Cloud was aware that, perhaps, letting Aeris use her sparkly new Materia on him wasn't a good idea. Just perhaps. But she'd been dragging him through the open market for the last three hours; his will to live was still in its death throes somewhere between the underwear stall and the tarot reader.
His common sense had survived a while longer, but when Aeris' eyes gleamed with pleasure and catlike curiosity as she rolled the stone between her hands, he was done for. Cloud knew how rarely the Planet let Aeris get her hands on anything Lifestream-related she hadn't been fuzzily aware of, somewhere in the back of her weird Ancient mind. And she loved mysteries.
The materia was just a yellow one, she'd reminded him, and she had a few healing orbs in her pockets if the thing tried anything underhanded. And at least she'd been able to assure him that it didn't feel like the orb contained one of the spells that hurt.
He could assure her that she'd been right; when the spell washed over him, it was utterly painless.
Painless castration - now that was a fascinating concept.
Cloud stood in silence in the middle of the alley, shopping bags abandoned around his feet, and stared at Aeris very hard in the hopes that maybe she would fix it before he had to use his eyes on something else.
Say, for example, on his own sleeveless top, to check why the fabric suddenly pulled across his chest and the arm holes seemed to ventilate way too much skin.
He had the very, very strong feeling that if he tried to look any lower - say, in his pants - not only would there be suspicious relief blocking his line of sight, but there wouldn't be anything to see anyway.
"... Esuna," he demanded.
There were a lot of things you never wanted to hear from a healer, and 'um' probably ranked third, just after 'oh my god!' and 'what the hell is that.' 'Um' was not the kind of sound he wanted to hear right now. "Aeris. That was not an Esuna."
"Ah. Apparently this spell consumes a lot more energy than I thought it would."
Cloud knew well how much raw power Aeris could routinely call up, and he had a feeling he wasn't going to like the answer to his next question.
"How much is 'a lot'?"
Aeris giggled cutely, scratched her cheek, sheepish, and stuck out the tip of her tongue in an attempt at cuteness that might - might! - have worked, had Cloud still owned balls to be affected with.
"Er. All of it?"
Cloud wanted very badly to ask her if she was joking. But he already knew the answer, and he wasn't going to enjoy it more if he had to hear it out loud.
"... Let's go home," he said after a few seconds. At least he had remedies there; perhaps he'd get lucky and some of them would work on that. And if they didn't, he could lock himself in the garage until Aeris was rested enough to fix it. Hopefully it would only take a day or two.
Even though there were still quite a few stalls to descend on, Aeris didn't protest the decision, not even when she ended up having to carry half of the dozen of bags she'd roped Cloud into lugging around, back when he still had the upper body strength to afford it.
Having to hand her the easily damaged purchases because Cloud kept tripping on nothing, losing his too-large shoes, and misjudging the distance he could cover in one step really added insult to injury.
"Tifa! We're home!" Aeris called as she swept in the bar's backroom.
Cloud sighed, and trudged in after her. He'd vaguely hoped to avoid attention by coming in through the back. Well, so much for that wish.
"Welcome home! What did you buy?" Tifa called back as she peeked in through the connecting door.
Aeris was already flitting around, stuffing the lettuce and tomatoes in the fridge, and smiled widely at the woman at the door. "Oh, food of course, and a few more dresses, and pretty strappy shoes - I got you a pair - and - oh, and a new materia."
Tifa blinked at Cloud slowly, a hand creeping up to cover her mouth. Aeris grinned and waved in his direction, with the flair of a circus ringmaster presenting their latest performer.
Tifa stared. And stared. And then she stared some more. Cloud endured it stoically. He supposed there was a kind of morbid fascination to it that he could hardly begrudge her. He'd stared a lot, too, the first time he caught sight of himself in a shop window, seeing himself slender, even shorter, and his hips flaring out in a very disconcerting way.
After that, he'd borrowed Aeris' jacket, because his skintight, sleeveless top really was kind of indecent on a woman's body. Way too much breast showing through the arm holes.
Cloud nodded tiredly. "...Yeah."
"Ah." Tifa seemed to have something of a problem finding her vocabulary.
Aeris beamed. "Isn't he cute?"
"Aeris," Cloud replied with a longsuffering sigh. "How do you not get hurt more than you do?"
Aeris chuckled. "It's my charming smile. And my dimples. Everyone loves dimples."
Tifa kept staring. Cloud sighed again, took off Aeris' jacket, and did a slow turn on himself to offer her a better view. He supposed as long as Tifa's customers didn't come up to the bar to look over her shoulder, he could give her that much. It was a lot better than what Aeris had done - that is, let him open the way through the market crowd so she could check out his ass without obstacles. Apparently this was how she'd decided she would oppose male chauvinism.
At long last, Tifa found her voice, which she then used to blurt out the first thing to come to mind. "At least you won't have to stuff your dress top anymore?"
Cloud groaned. "We are not infiltrating any bordello ever again."
"Aw, but we could sell you for so much more now," Aeris bemoaned. "Though I guess we'd lose the specialty crowd."
Tifa smothered a guilty giggle in her hand. Cloud spared one of the tired glares he was sending Aeris for her.
"We're talking about bordellos?" Zack inquired, as he popped without warning out of the staircase in the far corner of the backroom.
For someone so loud, it was disturbing how quietly he could walk around. No time to put Aeris' jacket back on. Cloud scrunched his eyes closed, braced himself mentally, and waited to be inevitably noticed.
"Ooh, Zack, did we ever tell you about the day Don Corneo found true love-"
Oh, too hell with delaying the inevitable. "No, we didn't," Cloud growled. "And we're not going to."
His attention pulled away from Aeris, Zack finally saw Cloud, and promptly slipped off the last step. He landed on his ass on the edge of a stair, but he barely winced, too busy gawking. "Odin's balls, I knew skipping shopping was a good idea."
Cloud grumbled under his breath and crossed his arms. The action was awkward and uncomfortable, but not half as much as Zack's eyes on him.
"... I'd ask if they're real, but a SOLDIER First Class can spot silicon at thirty paces."
"Zack," Cloud commented calmly. "I can't hurt Aeris. I can hurt you."
Zack lightened up and opened his mouth. "Well -"
"Don't. Even. Say anything about situational technicalities." Cloud paused, thought about it. "Or mention anything about mud-wrestling."
"... I didn't! I wasn't, I - oh, holy hell." Zack's air of wronged innocence didn't last long in the face of his laughter. His shoulders shook, and he threw back his head, all but howling. "Cloudette!"
Cloud's eyelid twitched. Zack was laughing so loud he failed to notice when the blond made his way to the emergency weapon rack in the corner and grabbed a sword.
He'd only intended to use the flat of the blade to tan the idiot's backside a bit, but the second he lifted it off the rack his arms started doing their best impression of a limp noodle; the sword would have landed on his feet, and no doubt broken a few toes, if Tifa hadn't lunged and caught it before it could get anywhere.
Cloud's brow furrowed, and he tried to ignore the faint heat rising to his cheeks. "...Thank you, Tifa."
She gave him a kind smile, as kind as she could while still looking weirded out. "No problem. You'll want to be careful with anything that demands arm strength for the duration... Where do you want me to whack him?"
"H-hey! Foul!" Zack protested, jumping on his feet.
Cloud's eyes crinkled in a fond little smile. "Thank you."
Tifa touched his arm soothingly and smiled back. "Anything."
"Woohoo, lesbian hijinx!"
"...Go for whatever hurts."
Yelping, Zack dove for the door to the bar; Tifa went after him, though she abandoned the sword against the closest wall. "Don't run over the patrons!"
Cloud sighed and watched as they disappeared out of the room, shoulders slumping a little lower when he caught sight of a startled patron watching him back through the crack of the door. "Hey, Sanderson."
Sanderson promptly retreated to the other end of the bar. And then the sword slid down the wall and tried to crush Cloud's foot again.
"This day sucks," he grumbled as he wrestled it upright again. "What could make it worse?"
Aeris winced and pretended to think about it. "Well..."
"What is all that noise about?" a low, commanding voice called as footsteps rang down the stairwell. "Is Zack rampaging again?"
Aeris moaned in distress, though the effect was marred by the laughter she was heroically choking back. "Oh, Cloud, you just had to ask."
Still annoyed by Zack's reaction, Cloud was already glaring warningly at Sephiroth before the man even fully emerged from the doorway; not that he expected Sephiroth to laugh, but he wasn't in the mood to have any eyebrows arched meaningfully at him either.
Sephiroth didn't arch anything; he just paused, and gave him a quick look from head to toes and then back up, and, to his credit, his attention stayed aimed at Cloud's face after that.
Cloud was annoyed to notice that he was even shorter compared to Sephiroth now. It had been one thing to suddenly be level with Tifa, but the green-eyed bastard loomed over him quite enough in normal times.
"No one word," he warned quietly, and crossed his arms again.
He forgot, and crossed them under his brea - his che - oh, hell, he wasn't going to play coy now. His breasts. He didn't have a huge rack - a healthy B-cup at best - but that was still more than he'd ever wanted emphasized. He didn't move his arms over, though; he didn't want to look sillier by attracting more attention to the accidental display.
Sephiroth's eyes stayed on his face, an eyebrow faintly arched. Cloud was almost ready to consider it gentlemany, but then some inner Zack-voice reminded him that Sephiroth's strange catlike eyes had great peripheral vision, anyway. Argh. It wasn't like the man had hormones to speak of; the only thing that seemed to get his blood flowing was a good spar.
Disheveled and breathless, Zack reemerged in the backroom just in time to start laughing at the tableau again. "Oh, Cloudette, you're so fine - isn't she hot, Seph?"
"Zack..." Cloud growled tiredly for what felt like the hundredth time.
Sephiroth gave him another critical once-over. "Well. You don't look hideous or grossly out of shape, at least. Now if the same thing were to happen to Zack, I'm sure the results would be far more traumatic."
"Oi!" Zack protested.
Aeris blinked. "... Um. Did you just... hit on Cloud?"
Sephiroth frowned disapprovingly at Aeris, which made Zack boggle in realization.
"Odin take us, you did. It was totally Seph-speak for 'I'd hit that'."
Sephiroth's cat eyes narrowed warningly.
"Or at least 'I wouldn't not hit that'."
Cloud started massaging his temples to ward off an incoming headache - was his hair silkier? Damn it, it was. It wasn't any longer than it had been, at least, left in the exact same haircut; he probably looked like a raging man-hating dyke, but if it was that or flowing tresses of spun gold, that was one thing he wouldn't complain about. "I realize this has high comedic potential, but if anyone wanted to be helpful and get me an antidote..."
"Got it!" Tifa called from the bar. There was a stock in the bar's first aid case. She finished serving the patron she'd gotten sidetracked with and then came in with the case.
It took three antidotes, two Cornucopias, two Maiden's Kiss and one heavy-duty Remedy before Cloud admitted none of them were going to work, however similar the effects they treated were.
"Aw crap. It won't revert on its own?" Zack looked askance at Aeris, who tilted up her hands helplessly.
"I don't know, maybe with a good night of sleep... If it doesn't, I'll just cast again to revert you back to male."
"Unless it reverts me to hermaphrodite," Cloud grumped under his breath. "Sure you can't cast now?"
"Sorry, not for a while. It's really taxing."
Aeris did look sincerely regretful, except from the little flame of mischief deep in her eyes. He believed her when she said she was sorry and couldn't, though; but he also believed that didn't mean she wasn't enjoying herself quite a bit. Reluctantly, he looked at Zack - hm, no, his magical ability wasn't much above Tifa's. Then...
He didn't want to ask Sephiroth to cast anything at him - still didn't trust him much with any kind of materia in hand, deep down, even one so harmless - but there wasn't much of a choice. "Sephiroth, could-"
"Hey!" interrupted Zack. "I wonder if you can spar like this?"
Cloud gave him an unfriendly look. "I doubt it. Thankfully I also doubt I need to."
"Hey, you never know." Zack strolled closer, casual. The second Cloud was sure this state could be reverted, he would go and test whether Zack could stay casually interested when the topic was his own vanished manhood and sudden curves. "You might get attacked... You know, some guy could be using it as diversion and all that..."
"Fire spells work for that, too," Cloud retorted dryly.
Zack peered at him almost hopefully. "-But if they were trying to capture you intact?"
"Why would anyone use this when even a Frog costs a quarter of that energy?"
"... Hey, you never know, they could have perverted designs on your body!"
Cloud rolled his eyes. "No, I'm pretty sure that's just you."
Aeris cleared her throat meaningfully. "Actually..."
Cloud sent her a pained look. "Okay," he rectified, "you and Aeris. The argument is still stupid, Zack. You're just trying to have fun at my expense a little longer."
Zack stepped up to him and threw an arm around his shoulders. Cloud glared sulkily; at least Zack had the common sense not to rest half his weight on him. "Hey, that's not true. ... Okay, yeah, it's a little true. But it's not a bad idea - you know, when I was in SOLDIER they threw Frog and Mini spells at us to make sure we didn't completely lose our heads if it happened. I have to say, I learned to hop around pretty well."
"This is the first time in my life I hear of a gender-bending Materia. It's not as if everyone is suddenly going to walk around with it."
"Aha!" Aeris exclaimed, brandishing the yellow orb. "But look at mine! It's round and smooth - not a natural one. It was born out of someone mastering another. That means there's at least another one out there, and possibly more, and if people find them interesting, they're going to keep breeding. They'll be a lot more common in a few years."
Cloud sighed in frustration. There was some common sense in Zack's suggestion, but Cloud was sure it would be easier for him to show common sense if he'd transformed deliberately. Or if he even knew for sure what it would take to change back. "I'll practice later. For now I just want to be normal again. I'm tired of tripping over my own toes if I so much as turn my head."
"But what if you get attacked before then?"
"Not gonna happen," Cloud growled, shoving Zack's arm off his shoulder and almost falling over as a result.
Sephiroth crossed his arms loosely and tilted his head, contemplative. "The probability is rather remote," he allowed. "You should work on your balance and sword kata regardless. Get used to your reach."
Cloud glared helplessly at him. Did no one here understand his burning desire to pretend this would never, ever happen again? He turned to look for Tifa, but she'd been called away again, leaving him alone with the three annoyances. One thing he knew now, there was no way he would ask Sephiroth for help turning him back to normal.
"... Or do you have something better to do with your time, Strife?"
Cloud's eyes narrowed. Was that a challenge? It sure sounded like it. Sephiroth's eyes gleamed predatorily amidst the study in boredom that was the rest of his face.
"I guess not," Cloud allowed. He supposed he could start with one of the smaller blades he owned and work his way up... If he wanted to. Which he still didn't.
Sephiroth arched an eloquent eyebrow at him. Cloud bristled.
"Fine. Give me five minutes and meet me in the garage. We're going out of the city."
Sephiroth inclined his head with mock-deference and swept back up the stairs.
"Sephy's got a daa-aate," hummed Zack under his breath.
Cloud was satisfied to see that his aim - well, his aim had indeed suffered quite a bit, between the weaker muscles and the narrower shoulder width, but when you were throwing a whole bag of apples, the spray was wide enough that it didn't matter much, a few of them were bound to hit anyway.
"Tifa!" he called, glaring at Zack. Aeris cooed at the black-haired man and rubbed the nonexistent bump on his head.
Tifa peeked in through the connecting door. "Yes?"
"I need a pair of pants that stays on my hips and solid shoes. Can you help?"
Tifa winced guiltily. "Er. I have skirts? And biker shorts."
Cloud considered it. To camouflage the shape of his ass properly, or to risk ending up with his pants falling around his knees. Well at least Sephiroth wouldn't be looking at his ass; male or female, he was a lot more likely to be interested in the sword in Cloud's hands. Right? Yeah.
Cloud held onto that belief as he stumbled up the stairs, and as he valiantly fought Tifa's clingy shorts, and as he almost fell over bending down to tie his shoes and smacked himself in the chin with his own boobs - he held onto that belief until he trudged back down the stairs and caught the man's gaze raking the length of his exposed legs with a bit too much attention.
"Seeephiii's got a daaate," Zack whispered from his safe place behind a giggling Aeris. Standing in the connecting door to the bar, Tifa smothered a guilty chuckle in her hand and pretended to pay attention to her patrons.
"Well, um, have fun?"
"But not too much fun," Zack piped up. "If you get my meaning."
"No, actually, we don't get your meaning," Sephiroth countered blandly, which made Cloud feel grateful all of two seconds, because then the asshole stole Fenrir's keys. "I'll drive. You can't handle a motorbike at the moment."
Cloud closed his eyes and breathed in and out slowly.
"Wait!" Aeris exclaimed. She ran to Cloud, and slotted the yellow orb that was the source of the whole mess in his wrist brace. "Keep it on you, we need to figure out what's its second level spell."
... Oh, hell, he'd breathe better out of there.
All right, Cloud thought to himself as he flung the door open. Sephiroth finds my girl body attractive, Zack will still be laughing next week, and Tifa and Aeris are probably already listing all the dresses they'll stuff me into. What else could - oh damn.
On the doorstep stood Denzel, key in hand and mouth hanging open. Behind him, a pack of schoolmates, already starting to whisper.
"That - what - how - what?"
"That's it. I'm getting Barret to be my male role-model."