They celebrate their victory with a long vacation to Costa del Sol. It seems like the one place that’s been untouched by all of the chaos, by Meteor and Sephiroth and Shinra’s rampant disregard for the health and wellbeing of the planet.
But before and after all of that, Costa del Sol is still just as full of vapid beach girls and athletic surfers, fat men who sit on the beach and stuff themselves with fried foods and margaritas while their wives read trashy romance novels and their children swim and build sandcastles.
It’s just what they need, and even Vincent, who distinctly looks like he could not be more out of place, elects to stay and spend time with the group, even as he sits in the shade at all times.
Barret leaves for a couple of days and comes back with Marlene in tow, and the force of her hug nearly knocks over the fried dough stand that Tifa had been perusing with Cloud reluctantly dragged behind.
The two weeks are a mess of beach trips, unhealthy foods, drunken shenanigans and hangovers that all seem to blend into each other into a colorless glob.
The nine of them sit in a circle in the bar that has become their biggest hangout, a beer in almost all of their hands (juice in Marlene’s, which she contentedly sips while she sits on Barret’s legs, swinging her legs while they all talk, and a bowl of water for Red XIII, which they had to pay extra for).
“Oh, no way! Cloud could never have been picked as the prettiest girl! Between you and Aerith!? Nope! No way!” Yuffie, the youngest and least experienced in holding her liquor, nearly shouts as Tifa recalls the tale of Cloud’s gender bending adventure. Most of the vacation has been a mixture of reminiscing and trying to forget about everything that had happened and, of course, jokes at everyone else’s expense (although Cloud seemed to disproportionately be the target).
Cid snorts around his cigarette, taking a drag and blowing his smoke over at a table with a disgruntled family. “I can believe it… fucking pretty boy,” he huffs, returning Tifa’s look of mild annoyance.
“He really did! Didn’t you, Cloud?” Tifa pushes, elbowing him.
Cloud’s face is bright red, and he hides his face behind a tankard of beer as he nods his head.
“Woah. No way,” Yuffie exclaims, openly leering at Tifa in her bikini before looking at Cloud and taking a swig of her beer, shuddering at the taste before saying, “Okay, that settles it! I have to see it!”
Cloud quickly shakes his head, and Barret seems to agree, quickly saying, “Oi, shut up! You’re gonna give Marlene weird ideas!”
“I bet Cloud would look really pretty as a girl!” Marlene says, taking a sip of her juice with a smile.
“See!? It’s already happened! Allay’all shuttup!”
Tifa leans both arms on one of Cloud’s shoulders, saying, “C’mon, Cloud, Aerith got to doll you up! Don’t I get a chance, too?” There’s alcohol on her breath, and she looks at him with the large eyes of a baby animal, and how can Cloud say no?
Besides, when even Vincent and Nanaki look amused by something, it would be cruel to deny everyone the chance to see it, wouldn’t it?
In Cloud’s defense, he hides himself away until sunset begins, and he doesn’t actively seek out any of his former party members. Although it partially wasn’t his choice—it took quite a while for them to find someone who was willing to make a female bathing suit in his size, and then Tifa did her best to tame his hair, put on some light make-up, and teach him how to walk in heels (well, higher than he’d worn the last time).
Although Cloud looked in the mirror and just saw a pretty man in woman’s clothing, Tifa insisted that he was as beautiful as any of the other women who traipsed the beach. The one-piece bathing suit hugged his body tightly, the sides cut away to show off the minor curves he’d naturally been graced with. The light-blue complimented his eyes, he had to admit. The almost-transparent skirt that tied around his waist was something he had to fight tooth-and-nail for—even with the painful tucking, his bulge was still a little too noticeable for comfort.
While he thought everyone else was eating dinner, he’d wandered off to walk along the boardwalk, keeping his head down to mind his impossible, impractical, Tifa must have secretly hated him this whole time, shoes. He got a few stares, women whispering about him and men either looking uncomfortable or whistling in his direction.
He settled himself on a beach chair, looking out at the sunset with a sigh.
He wondered what Zack would think if he saw him now. He barely remembered the older man, memories only coming back in bits and pieces, but it was enough. He remembered his heartbeat fluttering whenever the older man would turn his kind, genuinely caring eyes on him or whenever the SOLDIER asked how he was doing. He remembered hot chocolate in Midgar and the way Zack would say or do anything to get Cloud to smile. And he remembered gentle kisses, Zack running his fingers through Cloud’s hair so softly that Cloud wondered if Zack thought he would break.
He rubbed one of his bare legs against the other, hairless since the Mako treatments that Hojo had put him through. He wondered if Zack would laugh at him. Maybe he’d have thought he was beautiful. Maybe if Cloud acted, dressed more like a woman than Zack would have actually left Aerith for him.
No, that was cruel and selfish. Cloud mentally berated himself for even thinking that. He loved both of them but he was happy that they had each other—both then and now.
He was distracted by a clearing throat behind his chair and turned back to look, his lips curving into a smirk when he saw who it was. “Didn’t bring Marlene with you? I thought she was the one who was excited to see me like this.”
“Shuttup! You missed dinner!” Barret shouted, approaching Cloud’s chair with a frown set deep on his face.
“I know. I didn’t want to waste Tifa’s work, but I didn’t want everyone to just… see me like this.”
“Sounds like a waste of Tifa’s work to me,” Barret grumbled, approaching Cloud’s chair and tossing him some sunscreen that he’d brought with him. “You’re gonna burn.”
“The sun’s setting,” Cloud muttered, still popping open the cap and squirting some onto his hand.
“That shit don’t matter! If Myrna could burn with the sun this low than so can your skinny white ass!” he grumbled.
Cloud’s face fell for a moment and he turned away from Barret, leaning over to rub some lotion onto his legs. Myrna. That was Barret’s wife, the one he’d lost in Corel.
Cloud heard Barret walking over to his chair, wordlessly handing the sunscreen back to him, his eyes still trained on the water before him. “You look just like her when you’re all… like this. It’s fucking weird,” Barret grumbled. Cloud hummed to himself, startling for a second when he felt Barret’s flesh hand rubbing the sunscreen into the back of Cloud’s shoulder. He let his eyes flutter closed and silently let Barret work his hands on his skin.
“C’mon, Spikey! We’re goin’ back! I’m hungry and you gotta be, too!” Barret nearly shouted, and Cloud stood up from his chair.
He brought his arm up with a playful smirk, whispering, “Aren’t you going to escort me?”
Barret softly grumbled and ignored Cloud’s hand, instead wrapping his arm around Cloud’s waist.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, almost passing by one of the docks before Cloud lightly elbowed Barret’s side. “Wait, I want to watch the last of the sunset. Please?” he pointed over at the edge of the last of the docks, pointing over at it with a smile. “Come with?”
Barret let his hand fall away from Cloud’s waist as he walked away, walking down the dock with a smile.
Barret followed behind slowly, watching as Cloud removed the skirt to reveal the high-cut bottom of the bathing suit.
“How the Hell is everything staying in there?” Barret asked, eyebrow raising as his eyes stayed trained on Cloud’s back, soon moving so he was standing next to him on the dock.
“Uncomfortably,” Cloud answered, turning his body slightly so Barret could see the slight bulge in the front, and the uncomfortable look on his face was enough indication to Cloud that Barret understood the rough logistics of it.
“Ouch,” he muttered, looking over at the horizon again.
“What are you going to do after this?” Cloud asked after a couple minutes of silence, soon looking over at Barret.
The older man shrugged, muttering, “Hell if I know. I want to settle down and be a real father to Marlene…but I’ve never tried that before.” He looked back over at Cloud. “What about you?”
“I don’t know either. Still not even sure who I am, so how can I know where I’m going?” Cloud sighed and shook his head. “Maybe that’ll be the first thing I do—try and find out who I really am.”
Their eyes locked for a moment and Cloud smiled. “Maybe you can get remarried. Find a nice wife who you can raise Marlene with,” he suggested.
“And replace Myrna? Never,” Barret scoffed.
“It’s not replacing. You don’t not love her anymore. You’re just moving on. I hear it’s healthy,” Cloud teased.
“And what about you? Gonna move on from Aerith with Tifa?” Barret shot back.
“I don’t think she’s the one I have to move on from… not like that,” Cloud mused, and he turned away when Barret looked confused.
“C’mon, let’s go,” he said, grabbing the skirt that he’d draped over the side of the dock and tying it back around his waist. “Marlene’s waiting for you… and everyone else is probably waiting for me,” Cloud sighed, shaking his head and offering his arm out again.
“Yeah… uh, Spiky?” Barret muttered, looking down at Cloud with a look that was closer to bashful than Cloud had ever seen coming from him before.
“Keep the skirt on… when everyone else sees you, yeah?”
Cloud huffed and shook his head, looking at the ground before saying, “Yeah, alright.”
He smiled when Barret took his arm this time.