Chapter 13: Gongaga
"Here," Aerith said, reaching into her pocket as Zack stretched, getting ready for the Battle Square. "For luck," she stated, placing the pink object into his outstretched hand. He smiled. It was her ribbon, the one he had purchased for her. That time felt like ages ago.
"Thank you," he said, putting it into his pocket.
"It'll keep you safe," she insisted.
"In that case, how can I possibly lose?" he grinned in what he imagined was a charming way. Aerith laughed, pecking him lightly on the cheek.
"Go on," she insisted. "I'll be waiting for you when you get back."
"Yes ma'am." He gripped her hand for a moment, then let her warmth slide away. It was a disappointing feeling, and for a fleeting moment he wanted to grab back onto her and pull her close. Forget about the fight. What did it really matter, anyway?
"Come on, slowpoke," Cloud's voice interrupted his thoughts. Cloud was smirking at him, elbow resting on his sword. "Or are you backing down?"
"No way," Zack shot back, his competitiveness rising back up again. "I'll see you at the finish line!" With a laugh, Zack darted forward into the battle square while Cloud cursed fumbled with his sword to follow after him.
Zack barely listened to the announcer go over the rules of the battle square. He was focusing entirely on calming himself, centering his mind and body. He would need complete control so he wouldn't have to worry about losing his control. As long as no blood was spilled, he would be fine.
"Gooo!" he heard the announcer cry out, and the first of the monsters were released. Zack held his sword out in front of him, taking a deep breath.
Here we go.
For Zack, the battle square all began to blend into one giant blur. Every so often, the voice of the announcer would filter into his sense of hearing, but otherwise, he was focused on the sound of his breathing, on the way his sword felt in his hands, a perfect extension of his own arms, practically another limb. He focused on efficiently knocking out enemy after enemy, or demolishing the machines, some of which Zack recognized from Shinra. With well practiced hands, he could sever the wiring and pull apart gears.
He cast the refreshing Curaga every so often – it didn't completely remove fatigue, but it soothed his muscles and made the long fight easier. He was only aware of himself and his enemy. He had no idea how Cloud was faring. As he finished off another enemy – a large, snake-like creature – the announcer's voice broke through his concentration again.
"I don't believe it!" the man said, laughing over the intercom. "We've come to a tie for the final prize! The hard-sought after materia! The only way to sort this out is through a final battle! How will these two men fare against each other in a battle of strength and skill?"
So I'm fighting Cloud for the final prize. Zack chuckled to himself. Cloud had another chance to prove himself in battle. Zack watched with careful eyes as Cloud made his way to the center of the battle square, dirt smudged on his cheeks, blood splattered on his clothes. Zack could smell the blood from here – some of it was clearly older, already dried, but much of it was fresh. He grit his teeth, recoiling against his own instinct to breathe it in. The monster in him quivered, but he held it back.
"Think you'll win this time?" Zack asked, not trying to be taunting, merely trying to keep a grip on his own mind.
"I don't see why not," Cloud responded coolly.
"You lost last time," Zack pointed out, remembering their first meeting in the church, when he'd saved Aerith.
"A fluke," Cloud shrugged.
"If you say so," Zack grinned.
"Are our contenders ready?" the announcer's voice blared over the speakers. Both he and Cloud made an 'OK' signal with their hands. "GOOOOOOO!"
Must he always do that? Zack wondered, but he didn't have time to ponder it as Cloud lunged forward, his sword glinting and still wet with monster blood. Zack looked away from the sword, breathing deeply to control himself, then brought his own sword up in retaliation, the two metals screeching and protesting at contact. With a flick of his wrist, Zack twisted Cloud's blade away, and he made a counterattack, landing a heavy blow on Cloud's shoulder with the blunt edge of his sword. Cloud flinched, but didn't let it slow him down.
He regained control of his sword and swung again, this time a side swipe, and Zack brought his blade up nearly vertical, grateful for the girth of his buster sword, which shielded his body effectively from the side attack. Zack released his sword with one hand, swinging his sword overhead in a powerful arc, aiming another blow to Cloud, who rolled to the side and out of the way.
Cloud grunted, low to the ground in a crouching position, then used his momentum to leap back up, arms swinging again.
He doesn't slow down, does he? Zack thought grimly, blocking another attack. Cloud had gotten better since the last time they'd fought, that much was apparent. He still didn't have the training Zack did, though. He realized that an all out sword battle was never going to end between the two of them, at least not anytime soon, so he changed the pace up. He swiped Cloud's sword away with his blade in one hand, and with the other let loose a punch, catching Cloud squarely in the jaw, taking him by surprise. The upper hand now on Zack's side, he punched again, this time into Cloud's stomach. Cloud released a small "oomph!" as the air rushed out of him. As Cloud stood doubled over, Zack swiftly side stepped and let his sword come around in a sweeping, horizontal arc, catching Cloud in the back of the knees. He buckled over, falling to the ground, just managing to catch himself with his free hand.
Zack viewed his opponent coolly as he gasped for air on the ground. Quite suddenly, Cloud flipped over and cast a Thundaga spell his way. Zack narrowly avoided the wildly shot spell, the air crackling with electricity next to him.
"Nice," Zack laughed, his eyes alighting at the thrill of a challenge. "If you want to play that way, then."
Cloud got to his feet, his breath regained once again, and Zack sent a shot of fire at Cloud.
"Shit!" Cloud cursed and dropped back to the ground with a speed that surprised Zack.
"Good reflexes!" Zack called. They weren't quite good enough, though. The tips of Cloud's hair were smoldering, and the smell of burnt hair filled Zack's nostrils. Cloud grunted angrily in response and sent another Thundaga spell his way. Zack dodged again, but this time, Cloud was up and ready to meet him, sword flying toward his neck.
"Whoa!" Zack bent backwards, and the ends of his own hair were cut by the blade of Cloud's sword. "Hey now!" Zack said, frowning at his new haircut. Zack closed his fist around an icy blue materia, and hurled a blizzard spell at Cloud's feet, effectively trapping him. Cloud cursed vehemently, hacking at the ice with his sword, then fumbling for his belt. Zack saw the fiery glint of a Fira materia, and he hurried forward, strapping his sword onto his back, then letting his fists fly. Another hit to the jaw, a blow to the solar plexus, and finally a sound thump to the head. Cloud doubled over again, wheezing and holding the side of his head.
"Stop," Cloud spat out, coughing weakly.
"You're done?" Zack asked, not letting his guard down. He'd seen one too many fights where the opponent tried to make a last minute move and it'd ended up terribly.
"I'm done," Cloud said, hanging his head.
"Can you believe it?!" The announcer roared. "Our one-man killing machine has lost to the young man who refused to kill any of the opponents! What a match! Unbelievable!"
Zack snorted. What was so unbelievable about it? He turned away from Cloud, scratching the back of his head as the announcer rambled on about the great prizes he would be receiving, when suddenly, his entire body when rigid, then spasmed violently as Thundaga hit him. His tenuous grip on his self control slipped away, and he whirled on Cloud, lightning still crackling over his body, eyes narrowed angrily. With something akin to a snarl, Zack released his Hell Fiagra spell, followed up by a move sometimes referred to as a 'costly' punch. Cloud flew backward, the ice melted from Zack's Fiagra attack, and landed with a thud on the ground.
Zack advanced on Cloud, his blood boiling, even as some part of his brain tried to fight his animal instinct to finish Cloud off. But his legs kept moving forward of their own accord.
"Zack!" Aerith was running out in front of him, and he tensed as the monster inside him zeroed in on a new target.
"No," Zack growled through gritted teeth, and he shoved her backwards. She stumbled, but remained upright, a determined look on her face.
"Zack," Aerith repeated, stepping closer to him, her hands outstretched toward his face. He flinched back, but she hurried forward and clasped his face between her hands. "It's okay," she whispered soothingly. "It's just you and me."
He released a shaky breath, focusing on the softness of her hands, and the gentle light in her eyes.
"See?" she asked him. "You're fine. Everything's okay."
"Cloud," he breathed out, the severity of the situation taking hold in his mind now that he was coming to his senses again. "Is he okay?" Zack asked, tearing his gaze away from Aerith and darting over to Cloud's limp body. Tifa was kneeling on the ground next to him, cradling his head in her lap. Zack broke away from Aerith and hurried over to Tifa and Cloud. Tifa flinched and drew Cloud closer to her, protectively, and Zack held his hands up.
"I'm okay. I won't hurt him," Zack promised. Tifa had a wary look in her eyes, and it hurt Zack – but he understood. He had lost control again, and it was all his fault. It could have easily been prevented by not partaking in the battle. "Let me try and cure him," Zack urged, and Tifa relented after a moment's hesitation.
Zack knelt by Cloud and pulled out his Curaga materia, glowing green in his hand. It struck him how much the materia reminded him of Aerith's eyes. It was fitting, because she always seemed to cure him of his own disease.
With a release of magic, Cloud's body glowed bright green for a moment, then grew dark again. His wounds had closed up, and his breathing had become less shallow, though he was still knocked out cold.
"I'm so sorry," Zack said, to both Cloud and Tifa. "This was a bad idea."
"It's as much his fault as it is yours," Tifa dismissed. "He shouldn't have attacked you with your back turned."
"Still...I shouldn't have lost control like that." Tifa shrugged, but had clearly run out of things to say.
"Let's get him out of here," Aerith suggested as the Battle Square owner came puffing over to them, a bag in his hand.
"That was amazing!" the man said, grinning. "Really brought the crowd in. Say, where'd you learn to fight like that?!"
"Here and there," Zack said evasively.
"Ah, tight lipped, I see," the man winked conspiratorially. "Well, in any case, here are your prizes." Zack nodded curtly and took the bag from the man's grasp.
"Where are we going next?" Tifa asked as Zack handed the bag to Aerith so he and Tifa could prop Cloud up between them. "Nibelheim?"
"No, Cloud has to regain his strength first..." Zack said, biting his lip in hesitation. "We could go to Gongaga."
"Isn't that where you grew up?" Aerith said, eyes widening.
"Yeah. My parents live there."
"I'd like to meet them," she said, smiling. "It sounds like a good opportunity for you to see them again, too."
"Mmm. You're right, I guess."
"Is it safe, though? Won't Shinra know where you lived?" Tifa asked, getting to the heart of the matter. They were on the run, after all.
"Maybe. Gongaga might be under surveillance...but they probably checked there first. They may already be gone."
"And if they're not?"
"Then we don't stay. We go somewhere else. But we'll never know unless we go there."
"Then it's decided," Tifa said, and Zack nodded.
"The train doesn't lead down that way, though. We'll need another mode of transportation...we can't do chocobos because Cloud can't ride in this condition," Zack said, inclining his head toward the knocked out Cloud. "We need something where we don't have to worry about Cloud falling off or out of it."
"Like a motorcycle with a sidecar?" Aerith suggested.
"Exactly!" Zack said. "Where will we find one of those?"
"There," she said, pointing up ahead to a small rental shop.
"Sharp eye, there," he said, beaming at Aerith.
"Will we have enough gil?" Tifa asked, shifting Cloud a bit so she could walk more easily.
"Sure. We just won a bag-full of prizes. There's gil in there, right Aerith?" Zack asked. She peered into the bag and looked up, grinning.
"Excellent!" A bit awkwardly, Zack and Tifa shuffled along, Cloud propped up between them, his head lolling in his unconscious state. "Excuse me," Zack said loudly to the man sitting at the rental shop. He looked up, startled. "We need to rent two motorcycles – preferably one with that sidecar."
"You got the money?" the man asked, giving them a dirty look. Zack looked down at himself and the others. They were rather filthy, especially he and Cloud – it was no wonder the man was so distrusting. They looked like they had walked all the way from Midgar. With his free hand, Zack held out his arm for the bag and Aerith handed it to him obligingly.
"Here," Zack said, shoving the back toward him. "The money's in there. In fact, we'll just buy the bikes from you – it's unlikely we'll be bringing them back."
The man looked up from the bag, a greedy look in his eye. "You don't want just any bikes, sir," he said, and Zack hid his amused smile that the man was now treating him with respect. What a little gil wouldn't do. "We have top of the line Shinra bikes in the back, here..."
Zack grimaced. Shinra. But, he had to admit, Shinra made good stuff, and that included motorbikes.
"Alright," Zack said. "Like I said, as long as one of them has a sidecar. My, er, friend here is a little...sleepy."
"You don't want to see them?" the salesman asked, looking befuddled.
"No. Just take the money," Zack said, waving his hand. He didn't have time to stand around admiring bikes. Sooner or later, the man would start asking questions – like who they were, and why they looked the way they did. "I'll let you keep the change if you hurry it up," Zack added, and the man nodded eagerly, shutting his mouth and grabbing the gil greedily.
"Right this way, sir."
Thirty minutes later, they were the owners of brand new Shinra motorbikes. They were rather impressive looking, Zack had to admit. Tifa had insisted on driving her own.
"How many chances do you think I get to drive a fancy motorcycle down the highway?" she asked him with a smirk, then put her helmet on her head. Her newly cut hair was just barely visible, poking out of the helmet. Zack settled Cloud into the sidecar as comfortably as he could imagine, then popped a helmet on his head, too, for good measure. The helmets would provide another means of hiding their identities.
"Well, I guess you're riding on back with me," Zack smiled at Aerith, who looked decidedly nervous, and also a bit ridiculous with a large helmet on her head. He had to keep himself from laughing.
"I've never ridden a bike before."
"It's easy," he soothed her. "All you have to do is hang on, and just lean with me so I don't lose balance, alright?"
"Okay," she said dubiously.
"Come on, I'll show you," he said, straddling his bike and patting the extra space behind him. Nervously, Aerith sidled over, biting her lip. She seemed to be steeling herself, and then, with a determined breath, she copied his actions, getting on behind him.
"See? Easy. Now hold on." She complied, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist. "Yikes, easy with the death grip," he teased, and she relaxed her grip, laughing nervously.
"It's okay. You'll enjoy the ride once you get used to it," he promised.
"I trust you," she said. Zack just smiled and closed the visor on her helmet, then did the same for his own. He started the engine with a roar, and next to him, Tifa did the same, giving him a thumbs up. He could tell she was just as excited as he was.
He accelerated forward, tires squealing, unable to help himself, and he laughed loudly (though he could hardly hear over the roar of the engine) as Aerith squealed and tightened her hold on his waist again.
It was going to be a fun ride.
Zack had been right – once they had gotten going, she had relaxed and enjoyed the ride quite a bit. It was rather exciting, she thought, riding down the highway, with nothing around them for miles and miles. It was a lonely little highway, and Aerith wondered if it led straight to Gongaga. Aerith's question was answered when they made a turn onto a dirt road, veering away from the highway.
Every once in a while, Zack would look over his shoulder at her and ask if she was okay. She was fine, except now her bottom was getting a little sore from sitting for so long. She longed to stretch her legs, to take off her helmet and breathe some fresh air. It was getting much warmer as they drove further south, though, and she was glad for the constant flow of rushing air to keep her cool.
Their surroundings began to alter, going from dry desert to green and full of plants. The Planet was alive, here. The air was slightly more humid, and she had a feeling her hair would curl up due to the change in moisture – not that it mattered much in their current situation, since she had a helmet on. The fun had worn off, and she was beginning to feel quite bored and stiff, and the sun was beginning to drop. They'd been driving for hours...
Just when Aerith thought she couldn't take it anymore, Zack slowed to a stop, cutting the engine.
"Gongaga," he said, taking his helmet off. His hair was flattened to his head, and it was quite an amusing site. Aerith began to laugh.
"Your hair," she said, and he frowned at her, then ruffled it up.
"Helmet hair. This is why I hate helmets." He ran his fingers through his hair again, causing a few pieces of his hair to stick up in odd places. Aerith laughed again. "Shush you," he said, good naturedly. "I bet your hair doesn't look any better."
Aerith shut her mouth, her laughter ceasing.
"Just as I thought," Zack drawled.
"This place is even smaller than Nibelheim," Tifa interrupted them, pulling her own helmet off and shaking out her hair. It looks deserted."
"Well, the thing is, a lot of people died here when Shinra's mako reactor blew up. I don't think many people wanted to move down here after that – it's not a very attractive feature. But my parents still live here, and they weren't turned into mutants, to my knowledge."
"People turned into mutants?" Aerith asked, looking hesitantly around her. What if there was some sort of radiation still floating about in the air?
"I'm kidding," Zack said, gripping her shoulder lightly.
"Oh. Right. Of course," she said, feeling relieved. "You shouldn't joke about things like that," she added, pulling her helmet off. She felt relief as fresh air swept over her hair, and she was almost it was so short now. The breeze played at the back of her neck, and she thought it was quite nice.
"Sorry," he said contritely. "Well, are we going to stand around and admire the view or are we going to meet my parents?" He slid off the bike and jogged over to Tifa and Cloud, leaning over to pick the unconscious man up. Aerith tried to mimic Zack's smooth dismount, but groaned as her stiff muscles moved. She knew she'd be much more sore the next day, and wondered how Zack didn't seem affected at all. She exhaled slowly and stretched her muscles out, relishing the chance to move. She brought her arms up over her head and stood on her tippy toes for a long moment, then relaxed all her muscles. She always felt like melting into a puddle after a long stretch, and she wished she could lie down somewhere and take a nap.
She met Zack's gaze as he watched her intently, and she felt a blush creep up onto her cheeks.
"What?" she asked him, and he smirked.
"Just looking." Next to him, Tifa stifled a laugh, and coughed loudly, though Aerith was sure she heard Tifa say "Perv!"
"What is she talking about?" Aerith asked, smiling uncertainly.
"Tifa's just joking around," Zack said, trying to shoot Tifa a stern look, but failing.
"Oh, no, I'm quite serious. I can hardly believe Aerith's still got her clothes on, the way you were undressing her with your eyes, Zack. What will your parents think?"
"Shuddap," he said, and even though it was quickly getting darker, Aerith saw a hint of pink on his cheeks. "I was not undressing her with my eyes," he said heavily. "And you're one to talk. I've seen how you look at Cloud – you know, when he's not unconscious," he added in a muttered breath." Tifa punched him on the arm firmly, and he feigned hurt.
"Ouch. You're so violent."
"Speaking of violent...I didn't see any Shinra on the way here."
"Good for us, then," Zack said happily. "Come on you two – oh, and you too, Cloud," he added, without response. "Follow me, their house is just up this way."
Aerith followed Zack and Tifa closely, with Cloud in between them again, his boots dragging along the dirt road. She gazed up at the sky, awash with a multitude of colors, stars already beginning to appear, and just a hint of the crescent moon peeking out behind a cloud. Thousands of nameless insects chirped and hummed as dusk fell on them, and Aerith sighed happily, the Planet positively thrumming under her feet.
"It's beautiful here, Zack," she said. "Why'd you ever want to leave?"
"I got bored," he laughed. She smiled up at him, admiring the way the setting sun lit his features and made his violet eyes glow even more brightly. She felt her heart stutter, then pick up the pace as he held her gaze. A feeling of shyness swept over her and she tore her eyes away, taking in the village scenery again. Tall, leafy trees lined the pathways, accompanied by grass that was easily knee high, if not taller in other places. It was thrilling to see so much plant-life growing. Gongaga was a far step away from Midgar. She loved it.
"Right, here we are," Zack announced, stopping in front of a small hut. "I hope they're awake...Got Cloud, Tifa?" Tifa nodded, wrapping one arm around his waist to keep him propped up, and Zack relinquished his hold on Cloud to go and knock on his parents' door.
"Who's knocking at this time of night?" Aerith heard a distinctly male voice grumble. A shiver of nervousness shot down her spine. Would his parents like her? She was also curious about how much they knew about their son's...condition. She doubted he had ever told them about the experiments he had been put through.
"Just your favorite kid," Zack replied cheekily as the door opened. His father had a surprised look, but he recovered quickly, laughing heartily.
"You're only our favorite because you're the only one we had to choose from."
"Har har," Zack said dryly, but then he enveloped his dad in a fierce hug. "Where's mom?"
"You mean me?" His mother appeared behind his father, her hair as dark as Zack's, Aerith noticed, and with the same kind smile. She was shorter than him by a good head, and she almost disappeared from sight as Zack hugged her too.
"Who have you brought with you, son?" His father asked, noticing Aerith, Tifa, and Cloud waiting behind him.
"These are my friends, Tifa and Cloud..." Zack said, gesturing to them. "And this is Aerith, my..." he paused, his eyes meeting hers, and she saw the uncertainty there. He wasn't sure what they were.
"Hi," she said, holding her hand out to Zack's mother. "I'm Zack's girlfriend."
His mother looked positively delighted. "Oh thank goodness, he's finally settling down. I knew he would someday, but a mother worries – he was always going on about saving the world and becoming a hero. And look at you, so pretty," she rambled, and Aerith blushed at the praise. Zack's father was pounding him on the back, beaming.
"But what's wrong with your friend here?" his mother asked, shooting a worried look at Cloud.
"Ah, that..." Zack mumbled, and for a moment, he looked for all the world like a little boy who had been caught doing something wrong. "We uh – got in a little fight at the Golden Saucer...well, and we came here so he could rest up..."
"Zack Fair!" his mother scolded, actually wagging her finger at him. He backed away, holding his hands up in defeat. "What have I told you about getting into fights?"
"Mom," he whined, and Aerith giggled. Here was a man she'd seen fight unspeakable creatures and win, a man who'd killed without control, and he was backing away from his mother like a frightened puppy.
"Oh, Miss Fair," Tifa said, also in the midst of laughter. "It's not really all Zack's fault. Cloud here is just as thickheaded. He was the one who started the fight in the first place."
"That's no excuse," his mother retorted. "I taught him better."
"Sorry, Mom," Zack said, hanging his head, though his lip was twitching, like he was trying to keep from laughing.
"Well, come in, come in, you all look dead on your feet. Goodness, it's a little late, but we do have some leftovers in the fridge."
"Excellent," Zack said, clapping his hands together, his contriteness forgotten. "Mom's food is the best," he added, grinning eagerly. His mother had disappeared inside, but his father was still standing at the door.
"We haven't heard from you in a long time, Zack," he said, sounding less joyful than before. "You shouldn't make your mother worry so much – or me, for that matter. To be honest, we thought you might be dead...you know news takes so long to get here."
Zack's smile slipped, and he rubbed the back of his head, sighing. "I'm sorry, Dad. You know how it is though...I couldn't always write. And well, I've been a bit busy lately," he added, throwing another look at Aerith.
"You're being safe, aren't you son?" his father asked, and Zack looked momentarily puzzled. Then he turned red, shaking his head furiously and waving his hands.
"Not that kind of busy, Dad!" Zack hissed. Aerith had no idea what he was talking about.
"Haha," his dad laughed, his shoulders shaking. "The look on your face. Too easy," he wheezed, wiping a tear from his eye. "Don't always play it safe, though. I'm sure your mother would like to be a grandmother someday."
Aerith realized what his father had been referring to and buried her face in her hands, blushing furiously. That's what he meant.
"I think it's time to eat," Zack said, hastily changing the subject. Tifa was in stitches and was having difficulty holding Cloud up on her own.
"Z-Zack. Haha...come help me before he falls over!"
Zack looked grateful for the distraction and helped Tifa carry Cloud inside. Aerith made to follow them, but Zack's father stopped her.
"I'm sorry if I embarrassed you, there. I was just teasing my son, honestly," he said, and he gave her a grin rather reminiscent of Zack. "I don't often get the chance. But you are a very pretty girl, and you seem to make him happy. It's nice to meet you."
"Thank you – it's very nice to meet you both, too."
"Polite, too," he laughed. "Are you sure you should be dating the likes of my son? He might corrupt you."
"Zack's very gentlemanly," Aerith said, sticking up for him. "He'd never try to corrupt me."
"It was a joke," he said, chuckling. "Come inside now, and we'll get you all fed and cleaned up."
Zack smiled as his mother fussed over him and his friends. He had missed his parents, so he didn't mind that she was telling him what to do.
"Eat up, you need a good meal in you, it looks like," his mother was saying. "And after, you should all get cleaned up. Goodness me, I've never seen anybody so dirty. Then we'll get Cloud up into a bed so he can get some real rest. I doubt sitting hunched over in a side car for hours at a time did his back any good..."
"He can take my bed," Zack interrupted his mother. "And Tifa and Aerith can sleep in the guest room."
"And just where will you sleep, young man?" she asked him.
"I can kip outside. I'll be fine," he added at his mother's concerned look. "I've done it plenty before. I'm used to it, trust me. It's the best solution."
"...Fine," she relented, shaking her head. "But let me know if you need any extra blankets."
"Will do, Mom."
After they had finished eating, Zack helped Tifa carry Cloud up the stairs and into his old bed. He looked around his old room fondly – it was tidy, probably because his mother hated to let things get too dirty.
"We'll just have to clean him up the best we can for now," Zack said as he laid Cloud down gently on the bed. "There's no way for us to bathe him like this."
"I'll wash him up," Tifa volunteered, brushing her hair away from her face.
"Maybe you should wash up first," he said. She looked hesitant, but he insisted. "I'll watch over him. Make sure he doesn't go anywhere. Go on."
Tifa expressed her thanks and left the small room.
"Well, Cloud, it's just you and me," he said, tapping his finger on his chin. "Look, I'm sorry about what happened. I shouldn't have done that, even if you did attack me behind my back. I'll even let you keep the materia we won, yeah?"
Cloud didn't answer of course. Zack sighed and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes, letting his sense of hearing broaden. He could hear the sound of Cloud's slow, steady breathing; further away, the sound of rushing water as Tifa showered. Downstairs, he could hear his mother and Aerith washing dishes together – Aerith had insisted on helping to clean up. Over in the next room, he listened as his father made up the guest room for Tifa and Aerith. Then, the sound of water shutting off – Tifa was done. He'd have to let Aerith know she could go up next.
He opened his eyes as light footsteps made their way toward the room. Tifa came in, her hair still damp, her face pink and clean.
"Hey, those are my clothes," he said, momentarily surprised. She was wearing some old things of his, clothes he had long ago outgrown – the pants were still too baggy on her, though, as was the plain t-shirt.
"Your mom gave them to me – she said she was going to wash my things tomorrow. Besides, I couldn't walk around naked, could I?" she rose a brow in his direction, and he shook his head.
"Hey, I don't have a problem with it. I was just surprised, is all. I haven't seen those clothes in a long time. I'm surprised my mom kept them. I'll go get a washcloth for you, so you can clean Cloud up, alright?" he said, pushing away from the wall. He had to go get Aerith anyway.
"Thanks," she said, pulling a chair up next to the bed.
"Be right back."
While Zack was upstairs, Aerith was helping Zack's mom with dishes. They started out in silence, but then his mom began to ask Aerith some questions – where she came from, how they met. Aerith avoided the more violent details of their time together, but soon, she and his mom were talking cheerfully. His mom was very likeable, just like he was.
"He was so sweet," Aerith gushed. "He bought me this ribbon – well, I think he has it right now, I gave it to him for luck earlier...but anyway, he bought it for me not long after we met, saying it was his job to make me happy," she laughed.
"He was always such a thoughtful boy," his mother said, laughing with her. "When he was little, he used to go out and bring me back whatever he thought was interesting. One time he brought back a poisonous plant – the poor thing was terribly itchy for the next couple of days. And he was so funny, always carrying a stick around, fighting 'monsters'."
Aerith giggled at the image. "That's adorable," she said.
"Of course, then he really did leave to fight monsters – just at thirteen, too, claiming he was going to Midgar to join Shinra and become a SOLDIER. It broke my heart to have him leave so young, but he was restless here. He has so much energy – he still does. It was hard for him to be stuck here in such a small village."
"He's very brave," Aerith said. "He's turned fighting into a kind of art, I think. I've never really seen anybody move so gracefully."
"Yes, I suppose he is a natural," his mother smiled. "I'm glad that he's able to take care of himself."
"Are you two talking about me?" Zack interrupted, looking amused.
"Oh, no, I was talking about my other boyfriend," Aerith said, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
"Oh yeah?" Zack said, drawing closer to her. "What's he like?"
"Tall, dark and handsome. You know the type, I'm sure," she said, the corner of her mouth twitching upward.
"Sounds like me," he said, leaning against the counter top.
"Oh? I forgot to mention he was also incredibly smart and charming."
"...That still sounds like me," Zack said, chuckling.
"You caught me," Aerith said happily, letting herself laugh with him.
"Did you come down here to flirt in front of your mother, Zack, or did you need something?" his mom asked, sounded quite amused.
"I just came to tell Aerith the shower was free, and to a washcloth for Tifa so she can clean Cloud up."
"Here," his mother said, pushing a washcloth and bucket of warm water into his hands. "Run along now," she said, and, with a wink at Aerith, Zack went back upstairs.
"Go ahead, Aerith dear, I'll finish the dishes up, and you can go get cleaned up."
"Are you sure?" Aerith asked uncertainly.
"Positive," she said. "Go on!"
Aerith wiped her wet hands on a towel, thanking his mother again, then making her way up the stairs. She nearly ran into Zack's dad on the way up, who cheerfully informed her that the guest room was ready for her.
"Oh, and we left some of Zack's old clothes out for you, too. We'll get your dirty clothes all washed tomorrow, so just put them in the hamper."
"Thanks again," Aerith said, sliding past him and up to the bathroom. The bathroom was still a bit warm from Tifa's shower, but not hot enough to suggest Tifa had used up all the warm water. Aerith was glad to remove her dirty clothes and slip into the shower, letting the warmth relieve her stiff muscles and wash the grime away. Her shower was surprisingly short, or at least it felt that way to her – she was so used to having a lot of hair to wash. She supposed that was the nice thing about short hair – it took much less time to wash.
She exited the shower, making sure to leave some hot water for Zack, too, drying off slowly. She observed herself in the mirror critically, not for the first time, missing the length of her hair. It seemed to be a blessing and a curse at the same time. She sighed, turning away from her image. Her hair would grow back soon enough. It was more important to stay undercover, anyway.
Aerith darted from the bathroom into the guest room, eyes landing on the pile of clothing on one of the beds. She pulled Zack's old clothes on, which were rather too large on her, but rather comfortable, so she didn't mind. She was feeling exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to lie down and fall into a deep sleep, but she wanted to say goodnight to Zack first, so she crossed the doorway to the other room, where Tifa was slowly, gently washing Cloud's face
"You really care about him, don't you?" Aerith asked, noting the tender expression on Tifa's face.
"I didn't hear you," Tifa said, looking startled. She had dropped the washcloth and bent over to get it.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I was just looking for Zack."
"It's okay," she said, the washcloth firmly in her hand again. "He's downstairs, I think."
"Thanks...and...well, I hope Cloud comes around."
"Me too...sometimes I think he's himself again. But then...it's like he just disappears."
Aerith frowned. Just another mystery for them to figure out.
"I hope we get all the answers we're looking for." Tifa nodded fervently, then returned her attention to Cloud, continuing her ministrations.
Aerith padded down the stairs quietly, but the kitchen was empty. Zack's parents must have gone to bed while she was in the shower, which meant Zack was probably outside. She eased the door open and slipped through, closing the door lightly behind her. She peered into the darkness, wondering where he could have gone.
"What are you doing out here?" Zack asked, stepping out from a shadow, nearly giving her a heart attack.
"Zack!" she gasped, clutching her chest. "You scared me!"
"Sorry," he said ruefully. "So, what are you doing?" he said again.
"I just came to say goodnight..." Up above, a cloud shifted, allowing more pale yellow moonlight to spill onto the ground, lighting up Zack's features slightly. His eyes glowed more than ever in the semi-darkness, and she saw he was smiling at her.
"You're wearing my clothes too. You look good in them."
"They're very comfortable," she commented, fingers plucking at the oversized shirt.
"They look very...sexy," he said slowly, and she felt herself heat up. He had that hungry look in his eyes, the one that made her knees turn to jello.
"Oh," she said, for a lack of anything better to say. Probably because she couldn't form any coherent thoughts all of a sudden. "Really?"
"Really," he said, stepping closer to her. She shivered at his proximity.
"Cold?" he asked, placing his hands on her arms, rubbing them slowly.
"No. I'm warm, actually," she breathed.
"Hmm," he hummed deeply, one hand sliding up her arm, gliding past her collarbone and along her neck, his thumb briefly swiping along her jawline. She felt her breath hitch as her heart sped up. Her body was falling into automatic, her eyes already fluttering shut as he leaned in to kiss her, hands lifting up to wrap around his neck. His mouth had a slightly minty taste, and she wondered when he'd had time to brush his teeth.
Thoughts of his personal hygiene fled when he nibbled lightly on her lower lip and his other hand traveled down to her waist, gripping it lightly, but firmly. The pressure of his fingertips on her skin sent tingles dancing along her nerves, and she sighed into the kiss. He pulled her closer so that there was almost no space between them, as though trying to meld himself with her.
Eventually, he pulled away for air, breathing slightly heavier than before, his lips swollen and his eyes dark.
"The shower's open," she said stupidly, her brain running slower than usual. He laughed at her, kissing her lightly again.
"I had assumed as much, what with you standing here, kissing me..." he punctuated this with another kiss
"You're kissing me," she mumbled against his lips.
"Mm hmm," he agreed, his chest rumbling pleasantly against her.
"Aren't you going to clean up?" she asked him distractedly as he began to trail kisses down her neck.
"Eventually..." he murmured against her skin. She was feeling distinctly lightheaded, but in a pleasant sort of way. Then, a dog barked somewhere, and they heard a door open and close as a man let his dog out of the house. Zack laughed lightly, his breath tickling her ear, and he pulled away.
"Sorry," he said, caressing her cheek with his thumb. "I got a little carried away there."
"Don't be," she said, smiling up at him. "I didn't mind."
"We'll have to keep you out of my clothes if I ever want to focus, though," he chuckled, eyes roaming over her. "Otherwise I'll be distracted all the time."
"Duly noted," she teased, kissing him lightly on the nose. "Go get cleaned up. I'm going to bed."
"Is that an invitation?" he asked cheekily, and she him on the arm.
"Of course not, your parents already think you're getting into all sorts of trouble with me," she said lowly, blushing even as she said it. He laughed, pulling her against him in a warm hug.
"I'm glad you got to meet them. I'm glad they got to meet you, too. My mom loves you. I can tell."
"I was afraid they wouldn't like me, actually," she confessed, laughing through her nose. "They're wonderful, though. It was really good that Shinra wasn't here."
"It was," he agreed, releasing her. "But you should go to bed. I've got something planned for tomorrow."
"What?" she asked curiously.
"It's a secret," he smirked. "You'll find out when you wake up tomorrow."
"I want to know now," she said, more intrigued than ever.
"The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you'll find out," he said slowly, clearly amused.
"And I couldn't...convince you to tell me now?" she asked suggestively, letting her fingers trail along his chest.
"No," he laughed. "Though I wouldn't stop you from trying."
"Oh fine," she huffed, though she wasn't really irritated with him. "I guess I'll just go to sleep." Honestly, she was tired. She was on the point of falling asleep right there in his arms. Which might not have been so bad, on second thought.
"Okay, love, off to bed with you," he whispered, placing one last kiss on her lips. "Goodnight."
A/N: So it just happens to work out that I updated both of my FFVII stories at the same time that they meet Zack's parents. I hadn't planned on it originally for this story, but after writing the sadder version for Ancient History, I wanted one to play out what a happy meeting would have been like. I hope you all like the interaction with the characters on this one.
Next chapter we'll get back into Tifa and Cloud's heads – they weren't in this chapter so much, but I didn't want to prolong this any longer than I had to. For now, I hope you're all happy with staying with Zack and Aerith.
I don't know when I'll update next, so I won't promise anything. But please, review your hearts out. I do so enjoy feedback. Love ya all. (;