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He was not the sort of man who made excuses. Excuses were the refuge of lesser minds, of fools who lacked the clarity of vision a true scientist possessed. Mistakes were unfortunate, but they could be learned from and so ceased to be mistakes. There was no such thing as a lapse in judgment when dealing with genius. There was only experimentation. Naturally some experiments were more successful than others.

Of course, later he would wonder if experimenting after a New Year's Eve party catered by Turks had been a slight...hiccup in judgment. Honestly, he should never have gotten on that helicopter bound for Nibelheim in the first place, should never have let that fool Reno pilot the machine. He'd been horribly sick over Costa del Sol--literally, as it happened, leaning out the open door as the wind whipped past. He blamed the spiked punch, Reno's piloting skills, and that fellow Rude's oh-so-innocent suggestion that he make note of the scenery below, the pretty twinkling lights of the town reflecting off the water in a bobbing, lurching, smeary swirl.

Dawn was chasing their backs as the mountains heaped up before them, but Hojo was no longer looking forward to the arrival, no longer on fire with the urge to change, to create. An ugly throbbing was just settling in behind his eyes, which hurt, almost as sharply as his head. His mouth felt cottony, and yelling at the Turks to turn them back around or find the nearest inn seemed like far too much trouble. He answered their questions in reluctant grunts, thoroughly resenting how alert they both seemed, how disgustingly cheerful after a night involving far too much alcohol, indifferent finger foods, and a red-eye flight to the middle of nowhere.

He was here, though, so he might as well work.

Exhausted, impatient, and swaying ever so slightly on his feet, Hojo stepped out of the helicopter and surveyed the back of the Shinra Mansion with disgust. There were beds inside, dusty but serviceable. He should just sleep off the reminder of the previous night and threaten the Turks into secrecy. It would hardly do for it to become common knowledge that a scientist of his caliber couldn't hold his alcohol.

"Hey, Doc. You okay there? You look a bit under the weather."

Hojo glared to his right, his gaze skimming and dismissing the skinny redhead in the rumpled suit. The Turks were just like sharks, really. Let them catch the slightest whiff of blood, and they started their incessant circling, refusing to leave a body alone to die in peace.

And he was not 'Doc.' He was Professor Hojo, and he allowed that sort of familiarity from no--

Hojo blinked, staring at the silver flask that had been thrust under his nose.

"Here," Reno said, one side of his mouth curled up in what might have been a smile. "Spines of the cactuar that bit you."

It didn't require a sniff to ascertain the young idiot's veracity. Hojo could smell the tequila fumes just fine with each shallow breath.

"I hardly think that--"

"C'mon, Doc, seriously. Drink some of that, and you'll feel a million times better. Turk's Honor."

"The Turks have no honor," Hojo muttered, eyes sliding right again to see how his weary malice would be received.

Smile unwavering, Reno shook the flask a little, cajolingly. "Maybe not, but we know our booze. You ever seen a drunk Turk before?"

"Freaks of nature," Hojo grumbled, grabbing the flask against his better judgment. "Perhaps I'll have you dissected and study the phenomenon."

"That's the spirit. Drink up, now, Doc, and don't say we never gave you anything."

"I almost wonder if you're trying to keep me out of Midgar," Hojo probed between swallows, grimacing as the alcohol went down. Who carried tequila in a hip flask, anyway? It really did require salt and lime, if only to mask its strangely oily aftertaste. Bootleg, was it? Trust the Turks to prefer everything, even their recreation, to be clandestine.

"Pretty paranoid of you, Doc." Reno sounded admiring, not scornful, turning abruptly to his partner. "Should've been a Turk, don't you think, Rude?"

The big man answered with a grunt, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. He'd said exactly four words since the beginning of the trip--Check out the lights--and Hojo strongly suspected those four had been offered out of pure sadism.

"Never mind," Hojo growled disdainfully. "Whatever you think you're accomplishing, I assure you I'll put it to rights on my return. Now. Please refrain from making a nuisance of yourselves. I have work to do."

It was, in essence, a lie; the Nibelheim experiments were self-sufficient, nothing more than a game of observation to see how mako exposure affected humans in the long-term. Did prior exposure to mako make them more resistant or less? How did prior exposure to the Jenova virus affect them? The other experiment--the attempt to clone Sephiroth using the raw materials of the younger specimen--had been a resounding failure.

Shoving the now-empty flask in Reno's general direction, he chose to disregard the uncertainty of his aim and his crooked trajectory as he stalked away from the helicopter and the no-doubt cowed Turks. He was Professor Hojo, and no interference could detain him for long. There were no setbacks in his world, only opportunities to advance in different directions.

His feet certainly seemed to have taken that philosophy to heart, and it was only through concentrated effort that he convinced them to agree upon a single aim and stick to it. Never had the door to the dilapidated mansion seemed so welcome. He was even grateful not to be greeted on his arrival, the other employees of this facility no doubt making a late start of it after a night of shameless carousing. As if science waited upon recreation. Preposterous. If these fools couldn't see it, then perhaps they could profit by his example.

"Profit," he muttered to himself, weaving blearily through the kitchen and stumbling through the swinging door. It was always profit with those visionless fools back in Midgar. Was there any gil to be had in his experiments? And oh, yes, it was lovely that he'd increased their army with unstoppable fighting machines, but now that there was nothing left to conquer, what good were SOLDIERs now? Right, as monster-killers, monsters he was being blamed for. As if they hadn't practically salivated over the mako reactors he'd helped design.

"Ungrateful wretches. I give you genius, and you give me Turks." Loaned him Turks, anyway. Oversized, uncommunicative Turks who got him sick. Scrawny, mouthy Turks who had no business flying a helicopter or carrying around tequila that had to be illegal for a reason. And dramatic, uncommunicative Turks who got locked in basements on permanent loan. Hojo snickered to himself, wondering what his erstwhile chauffeurs would say if they knew how close they were to the missing, legendary Valentine, or if they knew how easily they could join the man.

Well, perhaps not easily...perhaps not join. The CHAOS project had been fraught with difficulties, requiring the perfect conditions to achieve--too many conditions, too many coincidences. Far easier to create a SOLDIER, to create a Sephiroth. He hated that. How had a theory so complex been pioneered by another? How had anyone else had the gall?

"I'll show her," he muttered as he dragged himself up the stairs to the second landing, knocking over a chair as he lurched through the bedroom--now, where was the hysterical screeching coming from?--that led to the secret passage down, down to the lab. Down to where he was the one who called the shots, who made this one live and that one die. He'd show his dead or vanished wife whose theories were more impressive, who could create the better monster. He'd show them all.

Later, much later, when he woke up under the table with an empty syringe still clutched in his hand and his white coat sleeves still stained a festive red and green--red for blood and green for mako--he'd realize that he would never quite retrieve the last three hours of his life except in bits and flashes. Which was a pity, because he'd made no notes to explain exactly what he had injected into Specimen C. A thorough study of the lab revealed that he'd broken into his stores of DNA samples, but it was difficult to determine what had been used and what had been discarded--and broken--in a drunken frenzy. Specimen C had almost certainly gotten another dose of Jenova cells, a booster of Sephiroth, possibly a dash of Valentine himself. It was the other things that worried him. Had he really injected Essence of Abyssal into a human? And how would that mix with the splash of incubus, the dusting of Snow and the pinch of Malboro he suspected he'd added for color? And then there were the...other things.

Specimen C looked perfectly fine as Hojo staggered to his feet and approached the tank, but that could be deceptive. This particular specimen hadn't had much mind left even before Hojo had contaminated the experiment. Discarding this one outright would probably be for the best. On the other hand, who knew what might come of his tinkering? With further observation, Hojo might find he'd created something entirely new.

Besides...to give the order to have this subject terminated, he'd have to talk, and his head was throbbing again, his mouth tasted like one of his own experiments, and the very idea of other people made him feel...surly. That was it. Great scientists did not pout.

He would remind himself of that on the trip back to Midgar, which promised to give him more reasons than ever to want the entire Turk organization strapped down on individual surgical tables.

***

Zack hated losing consciousness in the tank. Not sleeping--he just hated his nightmares, then--but being put under, way under, thought and memory drowned in smeary mako visions. He always woke with the conviction that he'd missed something, that some opportunity or chance he'd never get back again had drifted out of reach. The feeling usually went away--half the time he was sure he'd missed something awful, something anyone rational would be glad to remain ignorant of--but this time the feeling stuck around, made itself at home. He was pretty sure that this time he'd missed something important.

He'd like to say that Cloud was the same as ever, but in reality, Cloud was worse. It used to be that he could get Cloud's attention, even if it took a while, and bring him back from whatever place he went that put such a blank-eyed stare on his face. Now Cloud just stared straight ahead, shoulders slumped, blue eyes wide and sightless.

The doctors were the same as ever, though. They came in just like always, fed them and checked the displays just like always, the routine so numbing Zack almost missed...well, okay, nobody actually missed torture, which was about what Hojo's poking around with scalpels and forceps amounted to. And the needles, and the weird crap that fizzed around in their veins and turned all the colors weird, turned gravity on its ear, made them scream or thrash or go very, very still.

Zack didn't miss that, but he missed being out of the tank, even for five minutes. He missed conversation, having Cloud look at him and know who he was. He even missed that weird week after he'd regained consciousness this last time when the doctors had tiptoed around them like they might break out and bite. Hojo had been and gone, he'd gathered; one of the orderlies had even been heard to mutter that Hojo had been drunk off his ass, that he'd heard the crackpot scientist down here chanting about slime and snails and what little boys were made of.

And yeah, that creeped him out in all sorts of ways, but mostly on Cloud's behalf. Cloud really wasn't looking too good these days, and that more than anything convinced Zack it was time to get the hell out of here. Just as soon as the opportunity--any opportunity at all--presented itself.

His time sense was pretty screwed up--he had no idea if they were in the middle of summer or if it was the dead of winter outside--but in the absence of hours, there were doctors and orderlies to keep him grounded. By that arbitrary reckoning, he figured it was still pretty early in the morning; the guy with breakfast should be around any moment, and Zack would start another day of pointless floating, long hours of examining the tank for weaknesses and plotting ways to escape. Just another day...until something moved in the other tank.

Glancing over at Cloud with a frown, he blinked once and then waded closer for a better look, limbs thrashing against the heavy drag of mako. It was hard to see through the refraction of his tank and Cloud's, but there seemed to be something moving in there with--

There was something in there with Cloud. Something that wasn't human.

Zack felt his heart stop in his chest as he watched the half-seen thing drift lazily around Cloud's feet, serpentine and curious. It nosed the bottom of the tank briefly, slithered out of sight only to reappear pressed close to the glass, sliding along like a searching hand looking for a switch, a knob, an escape. It was flesh-toned, pale like something that hadn't gotten any sun in years, what Aeris used to call ivory and old lace. She'd been talking about her flowers then, though, and something about the slick, almost waxy look of the snake-thing's skin reminded him of lilies, velvety-tough.

He wasn't sure if he should bang on the glass or keep perfectly still, whether he should try to shout Cloud awake or let him sleep through this. The thing in the other tank hadn't attacked yet, but if Cloud panicked, it might. On the other hand, Cloud in his sleep had no defense against the thing whatsoever, and--

Something tapped against the top of Cloud's tank, feeling around like a patient octopus arm, and oh gods, there were two of them. Where the hell were they coming from, anyway?

Zack jumped when the lab door opened, and he'd never been happier to see the prissy little morning guy in his life.

"Hey! This is your food," the guy said as he bustled in, not looking at either tank. Which was a pity, because Zack was doing his best to wave his arms, pointing exaggeratedly at Cloud when that failed. Okay, yeah, this guy was pretty blinkered when it came to the morning ritual, but that was no excuse. Zack considered sign language, only he didn't know the gesture for 'creepy tentacle-thing at nine o'clock' and wasn't sure they taught scientists to tell time anyway.

Okay. Keep calm. He just had to wait for the guy to put the tray down and turn this way.

Zack flailed again while the guy punched in the code to drain his tank, but it was like trying to dance in a big vat of molasses. Right. Keep it simple. Wave both arms for attention. Aim both pointy fingers towards Cloud. Lift both hands into claws and make a scary face like--

"Rarr!" he yelped as he went down in a heap, landing hard on his ass as his tank was dumped without ceremony. His hands flew out to catch himself, so he just looked startled when Lab Boy glanced at him at last, gave him a curious scowl and a headshake, and turned back to fetch the tray he'd brought in.

Obviously it was time to take matters into his own hands.

Heaving himself up, Zack caught himself as he listed briefly sideways, found his balance far quicker than he would have expected to, and balled one hand up in a fist. He did hesitate when he saw the scrawny scientist's head come up, a puzzled tension tightening the guy's shoulders.

"'Rarr?'" the doctor repeated curiously, glancing over his shoulder...at Zack, not Cloud.

"I give up," Zack muttered, lunging forward as Lab Boy bleated something unintelligible and made a dash for the tank controls. Zack's fist sent him flying, and that was the easy part out of the way. Now he just had to rescue Cloud from the mako snakes of doom, and then maybe they could get out of here.

He went charging after his sword--and he wasn't about to complain about how convenient it was that she'd been left propped against the wall all this time--trying not to pay attention to the ticking sounds patting against the glass at his back. That didn't sound like two monsters anymore. That sounded like--

Turning with sword in hand, Zack almost froze in his tracks when he looked back at Cloud's tank. Not two. Not snakes. At least a dozen coils writhed inside the tank, pressing hard against the glass and squeaking as they shifted, blunt tips opening like lilies, like mouths, sharp teeth scraping the transparent walls. It was hard to tell from the way they whipped and knotted, but they all seemed to be leading back to one place, and the shredded rags of Cloud's thin hospital pants--rags now caught in the tangle of limbs--seemed to prove his suspicions. There wasn't a monster in the tank with Cloud. There was just Cloud.

Zack hadn't realized he'd drawn closer until he found his free hand pressed against the glass, breath caught in his throat. "Cloud?" he asked, cold inside, knowing that he'd failed. They'd...done something to Cloud, and Zack hadn't gotten them out quick enough to prevent it, and it was all his fault. The kind thing to do would be to put Cloud out of his misery, because the chances of Cloud still being Cloud in there--

But he couldn't just assume that, could he? Not without opening the tank and trying to reason with his friend--or what had been his friend--because he'd be damned if he made the same mistake twice. Even if Cloud had gone batshit crazy and thought he needed to feed on the souls of baby chocobos to survive, Zack was going to stick with him and bring him back or die trying.

Just as soon as he figured out the controls on these stupid tanks.

When he stepped back to get a better look at the situation, the coils--the tentacles--inside the tank went wild. Lashing against the glass, they pushed and strained, star-like mouths snapping, which didn't exactly fill him with confidence. It's just Cloud, he tried to tell himself, but long before he was convinced, he was ducking with a startled curse as coils braced in every direction gave a terrific heave, shattering SOLDIER-proof glass like cheap plastic.

Mako splashed everywhere, sizzling delicate metal instruments into tortured new shapes, hissing across the floor and sinking hungrily into Zack's skin, but honestly, what was a little more after stewing in it for years? It made him a little dizzy was all, the world spinning briefly so that he couldn't get his balance, couldn't dive out of the way when a score of tentacles flung themselves out of the shattered tank to loop around him and send him crashing to the floor.

It felt distinctly weird to be pinned by so much soft, immovable weight, to feel things shifting serpent-like against him as the remaining coils clambered out to join their brothers. Zack would have liked to panic, but there didn't seem to be any immediate need to. The tentacles were heavy and clingy, but they weren't particularly menacing; despite the incredible strength they'd just demonstrated, they held him just so tight and no tighter. It was a little spooky the way Cloud's torso was slumped over him, arms falling any which way, fair head pillowed on Zack's shoulder as blue eyes stared wide and insensible. He wasn't sure if that meant the tentacles had a mind of their own or if they were operating on mindless instinct, but if it was the latter, then what did they want with him?

The blunt tip of a tentacle opened its jaws without warning and took a mouthful of his shirt, gripping, not tearing. Another closed on his empty hand, and though he could feel the tiny, needle-sharp teeth prickling ticklishly across his skin, he was startled not by pain but by the swipe of something warm and wet across his fingers, like a dog's tongue. The thing--Cloud's tentacle--was...it was licking him.

Wishful thinking, he tried to tell himself, or insanity; insanity's good. He didn't think it was either, though. What he thought was that Cloud was in there somewhere and didn't want him to go. That Cloud had panicked when he backed away and had broken the glass to get to him, that no matter how weird it looked, he was safe as houses, at least from Cloud.

"Hey. Hey, Cloud. We've got to go, okay?" he said quietly, making no move to get up. The tentacle at his left hand had pretty much engulfed his fingers, and he wriggled them slightly, petting the slick tongue-thing that lapped at them. He didn't shift his sword-arm at all. "We just made a hell of a lot of noise, and someone's bound to come looking. You don't want to stay here, do you?"

Cloud didn't say anything, but the tentacles attempted to cover him from head to foot, shielding him from harm.

"Hey, I'm still a SOLDIER First Class," Zack protested lightly, like they had all the time in the world. "I can look out for the both of us. You trust me, right?"

Restless motion slowed as the tentacles relaxed, pausing as if waiting for orders. Listening to him, by Odin, which was better than he'd dared hope for. Maybe that was what made him ask for the impossible, just to see if he could get it.

"Hey...I don't suppose you could hide these guys again, could you?" Zack asked, turning his head to bump the nearest with his cheek. "The less memorable we are--"

Things shifted all around him, drawing tight, drawing into Cloud in some way he couldn't fathom. Watching Cloud's legs reappear was eerie, because even though some of the coils appeared to knot together and shift, Cloud grew lighter and lighter as they melted into shape. It wasn't like his body had simply altered its form; it was like he'd pulled those limbs from somewhere else and could banish them to that same place at will.

Or by request, at least, and that was enough for Zack.

"Good job, partner," Zack said with a relieved grin, lifting his slightly-damp hand to ruffle Cloud's hair. They wouldn't have any problem getting out of here now, even if he had to carry his friend. From here, they could go anywhere.

But first they were going to have to get Cloud some clothes.

***

"I'm not certain I understand," Tseng said as Hojo drummed his fingers irritably on the arm of his chair, clearly resenting the need that brought him to Tseng's office at all. "Two of your experiments have escaped and you want the Turks to track them down. Isn't this ordinarily a task for SOLDIER?"

"Circumstances prevent it," Hojo snarled repressively, glowering at Tseng as if daring him to question further.

Tseng dared. With a single raised eyebrow, he not only questioned, he demanded.

"One of them is a combat specialist," Hojo ground out reluctantly, "formerly of SOLDIER. First Class. The other...a failed clone, used in more than one experiment. We haven't yet determined the full extent of that subject's abilities."

"And you think this is a job for the Turks."

"Since I don't expect them back in one piece," Hojo snapped spitefully, "yes. You people are good at cleaning up the company's messes, aren't you? And at least half of this mess is of your own making."

"Ours?" Tseng asked, surprised.

"New Year's Eve," Hojo said darkly, and Tseng began to understand.

***

Zack was glad he'd had the foresight to commandeer a couple of changes of clothes for Cloud, because the first time he let them rest, he woke to a tangle of snaking limbs that held him cocooned in a strangely comfortable nest. After the first shock of the sheer weirdness of it, Zack worked an arm free and poked at the nearest coil, grinning a little at the sleepy way it twitched like a cat's tail and curled away from the annoyance.

Closed, the mouth-tips were all but seamless, the skin as velvety-slick and tough at the rounded end as along the thicker length of each limb. Tracing the openings with a curious fingertip, he didn't jerk away when the lily-mouth parted and latched on, gnawing at his knuckle like a half-awake puppy. This time he could see that it really did have a tongue, red as a lick of fire.

"Tickles," he said as the prehensile tongue slithered over his palm, tasting him thoroughly. It wasn't really weird until he remembered that this was Cloud, who probably didn't have the faintest idea what his strange new limbs were doing, and anyway, Zack couldn't even imagine Cloud licking his palm like--

Oh. Wait. Now he could.

"I think we'd better get moving," Zack said, amazed that his voice came out sounding normal. Amazed also that he seemed to have lost the power to be amazed, at least unpleasantly, by anything. There was probably some tampering going on with his head, and he'd be really pissed about that if this were anyone but Cloud. Cloud was too out of it to do more than act on instinct, and anyway, where was the harm in it? He'd rather not-panic and get them both to safety than freak out every time he got hugged by tentacles and get them both caught. As far as he was concerned, it was an easy choice to make.

And anyway, the tentacles were kind of cute. In a deeply weird sort of way.

***

Cloud was aware that something had changed, but he wasn't sure what. He felt stronger, but he also felt like there was more of him than there used to be. He felt more powerful, but he also felt...complicated. There were wants and needs tangled up inside him that felt wholly unfamiliar, and just trying to decipher them consumed the whole of his attention.

Grab, taste, take, one part of him seemed to be saying, never truly happy or satisfied until it rolled something up in its grasp. Subvert, another part of him had hissed at first, infect, but it was alone inside his head and the other alliances had picked it apart and consumed it early on.

The bits that wanted to blind and poison had fallen to the cool voice that wanted to fascinate, to blind their quarry to everything but them. Look at me, she said, love me, and love me was the dark, sweet voice aligned to the greedy tendrils. Demons, another voice scoffed, not quite separate, almost with fond amusement--and that voice was twined with another that warned him not to expect or ask for much, to be happy with what he had, and whispered, now and then, to protect. Some part of him could almost name them, the monsters, the demons, the woman-thing in the reactor and the voices that had once, long ago, been human. When he realized that one of them had been his own, the others started to fade, to blend, many becoming one.

He knew he'd have to wake up soon, knew that he was sleeping now mainly because he knew that he was safe. Zack was with him, after all, and nothing could be too very wrong while Zack was there. He hoped he wasn't making things difficult for his friend, that everything was okay. He hoped Zack would let him stick around when he did wake up, at least long enough to make things up to him. He'd...really like that. A lot.

Look at me, notice me, let me protect you, the voices that were becoming his murmured, over and over. Stay.

Cloud wanted Zack to stay more than anything.

***

Zack was getting used to deeply weird. He was even starting to like it. After all...finding out that the best friend you had left had tentacles? Strange but doable.

Finding out those tentacles could snatch bullets right out of the air? Zack wasn't about to complain about that. In fact, he had an entire new philosophy of not-complaining, and he was considering starting a religion. It seemed wildly appropriate, seeing as the first stop in their new lives--after Zack dragged them down off that bluff and across the last stretch of wasteland between them and Midgar--just happened to be a church.

Even with all the sneaking he did to get them there unseen, it was still pretty early in the morning when he eased open the doors and guided Cloud inside. No Aeris--not yet--but he hadn't really expected to run into her immediately. He didn't know how often she dropped by the church these days, whether she was even still around; maybe she'd gotten smart or lucky and moved somewhere better than Midgar, somewhere out in the country where she could be around growing things. Or maybe she'd...maybe her luck had run out, and she'd....

No. He wouldn't think like that. He hadn't come this far to give up on anything.

The moment he set Cloud down before the altar, he tugged off his friend's boots and socks, hesitating to do more until he saw the change beginning, a vague ripple down both legs that meant things were about to rearrange themselves spectacularly. "I'm getting way too good at taking off your pants," Zack joked, grinning helplessly as he tried to keep up with inhuman impatience, fingers flying over buckles and zips and tugging down. He had to duck as tentacles flicked like a whip, sending pants and boxers flying over his head. It struck him once again that Cloud never seemed half-naked like this, even though the concept of half-naked Cloud was starting to appeal in ways he'd never expected. Of course, he'd never expected to notice Sephiroth the way he had, once upon a time, so maybe he was just slow on the uptake.

He didn't push them off him when the tentacles wound around his ankles and draped themselves over his bent knees, keeping him crouched over Cloud's still-sleeping form. Something told him it wouldn't be long now, that Cloud was getting better, nearly ready to come back. Sometimes he thought that he only had to call Cloud's name and that would be that.

"Hey," he said, lowering his hand to the mass of tentacles and giving them a comforting stroke. "I think we're safe for now; it's not like anyone's going to look for us here, anyway. So if you--"

Want to wake up, he was going to say, only the door came open at his back, and he jumped up with a start, spilling tentacles off his lap. He barely noticed the way they followed him as he took a few steps away, putting himself between Cloud and danger, or the way they twined loosely around his ankles once more. He didn't notice much of anything but the enormous green eyes that pinned his feet to the floor and made his heart thunder and ache.

Aeris' lips parted, but she seemed as paralyzed as he was until her eyes suddenly filled. Then she was moving, crying, "Zack!" with such relief he knew everything was going to be okay at last. It wasn't until she flung herself at him and he caught her in his arms, kissing her soundly, that he realized his legs felt cold, and even that didn't really penetrate until he set her down gently and grinned, opening his mouth to make introductions.

And realized there was nothing twined around his ankles, nothing holding on to him as if afraid he'd disappear.

Puzzled, he glanced over his shoulder and froze, not quite certain what he was seeing, because Cloud had never hugged himself with his tentacles before. Only there they were, drawn in so tightly Cloud looked like a living knot, one that wouldn't be untangled in a hurry. Zack didn't know what had brought that on, whether Cloud was afraid of this new person or afraid of scaring her instead, or whether Cloud was....hurt, either by the welcome Zack had gotten or the welcome he'd given without thinking. All he knew was that it hurt him too, because seeing Cloud curled in on himself like that was just a great big world of wrong.

"Cloud," he said as he turned, twining his fingers with Aeris' and dragging her along with him, pulling her down to crouch beside him as close to Cloud as they could reasonably get. "This is Aeris. Aeris, this is Cloud. He's my partner."

"Partner?" Aeris asked, her eyes curious and fearless, her hand steady in his own.

Love me, love my tentacle monster, Zack almost joked until he realized he was deadly serious. He cleared his throat instead, found a grin from somewhere, and reached out to lay his palm against the stiff curl of a drawn-up limb.

"Absolutely. We broke out together, and now we're going into business together. We're going to be mercenaries--anything and everything for a price! You've never seen a better team...."

Zack wasn't sure he trusted the glint in Aeris' eyes when he mentioned the mercenary thing--she was probably on the verge of reminding him he'd just gotten free of danger, and now he wanted to take it up as a career? again?--but all she did was smile at him and turn back to Cloud, holding her hand out as if offering it for a shake.

"Well. If you're going to be Zack's partner, then you can be my partner too. Keeping him fed and out of trouble isn't a job for one person, you know, though having a few extra arms couldn't hurt. I bet you're a champion hugger, aren't you? That'll come in handy."

Cloud relaxed slowly, limbs rippling in an indecisive snakedance until one reached out to gingerly nudge Aeris' palm. Some instinct seemed to tell her not to grip it, that this wasn't really a hand, and after a brief, considering rub, the mouth-flower opened and brushed a wary lick across the center of her palm.

Aeris giggled, clearly charmed, and let Cloud do it again. She didn't appear surprised at all when the defensive coils dropped and spread outward, reaching hesitantly for Zack and curling around her without daring to touch, baring the human shape previously hidden by rigid coils.

"Cloud," she said, not a question but a statement.

"Yeah. I can, uh, get him normal again," Zack offered with a hint of embarrassment, "only he'll be, ah...."

"I've seen it before," Aeris reminded with a cheeky grin, glancing pointedly down at his lap before meeting his eyes once more. "But has he seen these?"

The tentacles she meant, and...no, probably not. "I don't think so."

"Change him back, then," she said decisively, smiling down at the tentacle that nudged her palm again, shyly asking to be petted. "We don't want to scare him right back to sleep again, do we? And he's ready to wake up, I think."

"How do you know?" Zack asked, curious as to how she'd worked that out so quickly.

"I can feel it. He's got some plant in him now, did you know that? It feels amazing," she added, her smile a little dreamy, as unexpected as her words. "Anyway, he's just waiting for you to call him. You're not going to keep us waiting, are you?"

He would have been thrown by the 'us' if he hadn't suspected she meant more than just waking Cloud up.

"Not me," he said, reaching out to brush Cloud's hair out of his eyes. "But you're going to have to help me with this one."

Somehow he didn't think she'd mind.

***

Cloud wasn't entirely sure what he'd awakened to, but he was pretty sure he liked it.

For one thing, there was Zack. A Zack that didn't look tired anymore, or like he was putting on a brave face in hopes of an escape even he didn't really believe in. This was the Zack Cloud had been...drawn to from the first, cheerful and confident and always ready with a joke, a word of encouragement, a warm touch on the back of Cloud's neck that made him shiver despite every intention not to let it show.

And there was Aeris, who he could sense in some way he couldn't explain, and who was kind and beautiful and giggled at them when Zack made him shiver. She couldn't invite them home with her, but she let them stay at the church, and Cloud learned to ignore the voiceless singing inside his head that started up every time she walked through the doors. He blamed the flowers, was quietly terrified by the fact that he really did blame the flowers, and worried that he'd come out of the lab a little broken in the head.

The first time he changed after he woke up, he'd been prepared to go more than a little bit crazy, except that Zack...hadn't. Cloud wasn't even entirely certain what had set him off. He'd been lying in the middle of the flowers, soaking in the sun that always fell through one particular window, drowsy and content. He remembered lazily picking his feet up and pulling off his boots, tugging off his socks.

He didn't know what made his hands fall to his belt then, why he'd opened his pants even though Zack was puttering around in the back, happily swearing and banging at the leaky old pipes. It wasn't like...Cloud wouldn't just...not when Aeris could walk in, or Zack could come swaggering out, even though some days he'd kill for ten minutes of privacy, even five, especially after Zack went around smiling at him like that or Aeris fluttered her fingers down his arm. He just knew that clothes weren't what he wanted right now, and of all the weird new impulses inside him--Look at me, love me, protect--this was the easiest yet to satisfy.

Peeling out of his jeans, he lay back on the grass, lifting his arms over his head and stretching...and stretching. It felt weird, though, like his legs had...had spread without spreading, like he could feel the sun-warmed dirt and the fragile stems of flowers from a wide fan, an arc, a...tangle.

One of his eyes twitched as he stared up at the lofty ceiling overhead, his mouth going terror-dry. Dreams and nightmares came back to him dimly, Zack's unalarmed voice saying, "Put 'em away, Cloud; it's time we got moving." He didn't want to look, but he forced his head up anyway, the whole world swimming as he stared down his chest to his hips, to where his body ended and a restless knot of tentacles began.

He didn't know what he would have done if Zack hadn't been home. He'd apologize later to Aeris for what he did to the flowers as he surged to his...to his coils, the only thought in his head a repetitive beat of Find Zack. If he'd gone crazy, Zack would put him straight. If he was broken, Zack would fix him.

When Cloud found him, Zack was sitting on the floor next to an open toolbox, peering into a section of the wall whose plaster hadn't been in the best shape even before Zack finished ripping it out. Zack didn't even look up when Cloud's tentacles preceded him, flowing over Zack's shoulders and twining around his waist, unexpected mouths opening and latching on to any part of Zack they could find: his hands, his knees, his shirt.

"Hey," Zack said, not a protest but a greeting, wriggling one hand free to tighten the join of a pipe fitting with a battered-looking wrench. Cloud could taste the salt of Zack's skin through those grabbing mouths, and he realized with a touch of panic that the taste wasn't unfamiliar. Like he'd done this before. Like he'd been this before.

Zack did a double-take that would have been comical at any other time, brows arching as he finally seemed to notice the coils wrapped around him. Zack was not an unobservant man. Cloud fought the strangest urge to yank those monstrous limbs back and ball himself up inside them, until Zack's smile broke out like the sun that followed Aeris everywhere she went. "Oh," Zack said, craning his head back to meet Cloud's eyes half-upside down, his free hand stroking the nearest coil with easy familiarity. "Hey. What's up?"

Wild-eyed, head full of white noise, Cloud opened his mouth and let it all come pouring out. The new voices inside him. The singing in his head whenever Aeris was around. Stripping right there in the church, and then the change, these weird things that grabbed and tasted and bore him along at astonishing speeds, the half-certainty, half-hope that he was completely out of his mind. The things he wanted and couldn't explain. The things he could explain but wasn't supposed to want.

"Like what?" Zack asked, and Cloud couldn't answer, couldn't bring himself to say it, until Zack reached out, caught Cloud's still-human arms, and wrapped them firmly around Zack's shoulders.

He'd known the taste of Zack's hands, the thin skin at his wrists, even the heat of his neck, but he hadn't known the taste of Zack's mouth, his kiss. He hadn't known anything about himself that time, hadn't known how badly he could have hurt Zack or how good he could have made it, but he did know that Zack was neither repulsed nor afraid. Pulled into Zack's lap, he coiled and tasted and thrashed helplessly when Zack's hands went exploring. It didn't feel like anything he understood, but there was something molten and malleable that let Zack in--his fingers, his cock--forming and reforming, shaped by need. Cloud's body sucked at Zack's, stroked him with lazy tongues that pulled him in deeper, and Zack was lost, eyes rolling back, tasting so sweet--

But there was the other voice that said Protect, that would rather starve than feed on Zack, never on Zack. He focused instead on how good it felt, and he groaned as Zack's hands tightened on his hips and pulled him down, Zack thrusting up to meet him. Nothing made sense but everything felt fantastic: the parts of him that made his nerves light up like a reactor grid when they rubbed and pulsed against Zack's hard stomach and thighs, the part of him intent on devouring Zack and leaving him wanting more, always more. He almost blacked out when he finally came, feeling too strongly, too much, but Zack's fierce, bright grin kept him anchored and sane.

Zack even stood by him when Aeris scolded him for trampling the flowers--if trampling was even the word--which left Cloud as grateful as he was chastened. Aeris was scary when she was angry, though she forgave him once they explained what had happened. She even sat with him in the sun until he lost his nervousness of it and let himself bask again in its warmth, able to listen to the singing of everything growing with simple enjoyment for the first time.

When the change happened again, Aeris didn't panic any more than Zack had.

Cloud did, though. Just a little. Just until Zack decided to help, and Aeris--who'd already been helping--gave up on words entirely and did something that made him curl around her like ivy and rock into her hard, and fast, and oh.

"You're an incubus," she panted when she caught her breath, neither complimenting nor complaining, but as if she'd just figured something out. "And...oh, I don't know what else. That was incredible. Can we do it again?"

Flushed and sweaty and torn between incredulous laughter and openmouthed shock, Cloud stared down at her for a long moment, speechless. "Can we...are you serious?"

Aeris was very serious. So was Zack.

"This is deeply weird," Cloud said hours later, too tired to be anything but human, tangled in their limbs, not them in his own.

"Yeah," Zack said, outflung arm tightening around Cloud's waist as Aeris snuggled in closer on Cloud's other side, Zack's voice and his smile equally expressive of contentment. "Isn't it great?"

Cloud found he didn't much care about the possibility of being crazy so long as he wasn't the only one.