By the time they'd finished and were trying to figure out how to dry him off without soaking half the room, Zack had begun to recover from his wilted exhaustion and was blissfully enjoying the petting and rubbing as they washed and bandaged him.
And he'd started petting and rubbing back, of course.
"One good thing to say about the situation -- for once in my life I've actually got enough arms to cuddle everybody at once," he said, in drowsily sated bliss.
Cloud, who was trying to discreetly wriggle away from the tentacle that had made its way up the leg of his pants, coughed so that he wouldn't squeak high and said, "I'd call that groping, myself."
"That too," Zack said, utterly content as he ruffled Cloud's hair with another tentacle. "Cuddling and groping everybody, at the same time. Life could certainly be worse."
"So why did you run out on us like that?" Aeris asked crossly.
"I... er..." A little sheepish, Zack scratched behind an ear with a tentacle-tip rather than his actual hand, considering one of his hands had been intercepted halfway down Sephiroth's shirt and he was keeping it very still in hopes that it wouldn't get broken. "I hadn't... I wasn't sure if... um... if everybody was on the same page as my instincts."
"I thought you knew that we don't mind," Cloud said, a little hurt, and Zack flailed in several improbable directions at once.
"That's not what I meant! I -- er-- wasn't exactly sure if you were the right species to be on the same page as my instincts -- I mean, at least the other day, it was me in the driver's seat, you know? And I was so scared I might've shot her up with the neurotoxin shit, I was concentrating too hard on the lure kinds of neurochemicals instead, and I think I might have gone a little past lure into hallucinogenic aphrodisiac or something..."
"But I like your instincts," Aeris said. "The glowy blue stuff was fun!"
"...Or it might just be her," Zack said, more than a little sheepish. "I can't exactly tell the difference sometimes. Anyway, it was... uh... kind of more out of control than I wanted, especially since I hadn't gotten okays first, so... I figured it was better to get my brain back first and ask questions later. I just... Nothing'd ever set me off like that before. It was kind of like getting kicked where it counts, only a damn-that's-good version instead of an ow-fuck-kill-me-now version -- Aeris, doll, you have got to warn a guy when you're going to pull stuff like that, okay?"
"So I can pet you some more if I warn you first?" she mused, chewing on a tip of her hair and eyeing one of his tendrils speculatively.
"Not just yet!" Zack yelped, tentacles curling in tight by pure reflex. "Look, I wasn't kidding when I said the instincts were kind of out of control, you know? I'm -- I'm not sure I can--"
"There is a rhythm," Sephiroth murmured, his voice low and a little hoarse. "It took me some time to master the way the -- the neurochemicals -- affected me, but... the levels peak and then fall off, and then peak again. If you gather yourself in the lulls, and don't let the waves overwhelm you, it's... it can be controlled. It should be easier without the voice behind it, driving it on--" He stopped short, and shook his head a little.
"What was it that set you off?" Zack asked softly.
"I don't know if I can isolate it," Sephiroth replied, the practiced neutral dispassion of a military report betrayed by the tremor in his breath. "The shock of learning what Hojo had done to create me, the helplessness of my rage, the horror, the villagers' horror, her voice screaming in my mind, blending into their screaming..." After a moment, carefully, he added, "At least one of the components has been neutralized, for which I thank you. But I cannot say with certainty whether the other factors in combination could... trigger another incident."
Zack and Aeris traded a look -- the sort of look that always made Cloud duck and look around furtively for an exit to run for. Sephiroth wasn't familiar with Aeris' looks, but he knew enough about Zack that he was already poised more stiffly, back straight, leaning on the mannerisms of Shinra's highest ranking officer in hopes it might win him some kind of stay of execution.
"Zack, do bear in mind that I still outrank everyone in this room."
"Yeah, whatever," Zack said.
"I strongly urge you to reconsider a plan that will get you court-martialled."
"You don't even know what the plan is."
"When you get that expression on your face, it rarely matters what the plan is," Sephiroth retorted, with some force.
"But it's a good plan."
"That is an excessively subjective analysis of--"
"--Don't give me the bullshit line about analysis of available evidence, because you haven't got any available evidence, and 'Zack had That Grin on' is really not admissible in a Shinra military tribunal." Zack crossed his arms, as well as several tentacles for extra emphasis.
"It would be admissible if the jury knew you," Sephiroth said, pained. "What, precisely, is the plan?"
"We need to know more about what the triggers are, so we don't go apeshit in the wrong place at the wrong time," Zack said. "Panic's pretty much a given, and so is groping, but we really need to have some idea of how much panic we need to watch out for. Or how much groping. Agreed?"
"About that 'groping' part, Zack--"
"And I'm sure not going to go around pulling out flesh-eating hallucinogenic biotoxins on you guys deliberately. No arguments there, I assume."
"No, of course not, but--"
"So, since you've got more experience than I do with neurowhatsit trigger points, you're going to train me about how to 'surf the waves.' And since I've got more experience than you do with the chemicals that don't eat people's faces off and make sounds bleed orange inside their heads, sex biochemistry is where we're going to start."
"And," Zack continued, "you can't train me unless you've experienced the whoa-good-drugs side of it too. Which means it's officially your turn for some industrial-grade tentacular groping. Since you're the one who has a handle on the theory of mastering the biorhythms and all."
"I think I could get to like the army," Aeris said thoughtfully.
"See why I love her?" Zack asked the room at large, and reached for Sephiroth. "Come on, General. Just think of it like a new twist on basic training."
Zack's earnest-persuasion face had faded into a little frustration already, though. "I've been groping you for the past five minutes solid; why aren't you even twitching yet?"
The other three all looked downward; sure enough, under the cover of waving hands and distracting chatter, several of Zack's tentacles had stealthily stretched along the floor and up into the tangle of Sephiroth's. Once made aware of them, Sephiroth tried to remove them; Zack was persistent, though, and had learned how to make himself sticky.
"When Aeris was groping around there, it was like getting hit with lightning or something," Zack said, frowning. "And I know it's not that you're not attracted to my gorgeous self, because obviously anybody would be, sooo--"
"You-- you--" For once, the General's composure was slipping. "You conceited, depraved, shameless--"
"Wrong type of twitching," Zack said mournfully, rubbing his chin. "Aeris, babe, were you doing anything particularly Ancient-like when you were petting me down there?"
"No, but-- I'll bet it's because it's your moving-around tentacles," Aeris said thoughtfully. "I mean, your own tentacles go everywhere; you couldn't get much done if you were setting off either the attack-chemicals or the sex-chemicals every time you move, so anything that 'tastes' like the moving tentacles probably won't set things off. But hands and other parts would be recognized as not-tentacles. And I wonder what would happen if you got your inside-tentacles up against each other -- after all, you get sticky to hold things together--"
"Miss Gainsborough, please," Sephiroth protested, sounding pained. "I have had more than enough of being treated as a laboratory specimen in my life. Allow me some semblance of dignity, even if humanity is too much to ask under the current circumstances."
"But aren't you even curious?" Aeris said, trying too hard at wide-eyed enticing. "And Cloud wants to touch, too!"
"Don't get me into the middle of this!" Cloud yelped.
"But don't you want to touch the soft ones too?" she coaxed, lifting a double-handful of Zack's tentacles out of the way, since he was clearly more cooperative when it came to public displays. "Look, he looks just like an anemone, all drifty and fluffy and soft. And it's not that they doesn't like being touched down there; it's that they like it too much, if the way Zack's still catching his breath has anything to do with it..."
"Do you want to touch, Cloud?" Zack asked, with a rueful, gentle smile. "I'm fine with that."
"I... um... er..." Caught between Zack's invitation and Sephiroth's appalled distaste, Cloud didn't know which way to turn.
"They're really soft, and they tickle," Aeris said, taking one of his hands and tugging him closer. "Like tiny kitten paws playing with your fingers, with just a little sticky-prickle. Go on."
"Zack?" Cloud asked, because he couldn't help it; Zack smiled at him again, even as he twined a tentacle around Cloud's wrist and tugged him closer.
"'Better you than a civilian,' right?" Zack reminded him wryly, and guided Cloud's fingers downward.
Cloud kept his hand very flat and still, biting his lip to keep from giggling at the warm tickle of the wandering anemone-tips. Zack's breath caught in his throat, and then he began panting again, quick and barely under control, his cheeks flushed.
"Oh, yeah," he said, husky-voiced. "Much... much better than my tentacles down there... guess Seph's not just being a prude...!"
Aeris said indignantly, "You were groping yourself too? And you didn't feel like sharing?"
"Just -- testing the waters, babe-- ohhhh, that's good; right there. You've got such nice warm hands, kid..."
Blushing a little, Cloud carefully rubbed his palm against the softly wriggling little tentacles that curled about his fingertips. Zack made a deep, almost-bubbling sound that wasn't very intelligible, but the way three more of his outer tentacles snaked around Cloud's arm to hold his hand in place left little doubt that it was meant to express enthusiasm.
"Exhibitionist," Sephiroth murmured. "Shameless, wanton--"
Zack coughed before he tried to speak, but his voice still sounded like he had a throat full of yogurt. "You just wish... he was petting you there too...!"
"I most certainly do not," Sephiroth said, and Cloud flinched.
"Well, if you happen to change your mind, he's got two hands," Aeris said happily. "Will you come over here and curl up? I want to see yours too, they sound so pretty--"
Sephiroth was absolutely not blushing; in fact, he'd gone rather more pale than usual, which was a surprise in someone with such a near-albinoid complexion. "At no point did I say I wanted to be -- to be handled in such an intimate manner -- let alone in public--"
"Public?" Aeris asked, honestly confused. "Where?"
"Be gentle with him, love," Zack rumbled, his voice almost an octave deeper than usual. "He's got so much to get used to -- it was just last night he got faced with three of us and tentacles all at once; now there's four, and--" Zack's train of thought abruptly derailed as Cloud began stroking his fingertips through the inner tentacles. "Nnnnnhhnnnngh," he moaned, and his voice shuddered in two octaves at once.
"I'm sorry, was that bad...?"
Zack had apparently lost the ability to produce words, but he looped a few more tentacles around Cloud's wrist to keep his hand right there. Sephiroth looked away from the two of them; Aeris quietly slipped both arms around his shoulders and rested her cheek against his.
"You're worried about controlling the neurotoxins, aren't you," she murmured. "When the three of you did this before, you hadn't gotten into deliberately provoking the less human instincts, and you've learned just enough control to fear losing that control." She didn't need to feel his flinch to have her confirmation.
"How did you--?"
"You practically admitted it earlier, you know," she said. "The way the three of you were talking about what you had and hadn't explored... and I'm pretty sure something more unpleasant got triggered in you at Nibelheim, didn't it. Zack's not afraid of himself the way you are."
"Zack's not afraid of anything," Sephiroth replied shortly. "Fear requires a modicum of sense."
"Zack's certainly afraid of losing any of his precious people," Aeris said. "And now that he's got all the extra bits to hang on with, he's probably going to discover whole new levels of clingy. If you don't want to be held, you're really associating with the wrong people, you know."
"It's not that," Sephiroth said, stiffly. "You don't -- none of you seem to pay any attention to how close I came to killing him. I don't understand how you can ignore it so easily."
"That wasn't entirely you," Aeris replied. "And yes, I understand that you're not yourself at the moment. Don't you think it's better to learn about what you've become, so that you can recognize what's not your own will the next time -- and so that you won't go that far if something sets off your defenses around them again?"
He didn't speak aloud, but she could feel his reaction in the set of his shoulders as clearly as if he'd spoken anyway. Setting the hook, she lowered her voice a little for the sake of Cloud's pride, and continued.
"Zack's like you," she said. "It's a good thing Zack's the one who found you first, because he could hold his own against you if he needs to. But Cloud's not like you. If either of you turned on him, I hate to think about what would happen. So you really do need to learn to recognize and control the signs in yourself -- and in Zack, if it comes to that -- for everyone's sake."
"I am not about to 'practice' triggering animal reflexes that terrorized most of the village of Nibelheim when the only people in the area are those I care about. And if Zack would simply have left me alone to finish Hojo, I'd have gained much more experience with no regrets--"
"Now, now. None of that," she told him lightly. "You need to be thinking more happy-sparkly things and less bone-crushing-and-maiming."
"'Happy-sparkly things,'" he echoed, utterly nonplussed.
"Well, it certainly can't hurt when you're trying to direct what you're doing with mostly-subconscious neurochemistry," she said. "I'm a healer. You can practice on me, and I'll let you know whether it's poisonous or too strong a hallucinogenic for them."
"Here," she said, and twined the tip of one of his tentacles about her wrist. "Think about them, about what you want to express to them -- comfort, pleasure, shared joy, good things like that -- and we'll test the chemical balance on me until you've gotten it right."
"Miss Gainsborough, I understood that you must be at least a little eccentric, to enter into any kind of arrangement with someone like Zack -- but have you utterly lost your mind?"
"I thought I told you to call me Aeris. And haven't you got any faith in my healing abilities?" she asked mock-indignantly. "Besides, I really liked that glowy blue stuff!"
"Madness," he murmured, looking away from Aeris' bright teasing smile and Cloud's blushing, breathless attentions to areas that made Zack moan. "All the world has gone mad, and I cannot even turn coward and run, because I cannot outrun myself."
"No, you can't," Aeris agreed quietly, and leaned her head against his shoulder. "So will you let me help you? ...I don't suppose you'd let me see?"
Sephiroth kept his face turned away from the room, his shoulders knotted with shame, but the tentacle about her wrist tugged lightly, and he shifted the others around until she could see a pale, rose-tipped flutter dimly glowing beneath him.
"They're beautiful," Aeris breathed. He flinched again, and so she shamelessly called for backup: "Look, Cloud -- aren't they beautiful?"
Cloud was as far beyond words as Zack was, his face an adorable shade of pink as he squirmed in pleasure that Zack was clearly encouraging. But he looked over, and his eyes widened for a moment as he nodded.
"He agrees with me, you know," Aeris murmured into Sephiroth's hair, rubbing the nape of his neck with her free hand. "They both do. Think about them for me. Think of what you want them to feel, and how they make you feel. The way it feels when Zack holds you, the way he makes you feel so treasured and so welcome -- and the way you'd like him to feel when you touch him too, when both of them are holding you at once. When Zack's finally let the teasing rest and his eyes are shining with everything that's spilling out of his generous heart, and when Cloud's feeling confident of his place with you both, smiling and relaxed in your arms, and so delighted by the gentlest touches..."
He was finally starting to relax a little for her, and the tentacles were moving more slowly and languidly; their 'experimenting' the other day must have been a really good experience, if the reminders could ease such deeply-ingrained self-loathing. Aeris smiled to herself, and softened her voice a little further, letting her fingertips brush against his outer tentacles so that she wouldn't startle him when she reached underneath.
"Just keep thinking about what you feel about both of them," she said. "What you feel when you're close to each other, when you see them smile..." And she reached careful fingertips underneath to stroke against that luminous alien fluttering.
Suddenly, Zack's comment about lightning made a lot more sense. It hit her
in the back of the knees, hard enough to buckle her toward the floor; she didn't
even feel herself fall amid the surge of need-yearning-stumbling-ache-lust-terror-s
Well, I did tell him to think of what he felt, Aeris reminded herself, gasping on what felt like but couldn't possibly be lungsful of seawater in the middle of her perfectly dry room. I should've realized how much he's been pushing down all these years, if they only finally reached for each other this week!
The panic in his voice was clearer than the words, which were coming at her through a shuddering haze like sunlight through thirty feet of ocean closed over her head. "I'll be okay," she said, or tried to, concentrating on finding a sense of up-and-down again, finding ground to put her feet on, balanced against the solid reality of wood and stone and earth supporting it all. She didn't taste the ocean when she tried to take another breath, and coughing left just air in her lungs, and she suspected the wood planks she was sitting on probably belonged to the floor rather than a wall or something...
...and she just barely managed to get a good double-handful of his tentacles before he could vanish out the window.
"No you don't," she said. "One roof-molesting is more than enough for the night; I don't want to get rained on if you tear holes all the way through what's left of it!"
"I'm sorry," he whispered, his voice breaking deep. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry -- I knew I shouldn't have -- just let me leave, I shouldn't be this close to--"
"Oh, PISH," Aeris said fiercely, and tangled herself into his tentacles since she wasn't quite entirely sure which way was up yet, and he could hang onto anything if they fell toward the ceiling or something. She cleared her throat to try to get rid of the lingering taste of brine, and tried again, concentrating on short phrases. "Not your fault. Just... wasn't expecting... but you did what I asked..."
"You're a mad, too-trusting fool; that's no excuse for me to have--"
"On the contrary," Aeris said, hanging onto his shoulder, because she was fairly sure he didn't like his tentacles enough to be standing on a wall, which meant that tentacleward was down. "We're having you practice on me because I can handle it. You did just fine. No toxins. The emotional dial was just cranked up to eleven, that's all." She took a couple of careful breaths, to make sure the air was staying, and deliberately sat down in the middle of his flailing tentacles so that he'd hold on to her. "Okay, let's try this again, but with less of the 'you're terrified and uncertain' stuff and more of the 'you know they love you, silly' stuff."
"Aeris," she corrected firmly. "And there's another case of practice makes perfect. You're in the military; you know about drilling things until they're reflex. That's exactly what we're going to do. Now." She was having a more difficult time finding her way through his tentacles this time, because he was trying to hold her back without hurting her; she sighed and smacked one of the tendrils lightly. "Stop that. You're thinking too much about guilt-reflexes, and not nearly enough about petting--"
"I could have fractured whatever's left of your mind, you little lunatic!" the General snapped at her. For the first time she understood what let him lead soldiers into battle, hidden beneath that shell of brittle, withdrawn politesse, and she clapped her hands together in delight.
"Good!" she said. "Not as good as it could be, but it's a start at letting frustrated emotions out without exploding into lashing hallucinogen-dripping tentacles everywhere -- that's certainly a start! Now. Back to the petting. Because I'm sure the petting is going to be much more fun to practice."
"You are a provocative fool, and I take no responsibility for what you may invoke," Sephiroth said, taut-voiced.
"Whatever you say," Aeris agreed indulgently, stroking his outer tentacles in an attempt to soothe him quiet again. "Zack, if you're anywhere near coherent, I think that your general needs a lot more petting than I can give him by myself -- and right now you're better equipped for 'lots of petting' than anybody else in the world, really."
Zack and Cloud were rather stickily entwined in each other; Zack made the effort to lift his head and grunted an interrogative, and Cloud nodded a little, and so they both shuffled across the floor, leaning heavily on each other.
"No," Sephiroth said, white-faced and absolutely rigid. "I hurt you enough with that first idiotic experiment--"
"It only hurt because you were so tangled-up inside," Aeris said. "If you're clear that you're loved, and that you love in return, it won't hurt a bit. You're just no good at relaxing and staying relaxed, are you."
Zack rolled his eyes, and Cloud laughed in an uncanny echo of Zack's voice. "Too much like Spike," he said. "I mean, too much like me, I think. I'm the one who can still talk, right?"
Sephiroth looked horrified; Aeris simply smiled. "Right," she said cheerfully. "I wonder if you can synchronize three ways at once if you share enough of that neurochemical ooze?"
Zack reached toward him, the tentacles paused partway, though, and Cloud said, "We're not going to push. ...No, I mean it. Control, remember? He's worried about control, so let's show him... there, that's better..."
Aeris quirked a brow. "Let me get this straight," she said. "Our cute little tail-wagging Cloud is putting a leash on Zack's libido, even with the tentacles to argue with? --And he didn't pass the Soldier exam? General, you may be right about the world going mad after all."
"Gee, thanks, babe," Cloud said, and then looked startled at what had just come out of his own mouth. "I mean ma'am. Anyway. It seems like the chemicals can go both ways... like he can taste my reactions in... er... sweat, and pheromones, and... fluids and stuff. So I can help him handle the impulses. The tentacles seem to grasp the notion that 'happy mate equals enthusiastic sex' -- I mean -- Zack, you're leaking perv-vibes again; cut it out! ...all right, I know some perv-vibes are in order, but I need to think here; Seph's still... right, you can sense that, can't you? Good. Quiet, now."
It was a little uncanny hearing only half of the conversation; Aeris wondered exactly how much they could communicate through that neurochemical-laden ooze and pheromones in the air. Cloud shook his head like a soggy puppy trying to clear his ears, and focused carefully on Sephiroth, and held out both hands.
"No demands," he said. "No cornering you, no forcing you into anything. Just... please, we want to share this with you. It's apparently easier for him to control when he's holding me -- I can anchor you both, I know I can. I already did, remember? If you don't trust yourself, trust us to hold on for you, okay? I know it'll be all right, Seph." After a moment's hesitation, he added almost guiltily, "Zack wants another chance at your soft wrigglies, too."
Zack cuffed Cloud across the back of the head with a tentacle; Cloud retorted indignantly, "I can't not warn him about that when you're oozing lust at me! Yes, more lust than usual. If you want me to stop tattling, put it on a leash already. --Yes, I know I'm no fun and you're a poor underappreciated tragic soul. You're also a horndog on legs. Too many legs, at that. --Get that tentacle out of my pants RIGHT now, mister."
Zack was positively drooping by the end of the lecture. Aeris couldn't help herself; she snuggled through the tangle of wilted leopard-spotted tentacles and hugged him, so that she could whisper into his ear, "Want into my pants instead?"
"Aeris!" Cloud yelped, utterly scandalized by Zack's clearly renewed interest.
"What? I'm just helping distract him for you," Aeris said. "You work on our shy violet and I'll play with the exhibitionist for a bit, okay?"
Cloud nodded, and carefully disentangled himself from Zack's tentacles in order to settle himself close to Sephiroth with a soft sigh.
"Don't worry," Cloud said, leaning his head back against his general's strong chest. "Just let me be close to you, all right?" He reached down and gathered several long tentacles across his lap, stroking lightly; the fluids lingering on his skin transmitted the neurochemicals as crisply and vividly as the taste of coming snow in a single breath of sharp winter air, and Sephiroth tasted of a knotted tangle of need and fear and longing, and something writhing a little deeper. He let his fingers creep upwards, and Sephiroth caught both of his wrists sharply.
"I hurt too many of them with this," he said. "I won't make you my experiment. You of all people."
"I love you," Cloud replied mildly. "That's the best reason of all. You're still you, just like Zack's still Zack, and what you feel is what comes through. It's just so much sharper and more vivid, that's all. Trust what you feel, and trust me."
"Think of him touching you," Aeris murmured, entwined in Zack's arms. "Think of what you want him to feel when he touches you. Warmth, and pleasure, and shared joy... hold onto that, and hold onto him."
Cloud nodded when Sephiroth let a couple more tendrils twine about him, and he settled himself closer, one hand resting at the base of a tentacle and stroking. "Let me see," he murmured. "Let me see, and let me show you what I see."
It was as eerily beautiful as he'd remembered, a palely shining snowdrift glittering with a thousand tiny sunsets; Cloud kept his hand very still at first, letting Sephiroth adjust to the sensation of other and the instinctive reaction to that otherness, the different pulse of human life and the salt-sweat and desire mingled on his skin. The soft little vilii shivered under his fingertips, stretching to taste and explore; finding no aggression in the motionless, gentle touch, the prickles faded away and the tips unfurled into tiny suckers, pulling his hand close. Cloud smiled, and let his thumb brush very gently across the surface; they grasped at him more insistently, and drew his hand further into the depths, as the liquid that had begun seeping from the sucker-tips spread like a warm thick flood, carrying enough startled relief that Cloud's knees would have wobbled if he wasn't already safely entwined in green-striped tendrils.
"It's fine," Cloud murmured, letting his fingertips wriggle a little in playful response to the tickling. "You trust me, so you're relaxed, so they're curious, not defensive. Can you listen to me too?" He closed his eyes and let himself go utterly limp, trusting Sephiroth to support his body, trusting him not to strike out, concentrating on sensory memories of that first night -- the feeling of awe and humility that they both trusted him, both wanted him, as much as he wanted them; the way the pleasure had been almost too fierce to bear, sparklng through his nerves like lightning, so deep and rich and warm when they'd twined together within him, around him-- just like that; there, that was very nice--
Sephiroth withdrew that vagrant tentacle quickly, with a scorching wash of shamed guilt; Cloud shook his head drowsily, wrinkling his nose at the ozone-tang of the shame, and said, "I was saying I wanted more, Seph. We don't need actual words. But... that's definitely a 'yes, go on.' Please...?" He wriggled his fingers again, thinking of need and unfulfilled aches and yearning and the pleasure of warm touches, and met Sephiroth's panic at a hot rush of lust with an answering curl of his own lust.
"I know what I want," he said, a little thick-voiced. "Think I know what you want too."
Sephiroth was still squirming inside like a worm on a sharp hook, sharp desire pitted against the stark unreasoning terror of midnight and Tifa's screaming and his own helplessness as his distorted body did things beyond his control. The savagery of it cleared the pleasure-haze from Cloud's mind a little; he sighed, because he'd been enjoying feeling and not thinking.
"So it sounds like terrorized screaming's a turn-off for you," Cloud said, nuzzling his cheek against the root of a tentacle to feel the soft pulse there. "So that's a self-correcting situation. You met the screaming villagers with defensive and offensive reactions, to get yourself away from them and prevent them from following. So if you push too much, if you hurt me, you'll know it right away when you can 'taste' me like this-- and you'll stop, because what you want from me is pleasure. --Zack was worried about that too, but when he stopped worrying, it was better." He thought about that sense-memory strongly, adding, "A lot better."
Because it was definitely a lot better without the worry-taste sharp on the back of his throat, all of it washed away by the hot desperation of need and the thick, silky pride of knowing you were needed just as much, knowing that you gave the pleasure that was spilling out of Zack in rich warm waves that made your toes and his tentacles curl in the same rhythm. There was nothing to fear in the intensity of the shared sensations, because it was a rhythm that they set together, a rhythm that required both of them to build, like a children's seesaw -- there was nowhere that one could go without the other's support, without the other's pleasure. Fear broke the rhythm; trust and pleasure twined themselves together to ride the waves' crest, laughing in delight at the power of it.
"Show me," Cloud murmured, eyes closed, letting himself float in the choppy waves of Sephiroth's tangled emotions. "Show me where you go when you dance with your sword..." Because he'd always wanted to know; watching the Silver General perform even the most basic kata with his sword in his hand was like watching music given flesh, a glimpse into a world that was perfect and pure and flawless, where everything trivial and irrelevant dropped away and all the world tightened into a clean sliver of steel splitting the wind to ribbons, and nothing mattered but the blade in his hand and the earth beneath his feet, and sometimes not even that. No one else had a place in that circle, not President Shinra's greed or Hojo's manipulations or the terrorists or the arrogant socialites or anyone; the petty, grasping world was cast aside and only two essentials remained: breath and steel.
Cloud was always too aware of the weight of his sword, the way the hilt rubbed at calluses in his palm, the way his left knee wobbled sometimes or an overstrained muscle; he felt small and shabby next to that pure elegance, but at the same time it was a beacon to guide him, a goal to fix himself upon...
"But if I can never be that shining goal for you again, then what?" Sephiroth whispered into his hair.
"Of course you will," Cloud said, startled. "You still are. You should've seen the way you and Zack were moving -- it was amazing, it was like the earth no longer mattered, like you could almost fly..." But reminding him of that night had to be a bad idea; Cloud shook his head a little. "I have to admit I'm going to miss Zack's knees until he gets them back," he said, "but I can be patient, and--"
"Yeah," Cloud said, looking up at the ceiling, because he wasn't sure he wanted to know if Sephiroth was trying not to laugh at him. "He's so unfair, you know? So brilliant and strong and confident and just as unfairly gorgeous as you are, and he picks on me -- he picks on everyone -- so I've got to get back at him somehow, and he's ticklish at the back of his knees; he kicks like a bunny when you tickle there, like a dog with an itch... so I'm going to miss his knees, but I'll think of something."
"Knees," Aeris said, breathless. "Wow. Gotta remember that."
"He's going to need a third knee though," Cloud said, amid visions of himself and Sephiroth and Aeris all tickling and Zack bunny-thumping around gales of laughter. Sephiroth's hair would be wonderful for tickling; Cloud's was soft enough to tickle with, it would have laid down better if it had been thicker or heavier, but it was too short to reach the interesting places most of the time.
Sephiroth's fingers slipped softly through his hair, his palm curving to cradle the back of his head, and a warm wash of pleasurable satisfaction tinted the room gold.
"Okay, my hair's fine too," Cloud agreed muzzily, snuggling closer.
"Gods, it's strange hearing half your conversation," Aeris laughed. "...Oh. Zack. Wait. What do you think you're...?"
There was a tentacle feeling its way around Cloud's other thatch of hair, and it brought a lascivious sense that yes, Cloud's hair seemed fine in all directions. There was also a violet-tinged wash of calculation, and it seemed to be wriggling; Cloud hesitated before swatting a tentacle, though, because he was getting a little confused on which sensations were coming from where and in whose body.
He was pretty sure he didn't even have the parts that felt like they were aching inside, for example, and nobody could put a tentacle in him where it felt like that one was going after the ache-- he might have thought about that a little more, but three quarters of his brain was suddenly full of fireworks and the gasping knowledge that that was a very, very good tentacle. Very attentive. To exactly the right spots. On whichever body it was that had those spots, anyway. If it wasn't his body, he was going to be a little jealous when this got done with.
...Well, maybe he'd be jealous. Aeris had a vixen's grin on, and she was busy establishing that while tentacles had the edge in number and flexibility, fingers had the edge in dexterity. And experience. And she had two hands, though somebody was wishing for a third right against a ticklish spot between a couple tentacles, so Cloud decided to help out with the rubbing and stroking.
They discovered together that orgasms tended to cascade, and since girls could have more than one in a row, it was ...quite educational. And exhausting. Someone might have blacked out in there, but some resting and recharging sounded like it would have been a good idea, if that stroking against the really sensitive spot hadn't sounded like an even better one, because it set Aeris off again, and that spiked through the rest of them too. Just when it seemed like the aftershocks might be dying down a little bit, a thread of mischievousness that tasted like Zack decided it was time for a better investigation of Sephiroth's wriggly bits.
...It definitely had to be Zack behind the idea, because the 'better investigation' involved seeing what happened with two different sets of wriggly bits meeting each other.
Aeris' dresser didn't survive the spectacularly explosive chain reaction. Neither did the long-forgotten rain barrel in the middle of the room. Nobody could find a way to care for a long, long time, though.
Somewhere after the sun came up, Cloud figured out that the eyes the sun was shining into belonged to him, and squinched them shut. Someone else made a sound of relief.
Aeris screamed at the top of her lungs.
"What? Huh? What's--"
"All right, WHICH of you decided to LAY EGGS ON MY BEST QUILT?" the girl shouted, both hands fisted on her hips.
"...Eggs?" Cloud managed, craning his head up to take a look.
Sure enough, there was an untidy mess of hundreds of pale green eggs stuck all over her quilt.
"Well, will you look at that," Zack said.
"I AM looking at that, no thank you very much! My mother spent hours on that quilt! I've had it since I was eight! If that sticky stuff leaves stains, Zack, so help me--"
"Wait, wait, wait, why is this my fault? Do I look like the egg-laying type to you?"
"Of course not -- which means the sticky stuff has got to be yours, which means--"
"You mean Sephiroth looks like an egg-laying type?" Zack asked, by now utterly befuddled.
"More than you do! And anemones and their cousins switch back and forth sometimes anyway. And you're the one I can beat the stuffing out of for ruining my poor quilt! If we hadn't gone and smashed the rainbarrel I could at least put it in to soak -- all right, you stay right here, you ooze-dripping quilt-crudding slimemonger, I'm going to go soak this in the bathtub, and you'd better just pray..." She picked up the quilt by the corners, very gingerly, and stormed off toward the bathroom.
"I don't think I look like an egg-laying type," Sephiroth said, vaguely miffed.
"Um," Cloud said, and the General's eyes narrowed.
"Is that disagreement I hear in your voice, Strife?"
"Not as such, sir," Cloud mumbled. "Just, er, you want to be the egg-laying type. Because the alternative is -- well -- who do you think taught me how to use a frying pan on people's heads? Tifa's a bartender, not a cook."
Sephiroth paused, and thought about it, and shuddered faintly. "...I suppose I can live with being the egg-laying type."
"Hey," Zack protested. "I like my skull in one piece too, you know."
"She did say they switched sometimes," Cloud observed. "Maybe you can be the egg-laying type next time."
"But I want to have been the egg-laying type this time," Zack said, and then blinked. "Oh, gods, did I just say that?"
"I've told you, the world has gone mad," Sephiroth said.
"Yeah, I think you're right," Zack agreed tiredly, digging a hand through his hair and making a face when it came out slime-sticky. "I think we should go get drunk. It probably can't make the situation any worse."
"Or any better," Sephiroth observed.
"Have you got a better idea? ...right, then, that's settled."
"Oh, that's right," Cloud said, remembering. "How many tentacles have you got anyway? I really should run over to the armory and see where they get their fabric so we can start making enough socks."