lush greenery reminded him of his home, and enough of the plants and trees were the same for him to recognize what was edible. So Zack became the gatherer and Sephiroth the hunter. (Aeris knew better than to let any of her men cook.)
The chocobos loved Cloud more than was really good for his dignity, but it was still gratifying to find a soft feathery head shoving itself under his arm begging for attention, eyes drifting closed in bliss whenever he obliged. Cloud wished everybody could be made so happy with a good scritching; he'd have curled up by Zack and pointed some extra tentacles at his hair and that would've been that.
Aeris was the one most strikingly welcomed by their new refuge, though. Wherever she so much as stopped to re-tie a shoe, green life sprung up in her path. It might have gone unnoticed in the dense undergrowth that they were trying to clear away from the shrine; Zack assured them all that yes, the weeds really did spring back in a matter of hours in some areas near Gongaga, and they were all really lucky strangle-vine hadn't made it here from the continent yet.
But when she sat beside Zack on one of the sand dunes watching the way Sephiroth took a fierce delight in fighting a fish twice his size onto the beach, and a cluster of periwinkles had vined their way down from the crest to flower all around her by the time they were ready to leave... that was more than just enthusiastic weed repopulation.
Aeris was as embarrassed and pleased by the flowers' attention as Cloud was by the chocobos', and stroked her fingertips lightly across their leaves. "I think it's the baby," she said. "I'm ...more, right now. More than I used to be. Still, it's sweet of them."
Sephiroth tried to quietly take over the laundry, though, the third time they found their clothes vine-tangled to the temple gates Aeris had been using as improvised laundry-lines, covered in morning-glory blossoms that hadn't been there when she hung them out earlier in the day.
"No, really, I'll do the laundry," Aeris said, clinging to a basket. "I'll just, er, ask the flowers to be... polite."
"Flowers seem to have very little grasp of 'polite' around you, and much more of a grasp of things they don't need to be grasping," Sephiroth observed, with an amused quirk to his lips. One cluster of his tentacles were scrubbing at Cloud's jeans, with another set wringing rinse-water from the towels to be pinned up to dry. "Besides. I have acquired certain anatomical advantages for repetitive tasks of this sort."
"I couldn't let you wash my underwear!" Aeris protested, nearly as pink as her favorite dress. "You're the general of the entire Shinra army, and it's just not right."
"...I'm only a private," Cloud offered, squirming.
"I'm not having you wash my underwear either!" Aeris said, chin up by sheer force of will. "It's... I'm getting... rounder, and--"
Cloud went pale. "You're embarrassed?" he whispered. "But it's not your fault; it's mine if anything--"
"It's not a fault at all, neither yours nor mine," Aeris said firmly, and she would have been much more convincing without the blush. "It's perfectly natural. But 'perfectly natural' doesn't change that my underthings look like they belong on a whale, and I'm washing them myself."
"But... if... um. You shouldn't be embarrassed to be... uh. Round." Caught between a rock and a hard place, Cloud said, "I know Zack says we're never supposed to say the word 'fat' anywhere you can hear us, but you're not fat, you're just -- you're ripening. You're just beautiful, and so is the baby, and -- please, I couldn't stand it if you're embarrassed about yourself because I went and made you get p-pregnant and--"
Aeris was laughing despite herself, even as she set the washbasket down and clamped both hands over Cloud's mouth. "Calm down," she said, and kept fingers over his lips even as he tried to protest further. "Cloud. Hush, silly. I promise, I'm not embarrassed by the baby. I love that I'm becoming a mother; I love watching how the baby grows. And feeling how the baby grows, too." She patted the increasing curve in front, smiling down with untroubled affection. "This truly is the most precious gift I've ever been given, and I love every moment of it. It's just that ...the underwear really is embarrassing."
Brow furrowed, Cloud pulled her fingertips away from his mouth. "But that doesn't make sense," he said. "If you're happy to be round, and you like how you look, and your clothes are made for someone who's round, then why don't you like your clothes?"
"I do like my clothes," Aeris assured him, earnest despite the laughter in her eyes. "It's just the silly underwear!"
Still bewildered, Cloud turned to Sephiroth for support. "Have you got any idea what the difference is?"
Sephiroth blinked, and his tentacles even paused in the washing; it would have been a frantic flailing backpedal from anyone else, and Cloud felt obscurely guilty.
"You must realize that I am not well informed in certain areas," Sephiroth said, awkwardly. "The fact that I fail to understand the distinction may well be through my own ignorance, rather than an error in Aeris' reasoning."
"But you don't get it either," Cloud said, relieved that for once he wasn't the only one.
"I -- no, I don't, but--"
"Just take my word for it," Aeris said, struggling not to laugh at both of them. "You can wash whatever else you like, Seph; just not my--"
And then she stopped, and looked down at where the laundry basket was no longer sitting beside her ankles. When she looked up again, they both flinched back from the sheer outrage in her eyes.
"All right, where did my underwear go?" She reached over and hauled a double-handful of suds-dripping tentacles out of the wash-tub, discarding jeans and Cloud's black shirt and a couple dozen of the tentacle-armorsocks as she scrubbed around. "Men! Honestly, don't any of you understand the word 'no'? If nothing else, you don't wash whites and darks together or they all turn grey!"
"I'll take care to keep them separate, then," Sephiroth said, oddly defensive. "But I didn't--"
Aeris abruptly let go of his tentacles; they hit the washtub with a soggy splash, and she glared straight up into the jungle canopy. "No, you wouldn't," she said, hands fisted on her hips. "You, sir, are not an underwear-thieving pervert, unlike some tentacle-bearing lechers in the vicinity. --Zack, give my underwear back RIGHT NOW."
"It's not like you were wearing it!" Zack called back from the treetops, but several long violet-spotted tentacles obediently lowered the basket back down to her waiting hands before he slithered down to join them.
"Really, I don't see the problem either," he said, with one of his cheesier am-I-going-to-get-away-with-this-one? grins. "If you don't want Seph or Spike washing your underwear, fine; leave it to me! You know I'm always happy to get my hands on your underwear, especially when that means it's not on you-- ouch!" He withdrew the stomped-upon tentacle hastily, and then pulled back a few more when Aeris lifted her foot again with a meaningful glint in the eyes. "Not buying it?"
"You're awfully picky," he complained, scratching behind an ear. "Not Seph because it's beneath his dignity, not Spike because he's too innocent, and now not me because I'm too anti-innocent?"
"That about sums it up, yes," Aeris said, clinging to her washbasket with a fierce glare -- apparently she'd been studying Sephiroth's glares too. "That would be why I plan to wash my own underwear, thank you all very much."
Zack heaved a hugely melodramatic sigh, everything drooping at once -- his shoulders and the tentacles and, somehow, even his hair. "But we're just trying to spare you the depradations of the evil laundry-grabbing plants!" He gestured at a couple of morning glories that had been doggedly creeping their way toward Aeris through the course of the morning, as though she were more intriguing than even the sun. "We've got nothing but the noblest and purest of motives--"
"If you weren't including yourself in that statement I might have believed it," Aeris informed him with a sniff.
"My motives are totally pure!" he protested, with a dramatic palm to the heart. "When did I ever say I wanted anything more complicated than to get into your underpants?"
Sephiroth had given up on following the argument, face buried in both hands, shaking his head as though something might fall into place if he made everything rattle around first. Cloud reached over and patted his shoulder in silent commiseration, and then bent down to pick up a dripping pair of jeans.
Aeris took the jeans out of his hands, swung them over her head to get some velocity going, and thwapped them solidly against Zack's bare chest. "No," she said sternly. "Bad squidboy. Sit."
"SquidBOY?" Zack yelped, more stung by that than by the wet fabric.
"You heard me," Aeris said, tossing the jeans back into the washbucket. "Sit."
"Better yet, heel."
Zack stuck out his bottom lip and crossed his arms and several tentacles and settled in to sulk. He kept shooting sidelong glances at the others to see whether he was getting any sympathy out of it, but Sephiroth wasn't the premier Shinra military strategist for nothing. He had promptly taken the cessation of laundry-armed hostilities as an opportunity to finish said laundry; and he was scrubbing and wringing and drying and hanging at a rate that could only be accomplished with the aid of dozens of extra limbs.
Cloud would have tried to help, but he was pretty sure he would have gotten tangled up by accident if he tried to reach into that, and so he started untwining the creeping morning glories from the temple gates and laying them several feet away on the side of the path. It gave him an excuse to avoid seeing whatever heartrending aren't-I-pitiful look Zack was practicing at the moment.
Some of the morning glories were awfully stubborn, for plants without suckers.
"I'm sorry," he said to one awkwardly, feeling stupid. "She's very nice, I know. But just because she touched our laundry doesn't mean you get to keep it."
"You," Aeris said in delight, "are too sweet for anyone's self-control, you know that?" She slipped both arms about his waist and hugged him from behind, resting her chin against his shoulder.
"Oh," Zack said, and the sheer self-satisfied glee in his voice made all three of them turn to look. "I wasn't thinking at all. Good idea, Spike! --Do all the laundry you want, sweetheart!" he said to Aeris, far too encouraging and indulgent. "And then hang it out for the plants. Who am I to object when the jungle grabs everybody's underwear?"
Cloud looked over his shoulder at Aeris in alarm, but she was already on it; she'd shoved her laundry basket into Sephiroth's startled hands and had fished a wet towel out of the rinse bucket, wringing it into a lethal-looking wet whip.
"And since going commando in tropical humidity like this is a terrible, terrible idea," Zack said, full of bliss, "obviously the best solution is for all of us to go naked! Saves time, saves Sephiroth's dignity -- the great General of Shinra really shouldn't be doing laundry, you know. Clearly, all our problems stem from excessive clothing use! We can wean ourselves off that stuff with hard work, great tans, and OW!"
"Cloud," Sephiroth asked in an undertone as Zack tried to get all his limbs tucked up out of snap-or-stomp range, "am I to wash these or just to hold the basket?"
Aeris was a crack shot with a wet towel; Cloud winced as she snapped Zack in the rump when he tried to climb a tree to escape. He suspected if he guessed wrong, he was likely to be in for a good toweling himself, so he tried to think hard.
"She said to keep the different colors separate, right? Maybe I should go get some new water."
"I'll come with you," Sephiroth said.
"Cowards!" Zack howled, even as he yanked tendrils back from towel-strike range. "You just don't want to go through the withdrawal! Trust me, it's best when you quit the stuff cold turkey-- you've got to just break the clothing addiction once and for OUCH--"
"Fresh water," Sephiroth said, very much on his dignity, despite the way he was clinging to a laundry basket full of a woman's maternity undergarments for self-defense. "Salt water is unsuited for cleaning leather; I've assumed that the same holds true for fabric."
"Yeah," Cloud said, trying not to envy Sephiroth the laundry basket, because he needed some kind of busy-looking thing to give himself an excuse to get away from Zack's nudist crusade too. --Buckets. The washtub. Good for getting water with. That'd do. "Yeah. Fresh water. Let's go."
Later, after thinking about it for a while, Cloud wasn't sure if he'd won that round or not.
Aeris hadn't snapped him, which was a point in his favor. ...Although he suspected part of the lack of snapping was because he and Sephiroth hadn't actually gotten around to washing the underwear in the water they'd brought back by the time Zack had been banished to an underwear-less huddle of tentacular gloom on the shrine roof.
But by the same token, Cloud still didn't understand why she liked when they smiled at her bulge but disliked when they looked at her underwear. If it involved her being embarrassed about her shape, that meant it was his fault, whether or not he understood it. It was his fault because it was his doing; it had been his unintentional carelessness that brought her the child that distorted her body so. And when something was his fault and he hadn't fixed it, then that was bad.
Except he couldn't ask Sephiroth, because Sephiroth didn't understand it either. And he couldn't ask Zack, because Zack would grin and take it as an excuse to either go on another underwear-abolition crusade or start talking up the practical benefits of nudism again. And Aeris didn't seem to think anything was Cloud's fault, so he couldn't just take her word for it since she wasn't an impartial witness.
Granted, when Zack was around, most things weren't Cloud's fault. Zack was too good at making trouble all on his own -- but still, Cloud felt he couldn't just go around assuming things, and Aeris shouldn't either.
...Really, the most important thing to come out of the laundry round was that whether or not Cloud had won, Zack had definitely lost. That part was particularly important because Cloud really did like having clothes. There were a whole lot of places he didn't want to get sunburned; the sand getting everywhere was bad enough.
He supposed he could live with not winning as long as it meant he could keep his underwear on.
When he mentioned that theory to Zack, Zack gave him a profoundly disappointed look and said, "Cloud, you've got it all confused. Keeping your underwear on automatically means you're not winning."
"I'm fine with that," Cloud said.
"You should ditch the underwear," Zack advised, sagely. "And the pants. You'll get to score a lot more. Scoring is usually important for winning, you know."
"You don't have any underwear or pants," Cloud pointed out, "and you lost, because we still have our clothes."
"I wouldn't say I've lost," Zack said, rubbing his hands together. "Losing means everyone's stopped playing the game. I'm calling this more of a stealth halftime, myself."
"Oh. --Damn," Cloud said, and made sure the tentacle-proofing trouser-guards he'd cut from sail line and knotted around the ankles of his pants in the interests of staying unmolested were still solidly tied in place.