Chapter 1: A Whole New World
In which Aerith gets herself into trouble, and a strange young man gets her out of it again.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Aerith had been in trouble before, but never quite like this.
She had only intended to do Moggie a favor, venturing this far into Scrap Boulevard in search of another of those medals he collected. It was his birthday soon, and he'd been kind enough to say he'd grant her a wish in return. And maybe it had been a stupid idea to wish for a taste of adventure, but it wasn't like Aerith knew it would kick in this quickly. Or even at all.
This kind of monstrous hound wasn't anything Aerith couldn't handle on its own, but she couldn't take the whole pack with only her staff to defend herself. One was fine, but the rest of the pack arrived before the fight was over. That meant that she had to shift from the offensive to the defensive, and from there, she went from the defensive to the panicked.
After taking a deep breath, Aerith let out a battle cry that might as well have been a scream, charging at the leader in the hopes of dealing more damage than her ranged materia, but the beast just swatted her aside like she was nothing. Her back hit a boulder hard, and her vision went blurry as she fell to the ground hard enough to drive the remaining breath from her lungs. Only after this did she realize that she had lost hold of her staff.
Aerith waited for brutal fangs to tear into her, but the vicious growls that had been approaching suddenly stopped. And then, judging by the sound of alarmed barks and yelps, it sounded like someone else had attacked the monsters. Had someone come to rescue her?
Turning her head with difficulty, Aerith found the pack of wild dogs facing off against another beast. This one resembled an enormous dark cat, from what she could tell. Perhaps a black leopard, but those weren't supposed to live inside the city limits, right? And they weren't that big. But Aerith didn't really have the luxury of complaining about the nature of her savior. She just hoped it wouldn't notice her after it was done with the pack.
The battle ended quickly, the silence pressing down on Aerith after the last whimper was cut off. Even the city she knew was so close at hand did not reach her ears over her pounding heartbeat. But pawsteps advancing toward her did. The giant cat paced toward Aerith and sat down beside her, and she tensed. Could she run? She wasn't sure how responsive her body was after all that, but if she hadn't succumbed to a pack of dogs, then she wasn't about to let one cat kill her.
But then, to her utter astonishment, the leopard transformed into a young man.
"Female, are you okay?"
Aerith knew it wasn't polite to stare, but manners were the last thing on her mind right now. The stranger's hair was as black as his fur had been, complete with rounded feline ears. His eyes were a light shade of blue, his pupils narrowing to slits even as Aerith observed him. His features looked young, maybe early twenties like Aerith herself, and there was concern written all over his face. There were three stripes on his face that looked to be tattooed on—two on one cheek and one on the other, though it felt balanced since the cheek with one stripe was also scarred.
Also, as Aerith's eyes wandered down, she discovered that the stranger was apparently naked.
That part caught her off guard, and she jolted back to reality, heartbeat kicking into high gear. But as she looked up again, she found that his expression had not changed. Okay, so somehow his nakedness had no bearing on his behavior, since he didn't look like he had any interest in forcing himself on her. His nudity was just… a fact, the same way it was a fact that Aerith was wearing a dress.
Making an effort to calm down, Aerith remembered that the stranger had asked her a question, and scrambled to answer it. "Uh… yes. Thank you for saving me." She wasn't totally sure whether that had actually been what had happened, but the fact of the matter was that he had shown up and killed or driven off the wild dogs, and he was asking if she was all right.
"Of course!" exclaimed the young man. Paying more attention to his voice now, she found that it was lighter than she would have expected, given that she had first seen him as a ferocious leopard. "It's a male's job to save a female in distress."
Aerith frowned. That was unexpectedly chivalrous for anyone in the heart of Midgar, but then again, this guy was obviously insane. Or maybe Aerith was the crazy one—she must have hallucinated his transformation. Anyone who would hang out in Scrap Boulevard completely naked must be crazy too, but at least he seemed to have his heart in the right place. Even if he was staring at her just as intently as she had originally stared at him, only with no sign of snapping out of it. "Is there something on my face?"
The young man shook his head. "You're pretty." The compliment was offered with complete honesty and, Aerith felt, no ulterior motives. That was unusual. Most of the people who hit on her were after something, but she couldn't tell what this one wanted from her. The way he was gazing at her, he just seemed to be in awe of her beauty. Aerith had to admit that it was more than a little flattering to be looked at like that.
Still, there were more important things to consider at the moment. Aerith's view down here was limited, and she'd like to be able to scan the area for more danger, especially if this stranger was so absorbed in looking at her. "Can you help me sit up?"
Almost immediately, the young man moved to help, and she glanced around. The rock formations looked similar, but she wasn't from this sector, so she couldn't tell if they were exactly the same. But… maybe 'this sector' didn't exist anymore. Aerith could see no sign of civilization anywhere. Not among the stones and dust, nor stretching to the sky behind her. There was only the sound of wind.
Realizing that she had somehow gotten more lost than should have been physically possible, Aerith felt like the ground had fallen out from under her. Where on Gaia was she?
"Are you lost?" asked the young man, and Aerith looked back over at him, feeling almost as dazed as when she had hit that rock. "You must be. No females go out in the wild like that, especially not without their mates."
The wild? Mates…? Aerith blinked a few times, trying to get her bearings. Maybe she hadn't been hallucinating him as a big cat after all, if he was speaking like an animal. And, wait, did his people have more than one mate? This was all so much to take in. The most Aerith could think was that this stranger was assuming she was also like him in some way, referring to her as a 'female' like that.
"Hello?" asked the stranger, waving his hand in front of Aerith's face.
She swatted at him weakly, relieved that her body worked well enough for her to react like that, and Zack snatched his hand back instantly. "Yes, I'm lost," said Aerith, still trying to figure out the best way to spin this. If she was expected to know anything about her situation, it might be a good idea to pretend she had amnesia, or something. "I… I don't remember how I got here."
"You don't remember?" asked the young man, looking suddenly alarmed. "Oh no! I didn't see any blood, so I thought you were fine, but… you must have hit your head." He hung his head, his ears flattening along the tops. "How could I have let this happen?"
"It's fine," said Aerith, alarmed by how discouraged Zack looked. If he had been so fixated on saving her, he must have taken it as a personal failing that anything had happened to her. "I'm okay. I just… can't remember much of anything." Technically, that was a lie, but she didn't feel bad about it in the slightest. If she had found herself in a totally different culture or even world, the result was the same. She didn't know anything about this place or the people within it.
The young man looked over at her again, wide-eyed. "Not even your people?" he asked incredulously, and Aerith shook her head. At least it seemed this stranger bought her story, because there was no suspicion in the way he looked her up and down. "Looking at the way you're dressed… I've only ever seen fabric like that at the coast, and I've never seen foot coverings like that at all. Maybe you're one of the merfolk."
Merfolk? That all but confirmed Aerith's earlier thought that everyone here was an animal of some sort, though she hadn't guessed that there was so much variety. "Maybe."
"But they keep their females so close to home, and they can't stay out of the water for long." The young man shifted his stance, and something furry brushed against Aerith's hand. She looked down in some alarm to find that he had a tail, too. "You must have run away from home or something, to have ended up here."
"I… really don't know." Talk of home made Aerith uncomfortable, reminded of the fact that she hadn't stopped to tell her mother where she'd gone. She'd have to find a way back home as soon as possible if she didn't want Mom to worry herself sick, but… that would have to take a back seat to handling her current situation. She could deal with trying to make her way to familiar territory once she found somewhere safe to stay.
"Well, don't worry. Whatever happens, I'll protect you." Grinning, the young man tapped Aerith's chin with a couple fingers as if telling her to cheer up—probably misinterpreting her distraction—and she jumped. "I saved you, so I'll be your male!"
Aerith blinked a couple times. Anything she might have said about the concept of being protected by a stranger was completely offset by his statement. Her male? "Excuse me?"
"Your male," repeated the young man as though it was obvious, apparently having forgotten that Aerith had claimed to be an amnesiac. "Maybe it's different for the merfolk, but out here, if a male saves a female, he gets to be her mate. So you're mine now!"
"Just like that?" asked Aerith, raising her eyebrows. This stranger was admittedly cute (and well-endowed), but she did like to at least get to know potential partners before anything else. Especially since, even if he had mentioned multiple mates earlier, she had no idea how that was supposed to work in practice. "At least tell me your name first."
The young man's eyes went wide. "Oh, right!" he exclaimed, pointing to himself proudly. "I'm Zack, a male leopard."
"Yes, I can see that," said Aerith, glancing down and then back up again. Considering his state of undress, it really wasn't necessary for Zack to point out that he was male, and she had seen him transform. "I'm Aerith."
"Aerith," repeated Zack, looking almost comically starry-eyed. "Even your name is pretty."
It felt a little weird to receive so many compliments from a total stanger, but it was a nice departure from being objectified in a more lewd way. Aerith couldn't really take offense to being called pretty so earnestly the way she could to wolf-whistling. "Thanks," she said, and meant it a little bit more than usual. "You're not so bad, yourself. But why aren't you wearing anything?"
Zack had been glowing at Aerith's returned compliment, his cheeks as rosy as if he had never heard such praise before, but he sobered at the question that followed. Tilting his head, he gave Aerith a confused frown. "I just transformed."
Right… so transforming didn't include clothes. Good to know. Aerith nodded in understanding, then looked around, feeling a little uncomfortable for reasons that had nothing to do with the conversation. Maybe it was the fact that she had been moving around a lot, or the fact that she was beginning to feel the sun beating down on her, but it was a little bit warm. "I'd love to keep talking, but can we do it someplace that isn't the middle of nowhere?"
"Oh, right," said Zack, looking a little bit sheepish, and glanced up as if he hadn't even noticed the sun. "Yeah, I'll bring you back to my house. But…" He hesitated. "You're the most beautiful female I've ever seen, and we're not mates yet. What if someone else tries to steal you?"
Aerith couldn't help but give a small smile at the extravagance of Zack's praise. It helped that he didn't seem interested in forcing himself on her, despite his lack of clothing. "Well, you saved me, right? That's already a point in your favor."
"Right, right," said Zack, looking immensely relieved. He must have been more insecure than he looked. "That's good to hear. I mean, I know I'll need to get used to sharing a female eventually, but I really wish I could have a mate all for myself."
Huh. So mating wasn't just a one-time offer after all. "I'm sure you'll be able to find one." Zack was certainly handsome enough to warrant an exclusive partner, at least in Aerith's estimation.
To her surprise, Zack's face fell, his ears drooping. "Where would I? In my village, there's only one female for every ten males, and they don't take that many mates. I'm sure it's not much different anywhere else."
That explained a lot. Zack's insistence on putting females first suddenly made sense. Judging by the numbers, females could probably have multiple mates, but males naturally couldn't. That was sure a raw deal. "Well, you've already made a good impression," said Aerith truthfully. There was something about Zack that she found endearing. He almost seemed more like a puppy than a leopard. "Keep it up, and I'd be happy to be your mate." If she could have more than one anyway, then what was stopping her? (At least until she could find a way to leave this place.)
"Really?!" Zack's countenance brightened immediately, and he helped Aerith to her feet so enthusiastically his grip was almost painful. But it didn't enter Aerith's head to complain about it. As they rose, she discovered that he was a full head taller than her, and marveled at his immaculate proportions. "Then let's go to my house. You can ride on my back."
"Wait," said Aerith, as Zack transformed into a black leopard again. As beautiful as he was, black fur glossy and shining almost blue in the sunlight, Aerith was too preoccupied to admire him much in the moment. "I think I dropped something."
Zack couldn't speak in this form, but tilted his head as if asking what it was. Rather than answer his wordless question, Aerith looked around, but saw no sign of her staff anywhere. Gingerly, she moved to search various nooks and crannies in case it had been flung elsewhere. Zack searched too, though he must have had no idea what they were looking for. After a short time, he bumped his head against her—she almost fell over at the force of his nudge—to present her with an interestingly textured rock, a hopeful look in his eyes after he spat it out.
Once Aerith was reasonably sure she'd looked around the whole area, she heaved a despondent sigh. She must have lost her grip on it before she ended up here. "Never mind," she mumbled, climbing onto Zack's back, and held tightly to his fur. A Cure materia really could have helped her in an unfamiliar place, to say nothing of the staff that went with it. At least she could make herself another of the latter, even without actually useful materia to augment its capabilities. (The materia in her hair bow, useless as it was, didn't count.)
After walking forward and bowing his head to take one of the smaller dogs' carcasses carefully in his mouth, Zack lurched into faster motion with no warning. Yelping, Aerith flattened herself against his back to make sure she didn't fall off. At least trying to stay on was enough to keep her distracted for now, because she got the vague feeling she might lose the rest of her composure once they arrived at their destination.
This was certainly more of an adventure than she had bargained for.
I have a serious weakness for starting new multi-chapter alternate-universe projects I don't have much of a plan for. This is one of those "low-priority" stories (i.e. not the kind of story I'm serious about), but I have a feeling I'll find it fun to write, so we'll see where it goes.
Thanks for reading!
Chapter 2: Settling In
In which Zack brings Aerith to his house, which is about to become theirs.
It took longer than Aerith thought to get wherever they were going.
Sure enough, there was no Midgar. There was only savannah bordering a dense forest. In the distance, from what Aerith could see whenever she dared to sit up a bit more and take in the view, were some ridges curving in a circle. Perhaps that place had been hollowed out by some sort of meteor thousands of years ago. If so, then this definitely wasn't her Planet at any point in its history. The only major meteor impact Aerith was aware of on Gaia was much farther to the north.
Zack paused at the top of the closest ridge, and though Aerith didn't know exactly why at first, she got the feeling a moment later that he wanted her to take in the view. The valley spreading out below them was beautiful, with a clear lake and winding river and lush vegetation, and she thought she had never seen anything so lovely. Not that she had detested Midgar as many of its other inhabitants, but she had always felt a connection to nature, and had missed it sorely in the city slums.
They started moving again, Zack thankfully walking a little more slowly as they picked their way down from the ridge. Once they got to the riverbank, Zack pressed his torso to the ground. Aerith slid off his back, wincing as she stretched her legs.
Dropping the dog carcass, Zack transformed back into a human. "This is Crater Valley, where my village is." Judging by the name, it had been hollowed out by some celestial body. Aerith wasn't sure how to feel about the fact that she really had jumped worlds, not times. "Most of the people there are from the Leopard Tribe, like me, but some of the females have mates from other tribes."
"I see," was all Aerith could think of to say. She only knew of leopards and merfolk so far, but if no one on land knew much about the merfolk, then… there must be other tribes. How many tribes were there? Could they all transform like Zack?
Zack looked at Aerith apologetically. "Do you mind hiding your face before we head into the village?"
Aerith forced her mind away from the tribes; there were more important things to deal with right now. If she was so gorgeous compared to the other females here, she didn't want to attract more attention than she was getting already. It was more than enough to get incessant compliments from one stranger at a time. "Not really." Taking off her jacket, Aerith buried her face in it, peeking up over the top. "How's this?" she asked, her voice muffled.
"That should work," said Zack, looking her over approvingly, and transformed into a leopard again. Picking up the dog in his jaws, he paced toward the village with a bit more purpose, letting Aerith walk with him. She kept one hand on Zack's back to make sure he didn't outpace her, using the other to hold her jacket in front of her face.
As they neared the village, Aerith observed that the houses here were small, simple, and made of logs. There was no time to wonder from where they had brought those logs, nor from what trees they came, because almost as soon as they entered the city limits—so to speak—the inhabitants started gathering around.
From what Aerith could see, all the ones who assembled first were male. Most of them had at least one stripe on their faces, and a handful had two, but none of them had three like Zack. Some of the voices were leopard meows and growls, which Aerith couldn't understand, but the rest were human.
"Where'd you find a female?"
"She's just skin and bones. Someone must have been keeping her captive."
"Her clothes are so weird!"
"What tribe is she from?"
"Why's she hiding her face? Is she ugly?"
As the speculations gradually started getting more and more wild, Zack let out a warning growl that made even Aerith shiver, and most of the spectators fell silent. But another voice replaced them: "What on earth is everyone looking at?"
Aerith looked over to find a small group of women approaching from the center of the village. The one leading the group was the one who had spoken, with wavy auburn hair that reached to her shoulders. In Aerith's humble opinion, she wasn't at all unattractive.
Come to think of it, seeing these other females as they came to a stop a short distance away, Aerith didn't understand why Zack had been so stricken by her beauty. On average, the females here didn't seem too different than your average female on Gaia, just… without the advantage of cosmetics or other modern toiletries. Their bodies weren't all in shape, their skin wasn't all flawless, and their faces weren't all proportionate, but there were plenty of slum women who looked similar.
As a matter of fact, as Aerith sized up these females, what caught her attention most was their stylized tattoos. They weren't like Zack's stripes, but formed more complicated shapes, and were located on various parts of the body except the face. Aerith wasn't close enough to see the details, but squinting at them, she thought the designs might be feline. That would make sense, if these females were also leopards.
"Zack," said the woman in charge, crossing her arms, and her amber eyes glinted in the sun. A leopard paced over to sit near her, and she rested a hand on its head, but her eyes remained fixed on Zack, with barely a glance in Aerith's direction. "Where did you get this female?"
There was a brief staredown before Zack sighed, dropping the dog again and transforming into a human. This world definitely had different standards of decency, if he could stand tall in front of so many pairs of eyes even without any clothes on. (Not that someone with his body had much of a reason to be ashamed, thought Aerith privately.)
"I found her by the forest," said Zack, looking down at Aerith, and then at the female. "She's mine."
The woman narrowed her eyes at this response, but seemingly had nothing further to say for now. She simply stepped aside with visible reluctance, and Zack relaxed and transformed once more, picking up the dog carcass yet again. Aerith felt the female's eyes burning into her back as they kept walking.
It took less than a minute before they reached Zack's house. He nudged open the door with his head, and Aerith wondered briefly how the door worked without metal hinges, but didn't have the presence of mind to try and figure it out now.
The place consisted of only one room with a dirt floor, and it smelled strongly of leopard. It was lit only by a smokehole in the top, and even that light was limited; it must have been covered on top to prevent rain from coming in. On one side of the room, there was a nest of grass. On the other, there was a firepit, with a pile of various things in the corner. At a glance, it looked like it consisted mostly of animal skins and bones, branches, and a few simple tools.
Once Zack dropped the dog close to the firepit, he transformed once more, taking a skirt made of animal skin from a crude hook by the door. Once he donned it, Aerith had to admit to herself that he looked incredibly handsome, but she got the feeling that admitting it outright might short-circuit him. Instead, she asked, "Who was that wo—female?"
"Cissnei," said Zack, looking vaguely uncomfortable. It didn't seem to Aerith that he really disliked her, just that there was something awkward going on between them. She was proven right a moment later: "A long time ago, I… kind of said I'd be her mate someday. Once I was strong enough. She's been nagging me since I got my third stripe…"
"Oh," said Aerith, torn between wondering whether a promise like that was binding and wondering what the stripes represented. She hadn't seen any with as many as Zack. "Stripes represent your strength?"
Zack nodded, his expression glum. "She already has some three-striped mates, though. She'll be fine without me."
"How old are you?"
Aerith pursed her lips. If this world was anything like hers, Zack had come of age five whole years ago, and there were even females who wanted him. From what she knew of this world's standards, it was strange that he was still a bachelor, especially if he was so strong. "Why don't you have a female already?"
"I've been trying to get strong enough to become king first," said Zack, his tail twitching. "I want a fourth stripe. Maybe a fifth."
Okay, so this world had kings. Aerith supposed that was good to know, but she had no idea where to start asking questions about the way things were run here. Instead, she just tilted her head and asked, "So, if you've been putting off Cissnei because you're not strong enough, why are three stripes enough for me?"
Zack blanched. "That's not it at all!" he exclaimed, clenching his fists. "We used to play together when she was a child and I was a cub. I liked her a lot, so once I could turn into a human, I told her I'd be with her someday." Aerith made note of his phrasing, but he was speaking too quickly for her to interject. "But she got other mates and stopped playing with me after that, and… that was why I'd liked her in the first place. So…"
"So not being strong enough is just an excuse, and you just don't have feelings for her anymore."
Zack cleared his throat, but Aerith guessed from his embarrassment that she was right, and he just didn't like being called out on lying. "Anyway, I'll be right back," he said, picking up the dog carcass, this time in his arms. "Stay here, and don't move. The other males will be all over you if they see you."
Aerith nodded. "Where are you going?"
Zack held up the dog effortlessly, looking relieved to be off the subject of Cissnei. "Skinning this. We need meat, and I don't want its blood in my house."
"Oh," said Aerith, understanding. "Yeah, good idea." Not that she considered herself especially squeamish, but she didn't really want to see that. Especially since she already had to get used to the idea of eating dog, even if it was wild and had tried to kill her.
Only after Zack's departure did Aerith dare to heave a sigh of relief, appreciating the chance to sit on steady ground and try to get her bearings. This didn't feel like a dream or vision, and her senses were neither more nor less acute than usual (though she was gradually becoming used to the scent of leopard). Aerith supposed there was an off chance that all this was some kind of hallucination, but she resolved to assume that this was real, if only for the sake of self-preservation.
Aerith meant to start thinking of ways to get back to her own world and house and mother, but her brain was so fatigued trying to keep up with everything she was learning about this world that she found herself zoning out instead. At least she'd chanced into some very kind and capable hands, or paws, instead of being left to die in the wilderness.
Having lost her grip on time, Aerith didn't know how long it was before Zack returned. She started as the door was pushed open, but relaxed quickly upon seeing who it was. "Dinnertime," announced Zack, setting the meat and bones wrapped in dog hide on the ground, and set to work making the fire. As he did so, he glanced over at Aerith. "What flavor do you like?"
Aerith blinked. Flavor? It was wild dog. "What flavors are there?"
"Willow and sandalwood," said Zack matter-of-factly, and Aerith frowned for a moment before understanding. Oh… so it had to do with the type of woodsmoke. "If you like other flavors, I'll find and chop them for you later."
Zack nodded and put some sandalwood bark in the fire, then threw the whole bunch of meat onto it. As he sat back again, they lapsed into oddly comfortable silence, but since Aerith had already made her peace with her situation for now, she had nothing to distract her from the ache in her muscles. The fight had been bad enough, but it hadn't exactly been a smooth ride to Crater Valley, either, and her body was sore all over.
As soon as Aerith winced, Zack was on high alert. He must have been watching her. "Are you hurt?"
"Not really," said Aerith. "Just a little bruised, I think."
Zack's eyes flashed in alarm. "That's right! I forgot females are so delicate."
Aerith just blinked at him. Being thrown against a rock should obviously bruise anyone, no matter their gender, but maybe things were different in this world. Maybe the females were only human, while the males were extremely tough. It would make sense, if their human forms borrowed their animal resilience, but why didn't females have it too? "It's just bruises."
"But bruises go away faster if you massage them, right?"
Aerith recalled the way Zack had gripped her when he'd helped her to her feet, and struggled not to grimace. Yes, massaging bruises did break them up, and she did have a fairly high pain tolerance, but… maybe not for that level of strength. "Maybe later."
Zack pouted a moment, but nodded. "If you like."
Only as the meat cooked more, giving off a surprisingly fragrant plant-like scent—that must have been the sandalwood—did Aerith realize how hungry she was. Until now, anxiety had suppressed her appetite, but her stomach growled, and Zack smiled at the sound, looking at her abdomen almost adoringly. "It'll be done soon," he said reassuringly. "You're so skinny. Eat as much as you like."
Aerith raised her eyebrows. Some people might have taken that as a compliment, but she wasn't that kind of person, and Zack sounded so concerned. She guessed that if this world was primitive enough for its inhabitants' culture to center on survival, being too thin would be disadvantageous.
True to Zack's words, dinner was ready within a few more minutes. After handing her a small clay bowl full of salt, he tore off pieces of meat for Aerith, heedless of how hot it must have been. "Dip it," he encouraged her, and she obeyed only after a hesitation. The meat was dry, but as fragrant as the smoke, and the salt somehow didn't make it taste too salty. It was no five-star meal, but it was fairly easy to imagine she was eating something other than wild dog. That was the most important part.
Before too long, Aerith had eaten as much as she felt she could hold under the circumstances. "That's good," she said, setting the bowl of salt on the ground, and sat back against the wall, waving her hands in refusal as Zack tried to offer her more.
"Just that?" asked Zack, concerned.
Aerith blinked a few times. "I'm full."
"If you say so," said Zack doubtfully.
Over the next several minutes, Aerith stared at him as he somehow ate all the rest of the meat, leaving only bones. Yet, even as he finished the last of it, his stomach was still flat and muscular as ever. She supposed it made some kind of sense, since he was also that enormous leopard, but still… it was a little unnerving to see in person.
"What are you staring at?" asked Zack, sitting back.
Zack laughed. "What do you take me for? I'm a male of the Leopard Tribe!" He patted his stomach proudly with a satisfying noise, like a drum. "And besides, beastmen don't waste food." Beastmen. So that was what they called themselves here.
Eating everything certainly minimized cleanup. Zack just took the bones, set them on the dog hide, and dragged it over to the corner with the other odds and ends. But while he was there, he hesitated, glancing back at Aerith as though he had just thought of something.
"Is something wrong?"
"Your clothes," began Zack, but stopped.
Aerith had a feeling she knew where this was going. This outfit was one of her favorites, but it wasn't exactly Stone Age fashion. "What about them? They stand out too much, right?" Zack nodded hesitantly, and Aerith sighed. She'd miss being able to wear this dress, but she should at least try to blend in. "What do females usually wear?"
"Skirts like mine," said Zack, pulling out a few animal skins from the pile one at a time and examining them. "But with tube tops."
Once Zack had found whatever he was looking for, he brought the pieces over to Aerith. Both of them were thin, soft pieces of tanned leather. They seemed like they'd be very comfortable, but she couldn't help a twinge of sadness as she felt along them. Mom was good at things like mending, which only made Aerith more homesick, especially since she couldn't sew very well at all.
Still, she knew the theory, and that was better than nothing. "I don't know much about making clothes, but I'll try," said Aerith, looking around. "What do you use to sew?"
"Here," said Zack, already retrieving an unusually large fishbone and plant fiber, and scrambled back to Aerith to hand those over too. Aerith prodded at the leather dubiously only to find that the fishbone really was sturdy enough to poke through. Wow.
Taking a deep breath, Aerith resolved to drape the leather over herself and stitch it into a change of clothes while she was still wearing her dress, then shimmy out of them and put them on by themselves later. A couple millimeters' difference wouldn't matter much, but aside from that, no elastic meant that her measurements had to be spot-on… which was a bit difficult to ensure on her own. "Hey, Zack," said Aerith, looking up to find him watching her in rapt attention. "Could you hold this piece here?"
"Sure," said Zack, moving to hold the animal skins as she indicated.
For the first time, Aerith understood how her mother could get lost in sewing projects like this. The comparison made her heart ache, but at least she had something to focus on so depression didn't consume her. She just kept working, ignoring how close Zack's fingers were to her thigh and then her chest. Asking him to hold the hide in those places was a good test of his self-control, and thankfully, he was passing it with flying colors.
"Done," said Aerith, because at some point, Zack had closed his eyes. Immediately, he withdrew his hand and turned away. "Thanks for your help."
"No problem," said Zack, glancing at the smokehole as if looking for somewhere to turn his eyes. "The sun is going to set before long. If you want a bath, you should take one now, before it gets cold. I don't want you to get sick."
Aerith paused. A bath did sound good, but… "Does everyone bathe together?"
"Of course not," said Zack, his tail lashing at the very idea. "The females bathe at the south end of the river, and the males at the north. No male is allowed to see the body of a female who isn't their own. But…" He looked at Aerith, his eyes troubled. "If you can't remember anything, it might be troublesome for you if they ask too many questions. If you want, I'll get a basin from the doctor so you can bathe in here."
Aerith smiled. "If you could, that would be nice."
Zack just nodded, darting out the door in a way that suggested that he really needed something to do with himself.
Without any hint as to how far away the doctor was or when she should expect him back, Aerith started worrying as time ticked on, feeling like this absence was stretching on much longer than the last one. Only as Zack returned with a large, heavy-looking stone basin—already full of water—and set it down near the center of the room did she understand why it had taken him so long.
"I'll be right outside," said Zack, his face ruddy, but Aerith couldn't tell if it was the exertion, the firelight, or a genuine blush. "Let me know when you're done."
Aerith smiled. She knew there were plenty of good men in her home world, even if they could be hard to find sometimes, but she had to admit that Zack was pretty close to her ideal type. "Thanks," she said sincerely, and Zack looked back at her like that was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him before shutting the door behind him.
Chapter 3: Bonding Time
In which Aerith learns more about the world around her and starts considering her future.
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."