HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MY FAVORITE CHOCOBO! *fangasms*
Not really sure if this is ready for human eyes yet, but I wanted to post something on Cloudy's birthday, so here it is! This was supposed to be a oneshot. Heck, it was supposed to just be a writer's block breaker! But it got sooooo long! So long, that it turned into my first two shot! *throws confetti* Here's hoping I get Part 2 finished sooner than later.

(I promise there is NO Aerith romance in this fic. At all! She IS a major character though. In fact, you could say she's the main character, but the story isn't about her. If that makes sense. . .)

Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy VII. If I did, Tifa would have worn her sexy outfit from the first game in AC, rather than that stupid butt apron. Just saying.


When Aerith Gainsborough was in first grade, her teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She cried when she was told she couldn't be an all-powerful white mage with incredibly healing capabilities like Priscilla, her favorite character on the Chocobo Chicks cartoon.

Now, Aerith knew that teachers were big and scary, and meant to be respected and obeyed, but that didn't mean she fully trusted them. With that in mind, she decided to consult the two people she trusted most in the world. They were the nicest people she'd ever met, they never lied (not even a little fib!), and they knew everything there was to know in the whole wide world. Their names were Mommy and Daddy.

That day, Daddy was the one waiting at the bus stop for her after school, so he had the honor of being asked first. Could she be an all-powerful white mage when she grew up, just like Priscilla? Please?

Daddy smiled and said that he wasn't too sure about an all-powerful white mage, but he was sure she could be a white mage, if she worked hard. Her teacher's words still left her feeling a little doubtful, however, so she ventured to ask Daddy how he knew that. How was he sure? Daddy smiled and side glanced at her in that way that meant he was going to reveal to her a secret. A top-secret secret!

Daddy told her that he knew she could be a white mage, because Mommy was a white mage. Aerith was confused, until Daddy explained that in Priscilla's world, doctors were called white mages, and in their world, white mages were called doctors! It was like soda and pop, two different words that meant exactly the same thing!

After that day, Priscilla stopped being Aerith's hero (she was still her favorite character though, of course). Instead, Aerith started looking up to Mommy. After all, Mommy was a real white mage! Priscilla was just a cartoon! At that point in her life, Aerith didn't realize the significance of being a real white mage, versus being a cartoon one. Cartoon white mages were magic, and could heal any wound, no matter what. In Chocobo Chicks the video game, they could even bring back other players from the dead! Real white mages, on the other hand, had to heal people with their own hard work, determination, knowledge, and skill. They needed other mages to assist them, and strange tools and instruments. No bejeweled staffs, no wands, no magic feathers. And real mages, sometimes didn't succeed in their healing. Sometimes, people died anyway, and there was no way to revive them.

As she grew older, Aerith came to recognize these differences. She could accept all that though. Doctors and white mages were different, sure, but they basically boiled down to the same thing, and that was helping people. Aerith liked that.

Whenever Aerith played the Chocobo Chicks video game, she was always careful to keep Priscilla safe. That wasn't because Priscilla was her favorite character, but because if she died, there would be no one to revive her. White mages couldn't revive themselves, after all. Unfortunately, doctors were the same way. Aerith realized that when she was eleven years old, and Mom (Mommy and Daddy changed their names to Mom and Dad during third grade) got into a bad car accident. Mom died, because no white mages could get to her in time. After that, Aerith decided she didn't want to be a white mage when she grew up. She wanted to be a doctor. A real live doctor, just like Mom, so she could help people with her own two hands.


"Miss Gainsborough?"

Aerith glanced behind her, a smile gracing her soft features. "Tseng. I'm surprised you're still here."

Tseng approached her and they continued down the hall, side by side. "I could say the same about you. And please Miss Gainsborough, it's Dr. Zhíshengji. You know how they get about names and professionalism."

She giggled. "You've been Tseng since I was a little girl. Protocol isn't going to change that."

Tseng sighed. "You practically still are a little girl. You shouldn't be staying here later than you're supposed to, your father will worry."

"I'm a very tall little girl, if that's the case. And I'm not staying too long."

"May I ask why you're staying at all? This isn't even your normal floor."

"I'm visiting a friend."

Tseng stopped. "I see. Well, don't stay too long. I've got to get back to work. Be safe, Miss Gainsborough."

Aerith waved as Tseng walked away, then turned around and continued on her way. A small smile graced her lips. "A friend. . . or two. . . or four." She giggled to herself, then turned to room 24-C and went inside.

It was six years since her mother died and in all that time, her determination to follow in her footsteps had only grown stronger. Sixteen was the minimum age for volunteers at Midgar Hospital, and Aerith had applied the day after her birthday. That was roughly a year ago, and she was now a well known, and well beloved, face at the facility. In her time there she had made many friends, mostly with staff members, as patients tended to come and go. There were plenty of patients that stuck around though, and she'd become fond of several of them. Doing work on the fourth floor, where the long term patients stayed, was always a treat, but when she was needed elsewhere all day (as she usually was), she always made sure she stopped by at the end of the day to visit her favorites.

First on the list was Cid Highwind. Cid was a lung cancer patient that checked in and out of the hospital as often as normal people changed their clothes (okay, so maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but point was, he was in there a lot). Frankly, Cid should have been a long term patient, but the man was as stubborn as a mule. For as long as Aerith had been at Midgar Hospital, he'd been in a nasty cycle of heavy smoking, being forced to go to the hospital by a woman named Shera (Aerith knew they lived together, but wasn't sure of the relation), getting cranky and complaining until they let him leave said hospital, then returning to heavy smoking and repeating. Aerith was starting to wonder if Cid himself even realized he was trapped in a loop.

"Hello Cid, how are you feeling today?" she asked as she stepped into the room, quietly shutting the door behind her.

"Like hell! Damn, what took you so long, girl? I thought you'd never get here. I've had no one to talk to but morons, nitwits, and imbeciles all day long!" Cid chewed angrily at his hospital issued cigarette replacement (i.e.: toothpick). "Feels like my brain is turning to mush, being cooped up in this place."

Aerith sat down next to his bed and patiently listened to him complain. When he was done, he (as usual) inquired about her well being and social life. He made it very clear that when she got herself a boyfriend, he wanted her to bring him to the hospital so he could inspect and evaluate his worth for himself. Aerith thought that was very sweet and touching (Cid got mad if she told him that though), and held a special place in her heart for the foulmouthed man.

After visiting with Cid, she went down the hall to room 35-C to visit Barret Wallace. Barret was a frighteningly large man who, despite his sometimes rough demeanor, was wonderfully kind and had a heart of gold. Barret had only been in the hospital for about a month, but Aerith had quickly taken a liking to him. He had been in an accident at work that left him with a leg injury that, while minor, left him momentarily bedridden, and with a severely injured right arm. His hand had to be completely amputated and replaced with a prosthetic.

"Hi Barret! How are you feeling today?"

Barret grunted. "I'm aight. Been better. . ."

Aerith sat down. "You got new flowers. Did Marlene bring them?"

Marlene was Barret's adoptive daughter, and his sole reason for living. If Barret was Earth, then Marlene was the Sun. A friend of Barret's offered to take Marlene in until he was out of the hospital, and she brought her to visit him every day.

Barret smiled. "Yeah, she's gotta good eye for 'em, aight she? Artist, that's what she is."

They chatted about Marlene a while longer (Apparently she was picking up bad tastes in clothes from her new caretaker. Barret was very displeased when she came in dressed in cowboy boots with a matching hat), and then Aerith left to visit her third patient in 38-C.

"Hi Zack, how are-Zack what are you doing!"

"Shit!" The young man had been leaning out the window and, at the sound of her voice, had recoiled back in surprise and hit his head on the window pane.

"Are you okay?" she asked, closing the door then approaching him, "What were you doing? You're supposed to be resting."

Zack grumbled, rubbing his head briefly before leaning back out the window. "Dammit, I missed," he mumbled, pulling back and closing the window shut, "I'm fine, you just surprised me. And I was just having a little fun. If I 'rested' as much as they told me to, I'd wither away. Besides, I feel great. Ran some laps around the old people today."

She hit him gently on the arm, but couldn't keep herself from laughing. "Zack, you shouldn't do that. You know how cranky they get."

Zack shrugged. "I have to have something to do. I'm dying in here! Naked pull-ups on the shower rod get dull after a while."

Aerith rolled her eyes. "You're going to break that thing one day. And you avoided my question. What were you doing at the window?"

Of all her patients, Zack Fair was her favorite to be around. He had been admitted several years before she started volunteering, but whatever illness he had was very slow moving. According to him, he was originally from a place called Gongaga, but his family moved to Midgar when he was twelve. Not long after the move, he was hit with a nausea spell that wouldn't go away. When he started coughing up blood, his parents brought him to the hospital and he'd been there ever since. The older he got, the more violent his attacks got, but they were totally unpredictable. He could be healthy for two straight months, then suddenly be bedridden for a month. Sometimes he was only sick for a day or two though. No one could figure out what was wrong with him, but several other patients (generally his age or younger) had the same problem.

Zack grinned. "Know those casserole things they give us? Tastes like dead people?"

"Can't say I'm familiar with that flavor, but I think I know what you're talking about," she answered reluctantly. She already knew where this was going. . .

"Well, I figured I'd share the joy of those casseroles with the outside world! I was just about to deliver one to a charming gentleman outside when you interrupted. Thanks to you, that poor man will never know the delightful taste of hospital grade casserole."

She hit his arm again. "Zack! You can't drop food out of a fourth story window, that's a waste!" She pursed her lips. "And it's rude to the people you're trying to hit."

The main problem with Zack was, because he was generally more healthy than he was sick, he tended to have a lot of energy. He hated being cooped up at the hospital, and he was always getting into all sorts of mischief.

"Yeah, yeah, I know." He sat down on his bed, crossing his legs and gesturing her to do the same. "So what's up?"

She stayed for a bit and chatted with him, letting him know about any changes to the outside world, and listening to his plans to terrorize the nurses. Apparently, Zack had once been very popular. Friends would travel all the way from Gongaga to visit him, and the few friends he'd made in Midgar visited frequently. As the years passed, however, his visitors became scarcer and scarcer. Anymore, his parents were the only ones that ever visited. His best friend Kunsel from Gongaga used to visit him every other month for a long time, so Aerith heard, but he enlisted with Shinra Military one year ago, when he turned 18, and since then, he'd only been in to visit once. Zack was always smiling, but she was pretty sure he was lonely. Most patients were.

After Zack, Aerith had one more patient to visit. Cloud Strife was a boy her own age who'd been at the hospital since he was nine. He wasn't the most talkative of people, but from what she could gather, he grew up in a small town at the foot of Mount Nibel. He never actually admitted it, but Aerith was pretty sure he was picked on as a child. When he was nine, some boys pushed him into one of the rivers on the mountain and he almost drowned. After that incident, he started getting ill, displaying symptoms very similar to Zack's. The town doctor did his best, but after a year his mother grew desperate and moved to Midgar, hoping the more advanced care would help.

He wasn't in Midgar long when he took a turn for the worse. He was hospital bound in a matter of months. To make matters even worse, there was an electrical fire in his mother's apartment when he was thirteen. She died, leaving him not only friendless, but without any living family. According to some of the older nurses and doctors, Cloud used to smile a lot before his mother died. In the year that she'd known him, Aerith had only seen him smile once.

Cloud was in room 12-D, which was down a different wing than the other three. Most long term patients would prefer to be in wing C, because of the street view. Aerith was pretty sure Cloud preferred the quieter wing D though, with its peaceful overview of the hospital courtyard. Sometimes, if she found herself with some spare time and he was feeling well, Aerith would take Cloud down to the courtyard and teach him how to tend to the flowers properly. At first he was too rough with them, and sometimes (accidentally, of course) he ended up killing a few. Deep down, Cloud was a very gentle person though, and he picked up on how to properly nurture them quickly.

"Cloud?" He was on the floor doing sit-ups. She rolled her eyes. Men.

He stopped what he was doing and locked eyes with her, then immediately looked away. It was a habit he had with everyone. "Hi Aerith," he said, standing up.

"Hi. How are you today?" she asked, walking toward him and taking his hand.

He shrugged. "Fine."

She smiled. "I came just in time to see the sunset. Were you planning on watching?" she asked, tugging at his hand gently to pull him toward the bed. She sat down facing the window and he obediently sat next to her.

"Not really," he mumbled.

She squeezed his hand gently. "Well, now you are."

Talking to Cloud was a bit like talking to yourself. However, just because he didn't speak much, didn't mean he wasn't listening. Aerith was certain that Cloud paid the highest attention to everything she said, and everything anyone else said, for that matter. He would never admit it, but he was particularly lonely. It was why Aerith made an extra effort to talk to him, to hold his hand, and to give him hugs. She wanted to make sure he remembered what affection was and, more than that, she wanted to assure him that he was cared for. It was painfully obvious how little Cloud thought of himself.

When the sun finished setting, Aerith left Cloud to go home. It was the middle of June, and her summer vacation had just started. Growing up, spring had always been her favorite month, but once she started volunteering, summer quickly rose to the top. Summer meant she could stay longer at the hospital. Summer meant helping more people, getting more experience, being there every day. For hours. Summer, well, summer represented her future.

Each day Aerith spent with Midgar Hospital was always different. Of course, there was a certain amount of "humdrum," but generally it was always something new. New patients with new problems that required new treatments. Working at a hospital was never dull. Especially when Zack Fair was in said hospital.

When Aerith came in the next day, the other nurses immediately accosted her.

"Gainsborough, thank goodness. Maybe you can calm him down."

"Huh" was barely out of her mouth before she found herself being escorted into the elevator.

"Lucretia? What's going on?" she asked, slightly bewildered, "Calm down who?"

"It's Miss Crescent, Miss Gainsborough. And it's Mr. Fair. He's been moved to a new room, in wing D, and he's positively beside himself. He's driving us crazy," she said, rubbing her temples.

"Wing D? Why's he there? Zack likes having a view of the street."

"He'll be lucky if he ever gets a window view again," she huffed, "That boy belongs in a straight jacket, destructive as he is. Can you believe he was hanging from his shower head by his feet, naked, and was trying to do some sort of upside down curls? Who does that!"

Aerith cleared her throat. "Well, Zack certainly does enjoy working out. . ."

"We have a gym downstairs!"

". . . and he really likes doing things as creatively as possible," she finished. Lucretia frowned.

"Well, thanks to his 'creativity' and his wild flailing around, the shower head AND the faucet have both been ripped off, there's several holes in the shower walls, and room 38-C is half flooded. He tried to stop the water by shoving a breakfast roll in one of the pipes! A breakfast roll! We've been cleaning up his mess all morning!"

The elevator dinged as they reached the forth floor and Lucretia led her out, making a beeline toward wing D.

"A room in wing D opened up just yesterday, so we stuck him in there and he's been making a fuss about it ever since."

Aerith was slightly surprised when Lucretia came to a halt in front of Cloud's room.

"Everyone knows you're friends with him, Miss Gainsborough. Please try to calm him down. Before he breaks something else."

Lucretia stepped toward room 11-D and produced a keycard. "Make sure you keep the door locked. He's in confinement until he learns his lesson." She unlocked the door, patted Aerith on the shoulder, then left her alone to deal with him.

She barely had the door open when she found herself with an armful of Zack.

"Aerith! Thank Goddess, someone with some sense! You HAVE to get me out of here! I'm going crazy!"

Aerith laughed gently and pushed him back, mindful that he might be planning an escape. As soon as they were both safely through the door, she firmly closed it.

"Zack." She was using her "you're in trouble" tone of voice. He immediately started sulking. "What on earth were you thinking? A shower head can't possibly support your weight."

"Aeeeriiiith! I was boooored! I didn't mean to break it!" He sat down on his bed and pouted up at her. "I was just trying to have some fun. Make things interesting."

She sighed. "There's a gym downstairs Zack."

"I've been using that equipment for years! Is it so wrong that I wanted to change things up? They didn't have to stick me in solitary confinement!"

Giving him a gentle smile, Aerith sat down and placed a hand on his knee. "Zack, you're not in solitary confinement."

"There's no window!" he interrupted, "And the door's locked!"

"Zack, you're just in time out for a little while. Besides, your room is flooded. Where did you expect them to put you?"

Zack dropped his gaze to his feet. "I asked them if I could room with Angeal. Or Genesis. Or Seph. Or Barret. I even asked if I could room with Cid! You think that would be punishment enough but noooo, they stick me in here all by myself! With no window! I'm dying! Aerith, you gotta help me. . ." he whined, fixing her with his best kicked puppy look.

She knew his games by now and adverted her gaze. "No Zack. You have to learn to treat this hospital with more respect. You can't keep causing so much mischief. What will your mother say when she finds out?"

Zack grunted. "I still think I deserve a window, at the very least. I didn't mean to break anything."

She patted his kneecap. "I'm sure you'll get your old room back as soon as it's dry, Zack. Which reminds me, what's this I hear about a breakfast roll?"

Zack grinned sheepishly. "I thought it'd help if I tried to plug some of the pipes. Stop the water, and all that. It wasn't that bad of an idea, right? Those rolls are like rocks. How was I suppose to know the pipes would burst. . .?"

Aerith laughed. "I guess it's the thought that counts. You'll just have to be careful from now on, okay? You could have hurt yourself."

Zack smiled and pounded a fist to his chest. "No way! Zack Fair isn't going to let some stupid shower do him in! I'm tougher than that!"

"Well good, but I still want you to be careful. Now, are you going to behave yourself once I leave?"

Zack frowned. "If I say no, will you stay?"

"No, I just won't come back to see you later. You'll be in here all day, all alone."

"Aerith, that's mean! I'll be good, I promise!"

She stood up from the bed. "Good. I'll be back later then. Maybe I'll bring you some flowers."

Zack stood and followed her to the door. "Sounds great! This room is too white. You should bring the kids in the children's wing up and let them color on the walls."

"Zack, stop trying to squeeze out the door after me."

He pulled his foot away from the door. "Damn. Foiled again."

"Bye, Zack."

"See ya."

The rest of the day was a lot more uneventful. She saw the damage done to Zack's old room (it was bad, she made a mental note to never break her shower), but other than that, it was the normal routine. Actually, things could almost be considered slow. During a particularly slow moment, Aerith caught Lucretia at the nurse's station and approached her.

"Miss Crescent?"

She was immediately suspicious. "Yes, Miss Gainsborough?"

"One of the patients in wing D wanted to spend some time outside, and asked me to accompany him. You don't need me for anything immediately, do you?"

Lucretia eyed her. "Which patient?"

"Cloud Strife," she said, rocking back on her heels.

Lucretia's expression immediately softened. "Oh, Mr. Strife. Yes, that's fine. He could use the fresh air, go right ahead."

Most of the nurses had a soft spot for Cloud. Besides spending so many years there, he was almost painfully well mannered and had more endearing qualities than seemed possible (Aerith was certain he wasn't aware of a single one of them though).

"Thanks Lucretia!" she chimed, ignoring the firm "Miss Crescent!" yelled in response and walking briskly down wing D. She felt kind of bad turning her back on Zack's door, knowing he was lonely, but he had a lesson to learn. She knocked on Cloud's door once and entered without waiting for a response.

"Cloud! I promised a friend I would get him some flowers. Come help me pick them!"

Cloud never seemed surprised, no matter how quickly she entered his room. "Alright," he replied, completely unfazed. She had high hopes of scaring him one day.

She took his hand (it took three months for him to stop trying to instinctively pull it back), and led him down the corridor. They took the stairs down to the bottom level, Aerith chattering happily all the way, and then she dragged him out into the warm sunshine of the courtyard. The courtyard wasn't exceedingly large, but it wasn't exactly small either. Just enough for the patients to get some sun and fresh air. The area was a square, with a walkway lining the perimeter and a shady tree overlooking a small flowerbed right in the center. Aerith let go of Cloud's hand in favor of linking arms with him and leisurely made her way to the flower bed. It was nice outside, and she wanted Cloud to enjoy it.

When they reached the flowerbed, Aerith was secretly thrilled when Cloud immediately kneeled down to test the dampness of the soil. He'd learned so much, so fast! She knelt down next to him and carefully took a stem in hand.

"He likes blue, I believe," she said, carefully snapping the stem, "What's your favorite color, Cloud?"

Cloud gently fingered the stem of another blue flower and gave a small shrug. "Black, I guess."

"Black? That's not a happy color at all! Besides, there aren't any black flowers here. And if there were, a black and blue bouquet might not send the right message!" She giggled. "Aren't there any other colors you like?"

He was quiet for a while. "Purple is. . . nice. Blue's okay. I guess I prefer dark colors."

Aerith hunted for a deep purple flower. When she found one, she gently cupped the blossom and lightly elbowed Cloud.

"Is this the kind of purple you like? It's kind of dark."

Cloud nodded. "That one's nice. I guess."

She giggled again and snapped the stem, placing it to the side with the blue one. "You're so indecisive Cloud. With as much time as you spend in your head, you think you'd know yourself a little better." She smiled tenderly and pushed some of his hair behind his ear. "Wanna pick the purple ones, while I pick the blue? We'll make them into a pretty bouquet together."

Cloud nodded (the hair behind his ear slipped back out), and silently went to work. Aerith worked harmoniously beside him, quietly humming a slow gentle tune.

When Aerith thought they had enough she gathered them all up and quickly arranged them in a pleasing fashion. Once she was satisfied, she handed them to Cloud and stood up, brushing the dirt off her knees.

"Wanna deliver them with me?"

Gaze adverted. "I don't know. That would probably be weird."

Aerith ducked down so that she was in his line of sight. That seemed to miff him a little. "It won't be weird! Look, you don't even have to talk to him! Just stand there while I give him the flowers. Afterwards we can go to your room and make some origami or something."

"I don't like ori-

"Great! It's settled then! Let's get going, we need to get these flowers in a vase!" And off she went. Cloud only hesitated a moment before wearily tagging along.

"Zaaaaaack! Guess who's come back to visit you?" Aerith said in a sing-song voice, opening the door only a crack to hide her face.

"Hmmm, I do not know. Whoever could it be? May I please have some hints?" came Zack's cheery (cheerily fake) reply.

Cloud raised an eyebrow.

"Ooookaaaay. First hint! I'm the most beautiful girl you've ever seen."

"Oh, I know! It's Tseng!"

Cloud snorted.

"Zackary Fair, that was mean! And no, I'm not Tseng," she huffed.

"I know, I know. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have dissed Tsengy-poo. What's the next hint!"

"Alright, second hint! I have large, pretty green eyes!"

"Ooh, ooh, ooh! Sephiroth!"

"Zaaaack," she said in a warning tone. Cloud was frowning now. He and Sephiroth got into a fight over an unsalted pretzel when he was ten. Apparently neither of them liked salt. The fight was broken up by a nurse, and they were both given a time-out. No pretzels were given after said time-out. They never got over it.

"This is your last chance! Third hint! I work for the hospital for FREE, and I'm your bff!"

"That was two hints! You made me cheat!"

"Zack!"

"Alright, alright. Hmm, let's see. Bff, huh? Well, I'm gonna have to say it's. . . Aerith!"

"Yay!" she yelled, throwing the door open. "I told you I would come back!"

"I never doubted you!" He threw his arms out and enveloped her in a hug. "Heeeey, you said you'd bring me flowers though!"

"I did! Wait here!"

She scurried back to the door where Cloud was practically hiding behind the wall. He cast a nervous glance at Zack before dropping his eyes to the ground and holding the flowers out for Aerith.

She took a step closer to him and grabbed the bouquet, whispering, "If you really want to wait for me in your room, or in the hall, I don't mind."

He nodded, giving her what may have been the world's tiniest smile (oh, who was she kidding, it was almost a frown), then backed into the hallway.

Aerith turned around and was surprised to see that Zack wasn't smiling anymore. His gaze was fixated on the door and Aerith glanced back to see what he was staring at. Nothing.

"Zack, are you okay? You look like you just saw a ghost."

"Huh. . .? Oh, no, I'm fine!" he laughed awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck, "Those are for me? Geez Aerith, you're the best!"

Aerith smiled and walked over to the small stand by his bed. "Sure are! Let's find a vase for them, shall we?" Each room at the hospital had a small supply of cheap vases, in the event a visitor didn't bring one. Aerith fished an appropriately sized one out and went to the sink, filling it with water. She gingerly placed the bouquet inside, fluffing it up a bit, then held up her work. "There. What do you think? Zack?"

Zack didn't acknowledge that he even heard her. While she was getting the water, he'd moved a little to the left so he could have a better view out the door. She walked over to see what had him so enraptured.

All she could see was Cloud, leaning against his door and gazing down the corridor, no doubt completely oblivious to his surroundings. He got like that when he was thinking.

She glanced up. "Zack? Are you okay?"

Zack didn't respond to her voice, but Cloud did, snapping out of his trance and glancing up in her direction. Zack broke into a goofy grin and waved weakly. "Hi. I'm Zack."

Cloud's gaze immediately shot to the floor. He hesitantly raised it again, looking between Zack and Aerith before settling on Zack. He started blushing.

"Hi," he softly mumbled, dropping his gaze again, "Zack." He glanced up and, apparently disconcerted that Zack was still staring at him, decided to make his escape. He shifted awkwardly to the side, keeping Zack in his sights as he blindly fumbled for the doorknob. As soon as he made contact he creaked his door open and started slinking inside. "Um, I hope you, uh, like your flowers, Zack." He locked eyes with him and his face flared up again. "Bye," he said, shutting the door before Zack could even blink and disappearing from sight.

Zack turned to Aerith, goofy smile still in place. "Is he my neighbor?"

Aerith was confused. That had quite possibly been one the weirdest things she'd ever seen. "Yeah. He's REALLY shy though, so don't be expecting him to come visit you or anything. It took me forever to get him to talk to me, and he still barely speaks." She held up the vase. "He helped me pick these for you."

Zack took the vase. "Really? That's cool. Does he like flowers?"

She shrugged. "He didn't care about them at first, but I started teaching him how to tend to them and stuff. I think he likes them quite a bit now."

"Right, right." Zack set the vase down by his bed and lightly fingered a blue petal. "Has he been here long?"

"Since he was ten."

Zack whipped around like she'd just told him Cloud was really a human shaped bomb. "Ten? Why, what's wrong with him?"

"Uh, we're not really sure. Judging by the symptoms, we think he has the same thing you do." She frowned. "Are you feeling alright Zack? You're acting really odd. I can get your medicine for you, if you want. . ."

"Huh? No, no, I'm fine. I'm totally fine. I was just, you know, being nosy. You know how I am!" he said with a laugh.

She laughed with him, albeit a little less enthusiastically. "Whatever you say, Zack. I have to get going now, I'll talk to you tomorrow, okay?"

"That sounds great! See ya tomorrow!"

Aerith left, a small frown gracing her features. Usually Zack begged her to stay and keep him company.

"That was weird," she murmured, stepping into Cloud's room (unfortunately, she was too distracted by her thoughts to notice that he jumped when she entered), "Sorry about that Cloud. Zack doesn't mean to be rude, he just, well, he just is sometimes. I'm sure he was just staring because you're a new face to him. He likes making friends."

"Oh."

"He's normally in wing C, but his room is undergoing some. . . renovations right now, so we stuck him here for the time being. It probably won't be too long before he goes back."

"Oh."

"Don't be alarmed if he tries to visit you, I promise he doesn't mean any harm. He's actually really really nice. You should try making friends with him. I bet you two would get along well."

"Hn."

She smiled. "Well, Mr. Chatterbox, ready for some origami? I figured if we got really good, we could teach the kids downstairs how to do it! Did you keep that how-to book I gave you last week?"

Cloud nodded and opened the top drawer of his bed stand, pulling the book out and handing it to her. She flipped through it quickly.

"Hmm, glad to see you've been practicing," she commented dryly, noting the untouched origami paper in the book, "Well, let's get to work! When I was little I made a frog once, and if you pushed his butt down, he would hop!"

"I like frogs," Cloud offered quietly, watching her skim the book's pages. She looked up, momentarily started by the small confession, then grinned and sat down on the bed, laying the book in front of her.

"That settles it then." She patted the space next to her, indicating for him to sit. "Let's make some frogs."


The next day, Aerith was surprised to find not only Zack (nothing was surprising when Zack was involved), but Cloud missing from their rooms. She didn't bother wondering where Zack was. He LOVED roaming around, particularly when he wasn't supposed to. Cloud, on the other hand, never went far unless provoked (usually by her). A thought crossed her mind and she smiled. He was probably with the children, teaching them origami. Cloud was a bit (okay, maybe more than a bit) awkward around people, but deep down he really liked children and enjoyed making them happy. That idea in mind, she went down to the children's wing to see how he was making out with them.

She got her second surprise of the day when she found not only Cloud in the playroom, but Zack as well.

"What! My turtle doesn't suck! He just. . . has some battle scars! Yeah! He's a warrior turtle! Take that!" Zack held up a (slightly misshapen) paper turtle and waved it around Cloud's face, occasionally poking him with it on the cheek or chin. The children laughed as Cloud tried to bat him away.

"I'll protect you, Cloud!" a little girl yelled, standing up, pink paper alligator in hand, "Roooaaar!" She lunged across Cloud's lap and dramatically threw the alligator at Zack. It caught in his hair and he yelled.

"Not my hair! That's where all my super strength comes from! Powers. . . fading. . . feeling. . . weak. . . ugh." Zack dropped his turtle and, closing his eyes, flopped dramatically backwards. He lay very still for several seconds, then stuck his tongue out, signifying his death.

Aerith chose that moment to make her presence known. "Good job Lily! Thanks to you, all the turtles under Zack's evil mind control spell have been set free!"

Lily cheered and scrambled off Cloud's lap, picking up Zack's discarded turtle. "He's a good turtle now! Huh, what's that Mr. Turtle?" She held the paper figure close to her ear. "Zack kidnaped Mrs. Turtle, and hid her away in Marshmallow Mountain! Oh no! How will we ever climb such a sticky mountain!" She gasped. "I know! Billy! I need your helicopter!"

"No, go away!"

"But Billy, Mr. Turtle needs to get up Marshmallow Mountain! Come on! You can be the pilot!"

Lily stepped on Zack's stomach (his pained "oof" didn't bother her in the slightest) and hurried across the room to Billy.

Zack sat up, idly rubbing his stomach. "Gotta love kids, right?"

Aerith knelt down on the floor next to Cloud, giggling. "What brings you down here Zack? Trying to convince the kids to color your room after all?"

Cloud leaned forward and gently pulled the paper alligator out of Zack's hair. Zack smiled, gazing into his eyes like he was looking at a lost treasure. "Thanks. . .Cloud."

Cloud blushed and adverted his eyes, causing Zack's grin to widen. He pulled him into a headlock and started giving him a noogie.

"Say there Spike, why don't you teach me how to make a chocobo? I bet you're GREAT at chocobos."

Cloud wriggled free and ran a hand through his hair, as if Zack had messed it up. "Why would I be good at making chocobos?"

"Because of your hair, of course! It's all blond and fluffy, like a chocobo." Cloud scowled so he added, "A cute chocobo."

He was still scowling, but his cheeks turned pink and he ducked his head, keeping his gaze on his lap. "Your's looks like a porcupine," he mumbled.

"A porcupine? Hmm." Zack ran a hand through his hair, seeming to consider the comparison. "Alright, that's fair. I guess it's kind of. . . porcupiney. But you know," he leaned forward so that his face was dangerously close to Cloud's, "I heard somewhere that chocobos and porcupines get along really really well."

If Cloud was blushing before, he was positively on fire now. He leaned back, trying desperately to maintain his personal space AND his scowl. "Where would you hear," he swallowed thickly, "Where would you hear something like that? Chocobos and porcupines are nothing alike."

Zack leaned even closer, leaving Cloud dangerously close of being flattened to the floor. "Hmm, where did I hear it? I forget. Is it that hard to believe though? A chocobo and a porcupine, best friends? A porcupine could ride a chocobo, you know," he all but whispered, wiggling his eyebrows.

"I-I have to go!" Cloud exclaimed, shimmying away from him. As soon as he was far back enough that he could stand without bumping into Zack, he rose and practically ran from the room.

Some of the children were staring.

Aerith crawled around the kiddie table so she could sit closer to Zack. "Zack," she whispered, "what on earth was that all about?"

Zack sat up straight and gave her a goofy smile, very reminiscent of the one he wore the other day. "His name's Cloud. I had to bug him two hours before he would tell me. Cloud. That's a really nice name, isn't it?"

"Um, yeah, I guess. Cloud Strife. It's unique."

Zack perked up. "That's his last name? Strife? Cloud Strife." He sighed. "That's an awesome name."

Aerith raised an eyebrow, then cast a quick look at the children (some were still staring, eyeing Zack warily). "Zack, would you take a walk with me?"

"Huh? Oh yeah, yeah, sure. Walking's good." They both stood up and left the playroom, heading toward the courtyard. Cloud was nowhere to be seen.

Zack immediately started gushing. "Yeah, so I was bugging him this morning, trying to get him to talk to me. He kept hiding from me, it was pretty cute." He laughed. "So I was kind of following him around, trying to corner him-Don't give me that look! I wasn't trying to rape him or anything. I just wanted to hang out. ANYWAY, I was following him around and I saw him go into the kid's room. So naturally I followed him, cause I figured he wouldn't leave the kids so soon, even with me around." He beamed down at her. "I think he likes me. Did you get that vibe, cause I don't know if it's just me being hopeful or if he actually likes me? He's really cute, isn't he? Why didn't you introduce me to him before?" His face fell. "He has a boyfriend, doesn't he? Dammit, I KNEW he was too good to be true! Who is it! How long have they been dating? Do I stand a chance!"

"Zack, Zack, calm down! He doesn't have a boyfriend!"

"Girlfriend!"

"No!"

"Oh. . ." He smiled. "Good. Great! That's perfect! Cause, you know, I don't have a boyfriend either, and if he doesn't have a boyfriend, and I don't have a boyfriend. Well, need I say more?"

"Hold on Zack! Can you catch me up on the situation a little bit? You're telling me you like Cloud?"

"Uh, duh! Come one Aerith, isn't it obvious?"

Obvious? She hadn't even known he was gay until today. "Well, yeah, but, since when? You just found out his name this morning, right?"

"Since yesterday! When he came with you to my room. Man Aerith, he was like," he bit his bottom lip, "like I don't know! Otherworldly! It was like all the lights went off around me, but there was this giant spotlight right on him. And then when he spoke. Aerith, his voice is like music! You hear it, right?"

"Uh, I guess. . ."

"And his eyes! I've never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life!"

Zack was smitten. 100%, head over heels, smitten. With Cloud Strife. HER shy, antisocial, insecure, "never ever smiles" Cloud. She started giggling.

Zack looked slightly offended. "Hey, what's so funny? You don't believe me, do you? Look, I know love at first sight is kind of farfetched, but that's no reason to laugh! I'm really serious, Aerith!"

"I know, I know! I'm sorry Zack, it's just," she kept giggling, "you guys are just so different."

Zack's frown deepened.

She got control of her giggles and patted his arm. "I'm sorry Zack, I shouldn't laugh. Opposites attract, after all."

Zack was still frowning. "Yeah. Yeah, they do."

She rolled her eyes. "Come on Zack, don't be mad!" She stuck her fingers in the corners of his mouth and forced him to smile. "Tell you what, I'm pretty good friends with Cloud. What if I tried to, you know, help you two along? I'll put in a good word for you."

He was beaming at her now, so she removed her fingers. "Really! You'd do that?" She nodded and he grabbed her into a bear hug. "Thank Aerith! You're the greatest! Anything you need, just ask, and I'll be there, I promise!"

She pushed at his chest. "Now, now, that's enough. Cloud will get jealous," she teased.

Zack was standing up straight in a second, glancing around. "Why, is he here? Did you see him?" He spun around to check behind him.

She laughed and started walking ahead without him. "You are so hopeless Zack."

"Hey! Hey, that's not funny! Come back here, Aerith!"


Aerith did put in a good work for Zack (several good words in fact), but Cloud didn't seem interested. She wasn't really surprised, but she was still a little sad, mostly for Zack's sake. They would have made a cute couple. She had to face facts though. Chocobos and porcupines really didn't mix well, no matter what Zack said.

She had to give Zack credit for trying though. It seemed like every time she turned a corner, she came across either a Cloud on the run or a Zack in hot pursuit. She figured it was only a matter of time before Cloud snapped at him. Currently though, he was still a flustered mess over the situation.

On Monday, Lucretia (kind person that she was) let him hide behind the nurse's station on the fourth floor. Each floor had its own station, for convenience's sake. It consisted of a medium sized circular desk, with two parallel openings at the front and back. Aerith had been heading toward the station to update Miss Kisaragi's file (turns out she was hiding her medicine under her tongue, then spitting it out later) when she witnessed Zack stealthily crawling across the floor and through the back entrance. Seconds later Cloud was scrambling out the front entrance, desperately trying to get on his feet while Zack struggled to grab his ankles and yank him back. In the end, Cloud got away and the two went sprinting off down wing A.

On Tuesday, Aerith took poor Mr. Hojo (snotty old man. . .) out to the courtyard for a little fresh air. She didn't expect to see several nurses gathered around the tree, trying to pull some crazy lunatic. . . oh, wait, it was Zack. He was trying to climb up the tree.

"Do you mind if we take a walk over to the flowerbed, Mr. Hojo? I think something's going on under the tree. . ."

Mr. Hojo minded, but he tended to mumble when he talked so Aerith pretended she heard him wrong and gently led him over to the crowd of nurses.

"Zack? What are you doing?"

Zack paused upon hearing her to look over his shoulder and the nurses seized the opportunity to pull him down. He gave a yelp of surprise as two of them grabbed his arms and another hooked her arms under his to restrain him.

"Come on, this isn't fair! This has to be against some law or something!"

"Mr. Fair, you are being totally unreasonable!"

"Yes! You are NOT respecting the privacy of the other patients at all. This is unacceptable!"

Before Aerith could even bat an eyelash, Cloud jumped down from the tree. It was a messy jump, and he probably would have hurt himself if Mr. Hojo hadn't been there to break his fall. Thankfully, he was.

Cloud got off the old man, shouting an apology as he ran past Aerith and toward the entrance to the hospital.

Mr. Hojo started to have a seizure, distracting Aerith and the nurses so that Zack could break free and pursue his "prey". When Mr. Hojo was finally back in his room and all taken care of, the staff decided to give Zack the worse punishment they could possibly think of. They sent Tseng down to his room to give him a lecture. Cloud, they decided, fell into the category of "victim" and was let off the hook.

On Wednesday, Aerith caught Cloud hiding in one of the supply closets. She asked him about Tuesday and he explained that he couldn't get any peace and quiet in his room, because Zack was always bugging him to be let in, so he had snuck out to (and then up) the tree to be alone. But then Zack found him. That was pretty much it. He then made Aerith promise that she wouldn't tell anyone he was in there (most of the cleaning staff already knew, but they were being cool about it), and she left him. An hour and a half later, Aerith saw Zack crouched next to the closet, feeding Cloud pick-up lines through the crack under the door. Everyone let them be.

This type of cat and mouse behavior went on for two weeks. Then Cloud had an attack.

Despite the fact that Cloud was hooked to an IV, hardly ever conscious (and hacking up blood when he was conscious), and sporting a nasty fever, Zack seemed to be the more miserable of the two. He had been chasing Cloud through the personality disorder hall of the psych ward when Cloud started slowing down. Zack caught him before they even reached the wing for schizophrenia, and he immediately noticed the fine sheen of sweat on his brow and his ever so slightly labored breathing. He scooped him up in his arms before Cloud could protest and informed the closest nurse that he was about to have an attack (naturally, he would know the signs), then brought him to his room. As soon as he lay him down on the bed, the nurses kicked him out of the room and he hadn't been allowed to see Cloud since. That was five days ago.

Aerith creaked open Zack's door and poked her head inside.

"Zack? Can I come in?"

Zack was lying backwards on his bed, on his stomach, and was trying to pick the threads out of a sock. It appeared the sock was too well made for him, however, as all the threads were still in place.

Aerith stepped inside and closed the door. "Zack?"

He grunted and moved over a bit, making room for her on the bed. She gingerly sat down next to him and ran a hand through his hair. He dropped his sock and turned his gaze to her.

"How is he?"

"A bit better. He was awake for a full half hour this morning, and he didn't cough up any blood!"

Zack didn't seem as enthusiastic at the news. "Can he have visitors?"

Her smile faltered. "No, Zack. He can't."

He started picking at his sock threads again.

"Oh Zack! Cheer up! Tell you what! Cloud can't have visitors, but that doesn't mean you can't talk to him!"

Zack spared her a glance. "I don't think talking under the door will work this time, Aerith."

"No, no! Cloud can't see people, but he can accept gifts any time! Write him a letter! I'll give it to him, I promise!"

Zack slowly put the sock down. "Really? You'd do that for me? Will he want to read it? I mean, I know he feels REALLY bad. I don't want to bother him." He bit his bottom lip, and hesitantly glanced up at her. "If I picked him flowers. . . would you give them to him too?"

She nodded and he perked up a bit more.

"And, you know. . . Miss Jenova owes me for that time I helped her find Denzel when he escaped from his room." He grinned. "She's terrible with children. Anyway, she'd probably help me make something in the kitchen, right? Does Cloud like chocolates? Cake? . . . Pancakes?"

Aerith giggled. "I'm sure she'd love to help you Zack. And yes, yes, no."

"No what? Pancakes?"

She shook her head. "Cloud's a waffle person."

Zack hummed in thought, seemingly content to learn something new about his crush.

Aerith stood up. "I'm going to get going now. Remember, if you want me to give Cloud anything, anything at all, just ask."

He sat up and beamed at her. "Thanks Aerith. You're a really great friend, you know?"

"Thanks Zack, you are too."

That night, Zack had a letter ready for her, along with a bouquet of flowers. The flowers were all yellow, expect for two blue ones and one orange. Zack explained that he arranged them to look like a chocobo's face. Aerith thought that was cute.

She went straight to Cloud and, after waiting twenty minutes for him to stop dry heaving (she held his bangs back, just in case he decided to throw up more than air), she gave him his presents. He stared at the letter, blinking his beautiful luminous, bloodshot eyes in slight confusion. He set the letter on his lap and took the bouquet, gazing down at it, expression unchanging. Aerith couldn't help but notice how the yellow petals complimented the yellow-greenish hue his skin had taken on in the past week.

"It looks like a chocobo," he commented dryly (Literally speaking. His voice was like sandpaper).

"It's supposed to! They're both from Zack."

"From Zack?" He tilted the bouquet a bit in his hands, then leaned down slightly to smell them. His expression still remained the same.

Aerith found a vase and took the flowers from him, making sure she didn't disrupt the chocobo design. She turned away from the sink to find him gazing at the letter again.

When Zack asked her the next day if Cloud seemed happy to hear from him, she didn't have the heart to tell him how unenthusiastic he seemed. Instead, she covered by telling him that Cloud recognized the bouquet as a chocobo without her pointing it out. He seemed pleased with that.

She had work to do, so she could only talk to Zack quickly and Cloud not at all. A little after three though, she found some time and, after popping in to visit Cid and Barret, she checked in on Cloud.

He was asleep when she walked in, but not peacefully. His breathing was ragged and his whole body was covered in a fine sheen of sweat. She sat down next to him and pushed his damp bangs off his forehead. She could feel the heat radiating off his skin like a furnace. Or a nuclear blast. Or the sun.

He woke up after only ten minutes and blearily gazed at her. He didn't even bother trying to sit up.

"Hey Cloud. Can I get you anything? Water maybe?"

Cloud's head made a slight incline and she stood, getting a glass from the cupboard under the sink and filling it before returning. She helped him sit up and handed him the glass, keeping a firm grasp on it to assure he didn't drink it too fast. As usual, he wasn't terribly appreciative.

He finished the glass and went to work trying to mop the sweat off his face with his shirt. Unfortunately, his shirt was already drenched in sweat, so he had to give up rather quickly on that task.

He opened his mouth and made a pathetic rasping noise, then coughed and tried again. "Aerith, can I ask you a favor?" Still raspy, but understandable.

"Of course Cloud. What is it?"

She expected him to ask her to help him change out of his horrible, sweaty, disgusting clothes and into something clean. He surprised her when he (slowly) leaned toward his bed stand and opened the top drawer. He pulled out a piece of paper, folded over several times, and handed it to her, his usually steady hand trembling ever so slightly from the effects of his fever.

"It's. . . for Zack. A reply. Will you give it to him?"

She took the letter with a nod, eyes wide. "Sure Cloud. I can do that. That's very. . . nice of you, to write him back. I'm sure he'll be thrilled."

She couldn't tell if the red staining Cloud's cheeks was from his fever, or if he was blushing. She decided not to ask and, after making sure he was comfortable and getting him a cold compress for his forehead, she left the room and made a (very short) beeline to Zack's.

Of course he had to pick that particular time to not be in his room. She left the note on his bed stand. If she saw him, she'd let him know.

She did find him, three hours later, in Barret's room.

"I'm telling you, it'd be sooo much cooler than a regular hand! No one could ever disarm you, unless they, you know, cut off your arm. But what are the chances of that happening?" There was an awkward pause. "I mean, what are the chances of it happening AGAIN? Lighting doesn't strike twice!"

"You some kind of moron! There ain't NO WAY I'd be doing some stupid thing like that!"

"But you'd be like a cyborg! You could be a super hero! Barretborg. No! Barretbot! Barrbot!"

Aerith stepped further into the room and cleared her throat just as Barret was lifting his hand to whack Zack upside the head.

"Aerith! Hey!"

Barrett lowered his hand and nodded to her. "'lo, Aerith."

"Hi Zack, Barret."

"How's-

She cut him off. "Cloud's doing okay. He's fighting off a fever right now. He wrote you a letter Zack. I put it in your room for you."

Zack was staring at her like she'd grown an extra head. "He what?"

She rolled her eyes. "He wrote you a letter. He must have been feeling better last night or something. Anyway, it's in your-

"I'll see you later Barrbot, I gotta go!" Zack said, jumping up and practically sprinting out of the room. Barret yelled a few profanities after him, but Zack seemed unfazed.

From that day on, Cloud and Zack set a trend. Aerith found herself delivering letters back and forth between their rooms every day. She didn't have the heart to read them, since she figured they were personal, but she certainly was curious. Zack nearly wet himself in excitement with each letter she delivered and, if she didn't know better, she would have said Cloud was enthusiastic to receive them as well. Once, she caught him reading one and she could have sworn she saw him smile (she figured it was just the light playing tricks on her though).

After six weeks (Zack gave him a new bouquet for each week), Cloud was finally allowed to have visitors. Zack (with the help of Miss Jenova) made him a batch of chocolates and Aerith bought him a heart-shaped box to put them in. Aerith let him in first thing in the morning then let the two of them be alone. She was curious though, and she couldn't help but stand by the door an extra minute to listen.

At first all she could hear was undistinguishable mumbling, but then Zack shouted, "What's wrong? Do they taste bad?"

"Zack, these things are rocks. . ."

"What! That can't be!"

There was a pause then, "Ow! Holy shit, my teeth!"

She thought she heard a laugh, but dismissed it. Why would Zack laugh when he hurt himself?

"Cloud, I'm soooo sorry! I don't know what I did wrong! I did everything Miss Jenova said!"

She definitely heard laughter that time, and she couldn't believe it. Cloud? Laughing!

Zack joined in moments later and soon the two of them were laughing uncontrollably. Cloud calmed down first, gasping for breath.

"Well, I guess," a heave of air, " it's the thought that counts," he tapered off with a giggle.

Zack started gasping for breath as well. "I really am sorry Cloud. I wanted to do something nice. I almost broke your teeth instead. . ."

"It's fine Zack. They look nice. And you tried," there was a pause then he said quietly (Aerith had to strain her ears), "Thank you."

"Hey, don't mention-

They both went quiet and Aerith walked away from the door, a large grin on her face.


All my returning readers know what I want. GRAMMAR, GRAMMAR, GRAMMAR! Correct me if I'm wrong! I don't bite!
Because this was posted on August 19th, not reviewing means you HATE CLOUD AND WISH HE WAS NEVER BORN! RAAAWRRR! (Jk. They are appreciated though)
Soooo, can you tell I've never stayed in a hospital before? Lolz. Ignorance abounds!