Zack was the only one of them who'd been born to a tropical climate; the other three were accustomed to seasons that changed, to leaves that turned colors and fell to be buried by snow and ice that would make way for new flowers. Sometimes they remembered to change the day-calendar Aeris had brought, but not always; Cloud surreptitiously checked the walls for dates when he went to trade in Gongaga, and corrected their calendar if it was more than a week off.
Really, the most reliable way to notice the passage of time was to watch Aeris' waistline enlarging. She moved more slowly and carefully, and smiled even more often than usual, and appreciated their hands when she needed to lift herself from the ground or from a too-deep hammock; and she loved floating in the cove's warm water, because it carried her weight for her. Either Zack or Sephiroth stayed with her whenever she was in the water, because the tropical sea held poisonous fish that could sting if startled -- but somehow the sea life realized that although Aeris was a living enchantment, Zack and Sephiroth were much larger predators, and so they didn't come too close.
The vine-flowers were getting really pushy about Aeris' laundry, though, and had ventured into capturing used dishes and untended sandals.
Despite Zack's unflagging enthusiasm for the nudist colony solution ("really! It'd save us all kinds of time and effort to just let the weeds win!"), Cloud and Sephiroth sat down and calculated how much wire screen it would take to fence in all the sides of the temple gate rows and save their housewares from the daily encroachments.
The answer was "a lot."
Sephiroth had become lethally proficient at bringing in large fish even without the poisons and paralytics he could inject; a good Ice spell or two kept them fresh enough for Cloud to run them to inland cities, where the prices for fresh fish were better than they were on the coasts. So he took several extra fish in to Cosmo Canyon to sell for gil, then headed back to the Gongaga port to shop for whatever supplies wouldn't fit on some overeager shipper's leaking boat.
He was surprised to find Gongaga almost entirely boarded up, and the bookseller with boxes on the doorstep labeled 'ten gil a crate'.
When he asked why, the bookseller gave him an incredulous look and explained about monsoon season, humidity, mildew, and paper stored in high density with no air circulation. Cloud asked how soon the monsoon season was going to start, and the bookseller looked at his watch pointedly.
It had started drizzling in Gongaga by the time Cloud found a way to pack tarp-covered book crates alongside the wire rolls on the chocobos. When he arrived back at the island, it had already been pouring there for three days, and Cloud brought the birds into the shrine to get them as dry as possible in air that had to be well over a hundred percent humidity.
Apparently, there were several species of plants that only came out in the monsoon season.
Apparently, they grew really, really fast.
And apparently, they all really liked Aeris.
Sephiroth had been patrolling at the main gate, gripping several dozen machetes, knives, broken bottles, and sharp rocks in his tentacles in addition to the Masamune in his hands, and his grim assessment was that he was barely keeping the weed situation at a draw. (That was alarming, considering how really, really lethal-looking his cat-of-nine-dozen-tails impression had been from a respectful distance.)
He and Cloud made quick work of tacking up the screening, and then came back inside to dry off and regroup.
Zack had tried to help with the plant-vanquishing during the first couple days of Cloud's absence, but he'd always been horrendously allergic to the monsoon-flora pollen; he had devolved into a curled-up oozing mess of snot, goo, and slime huddled under a blanket in his hammock.
"No wonder he left Gongaga," Aeris said, biting her lip to keep herself from giggling at how woeful he looked as she coaxed another cup of juice into him. "All right, the slime's got to be new, but the dripping nose must have come with the original model. Poor Zack..."
"I didn't know a living being could excrete that many semi-liquid substances from that many orifices and not become a dessicated husk," Sephiroth said, in an oddly revolted fascination.
Zack mumbled something sour and pulled the blanket further over his head with a goo-sticky tentacle.
"He says to be grateful for your designer-gene sinuses," Aeris translated, and peeled up a corner of the blanket to offer the tip of the straw from his juice.
A tentacle-tip curled around it and pulled it further into the shadows, and then there were some slurping-and-gulping-and-snuffling noises.
It was possibly the most pathetic thing Cloud had ever seen.
"Can't we cast Cure or Heal on him or something?" he asked, patting the huddle of what was either a shoulder or tentacles through the blanket.
"That's the trouble with allergies," Aeris said. "You don't need to boost your healing abilities into high gear -- your immune system is already in high gear and is overreacting. About the best we can do is keep him hydrated and hope whatever it is has a really short pollination season."
"Oh." Cloud chewed on his bottom lip anxiously. "Distractions would be good, then?"
"Distractions and juice," Aeris agreed, looking through his boxes of books with raised brows. "Weapons Maintenance and Repair I can see, but Geological Surveys of the Midgarian Floodplain, 1930-1975? I didn't know you were interested in rocks."
"I'm not," Cloud mumbled, unfastening the ropes at his ankles. "They were just ...there." He started wriggling out of his pants and underwear next, and Aeris' eyes widened even more.
"Um." He suspected he was blushing, but didn't want to look around to check as he tugged at a soggy blanket-corner and dangled his underwear as though Zack were a cat to be coaxed out from under the furniture. "Distractions," he said, "right?"
Aeris put both hands over her mouth, but the muffled squeaks that escaped had clearly started life as giggles.
A few drippy tentacles wriggled their way out; one delicately plucked the underwear out of his hand and discarded it, and the others fumbled around his hip and thigh and tugged. Cloud obediently stepped closer, and a small swarm of tentacles poked out from under the blanket just long enough to scoop him up and drag him into the hammock.
A bleary-eyed Zack peeked out from under the blanket, then tried and failed to give him what was intended for a smoldering look. It was beyond even Zack's powers of lust to smolder appropriately when excreting mucus from every available orifice; but Cloud felt so sorry for him, he had to offer anyway.
"Look, Zack," he said, trying what he hoped could be mistaken for a provocative wriggle, fiercely embarrassed about it. "Molestable."
"Hnngh." A couple of tentacles tugged him lower in the hammock, and Zack nuzzled his cheek against Cloud's thigh, eyes drifting closed -- and then he fell asleep.
"How ill is he?" Sephiroth asked, startled for the first time since Zack had oozed his way into the hammock to convalesce.
Aeris couldn't help herself; she burst out laughing, which made Cloud blush harder, even as he stroked both hands through Zack's humidity-and-drool-damp hair.
Once they'd mostly convinced Sephiroth that Zack passing out before molesting Cloud was not a sign he was on his deathbed, they decided Cloud's crates of random books might be a better distraction after all. Certainly a less energetic one, in any event.
"Not Your Mama's Crochet?" Sephiroth asked, and Cloud decided he might as well set his own ears on fire and be done with it.
"They were just books," he said, miserable. "The bookseller said to take a couple crates or they'd mildew. I didn't actually look at them."
"Give me that one," Aeris said. "I can't even read the title of this one."
"Dai shih da xao. Classical Wutain philosophies of war," Sephiroth said after a glance at the cover when he exchanged books with her.
"Really? That could be interesting," Aeris said.
"I had memorized it by the time I was seven," Sephiroth replied. "It's rather dull and method-bound, and the tactics they actually employed in the war were far more ...inelegant, inventive, and effective. They should have updated it years ago in any fairness to their commanders, let alone their opponents."
"It's probably a classic, then," Cloud said gloomily. "Nobody ever updates things once they get called classics."
"Hmm." Sephiroth looped tentacles around a dozen more of the books scattered across the floor, and looked over the spines and covers for anything of potential interest. "Obstetrics and Gynecology, fifth edition. It doesn't look too badly out of date."
"Seph!" Cloud protested, half laughing and half embarrassed. "Isn't that more Zack's type of book?"
"Too clinical," Aeris said with an indulgent look. "Zack's more the New Joy of Sex, Fully Illustrated type. --But given the rest of this batch as his porn-stash alternatives, maybe we should hide it from him anyway."
Sephiroth shook his head, already paging through the book. "I believe we should all study the obstetrics section as much as time allows," he murmured, "for your sake."
"Oh." Aeris leaned against his shoulder, smiling down at the tentacles he curved about her waist to steady and support her. "That's sweet of you, but I won't have any problems."
"How certain are you?"
"I'm positive," she said, and reached up to tweak his nose; the sight of those luminous green cat-eyes going crossed was always peculiar, which was probably why she did it. "But thank you for the thought."
Sephiroth inclined his head slightly, but didn't put the book aside.
"Seph?" Cloud asked.
"Confidence is well and good," Sephiroth said, "but her confidence may be based upon the condition that we will all have studied, and will therefore be prepared when her time comes. I would hate to cause her certainty of well-being to become shaken through inadequate preparation upon our parts, when we will bear responsibility for her care."
"He's saying providence helps those who helps themselves," Aeris said, rueful, and then looked up at Sephiroth again. "You know, the more hesitant you feel, the more complicated your language gets. It's like you've been preconditioned to bury any uncertainty in bureaucrat-ese."
"That's not surprising," Cloud said, eyes lowered. "Nobody in the Shinra higher-ups were very big on people coming out and saying things like 'I'm not sure about that.'"
"That," Aeris said softly, "is probably the source of most of their problems."
"We'll have to correct that, then," Sephiroth said.
"What?" Cloud asked, blinking. "We're going to go back to Midgar and teach remedial classes in how to waffle?"
Sephiroth looked up from the book at that, and the glitter in his eyes wasn't at all reassuring. "Not at all," he murmured. "I intend to be the source of Hojo's problems, and Hojo's problems cause Shinra's problems. And I don't intend to let that position slip from my grasp."
"You're such an overachiever!" Aeris told him lightly, leaning her head against his shoulder. "We're living in a tropical paradise. Most people would consider that a vacation. And being on vacation means not being responsible for anything, even the downfall of an evil planetwide megacorporation."
"We are refugees, not tourists," Sephiroth said, sharp-voiced. "We did not discard our ranks, careers, and lives in flight from Shinra's grip upon the civilized world simply to take in the dubious charms of Wutain monsoons."
"...We've still got to work on that whole 'teasing' idea too, don't we," Aeris said, gently stroking a hand over a tentacle that had tightened itself about her forearm and hip in his agitation.
Sephiroth looked away, and his voice was too tightly controlled when he spoke again. "They must be stopped," he said to the shadows beyond the reach of the firelight. "Before the President's megalomania and Hojo's mad quest for genetically mutated 'new creations' exact a price the world cannot afford to pay. I know that I was merely his prototype."
"You're right, of course," Aeris said. "But... we don't have a way to stop them by ourselves, just the four of us, right now. You and Zack could make quite a difference in the odds, of course, but you're also ...vulnerable in ways others might not be. And I'm just not in fighting shape at the moment. So in the meantime, is it so terrible to pretend to be tourists?"
Aeris and Sephiroth both looked over.
Under their scrutiny, he began to turn an interesting series of colors, ending up in a charming pink. He was biting his bottom lip hard to keep himself still, eyes shut tight, making tiny gasps for air when he dared, but another squeak escaped despite his best efforts.
The blanket was wriggling in a suspiciously slow, languorous manner, and when they were all very quiet, they could hear ...licking.
"Oh, Zack must have woken up!" Aeris said brightly. "It sounds like he's feeling more energetic."
Cloud blushed even brighter.
"No, that’s good," Aeris assured him. "Distractions, remember? Making him feel better? You're doing wonderfully. Say, do you think you could coax some more juice into him while he's up to sucking on--"
Sephiroth somehow managed to get a hand over her mouth before she finished the sentence. He picked her up in a careful twine of tentacles, gave Cloud a gravely sympathetic nod, and carried both of them out with a bit more haste than dignity.
"I'b sheerioush," Zack said, congestedly. "I doe dis baadenda wif dis 'mazin' rack, an' I'b nod dawkin 'boud de wine cellar if you doe wad I bean--"
"No, actually, I'm not sure I do," Sephiroth said, brows furrowed. "Bad-ender?"
"Bartender?" Cloud offered, and Zack nodded and pointed emphatically.
"Yeah, dad. Baa-denda."
"Of course you know bartenders," Sephiroth said, wearily. "What besides her wine cellar makes this one unique?"
"Nod de wine cellar, de rack -- deber bind." He snuffled and gulped unpleasant substances, then tried harder to enunciate, with limited success. "Sheez a derrorisd doo."
Zack rolled his eyes and flailed with both hands: "Derrorisd. Blowz shtuff ub. --KABOOM."
Sephiroth looked to Cloud for translation, brows quirked into an exquisitely skeptical arch.
"Don’t ask me, sir," Cloud said uncomfortably.
"Your bartender friend makes Molotov cocktails too?" Aeris asked.
"Yesh!" Zack nodded hard, then clutched at his aching head. "Yeah. Like dad. Boom. Lodz ob boom."
Cloud and Sephiroth traded another look. "You want her to blow up your sinuses with something alcoholic that will let you breathe again?" Cloud hazarded.
"Doe," Zack said. "Shin-ra."
"...You want Shin-ra to blow up your sinuses so you can... wait. Huh?"
Zack buried his face in both hands. "Lader," he mumbled. "Jus'... lader."
Cloud looked over at Sephiroth for help -- but Sephiroth was looking thoughtful, in a way that somehow made Cloud very, very nervous.
"Molotov cocktails," he said, "for Shin-ra."
Zack looked up again at that, and his grin showed a lot of teeth. "Yeah," he said. "Sheez a good baadenda. --Wif a gread rack doo!"
"I believe I can approve of this particular cocktail party." Sephiroth's smile was even less reassuring.
The tentacles came out of nowhere and snaked about her waist -- well, what remained of it -- with no warning at all; Aeris sighed, because once she caught her breath the only real surprise was that these tentacles were green-striped.
"Don't tell me Zack's gotten to you too," Aeris said, trying to stretch just a little further up the ladder in order to reach that last annoying cobweb in the rafters.
"You shouldn't be doing such things," Sephiroth said, and then there was a tentacle trying to take away her duster; she hung on tight, and glared fiercely.
"My duster! If you want a featherduster so badly, go get your own." Then her lips quirked despite her best intentions: "Cloud doesn't wriggle as much once you get a good grip on him, and Zack's hair scares me some days. I'd use Cloud if I were you."
Sephiroth simply blinked at her, brows faintly furrowed in perplexity; she sighed, and gently stroked the tentacles that had wrapped themselves about her belly and hips in order to steady her balance on the ladder.
"We really do need to work on this teasing thing, you know."
"No, I understood the concept," Sephiroth assured her, far too gravely for her liking. "I'd simply hoped..."
"Hoped what?" Deciding she wasn't about to fall with such an overprotective anchor, Aeris took another step up on the ladder -- and then found herself lifted off the step entirely, with more tentacles twinng about her to support her weight, and a more insistent tug on the duster.
"I had hoped that you might be more sensible than Zack is, not to mention more sensible than he'd suggested you would be," Sephiroth said, vexed. "You are the last of your race, carrying your last hope for the future, and yet you would risk all that for the sake of cobwebs?"
"I'm not made of glass," Aeris said. "I'm tired of being coddled, I'm tired of being hovered at -- I'm tired of Cloud flinching every time I sneeze-- I'm tired of being useless. You all treat me like I'm about to break. I'm fine. I need something I can do, and you won't let me hunt and you won't let me clean and if it weren't for the fact that you all burn anything you put over a fire you probably wouldn't even let me cook, and I'm just... tired of this." Digging a hand through her hair and trying to fight back tears of pure frustration, she said, "The only surprise is that it's not all three of you here hovering at me..."
"I suggested that we should take turns," Sephiroth said.
She'd meant to laugh, but it came out more than half a sob anyway. "Of course you did." She scrubbed a hand across her face, and said, "And I assume you assigned eight-hour shifts, too, General? Just to make sure the illogical, brainless pregnant woman never has the chance to do something dangerous like lifting a teacup on her own?"
"Teacups are hardly as dangerous as unsupported, unsteady ladders," Sephiroth told her, with the little perplexity-crease showing up between his brows again. "Is this hyperbole or hysteria? Zack wasn't clear about the difference."
Bursting into tears was really, really the worst thing she could have done for her side of the argument, Aeris thought with the last dimly rational corner of her mind, even as the rest of her was hurt and furious and shamed and resentful of their attitudes and their strength and their man-ness and sometimes their squid-ness, and Zack's thoughtless insistence that everything that went wrong was all just her mood swings, and the way Cloud took everything so damned personally, and Sephiroth's terrible frigid logic and everything.
She hit him with the feather-duster, which wasn't a terribly useful weapon, but then he set her on the floor and untwined all his tentacles and withdrew himself entirely -- and for some reason that made her cry even harder. She knew it was Sephiroth, the one who could barely deal with the easy emotions, the one who had no idea what to do with anyone's grief or anger, not even his own -- maybe especially not his own. But she was sick of everything -- sick of having to be the cheerful one when they were smothering her, sick of her back aching, sick of having to handle their emotional traumas when she felt on the verge of falling apart herself, sick of having to keep trying to understand all these men who either pulled back and hid or never stopped teasing about hormonal mood swings even when it was long past the point of being funny, and now the one who'd gone and made her cry didn't even have the decency to hold her, and--
--and there was something white nudging at her cheek.
At the end of a tentacle.
...Sephiroth was all but hiding behind the doorframe, watching her as warily as though she were about to stab him with the featherduster, with one tentacle snaked across and cautiously dabbing the handkerchief at the tear-streaks on her cheeks. She snatched the handkerchief away from him, wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and looked at the tentacle -- and then she started to giggle despite herself, rather soggily, still sniffling back tears that just didn't want to stop.
"What should I do?" he asked, wary. "Should I fetch another to comfort you, since I was the cause of your distress? Or would you prefer to be left alone?"
Aeris bit her lip hard, because her first reaction was you ought to know better than that! You ought to know I want to be held-- and then that was followed by I'm asking Sephiroth to know what to do about emotional upheavals. Shinra's General Sephiroth, dealing with a crying pregnant woman. Have I lost my mind?
That thought was followed by And I don't even have the injections and the tentacles, so he couldn't understand me through that connection. The poor man. No wonder he looks traumatized.
But he shouldn't have to be told that I want him to hold me, the exhausted, upset four-year-old in the back of her mind protested. It doesn't count if I have to tell him what I want him to do. Zack just knows when I need to be held--
But the thought of asking Sephiroth -- or even Cloud -- to have Zack's kind of instinctive understanding of emotional behavior was so patently ridiculous that Aeris shook her head at herself, scrubbed at her cheeks again, and tried hard to keep her voice from breaking in embarrassment as she said, "Come hold me?"
He came to her immediately, and he probably even thought the tension in his tentacles wouldn't be noticeable. His shoulders were stiff when she wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in the curve of his throat and the luxuriant spill of his hair; his hands were too steady against her back, as though she were a weapon to be held precisely lest it turn in his grasp and cut him.
"I apologize," he said, more awkward than she'd ever heard him. "I never intended to distress you with my ignorance. --The distinction between hyperbole and hysteria is much more clear now."
She thought about hitting him, but the laughter won first. "Live demonstrations make everything clearer, right?"
"It is quite a useful method of instruction, yes."
Aeris choked on a laugh, and blew her nose again, and said, "You're the most intelligent idiot I've ever met."
She could feel him stiffen again, and the injury in his voice was clear when he said, "I beg your pardon -- what about Zack?"
"Him? Hardly. He's the most cheerful idiot," Aeris said, and mopped at her eyes, and got a good grip on a tentacle to tug with. "Come on, you. There are cobwebs in the bedroom too."
Following along in faintly bewildered acceptance, Sephiroth said, "Cloud isn't an idiot."
"No," Aeris agreed, "but as long as we're discussing our less charming traits, he's got both of you beat in pure force of stubbornness. --Fortunately, so do I." She looped two of his tentacles about her waist, then pointed her featherduster up into the corner and said firmly, "Up."
Sephiroth looked at her.
Aeris crossed her arms atop the bulge of her stomach and looked right back at him. "You objected to the ladder. I gave up the ladder. I object to the cobwebs. Work with me here."
"What?" she demanded.
"You do realize," he said, even as he lifted her gently toward the corner, "that you could have simply given me the featherduster to begin with?"
"I told you, didn't I? Sheer stubbornness, Cloud and me," Aeris said, and patted the tentacles curved so carefully about her child-rounded girth. "I'd imagine the baby's going to be an unholy terror. Particularly around two or three, when 'no' comes into the vocabulary."
From the distance of tentacle-length at the far corner of the shrine's undusted reaches, she didn't quite catch what he muttered under his breath. It might well have been Wutain soldiers' profanity, at that.
Oddly cheered by the knowledge that Sephiroth wasn't quite so impervious to intimidation after all, Aeris began whistling to herself as she dusted her way along the underside of the shrine's eaves.