Chapter 1: Zack
Today, Zack decided, he wasn't any good at multitasking. Or, at least, that was a suitable enough excuse this time; he didn't really have it in him for anything better at the moment.
"I'm cookin', Aer," he said into his phone which was cradled between the side of his face and his shoulder. "Can't we talk tomorrow or something?"
Unfortunately his attempt at getting off the phone was unsuccessful. His girlfriend sighed on the other end but didn't acquiesce, saying gently in a voice that churned Zack's stomach, "I'd really rather talk now."
"…Okay." Guilt shone clearly through his voice and Aerith made a soft, understanding sound. That was part of Zack's problem: she never gotmad at him, per say—and he felt like an ass for making her so disappointed.
Sometimes Zack figured that Aerith deserved better. Deserved something, at least.
"I was talking to my mom," she said, and on the other end Zack could hear the shuffling of papers that meant she was looking through her notes again (and he'd seen the binder full of papers; there were a lot).
Wincing, Zack played dumb as he ducked into the fridge for a bag of vegetables that were close to going bad. "About what?"
"About the wedding, silly!" His girlfriend laughed, light and airy, but there was a strained undercurrent to it. No shit, Zack, the wedding.
Laughing back and letting his panic show all over his face since she couldn't see it, Zack managed, "Oh! Haha—of course! What'd Mama Gainsborough say this time?"
"She thinks the best colors would be light pink and maybe a yellow."
Zack listened absently as Aerith excitedly told him the plans she'd been developing. It seemed that everything had to be considered, from the pretty nothings they put on individual tables to the color of the chocolate candies in the goody bags. Quite honestly Zack just didn't care; the fact that this was one of the most uncomfortable conversations he'd had in his life made him doubly anxious to get off the phone and hide from everything until work the next morning.
"When—when were you guys thinking of having this, hehe?" Zack's laughter was weak and he paused in cutting florets of broccoli to re-adjust the phone. It was infinitely easier to focus on the thud of the knife hitting the cutting board rather than Aerith's voice.
"The fall, probably—the changing leaves would be gorgeous, don't you think?" Aerith gave another giggle, but it sounded calculated. "So, that means you'll have to finally propose pretty soon."
Zack's mouth twisted in irritation. "Look, Aer—"
"Nope! You say the same thing every time, so what's the point? You'll just have to do it, silly."
Her fake, too-perky voice was starting to piss him off.
"You don't get it, Aerith. I just—ow!"
In his frustration he'd nicked himself with the knife. Zack let out a few over-exaggerated, whiny puppylike noises and moved to the sink, crying into the phone, "I cut myself!"
If Aerith was annoyed at her lost chance she didn't show it, cooing at him over the phone and asking if he was okay. It was just a small cut; he ran some water over it and pressed a dish towel to his palm, milking the situation for all it was worth.
"I need to go clean this and finish up my dinner, babe," he said softly once the excitement had died down a bit. "We'll talk later, okay?"
"…Okay." It was clear Aerith didn't want to let him escape but didn't have the energy to push it further today. "Bye, Zack."
Zack ended the call and sagged against the counter, idly putting pressure on his hand but not really paying attention to it. He felt so goddamn bad about it, but…
Aerith came from a different sort of family than his own. She wanted to be married, be a mom, and raise her kids in an idyllic suburban life full of bliss and, what, book readings and knitting clubs? Zack didn't hold it against her; that was an awesome life, no worse than any other kind of life. Her family was very religious, which was by no means bad but certainly different—hell, they didn't even live together after a full eight years of dating.
They'd met when they were both 19, at college here in the city. They were the kind of couple that everyone else was jealous of, who never fought and seemed destined to start a family right after graduation or, heck, maybe even before. Now, at 27, Aerith was past the point of frustration (and understandably so—if Zack had been the one dating a guy that for some reason wasn't proposing after all this time he'd dump his ass).
The thing was, Zack didn't know if he was equipped to give her the life she'd always wanted. The worst part was that he didn't know why; he didn't know why he couldn't propose to Aerith, why he couldn't commit. Maybe kids weren't exactly his goal but he could deal—he could be a great dad, everyone said so. Kids were great. He could have a wife, especially a gorgeous, kind, sweet one like Aerith who he'd been crazy in love with for so long. He could do it.
Except he couldn't.
Something was holding him back. Frankly, it just wasn't fair to Aerith—if he was the asshole who couldn't give her what she needed then he should let her go get it from someone who could, but he was a selfish jerk and didn't want to do that either.
Heaving a great sigh, Zack pushed off the counter and went to find a band-aid. This was another day with a real conversation about the wedding and his lack of a proposal avoided, but he obviously couldn't do this forever.
He ate his dinner alone in front of the TV and eventually nodded off on the armrest in the middle of debating what to do about Aerith. The repetitive laugh track of some late-night sitcom woke him up and he stumbled upstairs into bed.
Zack went to bed feeling miserable.
He woke up, however, with a glimmer of hope in his stomach. It only grew as the day went on. It was Tuesday, and that meant "guys' night" (as Aerith called it) was this evening.
Almost every Tuesday for years Zack had been meeting his best friends for cards, food, talk, video games, and more. They usually met at one of two houses—that of his oldest friend Sephiroth, or a man named Genesis. It was actually pretty awesome; in the frenzy of life in the city and the stress of work and relationships there was always a pause, a respite, a safe space with people who completed Zack in ways he hadn't known he needed.
"G'morning!" He said loudly when he got to work, slapping his hand down on the desk of the man whose cubicle was next to his. Vincent Valentine was his name, and he looked half-dead, nearly spilling his coffee all over his computer in surprise.
Zack's colleague turned sleepy, glaring eyes upward. "It's Tuesday, isn't it?"
"Yessir." With one of his signature cheeky smiles (he knew his happiness could get a little annoying on Tuesdays, but hey, sue him, he was going to hang out with the best people ever) Zack ducked into his own cubicle to start his computer, but stuck his head over the divider after doing so. "If you didn't know what day it is, why are you here?"
Vincent seemed to have nodded off on his arms, however, and didn't answer.
The funny thing was, Zack mused after lunchtime, going over color swatches in a board meeting, he worked at a marketing firm. It was his job to have a deep understanding of people, to know what they wanted and needed in order to sell them things. It confused him, then, why he couldn't figure out what he wanted.
That's what he had his good friends for, though—they'd help him figure it out. He couldn't wait.
At the end of the day he bade his co-workers goodbye (Vincent telling him to say hi to Genesis for him and throwing in a quick if-you-see-my-favorite-muffin-at-the-bakery-you-vi sit-every-morning-can-you-get-me-one-for-tomorrow) and headed back to his apartment. His buddy Cloud lived in the same building and sometimes they hitched a ride together to that week's meetingplace but Cloud had texted him earlier that day saying he was going over to Genesis' earlier than usual.
Figuring he knew why that was, Zack didn't ask for details and drove over by himself. Five minutes to eight he was knocking at Genesis Rhapsodos' front door, peering in the glass and grinning at his other friend, Angeal, who was hurrying to the door to let him in.
"Hey," Angeal murmured as he opened the door, pulling the younger man into a rough hug.
"Hey yourself," Zack answered playfully, smacking Angeal's hips with his hands. He gave him a big, goofy kiss on the cheek and ambled further inside to greet the rest of his friends. Sephiroth hadn't yet arrived but Cloud was perched on his favorite chair, happily munching on some cookies or something Genesis must have pushed on him. The blond beamed at Zack and waved a hand, while Genesis stuck his head in from the kitchen and smiled as well.
Their crew was pretty small but fit them all just right, or at least Zack liked to think so. He never felt smothered or lacking at least; things were kind of just, well, fantastic, despite all their individual dysfunctions and issues. That didn't matter when they were together.
He had known Sephiroth Crescent the longest. They went to the same school as children back in Gongaga, their hometown. Sephiroth, although a year older, lived down the street and wasn't too cool to hang out with him. When Sephiroth ended eighth grade his family moved to Midgar for high school. Zack moved to Midgar to go to college five years later but looked him up; they reconnected like no time had passed at all. Sephiroth also introduced him to Angeal Hewley and Genesis Rhapsodos, guys both a year older than Seph that he'd met at his own college, a fancy private school on the other side of town.
They were all done college now—the four of them had finished graduate school more or less together as well, who would've thought—and were on with their real lives, but they had stayed together after all this time, which was awesome. About four years ago they'd met Cloud Strife who actually lived in an apartment with his girlfriend, Tifa, a few floors above Zack but they hadn't known that for a while; the guy met Genesis first, occasionally delivering books to the bookstore Genesis ran in the swanky part of town.
Zack, known for slacking on his on job, hung out at the bookstore one day after calling in 'sick' and met the dude Genesis casually mentioned every now and again and bit by bit Cloud had been merged into their little group. He was a year younger than Zack, three younger than Angeal and Genesis and it had taken him some time to warm up to them but these days Zack felt like their relationship was damn near perfect.
A whole lot better than his deteriorating one with Aerith, anyway.
Sephiroth arrived around 8:15, complaining about traffic. He was an intimidating man, tall and sporting ridiculous silver hair that went down past his ass that he somehow managed to pull off spectacularly. He was quiet, kind of awkward and incredibly blunt, balancing perfectly with Genesis' and Zack's loud personalities and Angeal's tendency to worry. Zack was happy to see him. He waved from the couch on which he was sitting and enjoying a beer. Their eyes met across the room, conveying an entire conversation, and then Zack settled back into his seat, pleased as punch. This was the life.
Soon they were digging in to the large dish of baked ziti Genesis had made—true to point Sephiroth was eating like it was his last meal. The man couldn't cook and relied mostly on takeout and whatever his friends could prepare themselves and put in his fridge for him.
Angeal was telling a story about his last date, a customer of his who had been trying to buy watermelon seeds when they'd struck up conversation. Unfortunately for Angeal it hadn't gone very well (like most of his dates, truthfully) and they all made the appropriate noises of concern and promised to do bro-things like get beers and go to a game.
Genesis, relaxing on a couch opposite Zack's next to Sephiroth and resting his feet against the man's thigh, nudged him. "What about you?" he teased. "Got a hot date lined up?"
There was a line of dark, purpling hickeys on the redhead's neck that were insufficiently covered by the scarf he'd haphazardly thrown on; everyone was very carefully not commenting.
Sephiroth stared at him blankly. "No, of course not."
When questioned about Tifa Cloud just grunted and stared at his lap.
After skirting the uncomfortable questions about each other's love lives (Zack said delicately that he and Aerith were 'good' when Sephiroth inquired, not having screwed up enough courage yet), they finished eating and Genesis broke out the stash of board games he kept in a cabinet.
Zack was struck at some point an hour or so later by just how comfortable they all were, especially when Zack compared it to his own experience with Aerith these days. They were all loose and simply enjoying each other's company. Cloud and Sephiroth weren't as uptight as usual and were laughing. The dark fever behind Genesis' eyes they'd seen grow in the past months was gone; he seemed content. Angeal smiled warmly at all of them, looking like there was nowhere else in the world he'd rather be, like he was beyond blessed just to know them.
And speaking of Aerith…
"Hey, guys," he said, knocking Genesis's piece off the board on some game he forgot the name and sending him home, "I was talkin' to Aerith today."
They went quiet and looked at him curiously. "I was thinking," he continued, feeling a bit of nervousness flutter in his stomach even though there was nothing to fear—not with these four. "It might be time to finally…well, propose."
If Zack had been expecting an excited, encouraging reaction, he didn't get it. Cloud's eyes went wide and he hid his grimace behind his beer, Sephiroth's mouth thinned, Angeal looked like he was having trouble processing what Zack had said, and Genesis looked generally displeased.
"She's getting really fed up," he continued, smiling even though he wasn't feeling it. "And I don't blame her…y'know?"
The four of them were exchanging looks—what the hell did that mean?
"I mean," Zack laughed, "We've been together for eight years! It makes sense, right?"
"Yeah," Cloud said finally after no one else offered anything, "I…guess it does. That's great, Zack." He smiled, but it looked strained.
"…Aww," Zack moaned, sagging in defeat, "C'mon guys. I need you to be happy for me. I don't really wanna do it, you know?"
That got them finally reacting. "So don't?" Genesis prompted.
"But it's the right thing to do, I think."
Nobody could think of anything great to say for a while—they mostly shrugged at each other and tried to think. "Give me a reason why you don't think I should do it," Zack eventually asked Genesis, since he seemed to be the one most opposed to the idea (or the only one willing to vocalize it, at least).
The redhead looked flummoxed. "I…just don't think you should," he said, and he sounded confused even to his own ears.
"Same," Cloud quickly added. "I mean, if you think you should, then maybe you should…but it's weird."
"Thanks for that piece of brilliance, Spike," Zack muttered, and Cloud scowled.
"We'd be friends with a married man," Angeal joked, "never see you again."
Sephiroth was quiet—these kinds of words had never been his strong suit. His expression told Zack about the same, however.
Giving up, the subject was changed to everyone's relief, but the rest of the evening was undoubtedly dampened. They played more games, ate dessert (Cloud and Genesis force-feeding Angeal chocolate cake with their fingers when the man said something about a diet) and parted just before midnight.
Zack figured he should have been angrier at his friends. They weren't being supportive and couldn't even give him a decent answer—he was more confused now than he had been on the phone earlier. He wasn't mad, however; he could understand, because, quite honestly—he was bummed too. He didn't want anything to change between him and his best friends. He didn't want to propose and didn't want to be a married man despite his love he had, or did have, for his girlfriend.
The worst part was that he was still no closer to figuring out why.