Aerith felt a little bit better after bathing, especially since her new clothing fit all right, but the relief really only came after Zack told her where the bathroom was.
It was really more like an enormous litter box, out in the back of his house, but it was effective enough for her purposes. Coming back into the hut again, she rinsed her hands in the bathwater—figuring that was at least a little more hygienic than just letting them be—and sat down by the fire to dry the rest of the way off. Zack came in after her this time, taking the basin to empty it out. Once he returned, he seated himself a few feet away from her.
There was a comfortable silence. Even though it was only just after sunset, Aerith was already exhausted, which meant she'd probably be able to sleep tonight in spite of her unfamiliar surroundings. Turning over the day's events in her mind, Aerith thought of how kind Zack had been to her thus far, and not in the quid-pro-quo way she was used to.
Well, not quite. It was pretty obvious that he considered the two of them a unit now, and he had referred to her as 'his', but it didn't feel possessive. Still, Aerith looked over at Zack and asked, "Are all males this generous?"
Zack hesitated as if unsure how to answer. "If they find a female they like, yeah. But not all of them are as generous as me!"
Aerith laughed. "Are you just being like this because you want me to mate with you?"
"No!" exclaimed Zack, but seemed to be thinking even as he said it, and his cheeks flushed. "Er, I do want you to mate with me, but… I want to show you why you should first. That's what courtship means, right?"
"So if we were mates, you'd keep treating me like this?" asked Aerith, genuinely curious. Of all the reasons a relationship might go sour, the reason she'd heard cited most often was that one or the other party, and sometimes both, had changed since the early days. They may have tried to impress one another initially, but after they settled down, they stopped putting in as much effort.
Zack nodded emphatically. "Of course. Why would I stop?"
"Getting tired of giving me everything on a silver platter, maybe?" Only after the words were out did Aerith realize that they wouldn't make sense to Zack. Oops. She'd have to watch her language more carefully if she wanted to blend into the culture here.
Sure enough, Zack tilted his head, looking adorably confused as a couple locks of hair fell into his face. "Silver… platter?"
Well, there was no sense in panicking and trying to explain why she'd misspoken. It would be easier to just explain what it meant and try to move on. "It means handing me things I should have to work for."
"But you shouldn't have to work for them," said Zack stubbornly. Aerith was grateful that he let the matter of her word choice drop so easily. "You're a female. It's a male's job to serve your needs."
"In exchange for…?"
Zack looked genuinely confused. "What exchange? We're… er, we'll be mates."
"And as your…" Aerith trailed off, trying to find the right words. Having grown up in the Midgar slums, Aerith's idea of a perfect match was quite a bit different from the one-sided relationship Zack seemed intent on. She preferred working together, each partner putting in an equal share of work to communicate with and provide for one another. "If I become your mate, is there anything I should do for you in return?"
Zack flushed deeper. "Well… when you go into heat, we can copulate. If we're lucky, you'll give birth to my cubs a few months later."
Heat? Cubs? A few months? That was a lot to take in from just a couple sentences. First of all, Aerith wasn't totally sure whether it was possible for her to go into heat. But more importantly, maybe Zack's species was born as kittens, which was… really cute to think about. (And kind of nice to imagine, if the gestation period was also that much shorter.) "I bet you were adorable when you were a cub," she teased Zack, partly to find out whether she was right.
"Oh, I was," said Zack, grinning. "I'm my father's favorite son."
"You have siblings?"
"I don't know how it is for merfolk, but the children of most tribes around here are born in litters," said Zack, looking at Aerith curiously. "And my mother has had many litters—some before me, some after. But I'm the only black leopard in my family. And the only one with three stripes!"
Aerith smiled. Zack looked so proud about that. "Well, you're very handsome."
Zack beamed at Aerith, but then his gaze softened. "I wish females had beast forms, too," he said a little wistfully. "I bet yours would be beautiful, whatever you are."
So that was why he'd described himself as a cub in the old days, but referred to Cissnei as a child. Aerith struggled not to scowl. What kind of world was this, where males had alternate forms but females were stuck as humans the whole time? But then again, this was also a world where males dedicated their lives to serving females, so she supposed it evened out.
A sudden yawn overtook Aerith so quickly she couldn't stifle it, and Zack pricked up his round black ears. "Are you tired, Aerith?"
"Yes, the exhaustion just hit me," said Aerith truthfully, looking around to see which patch of dirt looked softest. There wasn't any furniture in Zack's house, after all, not counting the empty stone basin. "Where should I sleep?"
"Take my nest," said Zack, gesturing toward the pile of grass, and Aerith glanced over at it. Even though it was the obvious choice, she'd ruled out asking for it, since it wasn't big enough for two and she didn't want to rob a man of his bed. "It's way more comfortable than it looks, I promise."
Aerith raised her eyebrows. She was just tired and selfish enough not to object outright, but… "Then where will you sleep?"
"My fur is soft," said Zack, sounding like he was boasting. "I can curl up anywhere."
Honestly, Aerith envied him his warm coat. Now that the sun had set, the temperature was dropping more rapidly than she'd thought, and her summer dress wouldn't make a good blanket. But as Zack spoke, Aerith hit on a compromise. "Then curl up next to me. It's getting colder, so you can be my warmth."
Zack froze, disbelieving. "You're sure?"
Aerith nodded. "Just stay in your leopard form, and I'll be fine." She didn't have much of a problem with sleeping next to an exceptionally large and cuddly cat, even if such a beast was also this young man.
"All right!" exclaimed Zack, unable to stifle a grin, and punched the air. He made an effort to compose himself a moment later, transforming into a leopard to conceal his reaction, but Aerith was already laughing at his clear enthusiasm. Even understanding that a part of his kindness was born of a desire to mate with her, his behavior was so pure that Aerith didn't believe that sex was all he was after. And if Zack hadn't been able to so much as kiss a female before, it made some sense that he was acting like a teenager with a crush.
Bundling up her dress and jacket and using them as a pillow, Aerith lay down on Zack's grass nest, glad for his furry warmth close beside her. All things considered, it didn't take long at all before she drifted off into sleep.
Aerith awakened confused. Even before surfacing, she was aware that something was different—the voices in her head were silent for once, even in her subconscious—but could not pinpoint what it was until she opened her eyes to see a black leopard.
All at once, she remembered Zack, and yesterday's events came flooding back. She made an effort to regulate her breathing, absorbing herself with taking in her surroundings so she didn't panic about how she had gotten there. The house was dimly lit, but visible, some daylight filtering into the house from the smokehole and the cracks around the door.
Returning her gaze to Zack once her heartbeat had calmed down, Aerith found that his eyes had opened and were fixed on her, and couldn't help but reach over and scratch him behind the ears. In response, he licked her in the affectionate way ordinary cats did, and she smiled. His tongue was rough, like other cats', but the spines were the same size. There were just more of them.
"Good morning," said Aerith, and as Zack blinked slowly in response, something occurred to her. His expression seemed pleased, or at the least calm, but… he wasn't making any noise. "Can you purr?"
Rather than respond or transform, Zack just shook his great head, and Aerith blinked a few times. She had forgotten that big cats could roar, but not purr. "Well, if we're both awake, I guess it's time to get up." She wasn't sure what she was going to do once she was up and about, but lying here all day would cause more problems than it might solve. "Are you going back to sleep?"
By way of response, Zack got to his paws and yawned, stretching—his body trembled with the tension of his muscles—before turning back into a human. "No, I'm going to run around the entire valley," he said, pulling on his skirt. Was that seriously his everyday exercise routine? The way he said it seemed too casual for him to just be trying to impress her. "But I'll be back before you know it."
"Okay," said Aerith, appreciating the fact that Zack waited for her to awaken before leaving. She wasn't sure how well she'd have handled waking up all alone in a place that was barely familiar. "Have fun?"
Zack nodded, but hesitated at the door. "This is your home now," he said, and Aerith felt a twinge of unease. There was no way she could articulate where she had actually come from, and she still didn't have any kind of plan to get back. "If you want to go out, you should meet some of the other females. Just…" Zack pressed his lips together briefly, as though he didn't want to say whatever was on his mind, before the words burst out of him. "Don't accept any other males yet, all right?"
From Zack's expression, Aerith had been worried it was something serious, but she had to laugh as she heard his reasoning. "All right," she said, agreeing easily. Zack looked so anxious that she couldn't think of his request as too possessive. It wasn't like he was trying to keep her under lock and key, and Aerith honestly had no desire to receive too much attention from too many men. She was content to develop one relationship at a time, and Zack was certainly a wonderful start.
Looking reassured, Zack flashed her a smile and departed.
In his absence, Aerith spent some time considering how to get home, but had no idea how she had gotten here, so all her trains of thought seemed to lead in circles. The most she could think was that perhaps she should revisit the place Zack had found her, where Midgar had been, and see if hopping worlds was tied to her position in space. In any case, she wanted to get her feet under her before heading back to Midgar's coordinates.
If it was tied to her situation instead, Aerith would have to muster the courage to place herself in serious danger with no hope of rescue a second time, and… well… that wasn't exactly an appealing thought. If the attempt failed, the consequences would be deadly—and since this wasn't her Planet, then her soul wouldn't be able to find its way home.
That was a worrisome enough thought that Aerith felt that she had to find something to do with herself. Since Zack had not returned, Aerith got up with a sigh to use the litter box, then headed down to the river to wash her hands. If the people of the village bathed in the river, then they must get their drinking water from the lake, so it was safe to wash her hands here.
Aerith noticed someone approaching out the corner of her eye, and straightened up to see a female carrying a basket. Her hair was red and bound up in a ponytail that hung down to her shoulders, and she was looking at Aerith with curious bright blue eyes. She looked to be around Aerith's age, or maybe even a little younger, but she carried herself with confidence. "Are you the female that Zack brought back?"
"Uh, yes," said Aerith, wondering whether she should bow or curtsy or something. Shaking hands with a stranger seemed inadvisable in a world without soap. "My name is Aerith."
"That's a pretty name."
Shalua smiled. "So is Aerith."
Aerith had been afraid the conversation would die after the pleasantries, since she knew so little of this world, but evidently conversation about the weather was a standard among all cultures in all worlds. That in turn led them to talking of the various kinds of wild fruit that grew in the summer, whereupon Shalua offered to teach Aerith the best places in the valley to find it. Naturally, she accepted, and the two of them departed for the small forest within the bounds of the valley.
Apparently, the vegetation around the village was considered public property, a sort of semi-cultivated wilderness. The beastmen in Crater Valley didn't farm any crops—Shalua mentioned in passing that other villages with other dominant tribes did—but they did ensure that the berry bushes and fruit trees had a chance to grow and thrive, each household doing their part. It was an idyll few in the slums could even dream of.
As they began picking some deep red berries Aerith didn't recognize, first tangy and then sweet, she found herself looking sideways at Shalua even when she wasn't putting them in her basket. She wasn't what Aerith considered a great beauty, but neither was Aerith herself, and she was hardly as ugly as Zack's excessive praise had made her imagine. Her hair was a bit stiff and she had a lazy eye, but the only thing that was disproportionate were her large feet.
Shalua smiled. "I don't look much like the other leopards, right?" she asked, and Aerith shook her head, a little embarrassed to be caught staring, but glad that her thoughts hadn't been too uncharitable. Aerith didn't know much about the Leopard Tribe, but she'd observed that most were blond. "My father was from the Fox Tribe, just like Cissnei's. But we're not blood relatives."
"Ah," said Aerith, considering how families in this world might work. If Zack had claimed her as his female without even knowing her people, then obviously one didn't have to mate within one's tribe. But which parent dictated the tribe of the child if they were of different races?
"Who are your people?" asked Shalua, drawing Aerith quickly out of her thoughts.
Aerith hesitated. Shalua had already been kind enough to her that she was inclined to trust her, but she wasn't sure how much to say. Word tended to spread fast in tight-knit communities, such as could be found in small villages. But it wasn't like Aerith could keep up a lie for long when she really did know so little, so she just said, "I… don't remember."
Shalua frowned. "How can that be?"
Lowering her eyes, Aerith didn't need to feign her sadness when she thought how far from home she was. "I hit my head trying to get away from wild dogs before Zack rescued me, and lost my memories. I don't know very much about myself, let alone anything else."
"Oh, you poor thing!" exclaimed Shalua, resting a sincere hand on Aerith's shoulder as she looked up again. "I may have been born in the City of Beastmen, but I've lived in Crater Valley since I was a child. If you want to know anything about this place or the people here, you can go ahead and ask me."
Smiling, Aerith nodded, returning her attention to picking berries. It was a relief to have a friend. "Thanks, Shalua."
Since Aerith hadn't brought anything in which to carry the berries, Shalua let her borrow her basket and take it home as a welcome gift, promising to help her weave her own next time. In higher spirits than she had been since landing in this world, Aerith made her way back to Zack's house. However, as she neared the place, she heard his voice and one other talking seriously.
As she discovered upon getting closer, it was Cissnei.
Not really wanting to interrupt, Aerith ducked behind the wall, trying to hear. She had grown up valuing the information that might come from listening in, and it was all the more precious in an unfamiliar world. "Then I'll get to the point," Cissnei was saying. "Zack, I'm in heat right now. If you want, I'll bear you a litter of leopard cubs."
Aerith raised her eyebrows. Talk about a bold proposition. But Cissnei's specification that they'd be leopard cubs, as though not all her children would be leopards, gave Aerith other things to consider than her forwardness. If only males were born in their animal forms, then maybe it carried through the paternal line. And if 'cub' wasn't just another word for 'son', regardless of race, then it made sense that Zack had said Aerith could have his cubs. They'd be leopard cubs… just like Cissnei was offering to bear him.
Zack sighed. "I'm sorry, Cissnei. I've already decided on my female. But I'm glad you can have cubs this year."
This year? Curiouser and curiouser. So females only went into heat once a year? If going into heat was anything like getting a period, Aerith was incredibly envious. Though that did remind her, with an unpleasant jolt, that she was due to start bleeding any day now.
Shit. That wouldn't be easy to deal with in a world like this, without having brought any supplies from home.
"She's of age, yet she doesn't even have any markings on her body," said Cissnei, sounding the slightest bit impatient, but mostly… sad. Honestly, Aerith felt bad for her. It wasn't Cissnei's fault that Aerith had somehow landed in this world and caught Zack's eye. "Are you going to choose an unwanted female over me? She's so skinny she might not even be able to go into heat."
Cissnei said it like she was delivering a crippling insult, but Aerith wasn't particularly offended. She supposed she did look malnourished by this world's standards. Besides that, she was a bit preoccupied with considering 'markings'. Maybe those referred to the tattoos the other females had, though she had no idea why not having any made her unwanted.
Considering this occupied Aerith's thoughts enough that she barely remembered to listen for Zack's response. "Then I'll hunt for her until she's healthy enough to have my cubs," he said, his voice full of resolution. "I'm going to be her mate, Cissnei—her head male. That means providing for her, no matter what. Even if it turns out she can't have children." There was a brief pause, and Aerith imagined a staredown. "You should go. I'm sure your males are looking for you."
If Cissnei offered a response, Aerith didn't hear it. She waited until she could hear her walking away before she dared to peek around the corner. "Zack?"
"Aerith!" exclaimed Zack, whirling around, and looked as startled as if she had walked in on him kissing Cissnei instead of just having a conversation. "Did you… hear all that?"
Emerging from behind the wall, Aerith only nodded, bringing Shalua's basket into the house. There was a time and a place for potentially sensitive conversations, and out in the open in front of his house wasn't the best place (if only because he'd already had one there). Zack seemed to sense that Aerith wanted to talk more, and followed her inside, wavering uncertainly in place.
"Am I really an unwanted female?" asked Aerith, trying to think of a tactful way to get the information she sought. Even with Zack thinking she had lost all her memories, and having asked some pretty basic questions in the past, she preferred being subtle. Maybe it was vain of her, but she preferred not being thought of as ignorant, no matter how little she knew about the world.
"Of course not," said Zack reassuringly. "I want you."
Maybe just rephrasing Cissnei's words would work in Aerith's favor. "That's not what I mean. I don't have any markings."
Zack tilted his head. "How old are you?"
Zack blinked a few times in apparent shock. "There's no way no one would have wanted you after six or seven years, no matter how skinny you are," he said, and Aerith made a mental note that females came of age a little earlier. "But nobody on land knows much about the Merfolk Tribe. If you're one of their females, then…" He hesitated as if about to suggest something ridiculous. "Maybe the males there don't leave markings on their mates?"
So the markings did have to do with mates. All those different kinds of tattoos Aerith had seen on the other females must correspond to the tribes their mates came from, not themselves. She just didn't know how many tribes there were, or their representative animals, and she hadn't seen any markings close up that weren't leopards. "I don't remember."
"Well, if that's the case, then that means you're free!" Grinning, Zack paced around happily. "I'm gonna be such a good mate that when I leave my mark, it'll be on your heart. You'll see."
It seemed the placement of a marking was symbolic too, but Zack's determination was such a cute distraction that Aerith couldn't help but smile. She had never been one to play hard-to-get whenever she was open to the idea of dating someone, preferring to be as direct about her feelings as possible, so she didn't see any real harm in encouraging him for now. "I'm sure I will, someday."