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Not Wrath of Gods

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NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 1 - While Time Is With Us

 

Commander Genesis Rhapsodos's face, well-known and popular as one of ShinRa's most famous, had been described many times, by many people. The most common words utilized were pretty, beautiful, feline, seductive. One persistent admirer, an executive from one of ShinRa's affiliated corporations, had claimed such features "could only be drawn by the hand of the Goddess herself", no doubt trying to play on the SOLDIER's noted obsession with Loveless.

Had anyone asked Angeal Hewley to put a word to his old friend's face and expression, he would have - with little or no hesitation - scoffed "Diabolical". The nervous, slack-jawed 3rd Class currently cornered by Commander Rhapsodos near the center of a long hallway would have silently agreed with this assessment. Not aloud, because he was currently too flustered to speak.

"Junior Lieutenant...Meese, right?" A rapid, trembling nod. "Any guesses as to why I stopped you?"

"Wh-Whatever I did, sir, I apologize - "

"Lucky for you it's not a very serious offense," Genesis sighed dramatically, with a solemn shake of his head. "But even so, new meat. These are new pants, at least one-and-a-half sizes too small, and I'm assured they make my ass look fantastic. And yet you didn't so much as glance. I'm hurt, Meese."

Poor Meese's eyes were comically wide, his teeth nearly clacking as he stuttered, "S-Sir, I-I didn't mean - I just - I wouldn't dare - "

"Well, now that you are looking in my direction," Genesis purred, "I do look good, don't I?"

"Yes, sir, more than good. Everyone - "

"Should I take this to mean you've been observing me with lust, SOLDIER?" Genesis's tone had chilled a few degrees. "Your distant superior? This could be labeled harassment."

"Oh no, sir! I didn't mean, I would never - "

"You would never?" was his reply, in a feigned-offended voice and accompanied by a pout. "You would jump at the chance, you little miscreant. Don't insult me."

"Genesis." The word echoed down the corridor, approaching as its speaker did, and only one person said his name in that you've-been-bad-but-I'm-not-going-to-spank-you-so-stop-asking way. Genesis turned, tossed his auburn locks and grinned widely and genuinely.

Angeal's usual brisk stride brought him close quickly, one hand on the strap of a bag slung over his shoulder and the other reaching out to entwine his gloved fingers with Genesis's. It was a familiar gesture between them, not quite a hug but more intimate than a handshake. As always, Genesis offered a private prayer of thanks to Gaia for Angeal's safe return from his latest mission. He let his eyes drift over Angeal's broader form and chiseled features, fondly, before turning his attention to the boy who, as expected, was at Angeal's side. And bouncing lightly in his boots, also expected.

Zack Fair. As unique, in his own way, as SOLDIER's original and lethal trinity. Though just recently sixteen, the boy was already 2nd Class, not exactly famous but well known as the program's resident wunderkind, so naturally skilled at fighting that he had been assigned almost immediately to Angeal as a private student - an unprecedented move - when he finished his cadet training. The kid was brilliantly smart, impossible to dislike, and had the attention span of a gnat, and it was SOLDIER's worst-kept secret that he was his mentor's pride and joy.

As though there wasn't already enough about Zack to inspire jealousy among the few who didn't like him, the teenager also happened to be absolutely beautiful. Still growing, boyishly curvy body all lean muscles and perfect white skin, sweetly innocent face and lovely pale eyes like puddles of crystal clear water. Genesis had been warned by Angeal that Zack was off-limits, but he couldn't resist flirting with him, and getting in some harmless touching when he could.

"Puppy, I've missed you."

"Hey, Genesis!" the teenager said cheerily, missing the elder's semi-sultry tone. "Missed ya too, man, but Mideel was awesome, you should've seen me, I kicked insurgent butt! Hey..." Zack smiled knowingly and with a moral disapproval he must be absorbing from Angeal. "Are you messing with this guy? You're Meese, right, Luxiere's friend? What were you harassing him about, Genesis, breathing too loud?"

The 1st laughed warmly, amused by Zack's cheekiness and feeling no anger toward him; he was the whole 1st Class's beloved pet, after all. "Not complimenting my pants."

"Genesis," Angeal groaned, shaking his head. "You can go, Meese."

The 3rd stuttered a thank-you and high-tailed it out of there as fast as he could. Zack waved cheerfully at his retreating figure, then turned back to playfully wag his finger at Genesis.

"Okay, Puppy, I've been bad. What about you? Did you behave? Did you learn anything?"

"I behaved! Ask Angeal! Ooh, he said my form is improving, and that flip-attack you taught me? I've totally got it down. And guess what?" Zack beamed brightly, an expression that made him look younger. "I can knock Angeal down."

Genesis blinked a few times; that was something that even he had a tough time doing, since Angeal was bigger and broader. "You can? How did you manage that?"

"Like this!"

Before the others knew what was happening, Zack had taken two steps back and then rushed forward, launching himself at Genesis with more strength than one would expect from a boy his size. Genesis was taken by surprise, both by this focused strength and by the unannounced attack, and shortly after found himself speechless and flat on his back, with a gleeful and giggling Zack sprawled on top of him.

"Ha, see? I told ya!"

"Angeal...it jumped on me."

"He, Gen, use pronouns. Hang on, I'll get him."

"Wait a second." Genesis grasped Zack by the hips and adjusted him so that their groins pressed together, and smiled a dreamy smile. "You can leave him right there."

"Pervert!" Zack chided as Angeal hoisted him up and pulled him away with a frown.

"Angeal, home all of five minutes and already ruining my fun. And to think I actually missed you." Genesis made a disappointed 'hmph' sound. "That's very impressive, Puppy. You know who you should show next?"

"Sephiroth?" Zack guessed excitedly. "Is he here?"

"In his office. Better hurry, I'm sure he'd want to see your new skill immediately."

"All right! I'll see ya at home, Angeal..."

"Zack!" The 2nd was already dashing off toward the general's office. Angeal sighed and turned to his friend with an exasperated smile. "You're an awful influence."

"You turned out fine, didn't you? If a bit too moral for my tastes. Anyway...how was Mideel?"

"You wouldn't think a place like that could hide many rebels, but there was one in every tree."

"The Puppy did well?"

"As long as I had one hand on his collar," Angeal chuckled. "Otherwise he would've gone after all of them on his own."

Slinging his pack back over his shoulder (and picking up the one Zack had left behind), Angeal began to walk in the direction his student had gone. Genesis fell into step beside him with his usual slinky, feline walk.

"How have things been here?"

"Quiet. The Turks have been working overtime, even more secretively than usual, and the execs aren't spilling yet. The insurgents in Mideel...?"

"All hired swords, and none had any information, not even about who hired them. You still think this has to do with Wutai?"

"Mmm-hmm," Genesis said distractedly. "We should know something soon. I'm scheduled to head back in two weeks."

A pang struck Angeal's heart, one he always felt when a friend was about to go into a potentially dangerous situation. Genesis could take care of himself, better than most people, but...Angeal couldn't look at him without remembering the child who had always been by his side when they were kids together in Banora. Though almost a year younger, Angeal had always been the one who looked out for Genesis, who knew his rarely-revealed serious side and perceptive intelligence. As though sensing his worry, Genesis reached out again as they walked and wrapped his fingers around Angeal's hand.

"Don't get all serious on me, 'Geal. The war is over. It's probably just a few pockets of resistance causing trouble. We'll trounce them a little and that'll be it. Then I can get back to my real life's work."

"Jealously keeping admirers away from Sephiroth?"

"Getting you into a relationship, or at least laid regularly. This chaste lifestyle cannot be healthy, honestly."

"That again?" Angeal groaned. "I told you, that's just not one of my priorities right now. Unlike you, I have enough self-control to function without constant sex, and besides, my hands are full."

"With your work and your pride and your Puppy, I know. Isn't the solution obvious?"

"Gen..." Angeal said, in warning but without much energy.

"Oh, what? He worships the ground you walk on, you obviously adore him, and for the love of Gaia, he's gorgeous."

"He's a child, and my student. His looks are irrelevant. I'm in a position of authority to him, and altering the relationship between us would be a betrayal of his trust." Genesis was mockingly mouthing along as he spoke; Angeal glared at him. "I've had Zack with me since he was fourteen."

"You said he was more mature then than I'll ever be, despite all his Puppy playfulness."

"That doesn't matter. I'm his teacher, I'd never take advantage of him. And I won't let you either, so stop hitting on him."

"He doesn't mind. And if you're not gonna, why let all that hotness go to waste?" Genesis argued. "He'll have to cave in and date someone eventually, and whoever it ends up being, you'd just make their life hell, so - "

"I wouldn't."

"Oh please, you glare at anyone who looks at him too long and you know it. Even me. And you know you loooove me."

"Not at the moment."

"What if I bring you back some porn comics from Wutai? I have a source in Higashi Port who can get the absolute filthiest - "

"I'll pass, thanks."

They reached Sephiroth's outer office door almost in time. Angeal was just about to grasp the doorknob when Zack's voice rang out, merrily crying "Like this!", and there followed a series of noises that suggested a decidedly one-sided scuffle. A few moments later, the general himself appeared, perfectly calm and composed, not a strand out of place in the silver hair that framed his angelic face. He looked up and gave Angeal a faint smile as an arm briefly squeezed around his shoulders - the closest thing to a hug he would accept in public. Without even glancing his way, the legend was able to bat Genesis's hand away from his ass.

"Angeal."

"Seph. Sorry about the Pup. He was excited."

"So it would seem," Sephiroth said dryly, but the faint smile lingered.

"What kind of knot did you use?"

"An Igoro's Fist." That was telling; a strong and restraining one but not uncomfortable. "And soft rope. I've begun to keep it handy for just such an occasion."

"Thank you."

"While you are untying him, tell him I am impressed by his speed. And courage."

Angeal smiled. "And you're heading...?"

"To speak to the president. We may have a situation in the city." With that, the general nodded and walked away.

"Gaia, he has no idea how frustrating it is when he does that," Genesis groaned, and flounced after him.

Angeal too was curious, but he had other matters to tend to. He found his student sitting against the wall behind Sephiroth's desk, with rope wound securely around his torso and almost down to his knees, binding his arms to his body. Zack looked up at Angeal with a hopeful and relieved smile, and the commander affectionately tousled his hair before going to work on the knot.

"Genesis totally set me up, huh?"

"Oddly enough, I think he meant well. Seph told me to tell you he's impressed."

"Really?" Zack's face nearly glowed with pride. "But he got me down in, like, a second."

"Nonetheless. He never says anything he doesn't mean."

"Angeal? Are they gonna send you to Wutai?"

"I doubt it." It had been made clear to Angeal that while Zack was in his charge, he would be limited as much as possible to missions that wouldn't endanger his student. "Why?"

"If you have to, promise you won't leave me behind?"

"That's not entirely my choice to make, Zack. But I promise I'll do everything in my power to keep us from being separated." As long as you aren't put in danger. "Have you been worrying about this?"

"Well...people keep talking like we're gonna go to war with Wutai again. Instructor Eidlin says we won't, Wutai is too fractured, but...I don't know." Zack flexed his arms as the rope fell away, freeing him, and looked down dejectedly. "I...never mind, it's stupid."

"Pup. What is it?"

"I feel like something's wrong. Something in the air...like something's coming."

Angeal was immediately concerned; he had never heard Zack speak this way. "Maybe I should have the med lab take a look at you."

"No, I'm okay, really." Zack looked up and managed a fairly convincingly smile. "Just...don't..."

"What?" Angeal asked gently, placing his hand on the boy's nape.

"Just don't go anywhere without me, okay?" Zack's pale eyes had dropped in shame or confusion, and his whimpering voice was both slightly embarrassed and slightly afraid. "Don't go and leave me behind?"

Angeal's reassuring smile masked his worry; this was not at all like his optimistic, open apprentice. What Zack was, though, what he could be depended on to be, was a kid who, however strong and skilled beyond his years, was always comforted by touch. Angeal tolerated the boy's glomping, and had more and more found himself initiating contact like this. What is this effect you've had on me, the commander thought briefly, as he cautiously brought Zack's head to his chest and felt arms loosely encircle him.

"I'm not going anywhere without you," Angeal said softly, settling his chin lightly on Zack's hair. However wild it looked, it felt like satin against his skin and stubble. "I won't leave you."

"Thank you."

Seemingly reassured, Zack let himself be helped up and emitted a laugh that was meant to brush off his odd behavior but came out uneasy. Angeal pet his student's hair, letting his hand linger just a moment longer than usual, and shook his head when Zack reached out for the bag he'd left behind.

"Maybe you need to rest. Let's get home and I'll order something in."

Zack nodded. He walked with his usual slight bounce as they headed to the apartment, but Angeal noticed Zack keeping closer to him than usual. Maybe the commander was sensing whatever foreboding Zack was feeling, maybe it was just his protectiveness, but Angeal suddenly wished he could fold the boy into his arms and keep him there. Keep him hidden from dangers both real and imagined.

azazazaz

Their arrangement was not a commonplace one within ShinRa. It was not unheard of for a SOLDIER to train younger ones, even single one out for one-on-one help, but never before had there been an official mentorship.

SOLDIER was a well-oiled machine, and the 1st Class an elite corps. of highly valuable teammates, but ShinRa was always on the lookout for rising stars. The program had been built upon and thrived thanks to Sephiroth, their most precious asset, and Angeal and Genesis, the other two who had been prototypes for what SOLDIER would become. Yet no one had ever risen to such prominence as this trio, none who came after had been near their level. It was very likely that no one ever would, that their secretive origins had set a bar too high for anyone to ever reach. No amount of simple mako and talent could equal what ShinRa's greatest scientific minds had produced.

There was Zack Fair, though. He had come out of a backwater town, no fighting experience and too young at thirteen to try out for SOLDIER anyway, but the raw and natural skill he displayed with a sword had caught the eye of all who witnessed it. Fair was promptly accepted (the youngest ever other than Sephiroth, Hewley and Rhapsodos), and proceeded to move through cadet training like a fish through water. By age fourteen Zack was sparring with 3rds because the other cadets were no challenge for him, and promotion seemed the obvious choice. However, ShinRa had labeled Zack a potential star, a valuable asset, and therefore care had to be taken to nurture his skills properly. (And, if possible, to do something about the boy's worrisome lack of focus.)

The executives decided that what their new golden child needed was full-time, one-on-one instruction, with a 1st Class patient enough to handle such a task. Angeal had been brought in to aid in choosing the right mentor, but the reports and video footage of this boy on fire with dreams and potential had intrigued the commander. Maybe it was the boy's youth and small size, maybe it was the way he was being spoken of like a possession (like Sephiroth), or perhaps just the sweet young face and innocence that was somehow surviving a military atmosphere...whatever the reason, Angeal felt the first stirrings of protectiveness for the child, and volunteered at once to be his teacher.

The choice stunned everyone, as Angeal was known to be a serious man of few words, and one who valued his privacy. But none could match him for patience, and though he found Zack's energy and attention span challenging, he was charmed at once by the boy's idealism.

"So, what is it that made you join SOLDIER?"

"I want to be a hero."

He had said it with such determination, such hope and selflessness. What Angeal had expected would be a difficult baby-sitting job had become the great joy of his life. Zack had fitted into a slot in his heart he'd never known was empty. Years earlier, Genesis had, in one of his poetic moods, compared their close-knit trio to the cardinal elements of the world. He himself was fire, warm and rapid in movement, burning sometimes to protect and at other times to destroy. Sephiroth was ice, beautiful but cold, sleek and coolly logical, dangerous to touch. Angeal himself bore all the steadiness and dependability of earth, supporting the others and binding them together. That had left one element, and whenever Angeal recalled this musing, he thought of Zack's unusual eyes, their pure-water blue. Between the three of them and his work, Angeal had all he needed.

He didn't even mind sharing his personal space, as the apartment was spacious even by 1st Class standards. Kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms, all decorated in a simple style that suited a country boy who cared little for interior design. Genesis - who redecorated his own place like most people changed underwear - had often rolled his eyes at Sephiroth's preference for the sleek-but-spartan look and Angeal's boring use of neutral colors. But Zack had brought life to the apartment, there was no mistaking that. He wasn't a terribly messy kid, but it wasn't unusual for Angeal to pick up an open magazine, a forgotten school book, a cartridge from Zack's GamePro. Then there was the vibrant atmosphere of Zack's room, filled with posters and photos and even a few beloved childhood toys. The boy had even bought a bumblebee-shaped cookie jar for the kitchen and kept it stocked, insisting that Angeal needed more sugar in his diet.

So there was no need to wonder who had snuck three Choco-Chip Chocobos under Angeal's napkin. He found them when he finished his plate of Wutainese rice and mushrooms and rolled his eyes at them, but ate them anyway. Odd little things like that made the boy happy. Zack had already finished dinner and was sitting cross-legged on one of the couches with his History textbook; he looked up as his mentor approached and smiled.

"You've got a test coming up, right?"

"Oh. Yeah."

"But that's not why you're reading, huh?"

"No. This book doesn't have what I'm looking for anyway."

"And what's that?"

"Insight." Zack looked solemnly out into space as Angeal settled beside him. "I don't understand. I mean, I get why Wutai hates us. ShinRa teaches us that they first went to Wutai as friends, they attacked first, and everything we've done to them since was fair because of that. It's bullshit, right?"

Angeal hesitated. Zack was too smart to accept ShinRa's twist on history, but if the kid went around spouting the truth, the company would not be happy. They would label such a thing disloyalty, and while they valued him too much to punish a minor offense...

Zack seemed to understand why Angeal wasn't answering. "Just between us."

"Yes, between us, it's bullshit. Many areas of Wutai are suitable for extensive mako drilling. The invasion and the labeling of its people as brutal savages was all P.R. to cover the company's true motives. However, though the Wutainese are a noble people with a rich culture, they are extremely aggressive. The peace between us following the Aida Island Treaty was an enforced one, with few good feelings on either side."

"But...we've been withdrawing troops steadily over the years."

"A new strategy," Angeal said, not without bitterness. "Our presence in Wutai as guests and friends has intentionally exposed the people to our superior technology and medicine, and as we leave, we take with us these advantages. Many young people in Wutai support a genuine alliance between us to hold on to that, and Lord Godo himself declares he would welcome such a thing. Not easy, for a man of his pride."

"But..." Zack's nose wrinkled cutely in a puzzled expression. "Everyone says the recent attacks were probably thugs hired by someone rich and powerful in Wutai."

"Lord Godo has enemies, I'm sure, and the nation of Wutai is a collection of tribes, not all of which get along. The source of this recent trouble may hate Godo for the truce, and be trying to ignite old hostilities."

"But the attacks seem so random. Inciting rebellion in Mideel, hijacking ships out Costa del Sol, explosions in Junon. Even Instructor Mattley said he doesn't see a pattern," Zack sighed, referring to his Tactics teacher. "How do the Turks know it's the same people behind all that, anyway?"

"I don't know. Their methods are top-secret, and we've learned to trust their results. Zack...this will get sorted out. Why is it bothering you so much?"

"I want to figure out and solve it. I don't want anyone else to have to go over there and be in danger."

Zack restlessly edged along the couch cushions until he was right next to Angeal and let his head fall against a broad shoulder. The commander could feel stress gathering and coiling in his young student's body. Stress, and an uncharacteristic sadness. Even if Angeal himself wasn't going to Wutai, Genesis was, and the only reason Sephiroth hadn't already was that the sight of him there would send the people into a panic and start another war. Godo had sent a polite but candid letter stating that he feared for the "honored general's" safety should he make the trip. These men had become Zack's friends through Angeal and they weren't safe, no SOLDIER was really safe, and the boy was young enough to not understand that yet and be pained by the slow realization.

Angeal put one arm around Zack's shoulders, not an unfamiliar gesture. Then, after a moment's deliberation, he encircled him with the other arm as well, pulling the teenager to his chest and holding him comfortably and protectively.

"Puppy," he said softly, and Zack clung to him, to this slightly unusual degree of intimacy. "Genesis and Sephiroth are the last people you need to be worried about. Trust me, I know their abilities better than most."

"Don't you worry about them?" a quiet voice asked from his embrace.

"As a brother does - illogically and unnecessarily. Trust me, Genesis will come back from Wutai complaining only about the unavailability of his hair-care products, and Seph won't be going at all unless it becomes absolutely necessary."

"I heard the general's gotten death threats from Wutai."

"You're worried about Sephiroth?" Angeal asked, combing his fingers through Zack's hair. "He's unbeatable."

"He told me...what was it...a man who has never tasted defeat is only a man who has not yet found a worthy opponent."

"That does sound like Seph. And you sound tired, Puppy. Off to bed."

"'Mkay." Zack briefly squeezed Angeal, and smiled sleepily when he was squeezed back. "G'night, Angeal."

"Good night, Zack."

The boy stood up and headed for his bedroom, then stopped just before the door as though uncertain if he should go on. Acting on a hunch, the commander called out to him.

"Zack? Have you been sleeping all right?" The kid hadn't slept much during their trip to Mideel, and Angeal hadn't thought much of it because missions always brought out his most excitable energy. But now, why wasn't he eager to be back in his own bed as returned SOLDIERs always were?

"Wh-What? Oh, yeah..."

"Are you sure you don't want to go to the med lab? Or do you want me to come sit with you awhile?"

Without turning around, Zack shook his head at the floor and laughed quietly. "Angeal. I'm not a baby."

"I know, Pup."

"I'm going to sleep. See ya tomorrow."

"I'll be up for a while longer. After that, wake me if you need me."

It was the truth. SOLDIERs learned to get the sleep they needed when it was convenient to do so regardless of what was going on in their lives, but Angeal had trouble doing so in matters relating to Zack. Wrapped around his little finger, huh, the commander thought, remembering how his fellow 1sts liked to tease him about his fondness for Zack. More like he's wrapped himself around my heart.

Angeal had learned in his fairly short life that a pain of one kind or another accompanies every experience of love. His mother, as devoted as she had been to him, had been left half a person by his father's death, and her ghost-like presence was never afterward the comfort it had been before. Genesis knew Angeal better than anyone and was a steady supplier of support and good intentions, but the two old friends had once been more than that, in the long-ago haze of a Banoran summer. The decision to be platonic instead was mutual and amicable, but now and then Angeal wondered if he would ever fall in love, and sense the chance he may have missed in the air between he and Genesis - another ghost.

Then there was Sephiroth, who drew undying loyalty and worship like moths to a flame. Even in the company of Angeal and Genesis, where he could be himself, the famous general didn't let down all his walls. Angeal wondered if he'd even know how to do that. Part of being Sephiroth's best friend was seeing his hidden loneliness and distance from other people, and having to watch him being treated like a trophy and spoken of like a sex object. Love was never itself without some measure of pain.

Angeal had not yet figured out what the full price of having Zack would be. The inevitable loss when the boy no longer needed him, for one thing. The constant worry he felt for Zack's distraction and sensitivity and the looks that drew so much attention. The way he often thought of Zack as his own child and yet felt it was wrong of him to do so.

Angeal yawned, and rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache coming on from all these confusing thoughts. So many little pains. So many wounds we are willing to bear for the sake of giving others power over our hearts.

azazazaz

Zack had classes the following morning, and not long after he left, Angeal was summoned to a meeting of the department heads. Genesis met him on the way and began to walk with him; he sometimes sat in on the less boring meetings though he wasn't actually a department head himself. At one time the plan had been for Genesis to oversee the 3rd Classes as Sephiroth did the 1sts and Angeal the 2nds, but Genesis had flat-out refused to deal with that much paperwork, and anyway, as admired as he was, Genesis in such a position would only have frightened away new SOLDIERs.

It wasn't just Genesis's dislike for all but a handful of people, or even his pathological need to mischievously torment the lower ranks. If Genesis had the mental filter that kept most people from blurting out inappropriate comments, he had learned to turn it off at a young age. And though he sometimes claimed the shock value of the things he said was to disarm people, cut down to the heart of every matter, Angeal was pretty sure he just liked to see his victims stammer and their eyes widen. And Angeal, who had developed some immunity to this, nonetheless remained one of his favorite victims.

"Did that one. Did that one. And that one," the auburn-haired 1st said languidly as they walked, nodding toward many of the men they passed. "Did that one on a helicopter pad. Almost did that one, but he wanted to put me in short pants."

"Gen, I really don't need to know all this."

"It's not getting you hot? I'm offended."

"You really don't need to come, you know," Angeal reminded. "I'm not letting you sit next to Seph this time. No one believed you dropped your spoon in his lap and had to retrieve it 'by accident'."

"Meanie. Anyway, I was summoned for this one. Maybe we'll finally get the scoop on this 'Crisis in Midgar' thing. The chief of the city police will be there to give a report. Gah, what a dolt. If that imbecile mayor actually hired a competent police force, we wouldn't have to do so much patrolling."

Angeal let Genesis vent, quietly wondering what could be happening that would require cooperation between SOLDIER and the M.P.D. There was no great love between the two forces, with SOLDIER holding all the real power and receiving all the people's admiration.

Must be something they can't handle alone...and probably being put under pressure, so it's likely a high-profile case... Normally Angeal tried to keep up with local news, but having been in Mideel for the past two weeks, he had lately fallen behind.

"...I thought we could take him out for drinks tonight, get him, you know, not soused, but relaxed, then go back to my place for a little gangbang. I've got this collar I've been dying to try on a certain Puppy."

"Wait, what?"

"You weren't listening, so I indulged in a bit of fantasy."

"Well, don't."

"Oh, 'Geal, be honest. All that time you get to spend with it close by, you're saying you never get an urge to touch?"

"Yes, that's what I'm saying," Angeal said coolly. "And it's him, not it. Use pronouns."

"Even when I'm talking about his ass?"

"Don't talk about his ass at all."

"But - "

"No butts either."

"Was that a joke? Aw, we should stop and commemorate this moment with a photo. Oh, that one we just passed? Did him. In front of a mirror, on my hands and knees, and he was so good I let him spank me."

"Too much information, Gen."

"You live like such a monk, Angeal, I thought you'd appreciate some vicarious action."

"If you're getting so much yourself, then you have no need to go after Zack."

"I know, I know, he's your precious baby Puppy, and it's very sweet, really. But a tasty morsel like that won't go unsnapped-up for much longer." This was a typical way for Genesis to speak. He frequently treated people like objects, albeit objects he was quite fond of. "Wouldn't you rather the Puppy be safely in the care of your dear friend?"

"Safely?" Angeal scoffed. Genesis tossed his head back with an indignant "Hmmph!", and gave him a childish shove.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 2 - There Are Worse Things

 

The most noticeable thing about the comfortable but plain conference room was the number of empty chairs. Apparently this meeting would not be including the heads of every department, which made sense, considering how widely their duties and concerns varied. The largest seat at the head of the sleek table was taken, of course, by the unconcerned, paunchy figure of the president, with Tseng at his right hand and Sephiroth at his left. Beside the general was Lazard, the executive manager of SOLDIER, and Angeal saw also Commander Halger - head of the 3rd Class - and Commander Jacobson, C.O. of the ShinRa army.

It took Angeal a moment to recognize one of the two remaining men to be the head of Midgar's police force, and the other he didn't know at all. He sat down (giving Genesis his patented you'd-better-behave glare) and said a silent prayer of thanks that the science department wasn't involved in this. Hojo disliked meetings as a rule, and that feeling had surely been strengthened last time, when Genesis 'accidentally' left a Wutainese throwing star on the doctor's chair.

"Angeal, Genesis," President Shinra said gruffly, "you might remember Sergeant Daniels and his second-in-command, Detective Innes."

"Hello."

"Hmm," Genesis hummed noncommitally.

"Sergeant, as these two are not familiar with the reason you've come, why don't you brief them?"

"O-Of course, sir." Angeal felt sympathy for the middle-aged Daniels. Being in a room with the three top SOLDIERs would intimidate anyone, but he also had to keep from staring at Sephiroth.

The sergeant was handed a folder by his subordinate, and from it he took six enlarged photographs and laid them out on the table for everyone to see. A wave of disturbed murmurs passed around the room as the SOLDIERs, Turk and executives realized what they were looking at. Each picture was a head-and-torso shot of a young man, all appearing to be teenagers and all dead, though no sign of violence was evident on the bodies. They were so young. Angeal swallowed his anger and spoke to the head of police.

"Who are they?"

"Victims of a serial killer, we believe. We don't have all their names. Over the past three weeks, we've found them in various locales beneath the Plate."

"There's a lot of crime down there," Genesis pointed out. "Why are you so sure it's the work of one culprit?"

"Because, sir, the cause of death is always the same, as is the position the body's left in, the lack of defensive wounds and the...things done to the victim pre-mortem."

Sephiroth had picked up one of the photos and was examining it with a frown. "Is the cause of death Shizukanal overdose?"

Detective Innes's mouth dropped as he looked at the general (not for the first time). "H-How did you know, sir?"

"I've read about it. The drug in small doses is used as a tranquilizer and chemical restraint, and as it's become available on the streets it's become a popular date-rape drug. In sufficient quantities, it causes the victim to slip very quietly into death, leaving the lips with this tell-tale whitish cast."

"Correct, sir. The lack of defensive injury to the bodies has led us to believe that the victim is incapacitated by a small dose first, then later administered the overdose. Every one of the bodies had two puncture marks."

"You say this Shizukanal is readily available on the streets?" Genesis asked.

"Yes, under the names White Night, Go Down Easy and probably more. Your labs are doing trace analyses on the victims' blood, that may give us a clue where this particular Shizukanal came from."

Angeal found his eyes incessantly sneaking back down to the terrible images; he tried to force them up and to speak without anger. "Were these boys sexually assaulted?"

"Yes, all of them. We've analyzed the lubricant and sperm found on them, but it's never the perpetrator's semen, and the lubricant is a generic impossible to trace. This guy is careful."

"And sick," Innes added softly. He was much younger than his boss and obviously more affected. "The oldest of these boys was seventeen, the youngest fourteen."

"Have you a rough idea of how the crimes occurred?" Sephiroth asked, pushing away the photo he'd put down.

"Yes, sir. It seems in each case, the perp lured the victim into a secluded area, injected the drug - either by force or by claiming it was something else - and began the sexual assault. One victim's friends missed him from the arcade they'd been at and found him only thirty minutes later, so we know this guy doesn't waste time. The fatal dose is administered, and immediately after death, the body is placed in a fetal position, with one of its thumbs inserted into its mouth."

Genesis made a noise of disgust, which was echoed a few times from around the table.

"Where were they found?" Tseng inquired.

"Four in alleys, one in a park gazebo, one in an abandoned Item shop."

"And what was the extent of the sexual assault?"

"Difficult to tell, as there was no bruising and the bastard is careful not to leave DNA. But it looks like three were pentrated digitally and three raped. All were made to ejaculate."

Angeal shook his head. Violence he was used to; sexual crimes were beyond his understanding and his capacity to forgive. "Motive?"

"Our expert says sexual gratification is part of it; he uses a condom and forces sex from unwilling partners, so there's also a need for domination and a craving for power. The perp may have been abused himself and is seeking revenge, but it's likely he also identifies with the victims. He handles them gently and kills them painlessly."

"So, intelligent, calculating," Tseng concluded, folding his hands together. "Possible stealth training, experience administering drugs, likely a white-collar worker in a prestigious position. This one cannot be counted on to betray himself by making a stupid mistake."

Looking at the photos again, Genesis added "Male, probably native to the city. I'd guess he's charming and attractive, if these boys were willing to go with him."

"What is it we can do to assist?" Lazard spoke up for the first time, his kind voice tenser than usual.

Both police officers looked uncomfortable as Sergeant Daniels answered. "We think our best, maybe our only, shot at catching this scum is to catch him in the act. We know he prefers to hunt in the seedier area of Sector Three, as more than half the victims were taken there. We know what kind of boys he likes."

Lazard sat back in his chair and looked imploringly at the president. Sephiroth's silver feline eyes narrowed, and he placed his palms down on the table and rose to lean menacingly toward the officers. As expected, they shrank back in fear.

"Are you expecting..." The room seemed to grow darker, lit only by the moonlight flame of hair that stirred even though there was no breeze. "...me to hand over one of my cadets to be ruthlessly used as bait to catch a murderer?"

"No, sir, no!" they said hastily in overlapping voices. "We were hoping you might have a young SOLDIER...one who's stronger than he looks...mako dampens the effects of Shizukanal, n-not that we'd let it get that far! If we all worked together, police and Turks and SOLDIER, we could put a stop to this massacre."

President Shinra nodded slowly. "So you'd shadow the young SOLDIER carefully, in case he can't fight off the attacker himself?"

"Of course, sir. And in the news coverage afterward, we would happily give ShinRa a public thanks for your help." A promise of positive P.R., and of course the president was sold.

"Sir, I must protest," Sephiroth said through gritted teeth.

"General, I understand you want to protect your devoted men," President Shinra said in a faux-paternal voice that Angeal knew Sephiroth hated. "But you know their abilities better than anyone, so you must agree that an enhanced SOLDIER under strict watch can handle one normal human being?"

Sephiroth frowned darkly at that, displeased but unwilling to say his SOLDIERs were incapable of such a mission. True, it was of less risk than many he had assigned, but it was a boy they were asking for, and therefore probably a 3rd. The general shared a look with Commander Halger, who seemed to be thinking the same thing. 3rd Classes were sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, still getting used to the effects of mako on their bodies, eager to please and volunteer for missions but hardly more than kids.

"We understand you oversee the youngest class of SOLDIERs, sir? The 3rds?"

Commander Halger nodded unhappily.

"We'll need one that matches the perp's type. No more than five feet seven inches tall, slender, a slightly girlish figure if possible." Sergeant Daniels gestured to the spread of photos. "As you can see, he likes fair skin, pretty faces. Also - and this may be important - five of the victims had blue eyes, and the other was wearing blue contact lenses. That should narrow the choices down considerably, shouldn't it?"

"Too much so," Halger sighed, hiding a faint trace of relief. "I've only got one or two who fit all that, and they're too new. Their bodies haven't adjusted to mako yet."

"What about..." the president said softly. "...Fair?"

In plain sight, resting on the table, Angeal's hands clenched into fists, and when he looked up his brown eyes betrayed a hint of green. Genesis and Sephiroth wore twin scowls, Lazard looked alarmed, and Tseng put his hand in his pocket where his phone was, prepared to summon back-up if the president was attacked.

"Who?" Detective Innes asked uneasily, wary of the sudden tension.

"Tseng, if you please..."

Continuing to watch the group carefully, Tseng tapped at the table's computer controls, and on the wide screen behind the president appeared a photo of Zack and a list of his statistics and rankings. While the officers looked thoughtfully at this, Genesis put his hand on Angeal's shoulder and found it quaking with controlled fury.

"2nd Class at sixteen?" Sergeant Daniels read. "That's not usual, is it?"

"Lieutenant Fair is something of a prodigy," Lazard explained with a frown.

"If he's as skilled as this record indicates, then Fair is perfect. He has exactly the right prettiness and look of innocence we need."

"That's because he is innocent, and he's going to stay that way," Angeal growled, unable to hold back or choose his words with more care. "You are not exposing my student to a dangerous pervert just because you can't do your own jobs!"

"I'd watch my tongue if I were you, Hewley," President Shinra said with an icy tone and a matching expression. "Don't forget yourself. This decision is not yours to make."

"Sir, I'm sure the commander meant no disrespect," Sephiroth said quickly and smoothly. "He speaks only out of the great zeal he has for his work and his devotion to keeping the company strong."

Gathering calm from his reserves, Angeal pushed down his anger and took a deep breath. "I apologize for my outburst, officers, Mr. President. But I don't believe Zack is the right person for this assignment. He still has far to go in correcting his attention deficit, and he is not skilled enough in subterfuge to pull this off."

"The boy really is a terrible liar," Genesis agreed.

"I disagree," the president said flatly. "I expect a great deal of Fair, and reports of him in all areas have been excellent. I want to see what he can do."

"Sir, with all due respect, Fair's training was entrusted to me. I know his abilities better than anyone and - "

" - and I've heard from various sources that you are over-careful with the boy," the president interrupted. "If you are indeed coddling Fair, Angeal, you only hold him back from reaching his true potential. Were I to believe that your attachment to Fair is impeding your ability to teach him, I would have no choice but to assign him to someone else."

While Angeal tried hard to look like his whole world wasn't in danger of falling apart, Sephiroth quickly interceded in his most diplomatic voice. "I don't believe that such action will be necessary, sir. Fair has shown improvement under Commander Hewley's guidance. I think what Angeal is trying to say is that he should be among those keeping watch over Fair during this assignment. After all, he knows Fair well and may be able to detect trouble with him before anyone else can."

"Angeal, this is the best we can get. Don't push any further," Genesis whispered, too softly for unenhanced hearing to catch.

"That sounds reasonable," the president was saying. "We certainly don't want anything to happen to Fair. You may take part, Angeal."

"Thank you, sir," Angeal forced past the sick feeling in his chest.

President Shinra ordered Tseng to have the Turks assist the police officers in developing a workable strategy, and announced that they would meet the following evening and Fair should be in attendance. Angeal remained seated, his entire body tensed, until only his closest friends were left with him, a comforting presence on either side but not enough to reassure him.

"I am sorry, Angeal. Had I been able to prevent this - "

"I know, Seph. Thank you."

"Gaia damn it," Genesis swore. 'I don't suppose there's any chance mako makes one immune to that Shizukanal shit?"

"No," the general said soberly. "Larger doses are required, both for its effects and for overdose, depending on one's mako level, but that is all."

"Goddess, Seph, remind me to get you some better reading material. A new annotated edition of Loveless comes out next month."

"I am speaking from personal experience. I have been injected with large doses of Shizukanal."

Neither of the others had to ask why. It was part of Sephiroth's health regimen that he be made to build up a tolerance to any kind of drug that could incapacitate him. For a legendary figure of his fame, who received countless death and kidnapping threats, such measures were unfortunately necessary.

"I don't suppose the syringe-happy madman has invented any sort of vaccine against it?" Genesis asked bitterly. "Something that will protect the Puppy?"

"I'll protect him," Angeal said quietly, rising from his seat. "Thank you both. But Zack is my responsibility. If I can't keep him out of this mess, then I'll ensure he comes through it unscathed."

"I know you will," Sephiroth said after a moment. "But you realize, Angeal, that it is impossible to be a SOLDIER and remain completely unaffected by what we do."

"Present company excluded," Genesis murmured, nodding toward his friend's liquid silver eyes and unmarred body. Sephiroth ignored the interjection.

"We will of course guard your student with every resource at our disposal. I know Fair means a great deal to you, Angeal. But no SOLDIER remains unbloodied and innocent."

"I know, I know, I just...can't think about that yet."

Genesis pushed his hand under the padding of his friend's light armor and rubbed his shoulder. "Don't be embarrassed, 'Geal. The little one's wormed his way into all our hearts."

Angeal lifted his face, allowing his worry to be seen, and looked with fondness at his best friends, and gratitude. When Fair had first caught the company's attention, it was Sephiroth who somehow extracted a promise from the president that the boy would receive no experimental treatments, nothing beyond the mako every SOLDIER got. Genesis, despite his attraction to Zack and blatant refusal to hide it, was immensely fond of him and accepted him as part of their lives, when he had always before jealously resented anyone getting close to Angeal or Sephiroth. The other 1sts loved Zack...hell, everyone did. Zack was even on friendly terms with some of the Turks, SOLDIER's traditional rivals. Zack was a powerful force for good, Angeal sometimes thought, and he'd be wasted on the destruction of fighting if not for the seeming fact that he was born for it.

"I want to be a hero."

You can be, Puppy, you will be. So why is it that all I want is to keep you safe?

"Training this afternoon, right?" Genesis broke into his thoughts. "That's good, take your mind off things."

"Yeah. A nice warm-up for my talk with Zack tonight. 'Here's your mission, Puppy, we're going to expose you to the attentions of a homicidal pederast.'"

"Zack's not the clueless child you pretend he is," the auburn-haired SOLDIER scoffed with a roll of his electric-blue eyes. "And all he needs to know is that he'll be saving innocent lives."

"He is capable of this, Angeal," Sephiroth added.

"And if this fucker touches any part of him I haven't gotten to yet, I'll rip his balls off."

Angeal shook his head, feigning the grumpy annoyance he so often felt, but touched an arm of each of his friends in acknowledgment and thanks on his way out. They remained behind to watch him go, and Sephiroth gazed at the retreating figure with his usual analytical expression, wondering what exactly was paining Angeal so he would know what was paining himself.

"Needing some insight, Seph?"

"Do you have any to offer?"

"Yes, but I can only do it on my knees. And I'll need your pants unzipped."

With no change of expression, Sephiroth moved toward the door, and Genesis followed with a lascivious grin.

azazazaz

As Angeal explained what the day's meeting had decided, Zack sat beside him, cross-legged and facing his mentor on the couch, nodding and taking in the information with due attention and a solemn expression. Though Angeal was speaking with less than his usual calm and unbroken elegance, Zack showed no confusion.

"Understood," he said when his teacher stopped speaking.

"Will you be all right?"

"Yeah. Anyway, I'll have back-up, right? Let's get this sick freak."

"I'll be there. As close as possible."

"You worry so much," Zack said with a soft, tired smile. "I'll be careful. I'll always be careful, so I won't worry you so much."

That stirred a pang in Angeal's heart. To ignore it, he said "You did well today, but you weren't putting as much force as usual into your sword-thrusts. Did you strain something?"

"No. Sorry, I've just been tired lately."

"Not sleeping?"

"I sleep, I guess it just hasn't been very restful."

"Bad dreams?"

"I never remember," Zack said in an oddly distant voice. "But when I wake up, I feel like something's slipped away."

"Maybe you're learning after all."

"Huh?"

"The Wutainese philosopher Kitazawa said that when you learn something, you often feel like you've lost something."

Normally Zack would have debated the logic of that, bouncing as he spoke so that his disorderly spikes would fall into his fine-boned face. Angeal thrived on this energy, even though it was part of his job to limit and channel it, and seeing it at this low level was disheartening. The loss of something.

"I'm going to call Dr. Hollander and have him bring a sleep potion."

"Really, I'm okay."

"All right, but if you're not back to bouncing tomorrow you're taking the potion tomorrow night."

"Okay."

"Zack...I don't want you to be afraid. I won't let you be harmed. I pledged on my honor to protect you when I became your mentor. That's a promise between us."

"Thank you," Zack said quietly, still not showing fear but accepting that Angeal knew he was feeling a little. There was only so much SOLDIER bravado he could hold up while wearing frog-patterned pajamas, anyway, and he was intuitive enough to sense that there was something in himself that was always on the verge of breaking Angeal's powerful, secretive heart. "I trust you. I can do this."

"I know you can. You've always done so well."

"Do you think I can be a SOLDIER like you?" Zack asked suddenly, and that hopeful-child voice was classic Zack, at least.

"You will be a SOLDIER like yourself. Probably better than me once you reach your full potential."

"Yeah right...but I meant, will I be able to do for others what you've done for me? Inspire them, y'know, make them want to do their very best?"

"I'm sure you will. And I'm pleased to hear that I've done such a service for you," Angeal said, smiling with fondness at the boy. "I think inspiration will come easily to you. You already connect with people well, and leave them with positive impressions."

"Maybe I'll reform this guy we're after if I can talk to him," Zack joked weakly, regretting doing so when Angeal's brown eyes went a shade dimmer. "Angeal..."

The commander had never used to be tactile; it was something he picked up like a foreign language acquired from his student's use of it. Easily, with an ease he had never known, Angeal reached out and slid his fingers into the water-sleekness of black hair. Zack bowed his head to allow this, took comfort from it and from the pinky and ring finger against his cheek that he turned his face into. He didn't understand any better than Angeal why they were both so comforted by chaste touches like this. Touch had just been a part of love in Zack's life since he was born to his physically affectionate parents, and Angeal...maybe he was teaching Angeal too?

"You don't need to be afraid." Even if I am. "I won't let you be hurt. Go get some sleep, Puppy."

Zack placed his palm on his teacher's hand and let it slide away slowly, trying to reassure as he was being reassured. "Good night, Angeal. And...thanks."

He smiled brightly, waiting until Angeal looked happy again before sliding off the cushions and padding toward his bedroom. He felt Angeal's eyes follow him, their wistfulness.

I'll be strong. I'll show you what I can do, so you won't be so afraid for me anymore.

azazazaz

Commander Hewley stayed in the living room a few hours, sipping lukewarm tea and getting through some paperwork that he had found waiting for him upon his return from Mideel. He told himself to be patient, he wanted to be sure Zack was asleep before he peeked in on him like a nosy parent.

Opening the door and slipping inside silently was easy for a 1st Class. The room was dimly lit from the moon outside the window, giving faint illumination to the not-messy-but-disordered state that this place was perpetually in. Posters of bands and action movies watched Angeal from the walls, their presence like a motionless vigil, and a few sheets of paper had been tossed carelessly onto the desk beside a stack of textbooks. Angeal couldn't resist glancing at his student's homework; as he expected, it was completed and all looked correct.

Movement from the bed caught Angeal's attention, where he had been about to look next anyway. Zack was curled up on his side beneath a purple blanket, a chocobo plushie under one arm (a gift from Genesis after the boy's first on-duty injury; Angeal had first washed the aphrodisiac oil off of it), and he was pouting in his sleep. As Angeal watched, Zack's peaceful expression became one of puzzlement. He shifted onto his back, then his other side, making a soft "Hmm" sound. His sleep was indeed restless.

Angeal didn't want to get too close, as a 2nd Class would sense his presence if his sleep was light enough and possibly be disturbed. He watched from a safe distance as Zack quietly tossed and tangled up the sheets, craning his neck to get a good look at the teenager's face. Zack didn't seem distraught, he wasn't having a nightmare. Another kind of dream, probably, one that was bizarre as dreams often were.

He's taking that sleep potion tomorrow. And before the mission, I can't have him tired and -

Another soft moan broke into Angeal's thoughts. Zack's face was in plain view now, gleaming in the moonlight, and it tilted upward with a breathy exhalation of air. Confusion was still evident on Zack's pretty face, but it was relaxing into something else, and beneath the disarrayed bedclothes, his lower torso lifted up a little and made his slender form undulate.

Oh, that kind of dream, Angeal realized, and hastily left the room. His face was warm with embarrassment that he had witnessed his student experiencing something so private. It was only natural, of course, Zack was sixteen, and inexperienced with no outlet but himself for such impulses. He had never dated in all the time he'd been assigned to Angeal, even though young men both within and without ShinRa were constantly approaching him and expressing interest. Why the boy always either politely declined or didn't realize he was being propositioned, Angeal didn't know. He did know, though it shamed him, that he himself was relieved each one of these times. In addition to his protectiveness, Angeal didn't like the idea of sharing Zack with someone, or Zack losing the innocence that was so rare and precious in this bloody world.

My attachment to him is unhealthy, Angeal chided himself. I should see the company shrink. But he knew he wouldn't, he wouldn't tak any action that carried the slightest risk of having Zack removed from his care. He told himself it was only that his honor had been staked on keeping Zack protected, and that combined with the boy's infallible charm surely explained...

It didn't explain the attachment, none of these excuses did. But for now, they were all the answer Angeal had.

azazazaz

Something, someone was with him, Zack knew, in the part of his mind that didn't rest even in slumber. The dream's visuals, if there had indeed been any, had slipped away, but he remembered a cold and a loneliness, the solitude of a star too far from the moon. In body and in spirit the boy had shifted, turned, reached out for...what was it he had been grasping for?

Zack only knew that something, someone had come in answer, because now there was warmth all around him like body heat. It wasn't as solid as skin, but it was touch, Zack could never mistake the sense that he loved most. It brushed back the stray strands of hair that were irritating his closed eyes, it smoothed the confusion from his face like fingers that relaxed the creased skin into smoothness again. The presence surrounded him with safety and a silent assurance of love, and not until Zack fully drank this in did the ghost-like caresses ease into something slightly different.

A sensation like gentle fingertips at his stomach, which was bare where Zack's pajama top had ridden up. Slow, soft circles first, then working upward to trace the lines of muscle that training had begun to bring out in his chest. It felt good, but two particular spots seemed to want attention most. When hands (was it hands?) reached the nipples and circled them into firm peaks, Zack "Mmm"ed to encourage further exploration. The presence spent a little longer on the tiny nubs, flicking at them so they pushed against the pajama top covering them.

Zack let out an open-mouthed moan, and more warmth responded like a mouth over his own. The kiss was strangely chaste, no tongue, but it felt good enough to draw out more soft groans that were swallowed into what felt like lips but, to an onlooker, would have seemed to be only air. Zack parted his thighs beneath the blanket, hips lifting pleadingly, and the presence didn't make him wait. Pressure like a cupped hand stroked him three times, and that was all it took.

Without waking, Zack spilled himself into his underwear and pajama bottoms. This relaxed him and he began to slip into a deeper state of sleep, barely aware of the gentle caress that swept over his hair.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 3 - But Heart Of My Heart

 

Zack looked better the following morning, and returned from his classes with his color healthy and the old bounce back in his step. Angeal was relieved, but thought to himself that he would have liked a medical excuse to relieve the boy of duty for awhile. They ate dinner early, Zack's favorite pizza that Angeal always got for him when he was feeling worried or guilty, and headed toward their meeting at a slow pace Angeal set. He knew delaying would do nothing, only give him more time to hate his powerlessness, but he couldn't help it.

"So this is Zack Fair?" Sergeant Daniels came forward at once to greet him, Detective Innes right behind and nodding his agreement. "It's a pleasure to meet you, son. We've heard great things about you, and we're very grateful for your assistance."

"How do you do," Zack said with a weak, uneasy smile. Even when he was in uniform, civilians always looked at him and saw a kid, not a SOLDIER.

The police chief glanced at Angeal, who was hovering protectively at his student's side, and edged back a little. "Why don't we all sit down?"

At the same table where the previous meeting had been held, Lazard looked up from his seat to give Zack an encouraging smile. Tseng nodded to him, dark eyes concealing his thoughts well but betraying a faint disapproval of these proceedings. A middle-aged blond stranger dressed rather loudly was the last to be noticed, and he quickly rose and held out his hand, first to Angeal, then Zack.

"SOLDIERs, wow, it's an honor. Oh, I'm Guy Madell."

"The designer?" Zack asked, blinking with confusion.

"You've heard of me! Yes, my shop Krayzes is in Sector Two. Ever shopped there, by any chance?" Guy did the silent, subdued male version of a fangirl squee when Zack nodded. "Come back any time, I'll give you a permanent half-off discount."

"Really? Wow, thanks."

"My pleasure. I doubt you could pull off anything better than that uniform, but I've just put out some sweaters that would really suit your eyes."

You're the one who wants to pull off his uniform, Angeal thought darkly as his eyes narrowed. "Might I ask what your business is here, Mr. Madell?"

"He's aiding us," Detective Innes spoke up. "The victims all wore similar styles of clothing, so Guy here has offered to create an appropriate undercover outfit for Zack."

"Anything I can do," the blond man sighed. "The poor things. One of them worked for me for a while, stocking and delivering."

Zack's wary expression softened. "What was he like?"

"Alec was a sweet boy. Clubbed a little too much, sometimes ran with a tough crowd, but he had a good heart. Always talking about finding Mr. Right."

"Can I..." Zack looked, with defiant steadiness, at Sergeant Daniels. "Can I see the victim photos, please?"

"I don't think that would be a good idea, son. There's no need for you to expose yourself to that kind of unpleasantness."

"Yes, there is a need, sir. I want to see who I'm fighting for."

The policeman looked to Angeal, obviously expecting him to be an ally in this, but Zack had given a good reason, and however much Angeal wanted him protected, he was on Zack's side.

"I think, Sergeant, if Zack is old enough to be part of this effort, he is old enough to see the reasons we must stop this killer. Also, his rank is 'Lieutenant', not 'son'."

"M-My apologies..."

"'Zack' is fine," the boy said amiably. He accepted the folder handed to him and fliped through the photos, and showed as little reaction as he could with everyone watching. But the slow breath that was expelled from his lips was nearly a shudder, and he was just a tiny bit paler when he gave the folder back. "Did...did they suffer?"

"No. The way they were drugged, they wouldn't have known what was happening to them."

Zack accepted this; it was the same answer Angeal had given him the previous night. Guy Madell walked over near the windows and waved him over.

"Sweetie, if you'll come over here, I need to get your measurements. It'll just take a minute."

Zack obediently went to the flamboyant designer and stood a little awkwardly as his limbs were stretched out for easy access. A measuring tape was wound expertly around his neck, chest, shoulders, waist, hips, biceps and thighs, and Guy made hasty notations in a small black notebook.

"So, honey, you like your job?" Zack nodded, relaxing in the presence of the big-brother vibe he was getting; it was one he was used to. "Oh, if only I were athletic. A whole institution of hotties in uniforms, sounds like a dream come true."

Zack caught Angeal's faintly grumpy expression and laughed softly.

"Almost done...so, you got a boyfriend, honey?"

"Um, no."

"Really? Too busy for dating, or does that grizzly bear over there scare off all the suitors?" Guy teased, nodding toward Angeal.

Zack covered his mouth but couldn't stop the laugh that came out. Unfazed by Angeal's muted glare, Guy smiled at the commander to show that he meant no offense.

"Great, thank you, honey. Let's see...I'm thinking black, but we should have a little blue to bring out those amazing eyes of yours. Don't worry, I'll come up with something brilliant, I always do."

Guy winked at Zack, waved at the rest of them and strolled out, musing aloud about fabrics as he went. Zack shot an amused look at his mentor, who shrugged. Working for ShinRa tended to bring one into contact with all kinds of strange characters.

The atmosphere then turned more somber, as Angeal and Zack were seated with the rest of the small group and discussion of the mission began. The setting Tseng had chosen was a club called Hazy, in an area of Sector 3 close to where the two most recent victims had been found. He laid out a detailed blueprint of the building and its adjacent streets and alleys, which Zack dutifully examined closely, trying to commit all its complexity to memory.

"The plan will be executed up to five nights, consecutively, and if no results are obtained, we will then reevaluate," the head Turk explained. "Lieutenants Hartley and Odawa - both 1st Classes - have already infiltrated Hazy's staff, posing as security professionals. Two other 1sts will be hidden here and here, effectively keeping watch over both alleys. Four of my own people will be stationed here and here - " He tapped two well-concealed spots on adjacent building rooftops. " - with the other two in the club itself, one circulating in the crowd and tailing Zack, the other above the club's top-most tier with a view of the entire floor."

"Is there any way I could be stationed within the club as well?" Angeal asked, knowing already what the answer would be, had to be.

"I'm sorry, Commander Hewley, but you stick out too much," Tseng said simply, his eyes betraying a hint of sympathy. "And do you really think you would be able to keep your distance after contact between the target and your student is established?"

Angeal went silent, and the Turk mercifully didn't force him to answer. "Zack, you'll be wired with a high-quality listening and recording device which I personally, along with our best tech, will be monitoring. Now...Zack, you need to understand this. In order to arrest this man so we can build a case against him, he must be caught in the act of assaulting you. We will stop him as quickly as possible and even shoot him if we deem it necessary, but..."

He trailed off as Zack looked down at the table and seemed to shrink a little. Angeal gritted his teeth to keep from shouting the protests echoing in his thoughts, the mako-green flare in his eyes making clear his feelings anyway. He wanted very badly to grab Zack out of his chair and take him somewhere safe, or at least touch the boy to calm him and soothe the faint trembling he could see. But if the others saw Zack like this, saw hardly more than a child wearing a grown-up's uniform, then maybe...before Angeal could finish the thought, Zack looked up again with clear eyes and a determined expression, and just like that, the child was gone.

"I understand, sir. I can do this. I want to."

Tseng smiled faintly. "All right. Your instructions are to respond to the advances of anyone over thirty who approaches you. Others you will reject quickly, so you'll be alone and present an easy-looking target. Our expert says one strong indicator of this guy is that he will not attempt to take you far from the contact point. He does his work in unpopulated but public places."

"So if a guy asks me to go home with him, he's not the one," Zack summarized, and nodded. "If that happens, what should I do?"

"In such a case, your phone will immediately ring. You will answer it and pretend your mother is reminding you about the seventeen-and-under curfew Midgar has recently instituted. That will give you an excuse to decline. If the man doesn't promptly leave you alone after that, one of the undercover 1sts will come up and get rid of him."

Angeal breathed slowly and rhythmically, trying to keep his mind calm enough to focus on this mission. "I assume you've gathered information on the victims' personalities and can tell Zack how he should behave."

"Yes, Commander," Detective Innes spoke up, professionally but showing a definite unease about the SOLDIER's dislike of all this. "Our intel says that the boys were shy with strangers, open to new experiences but very naive and sexually innocent. They were looking for romance."

"For Mr. Right," Zack murmured.

"Yes. Commander Hewley." The detective swallowed his fear and fixed sharp, inquisitive eyes on the large SOLDIER. "Please excuse this question and be assured that my asking it is necessary. Does your student often receive compliments on his looks?"

"Yes, he does." Angeal's clenched fist lay on his lap and out of sight beneath the table.

"Hardly surprising. I'm a happily married man, but even I can see that he's quite a beautiful boy." Innes glanced at Zack, who was flushed and clearly uncomfortable, ducking his head down and having trouble sitting still. "Does he always react to such blatant statements in this way?"

"As far as I have seen, yes." The difference between those times and this was a painful one - Angeal couldn't shield Zack or frighten away whoever dared to let their eyes rest on him too long.

"Excellent. Zack, I apologize for embarrassing you."

"It's okay," the 2nd mumbled shortly.

"Your response to being complimented should be just like that during the mission," Sergeant Daniels said, picking up where his subordinate left off. "But add a smile. You want to give the impression that you are flattered and sexually interested, but afraid. If questioned about your experience, you have none. You are a virgin interested in going all the way, but afraid. Stress that what you fear most is that it will hurt."

"Okay," Zack said, feeling distracted suddenly. Mako enhanced a SOLDIER's senses, not just for danger but for other mako-filled beings, and the teenager had, having lived with Angeal so long, good intuition about his teacher's feelings.

Tension was coming off Angeal in increasingly powerful waves. Zack leaned back to get a glimpse of the elder's hands, and saw them gripping his legs with enough force to leave his knuckles bone-white. Zack could handle his own fear and discomfort, but the knowledge that he was making his revered mentor worry felt like a sword-tip in his heart.

"A-Angeal...?"

The commander immediately looked up upon hearing that timid voice, and managed to smile. "Everything is fine, Zack."

"Would you excuse for a minute, officers, Comander Tseng? Angeal, can I see you alone?"

Zack stood up before anyone could say anything and went to the door that led to a smaller, adjoining conference room. It was fortunately empty now, used primarily for more secretive meetings or to accomodate meeting attendees who couldn't all fit in the main room.

As soon as Zack shut the door and turned around, the welcome weight of Angeal's hands descended onto and gently squeezed his shoulders. Angeal's concerned expression looked down at him, and though Zack had thought of coolly insisting that he not be hovered over like a helpless child, all the annoyance Zack had gathered up evaporated when confronted by his teacher's quiet but obvious love. Angeal wanted so badly to hide him from this looming danger, protect him as he always had, and a big part of Zack wanted to disappear into Angeal's embrace and let him.

"Puppy, I'll figure a way out of this somehow," the commander said seriously. "I can get you out of it, you don't need to go through with it. It'll be all right."

"You thought...Angeal, that's not why I wanted to see you alone. I was assigned this mission and I've got to see it through. I know I can. I'm a little scared about it, to be honest, but I want to get this guy. You've got to let me. Please."

Angeal looked uncertain. "Then, why did you..."

"To apologize. I know this is hurting you, and when we actually do the mission..." Zack's voice was small, his expression that of a sad, guilty boy. "Angeal, I'm sorry."

They were alone, they both needed it, there was no reason on the planet to hold back. Angeal put his arms around Zack and held the boy protectively against his chest, rubbing circles on Zack's back with one hand and burying the other in his fine spiky hair. As tactile as he was, Zack would have been uncomfortable being hugged so close and so long by anyone else, but even Angeal's smell (soap and sunlight and something earthy like the plants he loved) was comforting. Had the moment not been colored by so much tension and solemnity, Zack might have laughed at the idea of smelling his teacher. Instead he snuggled against Angeal's heartbeat and listened to the steady thump that feigned tranquility.

Angeal...even your body is lying to me.

"You don't have anything to be sorry for. I will probably always worry about you. But I'm also proud of you, and impressed by you."

"I can do this."

"I know. And I have to let you. Even though I hate it."

azazaza

Tseng laughed with less warmth than most people, and the accompanying smile rarely touched his impenetrable eyes. The Midgar police officers assumed their question was merely one the Turk had fielded many times before. In truth, this was a Turk trait, a side effect of the training that taught them to carefully control every aspect of their expressions.

"I don't blame you for wondering, officers. ShinRa has no policy against relationships within its programs as long both participants are of age to consent, and Commander Hewley and Lieutenant Fair are, one might say, unusually close. But from what we've observed, Angeal's feelings seem to be those of paternal affection." Tseng tapped his fingers on the table top and offered his enigmatic smile. "There is a pool going on within the SOLDIER program, though. I may be able to get you in, if you like."

Detective Innes swiped at his forehead with a pocket handkerchief. "I get the feeling that we're dead, anyway, if we let anything happen to that kid."

"Oh, yes," Tseng said softly. "And not just Angeal. You would have to suffer the wrath of his best friends. Then, if anything of you is left over, the rest of the 1st Class would quickly remedy that. Zack is quite unique, you see. Everyone's little brother, one might say."

"And what about you, Commander Tseng?" the sergeant asked, his eyebrows lifting and his tone almost one of challenge. "It is said of Turks that your kind feel nothing, that you are moved by loyalty to ShinRa and nothing else. Are you, too, fond of of the young golden boy?"

Tseng's cool expression remained as still as an untouched pond, refusing to ripple at such a small pebble. "A Turk must have unswerving devotion to the president and the company above all things, true. Then naturally it follows that I support whatever makes the company better and stronger. Not only has Zack's presence made Commander Hewley easier to work with, but the boy is expected to one day be near equal to SOLDIER's famous trinity. When I tell you we must protect him, I speak of him as an asset, nothing more."

Daniels nodded solemnly. "And I suppose losing him would be a severe blow to morale around here. There would be a potential loss in profits."

"And the loss of Angeal himself," the Turk said, looking to the door the SOLDIERs had disappeared through. "I fear his life is dangling from our hands now as well."

azazaza

"You're comfortable," Zack murmured into Angeal's sweater. "If we stay like this much longer I'm gonna fall asleep."

"Wouldn't be the first time." There had been plenty of nights when Zack, after talking Angeal into watching a movie, had dropped off before it ended with his head on Angeal's shoulder.

"But this time you're not shoving me off and tellin' me to go to bed. So what's next? Are you gonna stop forcing me to eat vegetables the rest of the week? Suspend my curfew? Excuse me from classes?"

"Would my doing any of those things make you feel better in the midst of this?" Angeal asked, resigned to his place on the planet, which was around Zack's little finger.

"It's just another mission. Right?"

No. No no NO. "Right."

"You think I can handle it?"

"Yes."

"Can you?" Zack whispered, squeezing his arms more tightly around Angeal.

"Just be careful, Puppy. Please."

"I promise. I don't want to leave you, either." Zack felt a bit guilty for the way that made his teacher gather him closer and heave a heavy sigh, but every moment in this warm hug made a little more of his fear float away. The boy laughed a little, hoping he could lighten Angeal's heart. "Genesis is gonna be jealous, I bet."

The heartbeat against Zack's face stilled a moment, the burly arms stiffened. "Jealous? Why would he be?"

"Y-You know, 'cause of what I have to do on the mission."

"Oh...of course. Well, beneath his perversity, Genesis really is quite fond of you."

The mood had shifted. Zack drew back slowly, feeling a puzzling hurt that was softened by an arm that draped around his shoulders.

"Are you okay to go back?"

"Uh-huh."

As though sensing Zack's returning anxiety, Angeal kept at least a hand in physical contact with him as they re-entered the larger conference room. Taking their seats again, Angeal and Zack entwined fingers out of the others' sight and held hands this way for the remainder of the meeting. Zack's fingers were white and soft in Angeal's rougher ones, and he traced the shape of the uncalloused hand with his thumb without realizing what he did.

Turks see everything, can see even through solid surfaces like walls - that was another fragment of their popular legend. This one was untrue, no known mixture or dosage of mako could give one this ability. Anyway, it was their ability to read people that Turks lived or died by. Tellingly (though no one noticed), it was Zack and Angeal's faces that Tseng was subtly staring through, and not the table.

azazaza

Genesis's grip on Sephiroth's bare hips would have bruised almost anyone else, as would the force with which he pressed the body of relaxing muscles against the wall. He wasn't exactly restraining Sephiroth - he wasn't capable of doing so against the general's will and wouldn't do such a thing besides - but rather asking for control in a way that Sephiroth had learned to understand. Consent was given in the same unspoken language, in the slender hands that ran along Genesis's shoulders and neck and gently fisted his auburn hair.

Genesis loved to be on his knees like this, and have Sephiroth open to him in this unique way. They had barely gotten to the latter's office before Genesis snatched away the black leather coat and trademark belts, and somehow the addition of leather pants yanked down enough, just enough, bared the general more than complete nudity could. Sitting back on his ankles after a long series of lingering kisses to stomach and chest, Genesis massaged the narrow hips and looked up from a tantalizing erection to take in the full picture of perfection that was Sephiroth.

His head was tilted back against the wall, allowing light to fall upon his wintery porcelain neck that was usually hidden in shadow. The long silver hair brushed Genesis's knuckles as he ever so slightly rolled Sephiroth's hips, not enough to make him fuck the air or the waiting mouth, but it gave the faint illusion of an erotic dance that Sephiroth didn't even know he could perform. The longer he could be made to do it, Genesis knew, the more audible Sephiroth's sighs and gasps would become, the more his head would turn dreamily from side to side and his pale eyelids twitch.

Genesis wanted to suck him so badly; some days he could think of nothing else. But it was hard to tear his eyes from his friend's ethereal, aroused beauty, and the teasing and anticipation first was part of their routine. It brought them both closer to the edge, and though Sephiroth's sometimes scolded Genesis later for prying, he didn't put a stop to the practice. It was an odd sort of cleansing, a confession to one of the very few Sephiroth would let see him vulnerable. He had scolded the time Genesis intiated this dressed in a priest costume, but they'd gone through with it then too. Genesis would not be denied his sacraments.

"Who was it last?" the kneeling 1st murmured, circling his thumbs over Sephiroth's muscular stomach. The general's sex partners were few and trusted. "Lazard, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Sephiroth groaned, making a mess of the auburn hair he continued to scoop handfuls of.

"Have you let him yet?"

"N-No, only - " A cat-like tongue flickered at the head of his cock and Sephiroth's voice faltered. "Only fingers, and..."

"One of his many toys? Was it the glass one?"

"Yes," the answer came in a moan, maybe from the memory of pleasure.

"Marvelous things. I love the way mine reflects your skin." Genesis stopped speaking just long enough to suck on his fingers and let them sneak up the back of a sculpted thigh. "How did he come? Rutting against you with his usual gentlemanly desperation?"

"Yes, yes," Sephiroth sighed, in reply or in welcome to the first finger that gloved itself in his warm insides. The legend's marble skin was always cooler than other people's, but this part of him was pink and tender and needy as any other Genesis had ever probed.

Two fingers now, like arrows to the place that sped up the movement of Sephiroth's hips and lungs. He pulsed inside against Genesis's ministrations, against the stimulation that knew his remarkable control and could therefore be merciless to it. He just needed Genesis's mouth now, but it was never this soon or easy.

"Did he make you come first?" Only a nod this time, Sephiroth was biting the rosy flesh of his lower lip. "Good. Very good, he always does. Am I still the only one whose cock you've had?"

He posed this question every time, and Sephiroth always hesitated a moment, like it was the one that went a little too far. "Yes."

"Good," Genesis murmured, more in praise for his honesty than in approval of the answer, though it contained both. "Thank you."

Genesis would have been a miserable teacher and he knew it, but at least he understood the idea of reinforcing desired behavior with rewards. With no more delay, he added a third finger to the assault and immediately took Sephiroth as deep into his mouth as he could. The general cried out softly, and twisted Genesis's hair in a painful grip. The impulse was there to thrust hard, to fuck this hungry mouth, but he continued to let the other set their pace.

Genesis, with one hand still on Sephiroth's hip, guided him back and forth in a rhythm that would give them both enough time to savor this. He worked his lips over the engorged shaft and head with the skill and eagerness of a master artist at work, soaking it with his tongue as he sucked up the skin's salt and faint musk. Were it not for Sephiroth's inhuman ability to hold off so long, this would be over already. Genesis could only keep calm a short while before letting his elemental fire nature take over and whip him into a frenzy, driving him so mad with lust that he caused bits of pain to this ethereal being who aroused him like no other.

Manicured fingers dug into Sephiroth's right hip hard enough to bruise. A fourth digit, this one not lubricated, pushed roughly into him, and a fifth, until Genesis was harshly forcing his hand in and out down to where his palm began. His clever tongue swept the head of Sephiroth's wet erection until it found the slit and pressed against it, would have torn it open and fucked it if it could have. Sephiroth hissed at the discomfort but continued to fist Genesis's hair and roll his head against the wall. His moans grew louder, less inhibited, which was just what Genesis wanted.

"Stop fighting it," the kneeling SOLDIER mumbled, with remarkable clarity considering his full mouth. "You always fight it."

Genesis sat back and let the cock fall from his lips to tremble stiffly as Sephiroth shook, swollen and flushed and dripping on the floor. Before the general could grab his head and bring it back, Genesis caught his wrists - with some difficulty and luck - in one hand and gripped them against the hard torso. The look that screamed sex from seductive silver eyes made Genesis waver a moment, but he drove his busy hand deeper into Sephiroth's bone-crushing heat. I'm the boss here, this gesture reminded, and Sephiroth obediently relaxed his arms and rolled his eyes up with a long groan.

"I've told you," Genesis said in an oddly calm voice. "You can fight letting go with others, not with me. You're mine, and your body will not deny me. Don't make me punish you. You look so beautiful like this, I'm tempted to bring in your admirers, maybe some of the execs and suits who undress you with their eyes. Would you behave for them? Is that it, whore, you want to be bent over by someone else?"

"Gen..." They had no safe word, there was no need. That soft, rarely-heard tone was enough of a signal, and one that Genesis never missed. It was the least he could do, he figured, knowing that he sometimes pushed too far.

"I love you," he whispered, sincerity ringing in his voice like a bell. "Let go, Seph."

The general felt himself engulfed in moist heat again, and this time he let the suction take him into ecstatic oblivion. He swayed a little but stayed on his feet, and kissed back defiantly when the taste of his own seed was forced into his mouth. Fingers continued to fuck him lazily, as though it were a stroke of his hair, and Genesis bit gently at his neck and ears, careful to leave no visible marks of possession.

"Am I in trouble, General?"

"Perhaps."

Genesis's smirking laugh was close by, warm and heavy like honey. "I'm gonna fuck you raw tonight."

Sephiroth answered with a chilly smile. "If I let you. And if I don't already have plans with someone else."

"If I have to drag you out of someone else's apartment and into mine, you know I will." Genesis quickly cleaned his hands off and buried them in silver hair, then placed gentle kisses on Sephiroth's forehead, cheeks, chin, nose, eyelids. "I love you more than anyone else."

With the trust learned by one and earned by the other, Sephiroth leaned comfortably into Genesis's body and allowed himself to be held. What they were to each other, neither could satisfactorily define. A life within ShinRa did not often lend itself well to so-called 'conventional' relationships. SOLDIERs, especially 1st Classes, gravitated toward each other for flings or dating because they understood each other, and because their enhanced strength was potentially dangerous to civilians. Genesis and Sephiroth both found release with a few regular partners, all of them seeking to unwind and relieve the stress of their jobs. Angeal's chaste habits were an oddity in SOLDIER, not the norm.

For Genesis, however, nothing on Gaia was more beautiful or precious to him than Sephiroth (though Angeal just about tied, that was platonic...these days anyway). If the general ever decided he wanted to try a monogamous relationship, Genesis would burn his little black book and sing while doing it. Until then...he understood. Sephiroth was 'owned' by enough people. As long as there was this love between them, this closeness, it was enough.

"Oh," a teasing voice murmured, sneaking a hand between Genesis's legs. "You should have brought this to my attention, Commander. Prepare to be reprimanded."

And the kinky sex. The kinky sex was essential.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 4 - None Shall Triumph

 

Hazy was a popular club among the young adults of Midgar, crowded this night as it was on every other. Many of its patrons were regulars, continually drawn back by the noisy thump of techno music, the bare-chested or big-breasted bartenders, the flashing lights. These same things were all getting on Zack's nerves, as though he wasn't already stressed about the mission.

The previous few days had been an exercise in surviving tension. There had been work to be done, preparations made, a need to go over the plan's details again and again and again. Angeal had hovered more than usual, stressing reflex and hand-to-hand combat in their training but off-duty being obviously lenient. Zack was actually beginning to get sick of his favorite pizza and missing the vegetables Angeal usually forced on him. Though he wasn't about to complain that Angeal had begun to occasionally initiate hugs rather than merely allowing them.

Zack shifted on the bar stool and stirred his juice with a straw, trying to look more shy than nervous - although he guessed either would work, and there wasn't much of a difference between them. If anything, it was easy in this situation for the normally-cheerful boy to appear uncomfortable. Eyes were constantly traveling over him, the eyes of both genders and all ages. Oblivious to his own remarkable appeal, Zack blamed the clothes. The outfit Guy Madell had proudly presented to him looked simple enough on hangers - black designer jeans, a popular style of matching sneakers, a black shirt with stylish pale blue stripes and touches of blue at the collar and the hems of the short sleeves.

In actuality, the jeans, though they fit perfectly, hugged and accented the curve of Zack's hips and bottom, and the shirt was tight and a little short, exposing a strip of pale skin above his waist. Zack's usual civilian clothes were baggy enough to disguise his shape, not show it off, and he felt slightly whorish like this. As if the clothes weren't embarrassing enough, after he'd gotten dressed, Genesis had pulled Zack aside and proceeded to assault him with black eyeliner. The teenager didn't care how much this made his eyes "pop"; he was wearing make-up. He'd never live this down, even if Angeal successfully managed to confiscate Genesis's camera-phone.

"Hey there, honey. Are you alone?"

This had become so routine that Zack hardly reacted, internally. He forced a faint smile as the twenty-something young man with tousled green hair and leather attire slid onto the adjacent stool. He seemed friendly, he projected nothing at all negative, and his kind face made Zack think this was someone he'd like to talk to at any other time. Maybe more than talk? What was wrong with him, Zack often wondered moodily. At sixteen, he should be trying to screw everything that moved, not shying away from everyone and masturbating to fantasies of faceless, nameless male bodies.

"Um, kinda," Zack answered, absently fiddling with the silver flower pendant he wore on a chain. He kind of liked it, though at first he'd thought such a thing was too girly. It was beautifully made, and more importantly, it hid his communication device perfectly.

"I'm Garen."

"Zack."

"You don't seem to be having fun. You wanna dance? Or just talk, maybe?"

No need to pretend; Zack was genuinely sorry to have to decline. "No, thanks."

"Okay...well, if you change your mind, I'll be around."

"Thanks." Kunsel's right, I'm hopeless. I'll end up never having sex...

"Hi, Zack. Fuck, you're gettin' cruised like crazy."

The 2nd whipped around in his seat and found a familiar face sitting casually on his other side. The young man was about the same size as him, just a little taller, and he too was wearing tight-fitting club clothes. Even with the absence of his uniform suit and his striking red hair dyed brown, there was no mistaking those green eyes, or the way they winked at him from above a fruity-looking drink.

"Hey," Zack greeted him, careful not to use Reno's name, then continued in a whisper. "Aren't you supposed to be keeping at least a little distance?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm going. Just wanted to get a close-up look at ya. What do you say we forget our plans and go back to my place?"

Zack rolled his eyes and laughed dryly. "I think a certain highly-ranked someone might object to that," he said, careful not to use Vice President Shinra's name either.

"We'll make it a threesome. Spook his old man even more, whaddya say?"

"See you later, man."

"You sure? You know, once you go red - "

"Better off dead?"

"Bitchy much, baby?" Reno hopped up and made to leave, only pausing to squeeze Zack's shoulder and lean down to whisper to him. "Be careful. Remember, we're all with you."

With that, the young Turk disappeared into the dance-floor crowd. Zack shook his head with a faint smile, and looked at his distorted reflection in the polished surface of the bar. Reno was only a little older, incredibly cute (though foul-mouthed and troublesome) and he had expressed interest more than once.

What's wrong with me? Maybe if I just tried it, just once, even as friends -

"Do you mind if I sit here?"

Startled, Zack looked up. The owner of the soft voice was a thirty-something man with a young face and kind brown eyes, dressed casually. He smiled in apology and gestured to the empty stool between them.

"Um, sure, not at all. Go ahead."

"You seemed quite far away," the stranger observed, sitting down. "I'm not disturbing, am I?"

"Not at all. I'm Zack."

"Jonah. Nice to meet you, Zack." The man waved a cheerful blonde bartender over, with breasts that were too large to be natural. "Another Mind Bender for me, and another of whatever my friend is drinking."

"Oh, you don't have to - "

"I'd like to, please." Jonah's eyes, though gentle, seemed to be looking at Zack intently. "She's pretty, don't you think?"

"I guess," the 2nd answered, briefly making a 'yuck' face.

"I understand. I don't like women either, even the best of them are fake in one way or another. Men are purer, less complicated."

"Yeah, exactly!" Zack said, feigning admiration.

"So how old are you, Zack?"

"Sixteen. Can I ask you the same thing?"

"Thirty-five. I'm a resident over at Midgar General."

Zack's stomach felt like it dropped to the floor, but he showed only youthful awe. "You're a doctor? Wow! Do you save people?"

"Sometimes," Jonah laughed. "I'd like to get into private practice as an adolescent pediatrician."

"Then you could be my doctor!" Zack pouted. "You wouldn't give me any shots, would you?"

"I wouldn't do anything that would make you frown." One of Zack's hands lay on the counter; Jonah covered it with his own. "You don't seem to quite belong here. You're very new to this, aren't you?"

Zack didn't fight the color that rose into his cheeks. He squirmed shyly and ducked his head, looking absolutely like a helpless little boy when he was really a SOLDIER pitching his voice so its softness would still be easily picked up by his listening device.

"Uh-huh. I just...get lonely, and I want to meet someone who..."

"Who what?" Jonah prompted tenderly, clasping the teenager's fingers. "It's okay, I won't laugh."

"Who will care about me. I don't wanna...give myself away to someone who'll just leave me after."

"Any guy would have to be a moron to give you up. You are a pure, wise soul, Zack. I can see in your eyes how singular and special you are. On top of that..." Jonah chuckled anxiously. "Would you mind if I tell you you're the most beautiful person I've ever seen?"

Zack smiled with embarrassment and shrank further back into himself, turning his hand to let it be properly held and thinking Could this be him? He seems so nice, but...

"I'm not..."

"I think it's sweet that you're so shy. But it's nothing to be ashamed of. We all want to be loved."

"Are you...y'know...with someone?"

"With someone very special, right now."

Zack looked up and managed a dimmer version of his usual beam. The mission is what matters, show Angeal you can do this, he thought as Jonah's free hand - cool from his glass - cupped the boy's warm cheek. Zack closed his eyes and nuzzled it, thinking of Angeal, of touches that meant safety.

"You're beautiful inside and out, Zack." A thumb slowly ran over his lips, giving Zack the urge to leap back and wipe his mouth. "I see that."

The hand slid down, fingers trailing like feathers over his chin and neck. Zack tilted his head up helpfully, but made a scared noise and opened his eyes wide when the hand made to reach into his shirt. Or so he thought.

"Ssh, ssh," Jonah cooed, edging closer and stroking Zack's face. "I won't do anything you don't want. I just wanted to look at this."

He lifted and palmed the silver pendant around the 2nd's neck, and traced the fine lines of it with his fingertips. Zack sucked in a deep breath and reminded himself that the microphone and tranceiver were within the metal itself and expertly hidden. Jonah smiled, as though the ornament greatly pleased him.

"Do you know what this is? What it means?"

"N-No. My mother gave it to me, but she didn't explain anything."

"Mmm, exquisite craftsmanship, your mother must adore you. This is a Wutaian lily, and in its native land it's a symbol of purity. Brides and boys who are wed to men wear them on their wedding days, and at night, the flowers are ceremonially removed after consummation."

Zack's cheeks went pale pink again. Why hadn't he been told he would be walking around wearing the equivalent of a "VIRGIN!" sign around his neck? They must know, must have chosen this symbol for that reason.

"I guess," he started, then sipped his juice to get the dry feeling out of his throat. "I guess I'll have to stop wearing it...when..."

"I figured you've never done it. That's good, that you've waited."

For those dead boys, for Angeal...

"It's not good," Zack blurted out, heatedly but quietly. "I...I want to, I just...I'm scared."

"Oh, baby." Jonah brought Zack's hand to his lips and pressed (mostly) chaste kisses all over it, then held it between his own hands like a priceless relic. "It's all right. What are you afraid of?"

"That it'll hurt," Zack said, intending the childlike voice but surprised by the few tears that escaped his eyes and gathered on his eyelashes. "I don't want it to hurt."

"I understand. But what if I could make it so you feel nothing but pleasure?"

"You - You can do that?" It's him, oh Gaia...

"Yes, I can. I wouldn't want you to suffer for a second." Jonah lifted his chin a little. "Let me kiss you?"

Zack wanted to excuse himself and run, to at least say no, but ShinRa was counting on him. His lack of response was taken as a yes, and dry lips caught his soft ones, moving and guiding their inexperience with barely audible smacking sounds. He was determined to pull away if any attempt was made to open his mouth, but didn't have to worry about that. Jonah was the one broke the kiss, and he smiled with approval.

"You really are innocent."

"Was it...bad?" Zack had little experience even in kissing, and this time was worse than the others, nauseating instead of nothing.

"Not at all, it was perfect." Jonah took Zack's hand again and entwined their fingers. "Zack, do you believe in fate?"

Meet his eyes, pretend to be spellbound, pretend he's...who? "Yes."

"So do I. I know we've only just met, but I feel very close to you. I hope I won't frighten or overwhelm you by saying this, but...I think maybe you're the one I've been looking for. Could I..." Jonah gazed at him in a way that made Zack think of a boring romance film. "Could I be the one you've been looking for as well? Do you think?"

Zack had looked down, steeling himself against his fear and disgust, and now he flickered his eyes back up, shyly but with a smile that he tried to make glow. The anxiety he couldn't repress only made his inexperience more obvious, and Jonah's gentle, hungry eyes drank it in, becoming brighter as Zack feigned speechlessness and nodded. In a chivalrous manner, the doctor bent over Zack's hand as he raised it and pressed his lips to the smooth white knuckles.

I can't do this, I can't do this, I want Angeal. Two warm droplets stung Zack's eyes as they escaped and raced quickly down his cheeks. The trained SOLDIER in him, however, refused to run, refused to freeze, and instead parted his lips and began to pant softly.

"You're flushed," Jonah observed quietly. "Why don't we step outside for some air? And a little privacy..."

Outside...whichever direction the doctor chose, outside should be safe. Turks were monitoring from the adjacent rooftops. And Angeal was out there, somewhere...

"Um, okay. Outside sounds good," Zack said clearly, so the men listening in couldn't miss it.

The 2nd allowed himself to be led to one of the club's three exits, the one to the left that led out into the west alley. Zack glanced around the dance floor as they weaved their way through the crowd, thinking he saw Reno's face wink at him but realizing he might have imagined it. They were moving too quickly to examine anything properly, and in moments the bright red door opened and shut and the stuffy noise of the club was abruptly replaced by the cool of the night and the slightly muffled sounds of a city.

The alley was unusually clean and mostly empty, with a few discarded containers littering the ground and a dumpster at the very end that blocked the rest of the path. The other end led out to the street and the front entrance, and it seemed a hundred miles away. Here, Zack and Jonah were alone save for their ghostly shadows on the moonlit cement, and Zack knew, as they approached the dumpster, that he was willingly moving further away from the relative safety of other people and further into danger. He would have reached for his sword purely on instinct if he had had it with him.

There happened to be two crates stacked, one on top of the other, in front of the dumpster - Zack wondered quickly if the surveillance team had placed them there - and Jonah urged him to sit down. This brought Zack's height down so that he was about up to the other's neck, and as Jonah came close he seemed like a towering beast, the kind Zack had faced in VR simulations but so much worse.

"I thought we could...get to know each other a little here. You know better than to go home with someone you just met, I trust, and we should have enough privacy over here."

They were in the shadow of the metal behind him, starlight overhead but not reaching this place that felt chillier by the second. Zack didn't dare look up at the rooftops, but he thought of the Turks' top-of-the-line equipment, their night-vision visors and elite snipers, and took a deep, shaky breath. Jonah mistook his quickened breathing and trembling for arousal, and smiled reassuringly as he guided Zack to lean back. A kiss followed, and Zack again panicked at the thought of this man's tongue touching his, but again it broke off.

No relief, though - the patient mouth worked its way down to explore his neck. When the doctor felt a racing pulse beneath his lips, he made hushing noises and slipped his hands under that Gaia-damned tease of a too-shirt shirt. This was as far as Zack had ever gotten with anyone and further, these alien caresses that made his chest feel overly sensitive, and he whimpered. Jonah nuzzled his fair neck a little more and pulled back to cup his face.

"Please don't cry. What can I do to make you feel better, baby?"

"You said...before..." Zack sniffled, "...that you could keep everything from hurting. How can you do that?"

"Oh. Well, I'm a doctor. I have something that will block the discomfort and make you feel only good." Jonah stroked Zack's hair with one hand; it felt nothing like Angeal. "You really are truly pure, and that's so rare. It would be wrong to let you feel any pain."

"Can you...show me this stuff? Let me see it?"

Zack bit his lower lip cutely immediately after asking. Jonah's eyes flashed with lust to see this, and he curled his right arm around the boy and pulled him close. Ignoring the rising, maybe imagined, bile in his throat, Zack snuggled against the embracing body that was all wrong, was not Angeal. Teeth nipped very lightly at one of Zack's ears, and a tranquil voice whispered in a kind of rapture that iced his blood.

"I'll do better than show you, baby."

Movement, from the doctor's other hand that slipped out of a coat pocket, and a sharp prick at his arm made Zack softly cry out. Shit, shit, Angeal, was all he could think, chancing a struggle, but the stuff was racing through his body like warmth and carelessness. His mako helped against the Shizukanal but couldn't stop it, and the unenhanced doctor's arms were containing him with little difficulty.

"Ssh, isn't that better?" Jonah tipped Zack's head back and stared feverishly into his dazed eyes, kissed all over the scared expression that the drug was relaxing. "Just let it happen. None of it will hurt, I promise. You're pure, I've got to keep you pure of this corrupting world."

"S-Stop," Zack croaked, praying that his weak voice reached the microphone in his pendant. "I mean...wait..."

"It's not safe to wait, baby, boys who look like you are never safe. I can make you safe from all of them." Jonah held Zack up by the nape of his neck with one hand, and with the other held up a syringe filled with dense white stuff. The death-dose. With wide eyes, the 2nd whimpered, but couldn't get any words out.

"Don't be afraid, baby. I'll make you feel really good, like I promised, and then you'll go to sleep. And then you'll never be spoiled, never defiled, never lose this beauty that the gods forced on you. Don't cry, precious, you understand, right? It takes more than a kiss to break this curse."

"No!"

"You! Freeze! One false move and we shoot!"

Jonah whipped around, dragging Zack with him and holding the boy like a life-sized doll in front of him. Zack was jostled as the man looked in panic all around, unable to break free, barely able to lift his eyes to the rooftops where at least three guns were trained on them. Jonah growled with frustration as he must have been realizing he was caught.

"You try anything and the kid is dead!"

"You are surrounded by Turks and SOLDIERs." Zack recognized Tseng's amplified voice. "You have no hope of escape. Release the hostage unharmed and your life will be spared."

"I haven't hurt him! Any of them!" Jonah held Zack more tightly, a hideous parody of Angeal's comforting squeezes and his hysterical voice promising anything but safety. "They were pure, they had to be protected! Others prey on them, hurt them, I had to make it stop!"

"And you've done a fine job," Tseng said calmly. "That will be taken into consideration. But if you want to keep your own life, you must let go of the boy now. I promise you, he'll be protected, just as you want."

Jonah seemed to be lulled by the head Turk's words, for a moment, then shook himself as though escaping a trance. "No, no! He's mine!"

"Commander, not yet - "

Zack's disordered mind at first thought he hallucinated the welcome sight that stepped out of the shadows. But he couldn't be imagining this, because he never knew until then how terrifying Angeal could make himself look. The broad body so skilled at hugs and training loomed over the alley like a Summon creature, seeming to grow larger as he approached instead of smaller. His brown eyes were mako-green with rage, the Buster Sword drawn, and even Zack was so afraid of his expression that he had to close his eyes. Behind him, Jonah's racing heart pounded, and the warmth around Zack went cold with horror.

"Let. Him. Go."

An hysterical laugh burst painfully past Zack's ear. "Why should I?! You'll kill me, or they will, so why not do what I came to do? You'll see, it doesn't hurt them, I protect them!"

"That one is mine to protect, not yours," Angeal snarled.

"You love him?"

"Yes." Zack whimpered to hear this. He couldn't see Angeal's reaction, of course, but he felt it, like the stirring of a water's surface from the deep.

"Then you can stay. I'll show you. He'll just go to sleep, and no one will be able to hurt him."

"If you move that needle any closer to Zack, you will be shot dead before it reaches him."

"I'm dead anyway!" Jonah shrieked, gripping Zack still as his body became more limp. "None of them will let me live, so - "

"I will." Angeal's voice had calmed into one Zack almost knew. It was like his teacher-voice, only taut and stretched and giving its listeners the impression of a bomb that any movement could detonate. "My name is Commander Angeal Hewley. Do you know that name?"

"The honorable 1st Class," Jonah mumbled, either in awe or increased fear. "The sacred Buster Sword."

"Yes. If you let Zack go, I swear on this sword and my honor that Commander Tseng will not give any order to fire, and I will step aside and allow you to escape past me unharmed."

"You..." Clearly Jonah was shocked, as was Zack. Angeal couldn't free a serial killer to save one SOLDIER, that was a lesson of first-year tactics. Consider the many, not the few. "You swear?"

"I swear. Commander Tseng, your word?"

"Given."

"Now, please. Just put him down, and go. I don't care where you go or what you do, and I will not follow."

"Angeal," Zack whispered, and Jonah rubbed his face against the soft spikes, as though it had been his name called.

"I'm sorry, baby. I'm sorry I couldn't save you."

Zack felt himself being slowly lowered, and the gasping relief of feeling cement along one of his sides was punctured by the 'blam!' and whistle of a bullet. His eyes were still shut but he sensed the shot came from behind them, where no one had been stationed, and then there was a sound Zack had only learned recently - the death rattle. Before the boy could force his eyes open a weight was on him, a body pinning him down, and the screams he'd held in all night came out, the kind of wailing only heard from infants and madmen.

"Zack! Zack!"

The weight was suddenly gone, allowing Zack to push weakly at the rough ground in an attempt to get himself up. Hands grabbed at him and he screamed again, screamed and screamed and screamed, mostly without words but occasionally a single name, and he couldn't shake off the arms that were enfolding him any more than he could Jonah's. Tears drenched his face and the fabric-covered chest it was pressed to, and though his voice was fading he couldn't stop shouting, just the name now.

"ANGEAL ANGEAL ANGEAL ANGEEEEEAL - "

Another voice was competing with his, strong but unable to pierce the noise of panic and chaos and drug-poisoned blood beating in Zack's ears. Yet another sound, a familiar rhythm but more rapid than it was supposed to be, was nearby, beneath skin and cloth. It wasn't until Zack recognized the motion of a hand smoothing his hair that he went completely still, and the screaming stopped, so abruptly that the absence of it was like a song. Angeal's hand, Angeal's too-fast heartbeat.

"A-Angeal?"

"It's okay." The distress in that unshakable voice made Zack grope for him, try to hug back to make his teacher feel better. "It's okay now. Puppy, look at me, please?"

Hesitantly, afraid to find himself back in the grip of a murderer, the 2nd opened his sticky, tear-swollen eyes. He was being cradled protectively in Angeal's lap, that comforting sense of touch - good, clean touch - all around. The brown eyes above were worried and over-bright, but the smile beneath them was one of genuine relief. Heaving a sigh, Angeal drew Zack closer and held the boy against his chest, not caring that he must look like a frightened parent. Zack pushed his face into the skin and sweater and Angeal-smell and breathed in, before he remembered the weight of a body from moments earlier and tensed.

"Angeal, where - "

"He's dead. It's all right, he's dead."

"Who..."

Two pairs of footsteps approached. Zack instinctively tried to bury himself further into Angeal's broad frame and was squeezed in reassurance. He would be embarrassed about it later, when the Shizukanal wore off, but Zack was trembling all over. It took a minute of gentle rocking and encouraging whispers from Angeal before he could look up.

There was Tseng, appearing unperturbed as he always did, observing Zack with a hint of concern in his curious expression. Beside him, a recently-fired gun in one hand, was Reno in his club-kid disguise, just a little out of breath and grinning.

"Hope it was okay to interfere, Commander," he drawled. "After all, I didn't promise the fucker anything, and I don't really give a shit about honor anyway."

"I trust your report will be more eloquent than that, Reno," Tseng said coolly. "You will need better words to explain yourself."

"Tseng, I would consider it a repayable favor if you would not discipline your subordinate for this infraction."

"Certainly." Now Tseng sounded amused. "But only since I knew all along what he was going to do."

One of Angeal's arms left Zack for a moment and reached up to clasp hands with Reno. Blinking with drug-induced calm, Zack stared at the lines of Angeal's face as it made a serious expression.

"Reno, thank you."

"No sweat, Mr. Serious, Zack's my pal. So can you stop shooing me away from him like I'm some kinda delinquent?"

"I apologize, if that's what I've been doing."

"We need to get back up to the roof," Tseng informed them. "The choppers are on their way, and a med tech. Fair must have only been given a small dose, but he still needs to be checked out."

A brief, passing rush of dizziness as Angeal stood, adjusting his arms beneath Zack's back and knees. Zack gripped the elder's sweater with white fingers as he was carried. There were people all around, Turks preparing for departure, curious civilians being kept back by the other 1sts, club security helping to keep the alley clear of patrons trying to stream out the doors. Sergeant Daniels, with Detective Innes, had arrived to take charge of the crime scene, and Angeal reluctantly let them approach, his eyes warning them to keep it brief.

Innes could only look at Zack with guilt and pity, but Daniels reached out to him - drawing back when Angeal shook his head - and softly said "Thank you for your help, Zack. You prevented many deaths tonight. I wish all my men were as brave and selfless as you."

Zack managed a weak, watery-eyed smile at the sergeant before Angeal was on the move again. The drug polluting Zack's blood made him feel a sort of forced pleasantness, a warm and listless ease in his limbs as they dangled from Angeal's arms. This numb calm didn't reach as far as his disordered thoughts, though maybe it was this Shizukanal that made Angeal's closeness feel so good that Zack didn't care who saw. Using what strength he could gather, the 2nd pushed his hand to travel up Angeal's chest, one fistful of sweater at a time, to reach his shoulder and grip it urgently.

"It's all right, Zack. We're going home."

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 5 - The Heart Yet Sickens

 

When Zack awoke, he had only a moment to think it might have all been a dream. This was the med lab at ShinRa Headquarters, and there were plenty of ways a distracted and overeager teenager could (and had) land himself here. But beneath the bed's light blanket, there was the uncomfortable feeling of the undercover outfit Guy Madell had made for him. Zack shifted, trying to sit up, and Angeal's face immediately appeared over him.

"Easy, Zack. That stuff's not out of your system yet."

"What time...is it?" The 2nd recalled only flashes of the helicopter ride and the med tech shining a light into his eyes.

"Nearly midnight. Past your bedtime." Angeal laughed with relief to see Zack make a face at him. "How do you feel?"

"Okay. Tired, and my head kinda hurts..." Zack tried to lift his left arm to push his messy hair back, and only then felt and saw the IV running into it. "What..."

"Careful. It's just a saline drip. Dehydration is an after-effect of Shizukanal, that's why your head aches. Hold on a second, Pup, I'll be right back."

Angeal must have been truly reluctant to leave Zack alone, because he really was back in seconds, with a doctor behind him who looked vaguely familiar.

"Hi, Zack. You might remember me, I'm Dr. Oren. Commander Hewley says your head is aching?"

"It's okay, really."

"I'm going to take a look, okay?" Oren glanced at Angeal, accepted that the man was going to shadow him, and pulled a wheeled stool up next to the bed. "Keep your eyes open."

"Ugh, the light again?"

"I know, it's annoying," the doctor chuckled. "I just need to make sure. Okay, as I thought, no concussion. Once the Shizukanal works its way out you'll be as good as new. For now, please take this."

Zack accepted a paper cup of water, but he looked dubiously at the pill being offered.

"It's just a mild painkiller. You need rest, we can't have that headache keeping you up."

The boy generally tried to avoid medications (with mako, hardly anything else was needed anyway), but no rest would mean no training. He dutifully downed the capsule and drained the cup of water, shaking his head when he was offered more.

"Doctor, I think Zack would be more comfortable in his own bed."

"His vitals have been stable long enough, so okay, I don't have a problem with discharging him. He'll want to sleep, but you might want to check on him now and then. I don't anticipate any problems, but just to be safe."

"I had already planned to do so. Thank you, Doctor."

"Angeal, you need to sleep too," Zack insisted as the needle was withdrawn from his arm. "I'm fine."

"We're both off tomorrow, Puppy. I'll catch up on rest then." As though I could possibly sleep after tonight...

"What're you doing?"

"Hardly anyone is in the hallways at this hour, Zack, no one will see."

"You're not carrying me, I can walk. Heroes don't get carried."

"They do when they've been injured in the line of duty."

"Can't I just lean on you?"

"All right, all right, we'll give it a try."

Zack managed to sit up by himself and turn so his legs dangled off the bed. With an arm around Angeal's shoulder for support, and Angeal's arm steadying him, he cautiously eased himself onto the floor. A wave of dizziness caused him to pause and sharply inhale, but to his credit Angeal remained calm and silently waited for it to pass. Zack nodded, smiled tiredly, and they began to slowly walk.

"I hate these clothes," Zack grumbled, looking down to avoid the concerned eyes they passed. "I'm gonna burn 'em. Or give 'em to Reno, he'd like that. Especially if I don't wash them and throw in my underwear."

Apparently the lingering Shizukanal and the painkiller were loosening Zack's tongue. He was a talkative kid in general, but very rarely about anything even vaguely sexual.

"Reno's nice, right?" the boy asked absently.

"I think so. A little too mischievous, maybe, but now I think I was wrong to discourage you from hanging out with him."

"Reno's nice," Zack repeated. "Kunsel and Varley are nice. And Genesis, he only jokes, he's not mean. He likes me too, right?"

"He does a rather poor job at hiding it." Angeal tried to keep his tone light, but Zack's voice and dull eyes were worrying him.

"So many people...are nice..."

"Puppy? Are you all right?"

"Uh-huh. Tired." He said nothing else until they reached the apartment door in a dim hallway, and Genesis stopped pacing when they came into view and hurried to meet them.

"That damn woman at the med lab's front desk wouldn't let me in, she's still pissed at me for fucking her brother." Genesis quickly analyzed their faces, and stopped when he was still a few steps away. Angeal was radiating worry even now, and Zack's faint smile was directed toward Genesis but not precisely at him. "But I talked to Tseng. Are you all right, Puppy?"

"Tired. Hi, Genesis. I hate these clothes."

The auburn-haired 1st personally loved them, but he nodded. "They're not really you, huh?"

"I want to get them off." Zack laughed shortly, so strangely that Genesis briefly locked frightened eyes with Angeal. "Do you want them off?"

"He's still drugged, Gen, he doesn't know what he's saying. If you'll excuse us - "

"I do! I do." Zack's sad face tilted down out of sight, and 1st Class eyes caught a few clear drops falling to the carpet. "I like you too, Genesis, just not...I'm sorry...I think something's wrong with me."

"Oh, Puppy." Granted a nod of permission from Angeal, Genesis cautiously edged closer, carefully touched the boy's shoulder and arm. "You're perfect just as you are. I don't let imperfect people into my family, do I?"

With a soft whimper, Zack leaned forward and weakly returned Genesis's soothing, soft-as-silk embrace. This was a rare place for Zack (or anyone, really) to find himself in, much more exposed than an Angeal-hug but pleasant, helpful against the dirtiness Zack was feeling. Genesis hated touching dirty things.

Angeal, meanwhile, had unlocked the door. With a whisper of "C'mon, sweetie, let's get you inside", Genesis helped Zack in after Angeal and waited with him while a few lamps were switched on. When his mentor came back, Zack wanted to be handed back to him but instead propped himself against the couch, trying to show strength that he didn't really have.

"All right," Genesis said quietly. "I'll stop by tomorrow. Do either of you need anything? No? Okay. Good night, Angeal, Zack."

When they were alone again, Angeal experimentally put his hand to his student's cheek and watched for his reaction. Zack closed his eyes, leaned into the touch. But the tears came a little faster. Angeal's impulse was to wipe them away, but thought Zack might need this outpouring. He'd certainly earned the right to cry tonight.

"Zack, I think you'll need my help changing into your pajamas. Is that okay?"

The boy nodded jerkily. "Want to shower first."

"Puppy...you wouldn't be able to do that alone in this state. I can draw you a bath, but I can't leave you by yourself during it. I'm sorry, it's just not safe."

"'Kay," Zack whispered, slowly slumping into a seat on the couch.

"Zack."

The boy looked up, and thank Gaia, at least a glimmer of his spirit peeked out from behind the dulled blue luster over his eyes.

"You haven't been changed by this. Even if it feels that way right now. Understood?"

A smile answered him, and a soft "Yes". Angeal didn't believe either of them.

azazazaz

Sephiroth didn't question Genesis's pre-dawn phone request to meet him in the 1st Class gym. The general had been briefed by Tseng and, since learning that Zack was physically all right, been pacing uselessly around his office. Angeal would be caring for Zack, they could all count on that, always. Genesis's voice shook over the phone, and made it clear to Sephiroth who he needed to be looking after.

The silver general entered the dim, huge room soundlessly. Through the high rows of windows, moonlight cast distorted whitish shadows on the hardwood floor, and at the other end Genesis was the one pacing now, flame-colored sword in hand. His mako sensed Sephiroth's immediately, and he came to meet him with a speed-walk haste that he didn't often use, at least not in public.

"Zack?" the general asked bluntly.

"Like Tanagura."

As was often the case in the shorthand language of the close-knit trio, the brief answer was all Sephiroth needed. The Tanagura case was one from their teen years, when the present-day 1sts were not quite as young as them but less experienced. SOLDIER's objective had been to take down an eco-terrorist cult, and they had surrounded the group's base effectively. But the cult had been expecting them, and had no intention of being taken alive. Instead of a firefight, the SOLDIERs walked into a tomb. Bodies of men, women, children, even babies littered every foot of the floor, shot or slashed or strangled or drowned in an horrific mass suicide. The Trinity, as the three SOLDIER prototypes were beginning to be called, mentally and sometimes physically clung to each other in the aftermath, and Sephiroth was more quietly furious than he was sickened.

But the others...the mako-filled, elite corps. of fighters destined to be well-known in their own right, were at the time young men used to battle, not the senseless slaughter of innocents. They helped clear the corpses like shuffling zombies, vomiting one moment and staring blankly the next, some even laughing hysterically. ShinRa brought in extra psychiatrists and assigned vacation time, and at Angeal's suggestion they used the time to take their comrades camping in groups, an experience which served to bind them closer together. The Trinity comforted one another sexually in their shared tent, late at night, all three of them, though Angeal and Genesis had ended their relationship and Angeal and Sephiroth had always been more like brothers. Genesis had pronounced himself fine afterwards, proclaiming that sex fixes everything.

Right now, Sephiroth thought, the hurt in Genesis's eyes was very like Tanagura.

"I need to fight." Genesis slotted a mastered Restore materia into his armor and tossed another to his opponent. "Don't hold back. I want to lose at least a pint of blood."

"Wouldn't you prefer to have sex?"

"Yes. Gaia yes. But not until this anger is out. That shit didn't get to rape him, but the Puppy was hurt, Seph."

"And so...you need to be?"

"Analyze later, Seph. After fucking. Then I'll explain the human condition for as long as we can both stay awake. Now attack me. I want to be brought to my knees."

"And here I thought you were issuing a challenge," the general quipped dryly, and Genesis laughed as Masamune made the heavy air sing.

azazazaz

No surprise - Angeal couldn't sleep, or even be at rest. He had been reassured a little by Zack's willingness to undress and bathe with him in the room, and the lucidity that had begun to return to his pale eyes as he soaked in the hot water and lavender-scented bubbles. He answered all of Angeal's careful questions, paid at least a little attention to what his teacher said, and by the time he accepted help toweling off and dressing, Zack seemed only tired, not close to a breakdown.

Now that he was asleep, Angeal for a while divided his time between reports and checking on him. Then, realizing almost all that time was being devoted to the latter, he snuck into the bedroom and settled quietly into Zack's desk chair. The boy's face (back to its pure, un-eyelinered self) showed only peace, and not the nightmares Angeal had feared and expected.

Forty or so minutes passed of gazing at his student, reliving the events that had nearly taken him away forever, before Zack made any noise. The soft, inquiring sort of sound accompanied a scrunching up of his features, as though Zack was analyzing something. Then he shifted, turned to lay on his back with a quiet groan. Angeal readied himself to deal with tossing, crying, screaming...and Zack let his head fall back with a breathy moan, arching slightly as though a hand was lifting the nape of his neck. His hips rolled beneath the blanket, and though Angeal had never actively imagined his student making those needy moans, he knew what they signified.

Get out, this is private, get out. But after what Zack had been put through only hours earlier, it seemed strange that he would react to a sex dream so positively. Angeal didn't want to think of who Zack might be fantasizing about, but any second his face and hands could become the dead pervert's.

Speaking of perverts... But Angeal couldn't look away. He had a strong appreciation of aesthetics, as proved by his love of nature and photography, and in a purely aesthetic sense, Zack was very pleasant to look at. Angeal couldn't deny that, even in the midst of his increased concern. This thought disturbed Angeal anyway, but not for long. Pure worry swept everything else away.

Zack was lifting up further off the bed, until his back was at about a forty-five degree angle over the mattress. How could he be maintaining that position, which would be uncomfortable even if awake, while fast asleep? His eyes remained shut, his breathing slow and steady. It was almost as though someone unseen were lifting and supporting him.

Eyes wide with confusion, Angeal stood and began to approach, slowly so his flaring mako wouldn't disturb Zack. As he walked, the boy was lowered back down to his pillows (and from the look of it, not doing it himself), so that by the time the commander leaned over his student, everything was back to normal. If anything, Zack was sleeping more peacefully, with a faint smile curving his pink lips.

I imagined it. I'm overtired. What other explanation is there? It was a good thing Angeal had adapted himself to need little sleep.

azazazaz

"Hey, Angeal." The voice from the doorway was more muted than its usual chatty self, but cheerful enough.

"Good morning, Puppy. And good timing, breakfast just arrived."

"Not pizza, right? I don't think I can stomach any more."

"Who are you and what have you done with Zack?" Angeal joked as he turned, praying to Gaia he wouldn't be wondering that seriously when their eyes next met.

No, it was Zack there smiling at him, a more experienced Zack, but other than the faint hint of tension in the pale eyes, nothing about him had changed. He was even wearing his uniform, which SOLDIERs on leave generally didn't do. Angeal thought he understood. The kid just wanted to feel normal right now, and anyway, though they wouldn't be training, this still wasn't really a day off. One of a SOLDIER's least-known duties was dealing.

"Zack? Zack...the name sounds familiar," Zack mused as he sat down at the table, feigning thought. "Is he the one who imports Wutainese smut comics?"

"That's Genesis."

"The one who buys most of them?"

"That's...classified," Angeal trailed off, not wishing to 'out' their executive director. "But no. Zack is the bouncy, noisy one that everyone loves too much to get annoyed at. He's my student for now, but one day he'll stand on his own as a great hero."

"I remember now," the smaller voice said with a wan smile. "Thank you for reminding me."

Angeal managed to hide the pain in his heart with brisk movement, filling up a plate and handing it to Zack with a gentle no-argument-you'll-eat-every-bite look. Zack thanked him and sipped a glass of juice, but ate slowly, as though daunted by every forkful.

"What would you like to do today?" Angeal asked.

"I should probably study. And you should sleep. Remember?"

"Oh, I managed to get some shut-eye last night after all." In truth, he'd only left Zack's room about an hour before. "Far be it from me to interfere with your studies, but I meant we could do something more fun. Or I could probably get one of your friends off a few hours, if you'd prefer to go somewhere with - "

Zack's spoon clattered from his fingers down into his bowl of fruit salad. His face froze with slightly widened eyes, and his empty hand hung uselessly between his mouth and the table. It was only a moment before he shook himself out of this, but Angeal was still panicked as he folded his own hands around Zack's and spoke his name until the boy looked at him sheepishly.

"Sorry. Brain freeze. No attention span, remember?"

"Puppy, what is it really?" Angeal asked, gently but in his authoritative teacher-voice. "If you don't want to leave the Compound yet, that's perfectly under- "

"No, it's...well, not exactly. I just..." Zack waited for his fingers to be released and folded his hands in his lap, hunching down like he was embarrassed. "Just want to stay with you."

"That's fine, Zack." Oh, Puppy... "I don't much want to let you out of my sight today either."

"Why can't we train?"

"If you want, we can do some light exercise. Some jogging, or maybe a game? You just need to take it easy today. I thought you might want to do a horror movie marathon, or try your new video game."

"So, I get to pick?"

"Absolutely."

Zack said nothing for a few moments. "Don't I have to write a report about the mission?"

Angeal sighed. There was no way to avoid Zack having to relive last night. "Because the Turks have the recording from your pendant, you don't need to be formally questioned or do a report. I'm told Tseng has a few questions, but he agreed to send them over so you can answer them in writing. That can wait."

"I should do it while my memory's fresh, though. Right?"

"Only if you feel up to it."

"Hmm."

"If it would be easier, I could probably convince Tseng - "

Zack laughed quietly, shaking his head and letting an affectionate, watery gaze rest on Angeal. "You worry. You've always worried so much."

The commander certainly couldn't deny that, and there was no need to verbally confirm. He looked at his Puppy with love and patiently waited for him to continue.

"I used to think you were paranoid or something. The way you'd tell me who I can hang around with and can't, and the way you stay close to me on missions, and the way you assign one of my friends to watch me when we go out. Yeah, I know about that. And...it's funny."

"What, Puppy?" Angeal reached across the table, picked up one of Zack's hands and cradled it in his own.

The 2nd looked at his lap. He couldn't look Angeal in the eye for this part. It was too embarrassing. His own blindness up till now was too devastating.

"At the club, everyone was staring. It reminds me of that inn we stayed at once, out in the middle of nowhere. I got mad at you 'cause you wouldn't let me leave your side and you wouldn't tell me why. I realized last night that it was because of the way those men were looking. The guy last night was doing the same...I didn't know until I saw it close-up...I guess. I'm sorry I got mad that time. I'm sorry I make you worry. I just didn't...I don't know why..."

Keeping hold of Zack's hand, Angeal left his seat and came to kneel by the opposite chair, turning it to make Zack face him. The boy's face was screwed up with confusion and pain, though somehow his eyes remained dry. No small feat, considering that Angeal - who, Genesis hypothesized, may not have tear ducts at all - was having to force himself not to cry.

"Puppy, it's all right. None of this is your fault. It's that man's, and the others', and...I don't know why either, and I don't know how to make them stop looking." I don't, even putting a bag over your head can't dim that kind of light. "But you're stronger than all of them. I know you don't believe that right now, but it's true. And I'm with you, and I'm not going away."

Zack covered his eyes with one hand and a gasped a few exhaled breaths. Angeal stood, bent down and cautiously put his arms around Zack, an act he no longer minded and actively craved. Zack pressed his face against the offered shoulder and gripped Angeal's arms loosely with his fingers and nails. The 2nd let out a held-in breath to feel the familiar petting of his hair, and whispered "I'm sorry" a few times until his quiet voice faded.

"You haven't done anything wrong. You don't have to apologize for the planet's imperfections, Pup. You didn't create them, and you don't encourage them." If he's only realizing now the way people look at him, then that can't be why he hasn't dated. Why, then?

"Angeal..." The chime of the apartment doorbell surprised them both, but Zack actually jolted in his seat and burrowed deeper into Angeal's hold.

"Ssh, it's okay. I won't answer it if you don't want me to."

Zack managed a shaky laugh, and reluctantly pulled himself back. "No, it's - it's okay. Sorry. I'm okay."

"It's all right not to be right now."

"Really, I'm..." Zack roughly swiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "Answer it, I shouldn't be - "

"Of course you should."

"I'm coming innnn!" a melodious voice called, and apparently knew the entry code, because the door opened.

"Genesis," Angeal sighed with annoyance. "Hold on, I'll get rid of him."

"Nnn, it's okay. I want to see him."

"Are you sure?"

"Come out already, before I start checking the closets!" Genesis sang. "Are you decent, because I'm not covering my eyes..."

The auburn-haired 1st came into view in the wide kitchen doorway, holding a small bag in one hand and smiling just a little more tiredly than usual. Angeal had stood to his full height again, but he stayed close to Zack and left a hand on the back of his neck. For some reason, being touched there made Zack feel tingly, but also safe.

"Hi, Genesis."

"Hi, Puppy. You look just a bit better. Which is still better than most people manage. Ah, the burden of beauty." Zack looked away, and above them, Angeal shook his head. Genesis shifted gears smoothly. "So 'Geal, have you got any Banora Whites or only the stuff fit for serfs?"

With a roll of his eyes (and a reluctance to budge from Zack's side), Angeal went to the fridge and began to rummage through the lower drawers. In the meantime, the other 1st poured himself a cup of coffee and stirred in several spoons of sugar, and tried to catch Zack's shifting eyes with a smile. He had wept for his friend's precious Puppy the night before, for the invisible wounds inflicted by eyes and hands, and also for the wide-eyed innocence that this one, if anyone, should be allowed to keep.

"Sorry if I was weird last night," Zack murmured.

"That wasn't weird, doll," Genesis laughed dryly. "I once saw Seph stop an entire army by standing above them starkers. Well, mostly that was just hot, but still, not just another day at the office."

"Sephiroth what? When was this?"

"Maybe I can get him to tell you the story sometime."

Angeal returned to them, tossing a purplish apple that Genesis caught without looking.

"Thanks, 'Geal. Want half, sweetie?"

"No thanks. I don't like them."

"Don't like them?" Genesis sputtered, comically resembling a pot of tea about to overflow as he puffed up with indignation and wounded pride. "Blasphemy!"

"What?" Zack laughed. "They taste odd."

"Odd? Do you hear this, Angeal?"

"Yes, I do. Gen is very serious about those apples, Puppy. Ever since we were...what, around six or seven? Gen did a whole series of ads and commercials for Banora Whites and their juice."

"I was always photogenic," Genesis shrugged with a smirk. "If only I wasn't the dazzling SOLDIER I am, I'd say my true calling was the stage. Well, I could always accept that offer to be the spokesman for the Avula line of hair care products..."

"They only asked you because Seph kept returning their letters unopened and on fire," Angeal reminded him.

"Meanie. This is why I brought a present for the Puppy and not you."

"Huh?"

Genesis opened the small cloth bag he'd brought and tipped its contents into his cupped hand, then holding it out so the others could see. Two roughly spherical stones were in his palm, both the same cold white color and faintly emitting a silvery glow. The illumination around the smaller one was much brighter, but they were both oddly beautiful. Zack leaned in closer, mesmerized.

"What are they?"

"A little something I picked up on my last trip. Wutai is good for more than barely-legal masturbation material. Ooh, that reminds me, I've got to make that delivery to Laz- "

"Gen!"

"Uh, Lazlow. My friend...Lazlow." Genesis laughed nervously. "Yeah. He's a pervy bastard. Anyway, Puppy, these are Wutaian moonstones. They're good luck."

He opened Zack's hand and gently placed the stones in it. They were cool to the touch and smooth as marble, not magical at all as far as the boy could tell, but pretty. Like tiny moons, making their name appropriate.

"Thank you. Why is that one brighter than the other?"

"According to the legend, moonstones are the souls of an ancient race of people who, after their deaths, chose to remain on the planet instead of joining the Lifestream. The purer the soul, the stronger its glow." Genesis rested his chin in his cupped hand and observed Zack with a fond smile. "The brighter ones are rarer, I suppose because more people want them, and that one reminded me of you. I practically had to wrestle the shop's other customers for it. Now I know how Seph's fan club feels. And mine..."

Zack met his gaze with innocent, wounded blue eyes tentatively finding meaning in the gift and the deliberate words. Zack had a fan club himself, yet another thing that set him apart from his peers, but he kept his distance, finding the whole idea awkward and unsettling. Besides, Kunsel had warned him that a large portion of the membership was perverted older men, just like in Sephiroth's and Genesis's clubs. Zack's fingers instinctively closed around the moonstones as though to protect them. The same way Angeal held his hand, and Genesis used the excuse of brushing fallen spikes out of Zack's face to stroke his hair in reassurance.

"It gets easier as you get older and stronger, baby," the 1st murmured. "Just keep on glowing, and let the ones who love you keep you from going dim, hmm?"

In answer, Zack edged his chair over and leaned comfortably on Genesis's shoulder. He plucked the Banora White from the elder's dainty grasp and sneaked a noisy, crunchy bite before handing it back.

"Miscreant. Well, I have your DNA now. I'm marching straight to the lab to clone my very own Puppy, one who'll both pleasure me sexually and bring me apples."

They all laughed at Genesis's grumble (one of them through a warning glare), and Zack felt grateful to him. But his smile - his old, confident, I-can-overcome-anything smile - was all for Angeal.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 6 - Of Love Or Arrows

 

"Psst. Hey, Zack."

"Hmm?"

"I know you're way smarter than us average mortals and you don't need to take notes, but you really should at least try to stay awake."

Zack, with his elbow propped on his desk and his chin resting in his hand, blinked a few times before casting an eyes-half-closed gaze at his friend in the next desk over. "Huh?"

"Gaia, what the hell's with you?" Kunsel was already speaking softly so the instructor wouldn't hear them; now he lowered his voice futher. "You okay? Have you slept at all since your mission?"

"Yeah, yeah, I sleep. I don't know why I've been so tired."

"Maybe you should go to the med lab."

"Angeal's making me, later."

"I don't blame him. You not bouncing is just freaky."

The class of about twenty was a mixed bunch. Its students not only hailed from all over the planet, but they were of various ranks and Classes. Even their ages ranged from sixteen to nineteen, as the SOLDIER program required schooling in necessary subjects up until one reached his home's legal age of maturity - study beyond this point was not mandatory, but looked well upon. Zack Fair was both the youngest and highest-ranked, and Instructor Marten felt bad that the boy was the target of so much envy. He himself liked Fair, for his good nature and intelligence, not just for Angeal's sake.

"Who can give me an example of two kinds of materia that should not be used together in fusion? Yes, Fair?"

Zack's raised hand fell as though he couldn't keep it up a moment longer. "Time and Heal, sir."

"And why is that?"

"Esuna does not strengthen time magic and may even adversely affect it, while time magic has no known effect on Heal materia. The result of fusion between the two is only a weaker version of both, so there's no point in fusing them."

"Very good, Fair. If you'll all turn to page two-fourteen in your texts, we'll review some more positive, neutral and negative examples of materia fusion. Remember, this is a rather new scientific process, and so the available data is..."

Instructor Marten's voice slowly faded out into a sort of droning background noise. Though he knew he shouldn't, Zack let his eyes close. He could still keep up a reasonable level of energy as long as he was in motion, but sitting through classes was proving difficult. What was going on? He had even gone to bed early the previous night, and yet had woken up feeling like he'd just run a marathon.

"Zack! Zack!" Kunsel was hissing, but he sounded very far away. Zack jolted and looked up only when an unfamiliar hand touched his shoulder.

"Fair, are you feeling all right? Do you need to be excused?"

"Uh, no, Instructor. I'm sorry."

Instructor Marten smiled briefly before he returned to the front of the room, with a touch of pity that woke Zack up a little, enough to make him grumpy. Of course the 1st Classes, instructors included, all knew about the mission, and in detail, while the lower Classes had only vaguaries and rumors. Zack was used to the 1sts treating him like a baby brother, but if they were all gonna be as over-careful with him as Angeal, now might be a good time to hide under his bed, he thought.

To top it off, an annoyingly familiar noise was coming softly from several seats away, a mocking, derisive puppy yipping. Zack didn't need to turn to see who it was. A lot of his classmates good-naturedly teased him about his nickname, but only Lieutenants Rudner and Kabe were genuinely and consistently mean about it, using that infuriating sound to suggest that Zack's success was all due to his famous mentor's influence.

"They're douches, ignore 'em," Kunsel muttered, glaring at them. "They're jealous."

"It doesn't bother me," Zack lied.

"Still. Maybe you should ask the commander to ease up on that nickname."

"I like it. I don't care what other people think."

"Ooh, don't look at Declan."

"Why?" Zack asked glumly. "Is he holding a leash or banging on a food dish?"

"Duh. No. He's just staring." Kunsel smiled meaningfully and tossed back his shaggy brown hair.

"Why?"

"Ha, it's hilarious how naive you are, Fair."

Declan too? Zack shifted a little and tilted his head so he could see the 3rd Class toward the back without making it obvious what he was doing. Declan had a head of sand-colored curls and purplish eyes in a handsome, kind face, and he was smiling. When Zack looked, the smile brightened for a moment before Declan turned back to his work.

"...so read the next chapter for our next lesson, and go over the questions on page three-forty. I expect you all to know the answers for next time. Dismissed."

"He's coming over here," Kunsel said in a soft, sing-song voice.

"Huh?" Zack said absently as he scribbled a note about the homework in his planner. He stood up and found that Declan was waiting beside the desk, looking a little nervous.

"Hi, Zack."

"Oh, hey, Declan."

"I just, uh, wanted to see how you are. I heard your mission was successful, but...well, you seem tired."

"I am, but I'm okay. Thanks, though."

"Do you maybe want to go get a coffee with me?"

"Uh, thanks, but I have to get going."

"Zack?" Angeal entered the nearly empty classroom and dismissed the stiff, intimidated salutes of the remaining students. "Are you ready?"

"Um, yeah, I'll be right there." Zack looked at Declan, expecting him to edge back as people always did when Angeal was near him. Oddly, the 3rd hadn't moved, and was continuing to smile. "So, uh, see you in class."

"Maybe we could get together sometime when you're less busy."

"Uh, sure, okay. See you guys."

Zack headed out to the corridor with Angeal close to him, one hand lightly on the boy's back to steer him, or perhaps to keep him from falling. Zack's shoulders were slumped, and his normal bounce was more of a shuffle. As the last ones left in the classroom, Kunsel and Declan glanced at each other, the former frankly impressed.

"You realize you just hit on Fair in front of Commander Hewley."

"So? They're not involved...are they?"

"Of course not," Kunsel scoffed. "But the commander is hugely parental, you must know that."

"Yeah. And that's why I'll get Zack, because I'm the only one brave enough to stand up to Angeal." Declan ran a hand through his curls, pensively. "As long as my intentions are honorable, he shouldn't have a problem with me."

"Your intentions are honorable? Do you not have a dick or something?"

"I do," Declan laughed, "and I fully plan to use it. I meant I would never use Zack for a fling or do anything to hurt him."

"I don't know if Commander Hewley will buy that, but if you're telling the truth, I guess I don't have to kick your ass."

Declan's self-assurance slowly faded into realization. "You're in love with him too."

"Please, half the company is." But Kunsel didn't deny it.

"So why aren't you trying to sabotage me? Or are you, and you're just being clever about it?"

"Zack doesn't feel like that about me. But he's my friend, my best friend. I won't risking losing that, but I won't let anyone unworthy be with him either."

Declan flashed a bright smile. "So am I worthy?"

"We'll see," Kunsel said dryly. "I may have to send you on a few dangerous quests."

"Anything for the Fair maiden."

"Be sure to call him that to his face. He'll fall right into your arms."

azazazaz

Zack was trying not to let his annoyance affect his mentor, but even without words, he made his opinion of Dr. Hollander's suggestion known. The boy took the bottle of concentrated sleeping potion out of its bag and tossed it carelessly on the couch with a "Hmph". Angeal retrieved it and looked at the directions again.

"It's just one spoonful every night, right before bed, and just until your energy level returns to normal. Not exactly the end of the world."

"The doc wasn't listening! I sleep fine, I haven't been having nightmares, and he can shove that psych referral up his - "

"Zack."

The 2nd pouted, but meekly sank down into one of the living room chairs. "Sorry," he mumbled.

"The psych referral was inevitable, anyway. After a mission like yours, any SOLDIER would have to be cleared by one of the psychiatrists." Angeal was looking at his student closely. "I'm sure it was only delayed in your case to give you time to recover a little."

"I'm fine. I'm a SOLDIER."

"SOLDIERs are human, Puppy."

"Except Sephiroth," Zack said absently, tracing patterns with his fingers on the arm of the chair. "Is what Genesis said true, about Sephiroth exposing himself to an enemy army to distract them? He probably didn't even blink."

"Yes, it's true, I don't believe anyone blinked, and it's unhelpful to use Seph as an example of human behavior," Angeal said with a wry smile. "You know better than most how warm he can secretly be, but still. Emotions are not Seph's strong suit."

"What about you?"

Angeal wasn't sure exactly what the question referred to, but he understood what Zack was trying to ask. He took a seat on the couch, close to his apprentice, and looked at him seriously.

"Zack, had it been me in that mission, whether your age or mine, I would be upset." Not as much as I am now, but you don't need to know that. "And I would have to be medically cleared before my next mission. So would Genesis, and so would Seph. What you're feeling is normal."

"But I'm okay," Zack insisted. "I screamed, I cried, I think I offered to strip for Genesis. I'm through the stages, 'kay? Can I get on with my life now, or do you want to see on a Moogle doll exactly where the bad man touched me?"

Zack's tone had grown more acidic with each successive word, so much so that Angeal was actually wincing by the end of it. The look on his face wiped the cold sarcasm from Zack's and was replaced by its usual sweetness and an apologetic frown.

"Angeal..."

"It's okay."

Typical Zack, instinctively trying to solve everything with physical affection. He moved to the couch, edged hopefully toward Angeal, and looked relieved when Angeal immediately wrapped a warm arm around him. Wondering if it was okay - though he had done it plenty of times before - Zack let his head rest on Angeal's chest, and fingers stroking his hair gave him his answer.

Why was this position, this touch, this body so comforting? Surely part of it was having grown up with loving parents, but Zack had no memory of being held like this as a child. Alan Fair had loved to spin his son around until they both collapsed in laughter, or settle him on his lap for a story. Aelyse Dell Fair was just as spontaneous in her gestures of love; Zack had inherited his tendency to glomp from her. He counted himself lucky to belong to such a happy, close family and knew they were part of what made him such a friendly person. But Zack didn't go beyond casual hugs with many people. What made Angeal special?

The question was more uncomfortable than it should have been. Commander Helwey was an excellent teacher, a loyal friend, an endless supply of knowledge and encouragement, a source of patience and safety and a love that Zack didn't think he deserved. He's just Angeal, and Angeal's more special than anyone.

Unbeknownst to the boy, his mentor was struggling with a similar mental process. Thank Gaia he's all right enough to allow touch. I shouldn't be holding him this way, not anymore, not at this age...but if it makes him feel better, how can I not? And...I can't lie and say I don't like having him close too. As long as I can hold onto Zack, I know he's safe. And I feel safe...

"Puppy? Can you tell me what you're feeling?"

Zack sighed, a warm breath against a black T-shirt. "I feel a little sick whenever I think about the mission, like when I had to write those answers for Tseng. I feel weak because I was so scared when I thought that guy was gonna...mostly I'm tired. But..." Zack couldn't lie to Angeal when he was being so comfortable and patient. "I feel better when I'm with you."

Another arm curled around Zack and they both tightened, which Zack welcomed. "I'm glad I can make you feel better. Everything else you're feeling is normal, but believe me, you're not weak. You can't have bravery without fear. Otherwise you'd just be - "

"Sephiroth?" Angeal could feel Zack's teasing smile through his shirt. "Tell me about when he flashed that army. How'd he know it'd work? Some of the soldiers must have been straight. Well, I guess with Seph it doesn't matter..."

Cupping the back of Zack's head with one hand, Angeal continued to comb through his hair. Anyone would love touching it, the commander reasoned, it was as smooth as water.

"It was one of the war's last battles. Gen, Seph and I were together, which was a rare occurrence, awaiting reinforcements. They were late, only minutes away, but we still needed a diversion. Gen and I fanned out to do recon, and Seph...I guess all those years of staring and slack-jawed compliments finally got through to him. He got up to a cliff overlooking the assembled Koibito, stripped and got their attention."

"Ko-ee-bee-toh?" Zack echoed.

"You haven't learned about them yet? The Koibito are an ancient force of fighters in Wutai, made up entirely of pairs of male lovers."

"I'm surprised Genesis hasn't run off to join them and dragged Sephiroth with him," Zack said dryly. The hand petting his hair froze. "Oops. I'm not supposed to know about those two, am I?"

"It's...complicated. I don't think they understand it themselves."

"I won't tell anyone. I promise."

"I know you won't. Thank you."

"So," Zack prodded, poking Angeal's arm, "what happened to the Koibito?"

"Had their vows not prohibited it, I think many wanted to fall to their knees and surrender. Our reinforcements arrived, and though they still outnumbered us, we had Seph." Angeal smiled at the memory of his friend frantically trying to dress and leap into the fray at the same time. "Quite a few escaped, as they had the advantage of knowing the land, but the others died, honorably. When we searched the battlefield for survivors, we found the bodies curled together in pairs, true to each other to the end."

"That's so sad," Zack whispered.

"Yes, it was. We cremated them at once, as is the custom in Wutai, and Genesis had a great stone marker placed over the scattered ashes. It says, 'We who must live in victory salute you who died for love.' And beneath that, a quote from Loveless."

"Of course," Zack laughed, or maybe sniffled. "Which one?"

"One of the few that I can stand to hear a hundred times. 'Hear, o spirits who for this little while dwell in houses of flesh and bone, this noble truth of the Goddess. What is the greatest of all Gaia's gifts unto man? The answer is this - that he lives not alone.'"

Zack pressed his face against Angeal's chest so forcefully that it can't have been comfortable for either of them. His arms clung more tightly too, so much so that they began trembling. Angeal wasn't sure exactly what was troubling Zack (the story, maybe? He was a soft-hearted boy), only that his student was distressed. Carefully, he shifted the smaller body, not to dislodge it but heave it up a bit so that Zack was on his lap and the kid's head rested comfortably on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry," the 2nd whispered unsteadily.

"You have nothing to be sorry for." You're not the one who would be blamed if someone were to walk in and see this.

"I sh-shouldn't...shouldn't need..."

That timid voice struck Angeal's heart. Zack was so precocious, so strong, so gifted, so confident, so able to keep up in a world of adults that there was rarely a middle ground to the way the company viewed him. He was either a poster-boy-in-training who had to be talked down to like a child, or he was a weapon to be taken advantage of. Only those few privileged to know him closely saw the balance between remarkable talent and bouncy naiveté. Even that circle of friends mostly saw Zack's cheer. Was there really so much pressure on Zack - from ShinRa and from himself - to be an ideal SOLDIER that he would only let Angeal see his moments of weakness?

"You know, Puppy," Angeal heard himself say, "I need you around at least as much as you need me."

Abruptly, as though he needed all his courage and impulsiveness to do it, Zack lifted up, kissed his teacher quickly on the cheek, then returned his head to rest on a broad shoulder. His face couldn't be seen, but as he was held he relaxed and slowly drifted into a light sleep. Angeal, not caring much for his work at the moment, patiently cradled his student and wondered when it was he had grown so attached, and what the consequences of this dependance might be. The bit of his face that Zack's lips had touched remained warm, almost as though the boy were still joined to him at that spot.

azazaza

"You're quiet tonight."

Sephiroth heard, though he gave no sign of it. He was looking down into the glass he held, at the dark, distorted reflection in the rich burgundy liquid. Coming here, doing this, was still awkward. One could call such a meeting a date, a more intimate act even than sex, and the general was not used to doing such things. Except with Genesis, and only then when the Red SOLDIER nagged him into submission.

"Sephiroth?"

"I apologize."

"I didn't mean it negatively. It was just an observation."

Lazard returned from the kitchen, where he had been putting the lemon-braised fish into the oven. His benevolent smile and kind eyes felt oddly like a targeting laser on Sephiroth as the director sat casually on the coffee table opposite him, pausing to sip his own wine. This is absurd, the general thought to himself. I am more at ease in his presence when we're both nude.

"Really?" Cat-like silver eyes looked coyly at the spectacled man. "Usually you are encouraging me to be more vocal."

Lazard swallowed, with some difficulty. He knew the professional Sephiroth, who ignored praise and compliments, and he knew this Sephiroth, the sex-personified prey who needed to be dominated. The real Sephiroth remained a mystery, one Lazard was trying to unravel. Dates like these were meant to give them time alone for more than sex...though sex was the inevitable conclusion, and neither had any interest in changing that.

Lazard realized what Sephiroth was trying to do. Interpersonal human communication was uncomfortable for him; sex was easier. Sex meant revealing nothing Lazard hadn't seen already. It was so tempting to give in...Gaia, he had seen plenty of heterosexual men tempted, but - selfishly perhaps - Lazard wanted more of him.

He took the general's hands and held them, quietly marvelling yet again at their uncalloused softness and the long, finely-made fingers. "Are you well? You seem..." Nervous. "...burdened."

"I don't want Fair chosen for any more missions like the last."

"He did very well. The company is very pleased with him."

"The boy was traumatized."

Lazard leaned in a little, nodding sympathetically. "I hate to see Zack harmed, too. We're all fond of him. But you must agree that young SOLDIERs have to develop tough skins, especially ones whose looks alone make them targets. Angeal understands this, doesn't he?"

"Logically, I believe he does. But in his heart, I don't believe it is so simple."

Lazard couldn't resist touching the general's silk-marble cheek, or the leap of joy in his heart when Sephiroth turned into his hand. "You understand people better than you think."

"I don't believe so. I merely concoct hypotheses from my observations."

"As we all do."

Sephiroth's faint smile at that was one of gratitude, not come-hither, but Lazard's always-slippery control fell from his grip, no match for this angel he was permitted to touch. The hand caressing Sephiroth's cheek traveled to the back of his neck and held him still (merely a gesture of Lazard's usual role, as he was no match for Sephiroth's strength), and Lazard boldly captured his lips. The two mouths opened together, tongues danced as equals, but when Sephiroth felt the weight of a tall, wiry body descending onto his, he accepted it.

More than accepted - he shrugged off his jacket when it was tugged at, and helped Lazard with his own favorite purple blazer. The executive director managed his own buttons, and Sephiroth's T-shirt was swiftly added to the growing pile on the carpet. This was what the general had wanted, obviously, only to him was something like this uncomplicated. He was human, after all, requiring touch like everyone did, and there were so few he'd allow to give it to him. This, Sephiroth knew how to do, Lazard thought as he pinned the pale wrists above the couch and began to claim the tender skin of his neck. This, Sephiroth was made for.

"More, more..."

After a few minutes of working his way down to toy with the reddened nipples, Lazard figured he'd teased enough, and decided not to punish the unsolicited request. Sephiroth wanting him enough to ask was worth a bent rule. He reached between the leather-clothed legs and cupped the prominent bulge over the smooth material, rubbed it with his palm, took it in hand as one would one's due tribute. Sephiroth had learned not to thrust; he groaned and shifted but kept still, allowing himself to be fondled.

"Give me your mouth," Lazard murmured, gentle but authoritative, and seized the soft lips that opened for him.

While he drew the silver angel's panting breaths into his mouth, Lazard's groping hands fumbled between them, tearing his own trousers down to his ankles and yanking Sephiroth's leather pants off of his hips. Neither wore underwear, both were bared in their erect glory, Sephiroth's smooth and hairless and Lazard's with a fine dusting of blond. (The general had been fascinated by this; had he never seen pubic hair before?) The executive director grabbed the younger around the waist and possessively brought him close, guiding Sephiroth's legs to wrap around him.

"N-Not..."

"Not that, I promise. Lock your legs around me, like that...good. Look at me," Lazard ordered, his eyes issuing a challenge to the ones that wanted to close, couldn't take this lustful scrutiny. "Look at me while we come together."

Sephiroth shuddered as his bared groin was forced against Lazard's and their bodies began to rock together. His wrists had been released and his arms were allowed to drape uselessly over the executive's shoulders, and his back lay agains the couch cushions. Hands beneath his ass lifted and brought his lower body to grind against the heat that swelled and pulsed like his own.

The friction was deliciously unbearable for both, and being made to stare into Lazard's hungry amber eyes made Sephiroth feel raw and vulnerable, deprived not only of his shields but even his skin. Lazard could see inside him, see the shameful, twisted darkness that needed this, needed to be forced to feel. And yet, the director's face expressed only want and hunger and the soft, gentle glow that Sephiroth had learned to equate with love. He didn't want to think of love, of this tender heart he would one day inevitably break.

Fortunately, the rising tide of orgasm swept all their thoughts away, and with a pair of ecstatic cries the two were left tangled together on the couch. The mingled scent of semen and unspoken tension rose into the air, and the neat-freak general's impulse was to get up and clean himself. But he would give Lazard what he could, though it could never be what the man wanted most. The director of SOLDIER held him almost desperately close for a long time, burying his face in the silver hair perfumed with lilies.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 7 - Slumber And Sorrow

 

The café was quiet and intimate, the only noises muted conversations and the movement of waiters delivering coffee and freshly baked snacks. Declan and Zack had a fairly isolated table, near the row of windows where one could watch people pass by in the quaint neighborhood square outside. Gavrone's was a casual place, one of many cafés on the Plate, popular with young professionals and adult students. Their waitress was much like the others, a bubbly brunette twenty-something who introduced herself as Millie and made no secret that she thought them the cutest couple ever.

Zack felt bad for wanting to get this over with, especially since Declan seemed to be having such a good time. So the higher-ranked, younger SOLDIER tried his best to smile and be attentive, and at least treat the 3rd as a friend, which he would hopefully be. Declan talked about growing up in Costa del Sol and Kalm, dividing his time between the two after his parents divorced. Zack, somewhat guiltily, spoke a little of his happy childhood in Gongaga, catching Touch Mes and making forts in the surrounding forest. He got a little caught up in the nostalgia and excitement of remembering home, and only managed to shut up when he realized the tenderness in the stare being directed at him.

"So, you use a katana, right?"

"Yeah, I like the lightness of it, and the speed. Of course, you could probably whip my butt blindfolded with that Junior Buster of yours."

Zack smirked. "We could spar sometime, if you want."

"I'd love that." Amethyst eyes glowed at him, even in the soft light of the room. "I'd love to spend more time with you."

That twisted the knife, every look of adoration and want did, but Zack felt too much pity for Declan to be annoyed. Zack had hardly touched his cinnamon-crumble coffee cake, but he took a sip of his cooling tea. When he put the cup down he let his hand rest on the beige table top. A palm and fingers covered it in light, faintly sweaty weight, suddenly flashing Zack back to a dark club and a bar where a wicked man was edging closer, touching more...

"You don't seem to quite belong here. You're very new to this, aren't you?"

Zack's shoulders jerked him back against the cushioned chair, and he yanked his hand away with a heaving gasp and eyes that darkened with expanded pupils. Alarmed, Declan lifted his hands into plain sight, palms facing outward, and after a few moments he leaned forward a little, only when Zack took a deep breath and nodded sheepishly.

"Are you okay? I'm sorry, I shouldn't have - "

"No, no, it's not you," Zack said hurriedly. "I just wasn't paying attention. You know, I have a problem with - "

"Being touched." Declan's voice had dropped to a whisper, and his handsome expression was so kindly worried that Zack wanted to duck under the table and hide from it. "Zack, I know we don't know each other too well yet, but...I keep up with the news in Midgar. That murderer who was targeting pretty teenaged boys was caught and killed, in a Midgar P.D.-ShinRa joint operation. The same night you were gone on a mission."

"The details of that assignment are restricted to 1st Class and up, with myself as an exception," Zack said flatly.

"You weren't in classes the next day. You've seemed quieter lately, less energetic, and you're starting to get dark circles under your eyes."

"I've been tired lately. Missions and training and catching up on work I missed while I was in Mideel. I appreciate your concern, Declan, but I'm fine."

"You panicked when I touched you. I...I know you don't like me, but..."

"I do like you," Zack protested weakly.

"You know what I mean. You're the smartest of all of us, right?"

Zack looked with badly-concealed misery at the older boy. Unlike many of the men who had made passes at him, Declan's interest was clearly more than skin-deep. He was age and rank-appropriate, handsome enough to please anyone, with a fit SOLDIER's body. According to Kunsel, at least, the eighteen-year-old was well-intentioned, patient, the type who would wait for physical intimacy and be satisfied with whatever his desired partner could give.

And he likes me. Declan's practically perfect. What's wrong with me? Am I missing vital hormones or something? Is that why I'm short? Damn it, I'll be a tiny virgin forever...

"Do you mind if...we go?" Zack heard himself ask awkwardly.

"Yeah, no problem."

The waitress brought their check, and a soft argument followed over it which Declan ultimately won, and paid. As they exited the café's peaceful atmosphere, Declan murmured "Can I hold your hand? Just as a friend, even?"

In answer, Zack offered his hand to let it be clasped loosely. Many of the people they passed outside under the cool sky flashed them smiles, no doubt mistaking them for a young couple taking a stroll. When they passed through an unusually crowded section of sidewalk, and Declan felt Zack shrink from an abundance of stares, he dropped the hand and put an arm around the younger man, drawing him nearer. Zack allowed this, mostly out of habit; he was used to Angeal being vigilant and overprotective in crowds.

"So, is it someone else, or..."

"No, honestly. I think I'm just missing a necessary piece of my brain or something." Zack laughed dryly. "Angeal would probably say that explains a lot."

"It must be amazing working with him."

"It is. He's the best," Zack said with a smile.

"Commander Hewley is actually nice, I know, but I'd be intimidated if I had to spend all my time with him," Declan confessed. "Like, I've seen him fight, and he can be scary."

"SOLDIERs are supposed to be, in battle at least. Trust me, he would never admit it, but deep down, Angeal's just a big old teddy bear."

"To you, maybe," Declan said with a smirk.

Zack turned faintly pink. "Hey, you're not implying - "

"It's not like anyone would blame you."

"He's my teacher."

"So you never thought about it?"

"It doesn't matter," Zack said dismissively. "It would be weird, and there's no way Angeal would ever think of me like that."

"Everyone else does. Why should the commander be different?"

The comment was made lightly, laughingly, as the pair strolled by brightly lit window displays and vendors offering foods and souvenir trinkets. Zack pretended to let Declan's words float past him like the city's faintly chemical breeze, or the people that brushed by and that Zack recoiled from when they glanced his way. Since Jonah's hungry gaze had burned his skin like a brand, every pair of eyes had gained the potential to be just as frightening. Except Angeal's, never Angeal's...

There I go again. How will I ever be a hero if I need Angeal with me to feel safe?

Without thinking, Zack leaned into Declan and was happily drawn closer. He didn't mean to tease or give false hope. It was merely Zack's nature to seek touch when he was distressed, even when he didn't want it from that specific person. From any specific person, the boy told himself, and almost believed it.

azazaza

"Stupid Angeal," Genesis grumbled under his breath, taking small, quick steps over the corridor's tile. "Stupid Angeal and his stupid obsession with dirt and plants covered with bugs."

"I'm right next to you, Gen."

"Stupid Angeal with his eavesdropping and making obvious comments."

"You're being childish, Gen," the younger man said reasonably. His chiseled features had a healthy bronze glow to them; Angeal always looked happier and more at peace after working outside. "It's not as though I forced you to help me garden. 'Help' isn't the right word, actually. You almost destroyed my violets."

"That huge insect startled me."

"The butterfly?"

"And I got all dirty!"

"That one smudge of soil will wash off leather, I'm pretty sure."

"There better not be any bugs on me." Alarmed by the thought, Genesis started shaking out and furiously brushing off his clothing as they walked, looking like a man in the grip of a strange seizure. "Ew! Shut up and tell me if you see any!"

Angeal managed to stop laughing long enough to assure his friend that there were no insects in the vicinity. A far more welcome sight - for both of them - came into view as they turned the next corner, and Genesis forgot his concerns to excitedly wave Zack closer.

"Puppy! How was your date?"

"It wasn't a date," the boy said, a little more defensively than one would expect. "Declan's just a friend."

"What, was he dropped on his head?"

"Genesis," Angeal said in warning, then directed warm eyes and a softer tone at his student. "Are you all right?"

Zack smiled at him, a genuine smile that Angeal was reassured to see, but just after it came a sigh too weary for a sixteen-year-old. "I'm tired."

"You look exhausted. C'mon, you need to eat something and get to bed early."

"Not hungry," Zack murmured, though he knew Angeal wouldn't accept that. The commander took out his phone and dialed the kitchens, leaving Genesis to roll his eyes sympathetically.

"He was always like this. My parents used to pay him to make me eat broccoli."

"But I've seen you choose to eat broccoli."

"Only out of spite. So, do I get a hug? I feel unloved."

Though he saw through the elder's feigned sadness, Zack stepped into Genesis's embrace, which wasn't as warm and all-encompassing as Angeal's but still felt nice. While lightly squeezing him, Genesis silently took note of how the boy's body slumped weakly against his own, how dampened the young one's usual blinding vitality was.

"Are you wearing perfume?" Zack asked curiously.

"Not today. I was helping 'Geal in his garden."

"You?"

"I know, I even surprise myself." Genesis took hold of Zack's upper arms when he drew back. "Hmm, did Hollander check your mako level?"

"One-eighty." That was a high normal, and usual for Zack.

"Blood panel?"

"All normal."

"Sleeping potion?"

"It tastes like someone barfed into an ether."

"They're sending up some of that vegetable rice dish you like," Angeal said, snapping his phone shut.

"See? He's still pushing broccoli like it's crack."

A roll of the eyes. "C'mon, Puppy."

Angeal went straight into the shower once they reached the apartment, and came out to find his student picking with disinterest at his food. Zack was half-slumped over the kitchen table, one hand cupping his chin and supporting his head. Angeal poured tea for both of them and brought the cups when he sat down opposite him. Zack murmured a soft "Thanks" and made a little more of an effort to eat.

"Puppy."

"Hmm?"

"Did the potion help at all last night?"

"I don't know," Zack said, finally meeting his eyes. "I know I slept. I've been sleeping. I'm just tired anyway."

"If you're having bad dreams, you can tell me. It's all right."

"I would tell you. I don't remember any dreams lately. Not since that one in Mideel."

"The one where you were being chased by a giant can of hairspray? You must have been missing Genesis."

Zack laughed, and for a moment his heavy-lidded eyes went back to their former striking brightness, sunlit water revealed before clouds darkened it again. Even for that instant only, it was a sight that made Angeal smile. His Zack was still in there, unchanged, beneath whatever this present difficulty was. Angeal just had to figure it out, and fix it.

"Your sleep has been disturbed lately, though."

"Huh?"

"You've been...tossing and turning," Angeal said after a quick pause. Hopefully he could avoid embarrassing his apprentice.

"You've been watching me sleep?" Zack asked, not upset but a bit uneasy.

"I've been checking on you," the commander half-lied. "You don't realize it? Or anything unusual?"

Zack looked down and stirred his remaining rice and carrots together, using this time to pray Angeal hadn't noticed how often he'd been washing his sheets. "Uh-uh."

"Part of it might be your age," Angeal said diplomatically, shrugging. "It's natural to have sleep disturbances when you're sixteen, and especially for men. I know I did. That's normal...you know that, right?"

Zack nodded, wishing he could disappear through the floor, though he realized Angeal was trying his hardest to be vague and reassuring. For a moment, even while he wanted to hide, Zack wanted nothing more than to do it in his teacher's protective arms, where it always seemed his troubles couldn't touch him.

C'mon, this is ridiculous, you're a SOLDIER, not a baby!

"Zack, I want you to feel like you can tell me anything, and I promise you can. But if you don't want to, I hope you at least talk to one of your friends, or the counselor when you begin seeing him."

What if Angeal thinks I don't trust him? Zack's eyes stung a little.

"...and I know you said Declan is only a friend, but...I hope you're not...forbidding yourself more than that, Pup." Angeal's voice sounded halting and oddly forced, but so full of tenderness, as always. "If you don't want to be...touched by anyone yet, that's perfectly understandable. But...dating might help with...this. You're so exceptional, Zack, in so many ways, you need a little normality too."

The joy that a compliment from his revered teacher would normally evoke was overtaken by a hurt that Zack didn't quite understand. Angeal wanted him to date? Did Angeal, too, think it was weird of him not to?

Deficient, different, something missing, something wrong...

"Pup..."

Zack didn't realize he'd made an audible sob until he heard Angeal's concerned voice, and the scrape of a chair on tile as the commander stood up and came to him. What the hell, Zack thought miserably, and turned to throw his arms around Angeal's waist and rest his forehead on Angeal's abdomen. Hands massaging his scalp and shoulder held him there for a few moments, then he was being lifted to a standing position and hugged properly. The two of them fit well together, one form comfortably contouring to another, with one head laying against a muscular chest and the other resting on silky spikes. One arm was around Zack's waist, and the strength of Angeal's hug actually lifted him just off the floor, but the teenager was too distracted to feel small and powerless. He felt them both, and a jumble of other hurts, already.

"Let it out, Puppy," a kind voice whispered to Zack, and a hand pat his back soothingly when the quiet sobs threatened to turn into a fit of hiccups. Angeal always encouraged him to cry when he got started, never made him feel that it was an immature thing to do.

Zack burrowed against him like a frightened puppy seeking protection, his tears only furthered by his confusion about what exactly had brought them forth. The thought of dating? Angeal possibly knowing that he'd been waking up to sticky underwear and sheets, like a twelve-year-old? This damned mysterious fatigue, the constant distress only eased when they were together?

"I'm...sorry..." Zack choked out, breathing rhythmically to calm himself down.

"You have nothing to apologize for."

"I shouldn't...I just..."

"What? Tell me."

"I keep getting scared when I'm not with you," Zack blurted, obviously angry at himself.

"Since the mission?" Angeal asked shortly, to keep him talking.

"Yes," Zack practically spat the word out, like he'd taken a bite of something sour.

"Zack, it's okay."

"It's not!"

"It's normal." Angeal made gentle "ssh" noises over another of Zack's streams of barely audible apologies until the voice faded. "Puppy, listen. You were put through something traumatic and terrifying, and fear like that doesn't just go away. I promised to protect you for as long as you need me. You needed me, and I wasn't there. You can be angry about that if you want."

Zack had been calming at first, and now shifted with distress at that suggestion and huddled closer to his mentor with sounds of stubborn refusal. Angeal smiled wistfully and let that go, wondering how long his pup had felt the need to shield him.

"Okay, you don't have to blame me. Blame the situation, then. You were in danger of death, and you were hurt, not physically but in a worse way. The fear just hasn't passed yet. Some part of you thinks the danger could return any time, and you don't want to be alone with it again."

Is that it? It makes sense...

"It will pass," Angeal assured him. "Until it does, you can stay as close to me as you want. You know I never mind."

Zack's fearful clinging was relaxing into a hug, easing up as he realized that Angeal wasn't going to leave him. Gradually, the breathing warming the T-shirt over Angeal's heart became heavy with only weariness, not barely-controlled hysteria. He set Zack back on his feet and continued to hold him close, a position he greatly enjoyed, and let the boy edge back at his own pace. When Zack finally revealed his face, it wore the embarrassment Angeal had expected, and the pretty eyes everyone envied were pink and puffy, but Zack gave him a weak, brave smile as well.

Angeal placed his palm against a wet cheek and gently swept the marred porcelain skin with his thumb. "This will get better. Trust me, okay?"

An immediate and willing nod. Angeal took Zack's hand, led him to the bathroom and stayed by his side while the 2nd brushed his teeth and cleaned the sticky tears from his face. Then the bedroom, where Zack put on a pair of pajamas (patterned with dragons this time), drank the sleeping potion Angeal poured for him, and got into bed. He was already nodding off when he tried to say that he was fine, Angeal didn't have to stay...then he was out, and peace prevailed over the sweet face that Angeal was trying to keep innocent.

All SOLDIERs, just like all people, lose their innocence eventually, and sooner than civilians. Angeal, who honored Zack's dreams as much as his own and had promised to help the boy reach them, felt a brief, disturbing desire that Zack had been born with a different fate.

azazaza

There was something instinctively reassuring about the sight of Sephiroth. Zack never voiced this opinion aloud, partly because there had never been a need to and mostly because he tried not to remind his friends and classmates that he himself was close to SOLDIER's unbeatable Trinity. He dealt with enough jealousy about that already. Also, almost everyone felt fear mixed in with their awe of the general, and if you asked the average person how they'd feel if placed within ten feet of Sephiroth, few or none would say "Safer."

Like them, Zack had once been starstruck to the point of muteness. He cringed to recall his fourteen-year-old self actually hiding behind Angeal when the legend appeared unexpectedly.

"Sephiroth's not going to hurt you, Puppy," Angeal laughed, looking over his shoulder at the boy who was, impressively, managing to cower and salute at the same time. "He saves his wrath for unruly 1sts."

Sephiroth, though about the same height as Angeal, seemed to look down from a great distance upon him. He cocked his head to gaze with faint curiosity at the child. "Perhaps Junior Lieutenant Fair doesn't wish to be one of my 1sts?"

"I do!" Zack said eagerly, edging back into sight and lightly bouncing with excitement. "I do, General, more than anything. Well, I want to be a hero, but a 1st Class hero!"

A faint, rare smile. "Then that is what I will expect of you."

Once they had entered the small conference room, Angeal had patted Zack's shoulder, told him to pick a seat, and excused himself to speak quietly with Lazard. Instead Zack wandered toward the head of the table, where SOLDIER's ethereal general was reading the contents of a folder, requiring only seconds for each page. Silver eyes flickered up and looked Zack over before settling on his face.

"Good morning, Sephiroth."

"And to you, Zack. How are you?" What was an indifferent pleasantry from most people always came out of Sephiroth as a vital and serious question.

"I'll be okay," Zack said, figuring it was the easiest honest answer.

"The Midgar Police Department's expert completed her post-mortem profile on Dr. Jonah Keller. She concluded that his perverse compulsions would most likely not have responded to any kind of rehabilitation. He never would have stopped killing." Sephiroth carefully analyzed Zack's wince at the name, his uneasy posture, the tiny "Oh" that escaped his mouth. "We cannot know exactly how many victims he would have slain. Nonetheless, I may say with certainty that you have prevented many deaths, Zack. I am sorry we had to put you through that mission, but you did well."

An actual compliment from the lacking-in-emotion general could pierce through any kind of dark mood, and Zack brightened a bit, though sad clouds still seemed to be weighing down his eyes. "Thank you, sir. And it's okay. I know none of you wanted it to happen," he said, referring to the other occupants of the room.

"Has Instructor Titus rescheduled his Survival Skills lesson for today?"

"Actually, I excused Zack from his responsibilities today," Angeal explained, as he approached with Lazard and Genesis close behind. "Since he's expected to advance quickly through the company, I thought it might be good to show him the duties of an executive. So he'll be shadowing me."

"I learn survival skills during missions, from Angeal, anyway," Zack said with a shrug. He missed his few classes all the time, and his mentor always filled in the gaps in his education.

"Hmm, 'Geal is such a resourceful country boy, isn't he?" Genesis drawled with a teasing grin.

"We grew up in the same village, Gen."

"And yet we couldn't be more different."

"You guys should have your own sitcom," Zack suggested.

"Oh, we've been offered. But someone wouldn't agree to nude scenes."

"Perhaps we should start the meeting, gentlemen?" Lazard was on the other side of the table, waving sheepishly.

"Lazard was gonna be the annoyed next-door-neighbor character," Genesis continued, as though no one had spoken. "The straight man to our wackiness, you know? We had to explain that Lazard is anything but straight, as though the purple jacket doesn't scream that information loud enough - "

"Genesis," Sephiroth interrupted, gesturing to a chair.

"Anyway, once the producer started bringing up guest appearances by Seph and salivating all over the contracts, that was pretty much the end of it."

"Sit by me, Genesis?" Zack asked, settling between Angeal and an empty seat, and the auburn-haired man finally shut up and accepted.

Out of gratitude toward Angeal for being permitted to stay near him, Zack tried to follow and absorb the information exchanged during the meeting. But the main topic was a complicated review of the SOLDIER program's budget, and the boy afterward only recalled a few interesting tidbits. Something about a suggestion to hire a full-time masseur, which was shelved when Genesis offered too eagerly to handle the interview process. Something about retooling the Sephiroth variable in the VR database ("Ooh, let's make it anatomically correct!" "Gen, you do realize you don't need to be here?"). Funds allocated to a new PR campaign. ("Yeah, we need more of the 'Look, we're all sexy heroes' and less of the 'You may be kidnapped by Turks'. Speaking of Turks, what's the name of that little red-haired one? He looks like a screamer, doesn't he?")

Good thing Angeal had told Zack in advance that he wouldn't be quizzed or anything afterward. For a while, the boy passed the time by subtly examining the other people at the table. Lazard, with his formal and unusual style of dress, his boyish blond hair and vaguely aristocratic features, his kind, spectacled hazel eyes over a paternal smile. Genesis, participating playfully but now and then being solemn and even helpful, restless like Zack but practiced at containing his fire. Mischievous, electric-blue eyes above amused, smirking lips, occasionally glancing at Zack and smiling warmly at him.

Sephiroth, the animated statue, a marble angel whose beauty still surprised Zack, though he'd known the man for years. The general was all seriousness, conducting them smoothly from topic to topic, demonstrating his usual attention to detail and concern for his men, as though he didn't realize that the sight of him alone was enough to bring most people to their knees.

And Angeal, intelligent Angeal, with his brown eyes full of thought and his handsome face nodding or frowning at the points brought up to be discussed. Zack envied his focus, his calm, the way he seemed to effortlessly know the right thing to do or say. Watching him brought up Zack's annoying impulse to nudge closer and cling, so he looked instead down at his own hands, folded loosely on the table. A familiar hand briefly smoothed its way over his dark spikes, Angeal reminding him that he was still close by, and Zack closed his eyes when the touch ended. He felt so tired, and inexplicably uneasy whenever he felt sleep approaching, except when Angeal was close by, and Angeal was close by...

"Is he asleep?" Lazard asked softly.

Zack was slumped over the table, one cheek resting heavily on his forearm. His eyes were shut, the skin beneath them faintly dark, and his breathing was soft and steady. Angeal reached out slowly to brush a few glossy spikes out of the boy's peaceful face, and other than a slight shift closer to the petting hand, Zack didn't stir.

"Yes. He's been exhausted the past few days."

"We shouldn't wake him, then," the director said. "But perhaps we should move him?"

Angeal edged his chair closer to Zack, so he could keep a comforting arm around him and a hand on his shoulder. The commander gestured that the others should continue, but his eyes returned immediately to his student and stayed there, watching him with a concern that forgot the rest of the planet. Without a doubt, Zack sensed his protector was close by, and a tiny smile curved his pink lips.

"Oh, I think Puppy is quite comfortable right where he is," Genesis said with a quiet laugh.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 8 - Ruined At Root

 

Zack could hardly breathe through the intense pleasure being coaxed out of his body. A dizzy feeling of floating through a sea of rapture filled and warmed his whole body. In the moonlight-dim room, the teenager's head lolled from side to side on the pillow, mouth slightly open, flushed eyelids twitching. He lay on his back, with his knees nearly against his chest, and undulated exactly as though someone was gently thrusting into him. Yet Zack was fully clothed in a pair of sky-blue silk pajamas (a gift from Genesis), and the light blanket Angeal had earlier adjusted was still draped over him.

Also, Zack Fair was alone in his bedroom. His mentor had, after checking on him several times, finally gone to bed, but had Angeal opened the door at this moment, he would have seen no one but his student, once again effortlessly holding a hard position to maintain alone. In his sleep, though, Zack knew better. He couldn't identify the man with him, but knew he was there.

Somehow, this stranger caused him no fear, no flashbacks, no desire to question. Pleasure painted over every other emotion and concern, the heavy, delicious heat and pressure between his spread legs and the powerful exhilaration every time thick flesh brushed that special spot inside him. An unseen body hovered over and caressed his thighs, stomach, chest, up to his cheeks where fingers traced his lips and wiped the tears that spilled from closed eyes.

There were never words between them. Not when these encounters first began with chaste kisses and cuddling, not now that they had progressed to intercourse. Sometimes Zack wished for words at the beginning (though, oddly, he never felt a need to ask for a name), but the physical closeness spoke everything they needed to say. It was all Zack needed to be shown this tender love, to be given this filling and release that his heart and his hormonal body craved.

Moist lips swallowed all but his softest cries, as though realizing that they had to be quiet. Great care was always shown to give Zack enough force to maximize the boy's pleasure without causing him any more than the faintest discomfort. Zack was always warmed up first with kisses and stroking and arms enfolding and cradling him, always built slowly to at least one amazing orgasm, always prepared very carefully with slickened fingers. Zack didn't remember these nighttime occurrences by the light of day, but he never felt sore after them, never woke with the sense that something bad had happened to him.

"More, more," Zack begged, and though he hadn't really spoken aloud, the message definitely got across. His bent legs were adjusted so that the cock inside him could plunder him more deeply, and a hand stroked him in the same rhythm, flesh on flesh as though the pajama pants didn't exist. Kisses were placed all over the teenager's glowing face, from his forehead to his ears to the panting lips that a tongue slid between.

The man came first, with speedy final thrusts that filled Zack with a beautiful liquid heat. He would find only his own seed the next morning, but now, this was completely real, and he enjoyed it as much as his own climax. Because the man's spurting seemed to go on forever, feeding his insides more than they could hold and soaking his quivering thighs like a river, and every drop was a claim, a mark of ownership, and Zack so wanted to belong, to be owned this way...

Zack clenched to try to keep it all in him, forcing the softening cock against his prostate again just as the coaxing hand gave that last needed pull. Fingers pushed into Zack's mouth just in time for the world to shatter, and he groaned a muffled scream of ecstasy around them and thrust erratic ropes of white into the silk of his pajama pants. The boy floated in a kind of daze for a short while, then became less and less aware of everything as he drifted into sleep. The larger body always stayed and held him until Zack dozed off, before fading along with the memory of wanting and being wanted, the polar opposite of his waking loneliness.

azazaza

"What am I not being told?"

Lazard, with effort, forced his eyes down to his desk and paperwork to avoid the stare burning into him. The director prided himself on his mask, his control, his ability to be one man at work and another in private. He couldn't let himself look his fill at Sephiroth, or he would answer anything, give anything.

The worst thing about this love wasn't that it was unrequited and always would be. It was the weakness it created. The cracks in his mask. The private Lazard bleeding through them into the immovable executive.

"General, you'll have to be more specific."

Sephiroth's hands on the desk's surface tensed, the long white fingers curling against the polished wood. Damn it, Lazard swore silently, even his hands were beautiful. Then they were gone, Sephiroth was straightening to his full height and speaking, this time in his flattest voice.

"The recent incidents of ShinRa-directed terrorism in Mideel, Costa del Sol and Junon are, I am told, connected, the work of the same perpetrators. You know who, and you know why, and I demand that you tell me."

"We have an idea of the who and only guesses as to the why, and I am not authorized to give that information to you."

"Since when does the director of SOLDIER give his allegiance to the Turks?" Sephiroth's tone was low and deadly.

"My allegiance is to the company, and this order comes from the board of directors and the president. Right now, the intel you're requesting is restricted to the board and the Turks." Softening his voice a little, Lazard added "Don't you think I would tell you if I could?"

Sephiroth turned and took two steps toward the door, entrancing the director with silver hair that billowed and fell like a curtain of starlight. The general tilted his head downward but otherwise didn't move, analyzing or calming himself or maybe just delaying the rest of this awkwardness. Whatever it was, Lazard saw sadness in the young man and wanted desperately to wrap his arms around him. But not here, Sephiroth would never allow it here. He was two people as well, even if they were hard to tell apart.

Lazard waited, gave him time to get wherever he chose to go. Apparently the general chose controlled anger, because he turned back at last with a cool expression and tinges of green in his icy steel eyes.

"My SOLDIERs are the ones risking their lives to evacuate these areas targeted by bomb threats, to quell the rebellions incited, to deal with the gangs and thugs hired to disturb the peace, and you wish me to continue sending them out without all the information we have?"

"The company doesn't want to cause any premature alarm or provoke Wutai by making unverified speculation public," Lazard forced past the choking sensation in his throat. "If the classified intel were necessary for any mission, I'm sure ShinRa would - "

"Since when am I not trusted with classified information?" Sephiroth nearly hissed, for a moment looking every bit the angel of death his Wutainese opponents had thought him.

Lazard hated himself for the answer he had to give, and as punishment wouldn't allow his eyes to leave Sephiroth's face. "Genesis."

"What about Genesis?"

"The company values him, but ShinRa's trust in him is limited. Genesis has, on occasion, some trouble controlling his mouth."

"I'm aware of this, but what has it to do with me?"

"Your...closeness to him."

It took a moment, anything emotional rather than logical always took a moment, but realization pushed the anger out of the general's silver eyes. The looming legend deflated before Lazard's pained gaze, visibly shrinking until only an inhumanly beautiful twenty-three-year-old stood before him, mentally reeling from what he was being told and unsteady on his feet for the first time Lazard had ever seen. The director instinctively stood to go to him, but sat back down when Sephiroth shook his head, and waited for him to recover.

Please be okay, if I have to call for Hojo now I don't think even you could handle it...

"Sephiroth - "

"I understand, Director."

The words left unspoken rang in the air much louder than the ones the general murmured. I understand now that I was right to keep people at a distance, to be untouchable, to resist you and Genesis trying to open me up. My mistake was giving in. To both of you.

"Sephiroth, it wasn't a mistake," Lazard said urgently, as though the general had really spoken. "I..." He couldn't admit love, that would only scare Sephiroth away. "When I'm with you, I..." Every word he tried led to the same point, and he could only look helplessly at the one person he had ever lost his heart to.

The general took in a few silent breaths, and each one made him look less like a devastated boy and more like a stoic warrior. The shields he had taught himself to relax in Lazard's presence were going back up, not out of anger but resignation. Lazard got up again, this time disobeying the gesture intended to keep him back, and only halted when they were arm's length apart and Sephiroth was ready to fight or flee.

"Seph..."

He had never spoken that affectionate abbreviation outside of the bedroom and the heat of arousal. It caught Sephiroth's attention, and he looked at Lazard with a distracted calm, and an attempt at understanding.

"If you'll excuse me, Director..."

"Please don't be angry." Lazard knew he sounded childish, desperate, completely unlike himself, and didn't care. "I mean, I understand if you're angry, you have every right to be, but - "

Well aware that the general might kill him purely as a reflex, Lazard closed the short distance between them and reached out, laying one hand on his shoulder over the trademark coat and cupped the back of his head with the other. Sephiroth's eyes narrowed in warning, softened with affection, and became mercury pools of gleaming confusion. He didn't attempt to touch Lazard in any way, but didn't push him away either.

"Just don't tell me we can't be together anymore like we have been. Please." Still treading on dangerous ground, Lazard pressed his lips to Sephiroth's in a slow, chaste kiss. Thank Gaia, he kissed back after a moment, even opened his mouth and tilted his head for easier access.

"I do have to go," the general said at last, pulling himself back.

"Can I still see you tomorrow night?"

"...Yes."

Sephiroth said the word as though it injured him to do so. Lazard, who liked to tell himself he was making Sephiroth more human, knew that part of that was making him susceptible to new kinds of pain. At least we can feel it together, Lazard thought, while a selfish, possessive gnawing stirred in his heart and made him feel happy to be keeping Sephiroth, and completely unworthy of him at the same time.

azazaza

"Zack, I know this is very strange for you. The process always is, for everyone, at first. But try to relax. That will make this much easier on you."

If Genesis were here, he'd say something pervy and make me laugh, and I wouldn't feel so sick. Zack lifted out of his defensive slouch and sat back in the plushy chair, making an attempt, at least, to look casual. ShinRa had two full-time psychiatrists on its payroll, one in his thirties and the other in his fifties, and Zack had been sent to the latter - the least like Jonah, Zack figured. Dr. Martin (not to be confused with Instructor Marten) was a living example of the grandfatherly physician stereotype, with salt-and-pepper hair and beard and kind eyes magnified by glasses.

"Would you like some water?"

"No, thank you. Um, not to be rude, sir, but if you don't mind, could we - "

"Get this over with?" the doctor guessed, and chuckled. "How long this takes depends entirely on you, Zack. You know why you're here. Many of my patients know the root of their problem. The time they need before they can discuss it varies in length, and that's fine."

"I can talk about it."

"You shouldn't force yourself just because you're uncomfortable here. It does get easier. Besides..." Martin smiled. "You don't get to be rid of me until I say you can, and I can always spot a faker. The only way through this is at the speed that's right for you."

"I can talk about it."

"All right. Then tell me."

"The target was - "

'I've read all about the mission, in detail. What I need to know is what you were going through. How you felt."

"I was scared."

"Of what?" the doctor asked shortly.

"I...don't know."

"Was it because you knew what the target was? What he had done? Is that what's still frightening you?"

Zack bit back the impulse to say he wasn't scared. "I wanted to get him. He was a monster."

"You fight monsters all the time, far more than most boys your age, yet you've never come to see me about them."

"I guess this was different."

"Because the enemy was human? Because he looked and thought and felt like you?"

"A human couldn't do the things he did," Zack whispered, looking down at his lap.

"I'm afraid we can, Zack, and sometimes we do." The doctor went quiet, waiting until the boy met his gaze again and asked a not-unexpected question.

"Do you know much about him? Who he was?"

"Yes. You can look, if you like." Martin removed something from a slim folder and handed the rest over.

Zack accepted the file and opened it. There was a copy of an employment contract with a Midgar General Hospital letterhead, signed by Jonah Keller, M.D. Copies of various diplomas, and articles authored by the dead man. A report of sexual abuse made ten years ago by a young male patient, with a note that the case was dropped when the complainant recanted. A birth certificate.

His middle name was Aaron, Zack thought with a numb calm. He was named after his father. His mother was called Lyra. Pretty name. Zack tentatively pressed the pads of his fingers against the tiny footprints, expecting to feel the faint lines of the imprinted skin. But it was flat. Only a copy. A ghost. But he was a baby once, with a name that was a legacy and a mother who must have loved him. Stop it...

More abuse complaints, one pending, the rest dropped. A report of adolescent pornography found in Jonah's computer, of Shizukanal hidden in his apartment. Diary excerpts that detailed his attacks and referred to the victims by name. They can all be identified now, and laid to rest. The last paper was a printed sheet of vital statistics, a whole life summarized in a page. Blood type, physician's license I.D. number, hair and eye color, height and weight, family. Family. Wife Sara, daughters Lynn and Tamara, baby son Lucas.

Oh, Gaia. With an arm that shook, Zack closed the folder and eased it back onto the desk. Dr. Martin's sympathetic eyes had been waiting for him, and though he couldn't look into them directly, he saw their concern.

"It's all right, Zack."

"He had a wife and k-kids."

"And he was a rapist and murderer. His son may have been one of the many future victims that you saved. Zack. This man would not have stopped, ever. He would've done to many more boys what he tried to do to you."

"Why didn't he want what he did to hurt?" the teenager said lowly, almost to himself. "I don't understand that. I don't understand him."

"In Keller's twisted mind, he believed he loved each of his victims, and was delivering them from a world that would only hurt them. This allowed him to rationalize killing them, and I believe that because he saw himself as a savior and a superior creature, he believed he could rape them without destroying their purity."

"Maybe he was trying to prove his own theory. That it was inevitable for them to be abused."

The doctor was obviously impressed. "Very good. Your file doesn't exaggerate your intelligence."

"Was he abused, do you think?"

"Perhaps. That may be why Keller was so careful to make his victims ejaculate. He wanted them to enjoy what he did to them."

"He was so...gentle. It surprised me. I..." Zack swallowed several times, trying to ease the feeling of choking.

"Talk, Zack. Nothing you can say is wrong."

"I let him kiss me. I batted my eyes at him like a fucking schoolgirl and let him touch me."

"In order to lull him into feeling secure, so he would take you outside where he could be caught."

"I know," the boy said dully.

"Zack, you were ordered, and then forced. You didn't ask for or want what Keller did to you, even if he made you feel like you did."

"I...I never let anyone touch me that much before, not like that."

"It must have really hurt, having to give that first experience of intimacy up unwillingly, to someone you feared." Dr. Martin subtly nudged the tissue box closer; Zack took one and rubbed it angrily over his eyes. "You were fearing for your life."

"Not as much as I was that he would..."

"What were you thinking about, do you remember?" The doctor read resistance on the boy's face, and gentled his voice further. "No wrong answers, remember?"

"Is it that important?" The doctor's silence spoke volumes. Zack sighed with resignation, wondering why he was so hesitant to answer. "Angeal."

"That's understandable. Commander Hewley has been your mentor for...two years now, isn't it? The two of you are close, right? I think it very natural that in a moment of such fear, you would want him." The boy was looking embarrassed. "Zack, you're in a confusing situation. You have the talent and skill set of someone older, but you are not yet an adult. Don't pressure yourself to be one all the time."

Zack's eyes flickered away, as though he were absorbing that.

"Does Commander Hewley put pressure on you to be an adult?" Martin asked, knowing the answer already.

"The opposite. I mean, he trusts me on missions, most of the time, but it's different here. He...worries."

"And how do you feel about that?"

Zack repressed a smirk at the stereotypical psychiatrist question. "I hate that I make him worry. But it's my fault for being weak."

"You're the youngest 2nd Class since the original three SOLDIERs. Your statistics all indicate that you are extremely strong and capable. Why do you call yourself weak?"

Zack said nothing. He was liking Dr. Martin okay, more than he had expected to, but didn't want to admit to anyone his recent impulse to remain as close as possible to Angeal. At the moment, just as much, Zack wanted to get out of this room and away from the kind eyes that nonetheless seemed to see right into him.

"I can see you're in agony, Zack, so we'll stop for today. But first, here's the last page of that file I gave you."

It was a large photo of Dr. Jonah Keller, the sort that must have been blown up from an I.D. or driver's license. He seemed so normal, with an amiable smile and a professional look in his spotless lab coat. Zack felt oddly calm, though his hands betrayed him and he had to lower them to stop their shaking.

"He's dead, Zack. Because of you, he'll never hurt anyone again. Most people never know that kind of courage." With that, Dr. Martin went to the door and opened it. "Commander? We're done for the day."

Zack quickly turned the photo over and put it on the desk, just in time as Angeal's big, comforting shadow fell over him. Dr. Martin observed intently as Zack visibly relaxed beneath Angeal's hand on his shoulder. Commander Hewley glanced, frowning, at the discarded picture, nodded seriously at the doctor, and gave his student a smile which was returned.

"Are you all right, Zack?" The teenager nodded. "You're sure?"

"The first time is always stressful," Dr. Martin offered helpfully. "You can take him home. I'll call to set up the next appointment."

"Thank you, Doctor."

"Thanks."

"My pleasure."

Catching the minute nuances of people's behavior was a skill acquired through training and long practice. The psychiatrist often learned more from a few seconds of watching a patient leave than in an entire session. And not just patients, but their loved ones and caretakers as well. Commander Hewley was completely focused on his student, trying to encapsulate and shield him from everything, and - unless Martin was mistaken - burdened by a recent and chronic stress about something.

Zack himself seemed to be struggling, though not against the hand that left his shoulder only to loosely curl an arm around him. The doctor wasn't sure what he was fighting until the boy surrendered and let himself edge close to his teacher. Now even more stiffness drained out of the kid, and he only looked tired as he exited the office with a tower of concerned protection at his side.

Well, that's a hint, at least. What's troubling Zack has to do with Angeal. And it seems the reverse is true as well.

azazaza

"How did it go?"

"Okay, I guess."

"This exhaustion isn't normal, Puppy. I think you need a few days off, completely." Angeal once would have loved to have such a cooperative Zack; now he felt alarmed that the boy didn't even try to fight him. They entered the apartment, and as Angeal switched the lights on, Zack spoke the two words that were becoming his most used.

"I'm tired."

"You need to eat something." Angeal, too, had begun to sound like a broken record, and one look at Zack's heavy, pleading eyes broke him further. "Okay, have a nap. I'll wake you later."

"Thanks, Angeal." But the 2nd didn't move, only fidgeted where he stood, like he wanted something else he couldn't ask for. Luckily Angeal understood, knew Zack's usual gesture accompanying gratitude.

He's too tired to glomp? Or is there another reason? It had become as familiar and pleasant to the elder, which he had never expected two years ago when he first decided to stoically indulge Zack's childish impulses of affection. Angeal hadn't been able to bear the thought of quashing his student's spirit with coldness or distance. I did that for Zack's sake, when did this become for me? the commander wondered as he tugged the boy into a brief, gentle hug.

"Do you want some help to your room?"

"That's okay."

But it quickly became clear that Zack was unwilling or unable to move on his own. Angeal looped Zack's arm around the back of his own neck to support him, and half-walked, half-dragged the teenager as he had done for wounded comrades. Once placed on his bed, Zack dozed off almost immediately, but it was a long while before his sleeping face glowed with its usual peace.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 9 - Dreams Out Of Mind

 

"Look, I'm not hiding anything. All he told me is that he's not feeling so great, so Commander Hewley pulled him from classes for the next few days."

"But why? Is it serious? He's okay, right?"

Kunsel made a soft growl of annoyance. He appreciated and was grateful for the fact that Zack was so loved, but he had already had this conversation with Varley, Luxiere and at least three others. It was getting old.

"I don't think his sleep has improved. He sounded tired on the phone. But if it were anything to worry about, he'd be in the med lab."

Declan didn't look convinced. He leaned back against the desk behind him and kept Kunsel in his still-accusatory, though somewhat muted, stare. "You really think he'd miss classes just because he's behind on sleep?"

"It's not like Zack can't afford to miss a few, or a lot. Hell," Kunsel scoffed, "I'm pretty sure ShinRa only makes him come to classes to keep him halfway normal. Also, this is a good lesson for you in how Commander Hewley works. He scares most people, but he's real careful with Zack."

"I guess Zack brings out people's protective instincts."

"For most people." Lieutenants Rudner and Kabe were on the other side of the classroom; Kunsel's eyes narrowed when he glanced in their direction.

"Maybe he's depressed."

"Zack? He's optimism incarnate, usually."

"Yeah, usually," Declan emphasized. "Maybe it just started recently. When people are depressed, they get tired and distracted."

"I think it might have to do with that classified mission he did," Kunsel said softly, frowning. "His behavior changed around the same time. And he won't talk about it. I know it was top-secret, but usually he tells me what he can. Do you know something?"

"Huh?"

"The look on your face. You know something about it. Tell me." Kunsel's tone made it clear that this was not a request.

"Zack didn't say whether I was right or not..."

"Tell me!"

"Well...right after that mission, it was announced that the guy who killed all those boys in Midgar was caught and killed."

Kunsel's lips parted in an uncharacteristically unpleasant and stricken expression. "Weren't those killings..."

"The papers haven't given much detail, but yeah, they were sex crimes."

"Shit. But why the hell would ShinRa use Zack?"

"Bait?"

"I wouldn't put it past the fuckers," Kunsel said bitterly.

"Maybe that's why Zack was edgy about me touching him." Declan seemed to be talking to himself more than Kunsel. "Maybe it wasn't me...maybe he does like me, or at least could..."

"You shouldn't be touching him at a time like this!"

"I didn't know at first!" Declan defended himself, though he was a little bit wounded, and guilty. "I just held his hand. I was trying to make him less anxious. I told you, I'd never do anything to hurt him."

"Sorry. Zack's just...he's not like most guys our age. He's..."

"Innocent?"

"That sounds like an insult...but yeah, kind of. Or...'naive', not that that's much better. Or 'oblivious'. I bet he was shocked when you told him how you feel, right?"

"A little, I think. He was nervous, so I sort of let the subject go," Declan confessed. "Zack let me hold his hand, but then...I think he was trying to tell me that he's unable to like anyone the way I like him."

"Ha. He's told me that once or twice, whenever the subject of dating came up between us and I pressed it." Kunsel laughed fondly. He and Zack had been friends for three years, since they were cadets. "Personally, if I had someone like Commander Hewley around...heh...but Zack doesn't think of him that way."

"Are you sure?"

"I asked him, straight out, about a year ago," Kunsel said. "And he looked at me like I'd grown a second head. Makes me wonder if he has any sex drive at all. Nah, I've seen them together enough. Commander Hewley acts more like a parent to him."

"So, uh..." Declan chuckled nervously and ran a clammy hand over his hair. "Guess I shouldn't've teased Zack a little about that? About Commander Hewley?"

"As long as you don't do it to be mean." Kunsel shrugged agin. "Zack's got to be used to it by now. He lives with one of the hottest guys on the planet, who totally loves him, and gets to pal around with the other two most wanted 1sts. Probably a lot of people wonder why he doesn't try to be more than friends with them."

"I thought you said Commander Hewley wasn't interested in him like that."

"Yeah, but Commander Rhapsodos is." Kunsel nodded at Declan's impressed whistle. "Zack just thinks it's funny, but yeah, that's the kind of competition you face."

"So you are trying to discourage me."

"No. Slow you down, maybe." Kunsel looked at him solemnly. "I don't think Zack's well enough right now to make the big step that a boyfriend would be for him. And I know Commander Hewley, at least a little. He'll be closing ranks now, keeping an even closer watch over Zack than usual."

"But they're not..."

"Commander Hewley's too honorable," Kunsel scoffed. "And the company would probably freak. The publicity would be disastrous."

"Except with the fan clubs."

"Yeah, all those weird girls would probably love it."

The instructor entered the classroom then, hurrying and haried and rushing to compensate for his lateness. Kunsel and Declan quickly took their seats, and the other students similarly scrambled to their desks as attendance was taken and the day's lesson began. Several seats away from Zack Fair's friends, Lt. Rudner looked straight ahead with a faint, cruel expression of satisfation. It was one the bully and his victims knew well. The only difference was, today, that Rudner was keeping whatever wicked thoughts he was having to himself.

azazaza

Most of ShinRa's SOLDIERs, whether country boys or city-bred, hated the company's labs. SOLDIERs were creatures of action, movement, strength, sometimes grace, inhumanly powerful beings who seemed to in themselves have a balance of the planet's elements that normal people couldn't attain, only marvel at. They belonged in the heat of battle or training, the earth of their camp sites and forest trails, the water of rainy marches and forded streams, the wind of swung swords, of gravity-defying leaps, of movement.

The labs were places of stasis. They were known by the stillness they evoked, both in the body that sat awkwardly and the mind that quieted with fear or anxiety or the anticipation of pain. The sterile gleam of metal and mechanical cold of the place could rip all the warmth out of a sensitive heart...and there were sensitive SOLDIERs, though you'd rarely know by looking at them. Whether for mako injections or any worse reason, no SOLDIER liked any of the labs. The science ones, however, were much worse than the med lab, and Hojo's was hell on Gaia.

"Just a few more minutes," the famous biologist said boredly.

For Zack's sake alone, Angeal avoided scowling. Not that it was anywhere near number one on his list of reasons to hate Hojo, but the cold man's dismissive attitude toward other people always aroused Angeal's quiet fury. Dr. Hojo seemed to regard everyone as inferior to himself and made little effort to hide this opinion. The one exception was Sephiroth, in whom the doctor took great, smug pride and saw as an extension and manifestation of his own genius. (Anyone who thought Sephiroth above personal dislikes had obviously never seen him endure Hojo patting his head like a favorite dog.) ShinRa's top scientist constantly behaved as though whatever he was doing was beneath him, a distraction from important work, and a waste of his precious skills and time. He was actually not too infuriating today, which in itself was unsettling.

Forget him. Angeal left Hojo to stare impatiently at his monitor and put his focus back where it belonged. "Puppy, how are you doing?"

"'M okay."

It was an automatic reassurance, not intended to be a real answer, but any observer would have known it for a lie. Lying back limply on the padded table, Zack looked up toward the blank ceiling with a tired, almost defeated expression. The young SOLDIER prodigy, a legend in the making, looked like a pale, unwell boy right now, putting all his decreased strength into the hand that gripped Angeal's as a lifeline. The creepy labs and creepier scientist frightened him, as they did everyone his age, and very often older.

As long as they had to be there, Angeal had earlier resolved, he would keep in physical contact with his student. He hated exposing his precious Puppy to ShinRa's most hated man, but Sephiroth had made a good point the previous day when he suggested that Zack's recent symptoms might be caused by a mako imbalance. And of all ShinRa's employees, Hojo was the mako expert. For that reason alone, today would not be the day Angeal ripped his spine out, though if he dared look at Zack one more time with those shiny, curious reptilian eyes...

"Has Hollander's potion helped his sleep at all?" Hojo asked flatly, breaking into Angeal's thoughts. His tone made clear his lack of confidence in his colleague.

"Getting to sleep hasn't been a problem for him." In fact, Zack had been sleeping during daytime since yesterday, now that he was on leave from classes. "His sleep hasn't been any more restful, not that I've noticed, at least. Should he keep taking the potion?"

"It won't do any harm." The computer in front of Hojo beeped softly, the screen changed, and something began to print. He grabbed the results the second they hit the printer tray and scrutinized them.

Zack turned his head and tilted it back, trying to see what was happening. Angeal brushed a few fallen spikes out of his face and smoothed the silky hair back. Zack closed his eyes and exhaled slowly, the touch easing his apprehension as it always did.

"Ah, so that's it," Hojo spoke up, and his shrill voice actually betrayed interest now. "His mako level is low."

"What?" Angeal wasn't sure if he should be relieved or not. "How would that happen?" He knew Genesis's level had been unstable in the past, occasionally getting too high, but too low?

"Fair's body has adjusted to mako so well that its ability to absorb and use it has grown. Essentially, he's adapted so that the standard 2nd Class dose is not enough to properly enhance him. Interesting, very interesting indeed..."

You'll never get him for your twisted experiments, you bastard. "Can you correct this?"

"It's about time for Fair's injection this month. I'll give him a dose of mako that's increased just enough to compensate."

Zack flinched slightly when Hojo approached, but stubbornly made no reaction when the I.V. needle was inserted into his arm. Hojo lingered a little longer than was necessary, smirking at the way Angeal hovered protectively over his apprentice. By the time Zack had begun to tremble, Angeal was about to forcefully shove the scientist away; Hojo must have realized this, because he mumbled something about being right back and scurried off. Zack breathed out in relief at his departure, only to groan quietly as the mako entered his veins. It wasn't very painful once the body had adapted to it, but not comfortable, and it seemed this higher dose would hurt at first too.

Angeal quickly snagged the nearest chair and pulled it close, sitting down nearer to Zack's level and edging right up to the padded exam table. One hand continued to squeeze his fingers and the other pet his hair and cheek, combing through the black strands and rhythmically tucking them behind his exposed ear. Turned on his right side, Zack inched toward Angeal, toward that wall of love and safety, until those soothing hands held him still to remind the boy to be careful of the I.V.

"It's okay," the commander murmured. "It's okay, Puppy. It won't be much longer, you're doing well..." Why, Angeal wondered, did he so loathe the sight of that poison-colored goop being put into his student?

"I'm...okay..." Zack stretched a little to push his head up further into the stroking hand. "I don't like it here. I don't like him."

"Has he ever done anything to you?" Angeal asked suddenly. He didn't permit Zack to be in any of the labs alone, but he couldn't be with him every second.

"Uh-uh. He's just creepy, and..." Zack blinked rapidly and pressed a hand to his temple; injections always made him dizzy, as well as loosened his tongue. "And I don't like the way he talks about you."

"What does he say?" Angeal asked calmly, knowing full well he was taking advantage of his student's temporary weakness.

"Whenever I see him, he asks how you are with this weird smile, and once he said - " Zack blinked again.

"Zack, please tell me." Silence. "That's an order, Pup."

"He said he...he was surprised you liked them so young but that you made a good choice. I hate him."

"It's okay." No fury, never show him fury. "It's okay, I'll take care of it."

"No violence," Zack murmured, and closed his eyes.

"No violence." Not in front of you, at least.

"You should let me hit him, though...I'd get in less trouble, right? Sephiroth'd probably give me a medal..."

Angeal softly laughed along with him. "Or a hug, and that's much rarer."

The injection was almost finished. Hojo returned just as the last of the mako disappeared into Zack and removed the needle. He smirked just slightly as the boy flinched from his touch, and displayed a cautious, cold curiosity as Angeal bent protectively over the kid and glared with burning eyes.

"See how that does for him. You should notice improvement tomorrow."

"Thank you very much. And Doctor, never again speak to my student without me present. If you do, I will make a formal complaint to the company."

Hojo, unperturbed and unchanged, nodded with a trace of his usual smile. "Understood, Commander. As you wish."

"Don't pick me up," Zack warned when Angeal moved to. "I can walk. Not a baby."

"All right."

But he carefully helped Zack up and held him steady until the 2nd nodded, and even then he kept an arm around him as they walked toward the exit. Zack normally would have insisted he required no aid and bounced out to show his considerable strength. But he was still a little dizzy, and too tired, and Angeal's body next to his was so warm and comfortable.

Angeal was feeling a similar pleasure in having Zack so close to him, where he was safe, where no one could harm him or take him away. But he felt Hojo's eyes on them, watching with probably the same perverted thoughts that Zack seemed to unwittingly draw everywhere he went.

Puppy, he thought sadly, how could anyone want to hurt you?

azazaza

Angeal woke suddenly, in the middle of the night. He'd forgotten he'd gone to bed, and had to think back to recall the events of the evening. Zack had been studying...at least, he'd had a book on his lap and flipped through it, but he didn't require much effort to remain the head of his class, and Angeal knew his student often spent this time deep in thought. About what, he didn't have the courage to ask, this time.

At least it hadn't been much trouble convincing Zack to eat; the mako must have restored his appetite. And his enthusiasm for Wutainese B-horror movies. Angeal thought they were all too alike and predictable, but anything to make Zack happy, even a new director's cut of The Rage. And though he didn't say so aloud, the stoic 1st had been a bit unnerved by the young ghost girl who made roars like a lion whenever her mouth opened.

He glanced at the clock - one a.m. Just about the time Zack usually had his sleep disturbances. Angeal leapt up silently, grabbed his robe and padded toward the other bedroom, where he opened the door.

Quiet, stillness. Zack was laying on his side, slightly curled up, with an old familiar smile on his contented face. The bedclothes were not in disarray as Angeal had expected they would be, and his superior senses detected no scent in the air that would indicate a recent sexual release. Could the madman really have been the answer to these disruptions? If so, Angeal was relieved nonetheless...but something about all this didn't sit well with him. Nocturnal emissions were normal for boys in puberty, as were erotic dreams, but how could these perfectly natural occurrences lead to the kind of daytime exhaustion that had been plaguing Zack?

Am I looking for things to stress about, like Genesis says I do? Maybe it was delayed overexertion from the Mideel mission, or growing pains, or stress from the Midgar incident. Could be any, or all, or a simple mako defficiency. I suppose tomorrow will tell.

"Sweet dreams, Puppy."

Zack's slumber was dreamless. He was aware of himself only enough to realize he was alone, and to be somewhat disappointed by that. Someone was supposed to come at this time, and give him the intimacy and sexual togetherness that the conscious, awake Zack Fair seemed to have no interest in. As his body lay still beneath the blankets, Zack reached out for the Other, the being who he somehow trusted to touch him and was not frightening in his want of Zack the way real people were.

Why wasn't the so-real dream coming? The teenager extended his senses in a way that was purely instinctive, and felt a very vague answer in the form of emotional traces - concern for him, guilt for his recent exhaustion, remorse for the selfishness of taking him with only the dubious consent a dreamer can offer. Zack tried to send out a protest, a reassurance that he wanted it. The invisible stranger responded with a flood of love, but did not come, and at last Zack slipped back into unawareness.

When the 2nd awoke the following morning, he felt like he'd slept for a year and was refreshed, smiling, ready to bounce out of bed and start his day. And beneath all that, rising up to trouble Zack with a puzzled frown, the odd certainty that he was experiencing the loss of something.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 10 - My Very Love Of You

 

"Woo, you can't catch me! Go on and try!"

"C'mon, Zack, we're supposed to be practicing our swords, not playing around," Lt. Varley said, grinning in spite of himself at the younger's antics. "You said you'd help me."

"Gotta catch me first!"

As usual, most of the eyes in the gym were on Zack, and he couldn't resist hamming it up. He broke into a sprint, ran to the nearest wall and several steps straight up it, then launched himself into a double somersault and landed effortlessly. Applause broke out spontaneously from the other 2nds and 3rds, and Zack laughed good-naturedly and took a bow.

"Ooh, someone's looking better."

Angeal, unsurprised that Genesis had snuck up to stand beside him, turned to look at him and smiled. "I hate to give Hojo any credit, but it seems Zack's mako level really was just low."

"Puppy looks like his old self again. Bright-eyed and full of spunk."

"Yes."

"Speaking of being filled with spunk - "

"Please don't, Gen."

"I'm just saying, if you don't want him, I don't see why I can't have him."

"Because it's not legal, for one - "

"Oh, pssh, you know ShinRa looks the other way."

" - and I don't want you corrupting my innocent student - "

"I would be teaching him important skills!"

" - and what about Sephiroth?" Angeal saved this point for last, knowing it would silence Genesis, and it did, but only for a few moments.

"Until and unless Seph feels he can be exclusive with me, I can have playmates on the side too. 'Geal, you know I wouldn't hurt the Puppy. I love him too."

"I know you do, in your own bizarre way. But you're not laying a finger on Zack."

"How about inside?"

"Genesis!"

"At least a little groping?"

"I will hit you in front of 3rd Classes, Gen."

The auburn-haired 1st pouted. "I get that you want to protect your sweet baby Puppy, 'Geal, but really, Zack needs a little instruction. It's not normal for a boy his age to be so uninterested in dating and sex."

"He'll deal with that stuff when he's ready to, and in the meantime, I don't want you or anyone else pushing him. Anyway, what's normal? Look at us, look at Seph."

"Fair enough. But..." Genesis sighed in typical dramatic fashion. "Look at him. It's a waste of beauty. Seriously, look at him."

Angeal rolled his eyes, but, inevitably, his gaze returned to its rightful, watchful place on his student. Zack had settled down and begun to duel properly, at the moment opposing a fellow 2nd who was around twenty or so, presumably as an educational example for the onlookers. Observing Zack fight always brought up a great pride in Angeal. The boy was a natural, true, but he had learned and improved so much the past couple years. Angeal saw in every dodge and swing the time they had spent working together, and it made him smile fondly...and a little sadly. Zack was growing up...eventually he'd be a hero like he dreamed and not need a teacher...

"Seriously, how do you spend practially every minute with him and not see what everyone else does?"

It wasn't that, really. If anything, being closer to Zack than anyone else meant Angeal knew more things about him to love. Like the serious side of him that Zack rarely showed to anyone else, but had no problem letting out when he was alone with Angeal. Like the cute habit Zack had of sticking his tongue out at inanimate objects, and the way he hummed while brushing his teeth. That smile that always made Angeal feel warm, the glomping hugs that he had come to look forward to. By this time, Angeal had accepted that he loved Zack completely and unconditionally, as he did only a few other people in his lifetime.

But to see Zack as his admirers did? That would be a terrible betrayal of their student-teacher bond, and strain the comfort that the two of them felt together. Angeal had eyes; he knew full well his apprentice was beautiful. That was a part of Zack as much as his laugh and bright eyes. What Genesis didn't seem to get was that someone could appreciate Zack's beauty and yet only love him platonically.

Angeal shook his head and said nothing. He had little desire to try to explain this to Genesis, who would probably only misinterpret the words into something he wanted to hear. Besides, Angeal didn't much like talking about his emotions. That dislike was something he and Sephiroth shared and had always slightly annoyed fiery, passionate Genesis.

"Genesis!" Zack called, approaching them. "Duel with me, please? The guys want to see the flip-attack and you do it way better than me."

Naturally, that worked. Flattery usually did on Genesis, if it came from a respected or attractive source. Smiling rather more seductively than the situation called for, the 1st drew his sword and strolled over with his usual slinky walk. Zack twirled his own weapon - a smaller version of his teacher's Buster Sword - and bounced in anticipation, while the 2nd and 3rd Class onlookers went quiet with awe and/or intimidation. Of ShinRa's famous trinity, Angeal was the one everyone wanted to train with. Sephiroth was just plain wanted, by all who saw him. But Genesis, Genesis was the one they wanted to be. He was the epitome of style and cool, despite his hobby of playfully tormenting the lower ranks.

"Don't worry, Puppy, I'll go easy on you in front of your friends."

"Ha, bring it, old man!" Zack jeered, prompting several gasps of shock from their audience. Genesis merely grinned; the boy's spirit was one of the reasons he loved him so.

The fight was not the rare and awe-you-into-muteness spectacle that a duel between any two of the famous three always was. Genesis had to hold back with everyone else, even Zack, because he was after all just a boy, however talented. It wasn't quite the same for Zack as fighting Angeal, and knowing every swing and step was being evaluated and remembered to later be corrected or praised. Genesis, though carefully holding back as to not risk harming Zack, still allowed himself to let the joyful rush of battle take him over, and Zack did the same.

Here was what made the dangers and stresses of SOLDIER life worth it, the exhilarating frenzy of using their enhanced bodies. Zack and Genesis shouted and laughed as they chased each other all around the enormous gym, through the air, up the walls. Genesis exuded an elegance and ease of movement that Zack didn't quite have yet - many of his attacks were too rushed or impulsive or just slightly off on their timing - but no one could deny the boy's skill and grace. And he was giving Genesis a challenging fight, that in itself was an amazing accomplishment. No doubt ShinRa executives would later on view security camera footage of this and pat themselves on the back and scheme about how best to use Zack Fair's talent and how to keep him under their control...

Angeal pushed those unpleasant thoughts away and forced his attention to remain on the duel. He thought of how many times he'd felt pride in Genesis when he mastered a new technique or reached a goal, and how it had been odd, because Genesis was the elder of them, and such a separate, distinct person, however close they'd always been. With Sephiroth, Angeal had never felt he had the right to be proud of someone who, though younger, was just so far ahead of everyone else, and would have been puzzled by the emotion anyway.

But Zack...feeling pride in Zack felt natural, right, good. Maybe it was to be expected, considering he was in a role of parental authority to the boy and had been since Zack was fourteen, a child who still needed to be told to eat his vegetables. But Angeal tried to avoid thinking of his student like that. That kind of relationship couldn't last, it would impede a working friendship once Zack stopped being his apprentice, and anyway it didn't feel quite right. Angeal didn't need to name and label every kind of love he felt for those closest to him, but was frustrated that he didn't at least understand this one. Just because parental love would excuse the attachment to Zack he felt didn't mean Angeal could lie and say that's what it was.

Genesis's movement hinted that he was about to bring the duel to an end. Angeal smiled widely to see his friend have to work to knock Zack's sword out of his hands and the flame-red blade point in warning at the boy's throat. A moment passed, enough to savor the victory, and Genesis sheathed his weapon with a flourish and swept an elaborate bow. Zack, laughing with exhilaration, gave Genesis a short, grateful hug, then waved away the cheers and whoops for him with embarrassment as he retrieved his sword. As hoped for, the observers had been inspired, and now were all the more determined to train hard and be just as skilled, someday.

A chance to show off and be complimented always brought out the best and most friendly in Genesis, and after winking at Angeal he wandered over to an excited group of 2nds and even deigned to answer some of their questions. For all his social faults, Genesis really could be quite personable when he wanted to be. After all, he was the only famous SOLDIER who kept in contact with his fan club.

Zack moved a little away from everyone else, and while he caught his breath he looked across the sleek hardwood floor at Angeal, smiling with a shy how-did-I-do? expression. Angeal answered him with his own proud smile and a thumbs-up. Cheeks tinged with faintest rosy pink, eyes and fair face glowing with happiness that he had pleased his teacher, Zack squirmed a little where he stood. The cute way he bit his lower lip couldn't dim the beam of his lovely smile.

A time like this would be a perfect excuse to stride over to Zack and reward him with a hug, if the boy wasn't planning to initiate the glomping himself. But Angeal kept himself back, cautioned stillness to his wavering body. The question of what exactly this love was seemed more urgent and disturbing than ever. Angeal was feeling a strange pain in this moment, an acute awareness that Zack wasn't in his arms and a longing for him to be. For whatever reason, the boy had never before been quite so beautiful to Angeal's eyes, and instead of this thought appearing and being shrugged off as unimportant, it remained, haunting and analyzing, making him look at Zack for what seemed like the first time.

The struggle to see in him a child was a losing battle. Zack stood there like an angel who stole his breath and made his heart expand painfully. Genesis's words had sunk into and triggered Angeal's imagination perhaps, confusing him right when his mind was vulnerable from overthinking. Or the recent trauma of almost losing Zack was sending his protectiveness into an overdrive that resembled desire. Or...or...

Gaia, no. No.

azazaza

Overall, Zack was feeling pretty good. For the first time in a week, he wasn't spending the day dragging around a body that felt like a ton of lead. The visit to Dr. Asshole had totally been worth it to have his energy and bounce back; more than ever before, Zack was appreciating the strength that allowed him to give even Genesis a decent fight. At the same time, Zack couldn't shake the feeling that something was slightly off.

Partly, he was concerned about Angeal, who after the duel had suddenly excused himself, first asking Zack if he could handle weight-training alone today. Of course Zack had said yes, too surprised to tease Angeal for usually hovering, and Angeal had mumbled something about meeting for dinner and rushed off to his garden.

When Angeal does gardening, he usually invites me, Zack thought as he walked the hallways to the weight room, pensively swinging his blade over the carpeted floor. Did he really go somewhere else, for something classified? Zack understood that Angeal probably needed some alone time now and then, he was such a private guy, but the boy couldn't help but feel a bit hurt. What's wrong with me? Angeal has his own life, his world doesn't revolve around me.

"Fuck, Fair, pay attention. And don't you know you ain't supposed to wave your weapon around the hallways?"

"Ha. You're the one who knocked out...what was it, twenty-three lightbulbs with your magrod?"

Reno grinned. "Hey, I was still gettin' used to my weapon. What's your excuse?"

"Distracted."

"Guess so. But I heard you've gotten out of zombie-mode. What was up with that?" the Turk asked, falling into step beside Zack.

"My mako level was too low. I got it fixed, and I'm back on top!"

"Says the obvious bottom. Ew, did ya have to see Dr. Perv?"

Zack stopped in his tracks. "You mean Hojo?"

"Yeah. I'm so glad he doesn't treat us Turks. I can spot a sicko a mile away. Don't be around him if you can help it, Zack."

"I'm not allowed to be unless I'm with Angeal. What about you?"

Reno laughed as though he'd made a joke. "You don't have to worry about me, Zack. I'm resourceful."

"Yeah. Um...thanks. For that night in Midgar."

"I enjoyed it," the young redhead said with a smirk. "Any Turk'd have done the same."

"Yeah, but..."

"We're good, Zack. You want to pay me back, put in a good word with your famous friends next time I get in big trouble."

"Deal."

"So whatcha distracted about? Lieutenant Hunter, maybe?"

Zack's jaw dropped comically. "What? How do you know about Declan? Ow, hey!" Reno had rapped him hard on the head with his knuckles.

"Turk, remember? We see everything."

"You waste your time on every little detail of every SOLDIER's life?"

"Nah. We just watch who we're told to watch, discreetly. Aw, don't look like that, I said discreetly. Part of our duty is to keep an eye on ShinRa's assets. We do it with the Big Three too. We fight over who gets Hewley each rotation. He's so boring that it's almost like time off."

"Angeal's not boring," Zack said with a scowl. "He's just a homebody. And he happens to be very interesting." Something occurred to him. "Angeal must do more exciting things that you guys spy on. Dates or something, maybe late at night?"

"Nope. The only non-work excursions he makes are with Genesis or Sephiroth or you. Kinda weird, really. Not at all like Genesis, he's fun to tail. If you like endless Loveless performances and sex equipment shops, that is." Reno scratched beneath his ponytail with his magrod; fortunately it was turned off. "Wouldn't you know better than most if Hewley was seeing someone?"

"I guess."

"Like Sephiroth, he must be either asexual or uber-sneaky. Hey, didn't he used to have something going on with Genesis?"

Turks really do know anything. "When they were younger. Not anymore."

"Oh," Reno said knowingly. "I think I got it."

"What?"

"Well, SOLDIER fangirls like to think the Big Three are all screwing each other, friends with benefits, you know? Maybe it's true. That would explain why Hewley doesn't need to get his kicks outside the company."

Zack frowned at that, a darker expression than his usual petulant pout. Something about this was disturbing him deeply, he just wasn't sure exactly what it was.

"Aw, Zack, don't gimme that look. It's adorable and all, but you're makin' me feel bad. I'm not trying to insult your beloved teacher, I'm just sayin' he's a guy, and guys do guy things. Wait, do you know about this stuff, or do we need to have a talk?"

"Shut up," Zack laughed uneasily, giving him a light shove. "You don't know anything about Angeal."

"I know men need certain things, and don't stop seekin' 'em out unless maybe they're pining for someone they can't get. Though I can't imagine anyone not taking the chance to be with Hewley. He's not my type, but he's a big hunk of man-meat, all right."

"Ugh..."

"Oh, sorry, Fair. Should've figured you had daddy-issues with Hewley, since you guys are so tight."

"We...what...no," Zack stammered indignantly, "that's not it at all! We're...well, not that."

"My bad, man. Just tryin' to figure out why you're so dead set against Hewley gettin' any action."

"I'm not! It's just...it's not respectful to talk about him like that."

Reno was quiet for a short time, absorbing those words maybe, which gave Zack time to think. Why was the idea of Angeal dating so uncomfortable? He certainly didn't want Angeal to be unhappy or alone, so shouldn't he want to see him in a relationship? But I don't, the boy thought guiltily. Maybe, he supposed, he just didn't want to share Angeal. He wouldn't say that aloud, though. Reno would interpret it as either a declaration of puppy love or a child's selfishness, and Zack was really hoping it was neither. Yeah, time to change the subject.

"What do you think of Genesis, Reno?"

"As what? A SOLDIER, a target for observation, a notorious slut?"

"A fling, I guess."

"Huh?" Reno asked blankly.

"I heard him say he's interested in a red-haired Turk, and I'm pretty sure he didn't mean Cissnei."

"Seriously?" Reno smirked, and his moss-green eyes twinkled. "That could be fun. I'm always up for adventure."

"You and...your guy...aren't monogamous, then?"

"In a way we are, yeah. Just...adventurous."

"Are other Turks involved?" Zack grinned wickedly. "C'mon, gimme a name."

"That's classified, sorry," the Turk said dryly.

"It's Rude, isn't it?"

"Ew! Don't even make me imagine that!"

"Do you think he'd be just as quiet in the bedroom?" Zack teased.

"Fair, you freak. You're puttin' your good-boy innocent reputation on the line, sayin' shit like that."

Reno waved and disappeared around the next corner, leaving Zack alone near the open weight room door. Was that really his reputation, the naive Class pet who did as he was told and remained untouched by the vices Turks and other SOLDIERs knew so well? Zack knew he should be miffed, and want to rebel - he was sixteen! But he was only himself. He was what Angeal prized and approved of. Zack felt a slight jolt to realize that the latter of these two cheered him more than the former.

azazaza

"You probably don't want to hear this..."

"Then maybe you shouldn't fuckin' tell me," Lt. Rudner retorted, in a bored drawl, without any genuine anger. An awkward pause followed, then Rudner set his barbel down and exhaled sharply. "Fine, Tama, if it means that much to you, tell me."

Lt. Kabe was seated on a bench nearby, with one small free weight in each hand. Though a better student than Rudner, a SOLDIER of about the same level and not nearly as spiteful a person, Kabe was a born follower. This trait was helpful for surviving in and advancing through ShinRa's ranks, but it also supplied ill-natured bullies with henchmen. The half-Wutainese 2nd just found it easier, at this point, to support Rudner than break away from him.

"A lot of the others were talking about Commander Rhapsodos and Fair dueling today in the gym."

The second name made Rudner drop his equipment with a pointed bang; now he lifted it up too quickly, as though to prove something. "Let me guess, the commander let the little pet win."

"No," Kabe said uneasily, wishing he hadn't brought this up. "The commander disarmed him."

"But little Lord Fair put up a good fight, right? And everyone stared in awe and cheered at the end, and Commander Hewley cuddled him like a spoiled puppy. Right?"

"Well..."

"Of course. 'Cause everyone loves Zack Fair, SOLDIER's pretty prodigy. And the rest at least want to fuck him, not that the stupid bitch would realize that." Rudner's face flushed beet red from frustration. "Any SOLDIER would get fawned over by ShinRa with Commander Hewley coddling him."

"Maybe Zack won't turn out to be so good if the commander continues babying him," Kabe offered, hoping his support would calm his friend down.

"Or Hewley's got a shota-complex and keeps Fair around to fuck him," Rudner spat, making Kabe's eyes go wide with shock. "Hell, I'd take a shot at Fair's ass if given the chance. I bet he'd cry."

Kabe took a long swig of water from his bottle, hoping to swallow this choking feeling. He was jealous of Zack Fair too, but not to the point that he wanted to see him harmed.

"So, uh, you wanna hit Dell's tonight?" he asked casually, changing the subject. "You promised me a rematch, you know, with the Fira Whiskey shots?"

"It could be true, you know," Rudner mumbled under his breath. "That could be why Fair's been so tired, and why he doesn't date. I'll bet he ain't allowed. Commander Hewley doesn't love Fair, he just loves having a tight, young ass to pound."

Now Kabe was starting to feel sickened. "Don't say things like that about Commander Hewley. He's renowned for his honor, he'd never do anything like abuse his student."

"I bet people would believe it, though. They could."

"What are you talking about?"

A shadow fell onto the floor mats from the open doorway, and both of the room's occupants quickly shut up. Obviously Rudner didn't want anyone, whether classmate or instructor, to overhear their conversation. A slender, fairly short figure bounced into the corner's shadow and through it, approaching the equipment on that side of the room. It was Zack Fair, who started upon seeing his fellow 2nds (both newly promoted) and then gave them a weak smile and a hesitant wave.

Kabe waved back shortly, out of habit and hoping his friend didn't notice. Rudner merely stared coolly, so Zack turned away from them, climbed into the leg-press and began working on his thigh and calf muscles. He preferred squats, but squats required that he keep up the strength in his legs. Angeal, Zack recalled wistfully (as though the man were far away), sometimes joked that this exercise was essential for proper bouncing.

Kabe secretly thought it was pretty brave and friendly of Fair to try to be nice to two people who made their dislike of him obvious. He looked at Lt. Rudner, hoping to see a similar realization. He found Rudner's eyes locked on the younger teenager and full of malice, and a smirk below that practically screamed malicious intent.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 11 - The Fates Are Three

 

President Shinra scanned the last of the documents and shut the file stamped 'Classified - Clearance Level 1' with a grunt of ackowledgment. His pudgy red face held a familiar expression of vague displeasure as he looked up at the two Turks who stood silently waiting before him.

"That last report omitted nothing?"

"Nothing, sir."

"The prisoner said nothing else at all? Only..." Shinra checked the report again, squinted and pronounced the foreign word haltingly. "Fukushu?"

"Fukushuu, sir," Tseng corrected.

"Does it make a difference?"

"In Wutainese, sir, a single misplaced vowel can change the entire meaning of a word."

"Fine," the president said dismissively. "You used all reasonable means to extract information?"

Tseng felt a vague, dry amusement that had, after years of practice, replaced his disgust for most of his job's unpleasantries. Ruthless President Shinra authorized acts of psychological torture when necessary, but couldn't bring himself to use the word. Why have Turks at all, if not to give your own hands the appearance of being clean?

The Turk commander thought he heard the faintest chuckle from behind him, where his youngest subordinate was standing. He was pretty sure Reno was smirking, not in a you-old-fucking-hypocrite way so much as a your-son-and-I-are-secretly-fucking way. Behave, brat, or you lose piloting privileges.

"All possible means were utilized, sir, yes. He said nothing else intelligible."

"Like the others," President Shinra grumbled. "And he had the same symbol on his body, in the same spot, as all the other ringleaders."

"Yes."

"And the symbol means that word?"

"Yes, sir."

"What the hell does this mean, Tseng?"

"I believe it further supports our theory, sir. The various connected incidents are being carried out under orders from a Wutaian source. Most likely, some remnants of the war with a grudge against us. Many factions opposed the Aida Island Treaty, you'll remember," Tseng reminded him.

"And none of our opponents during the war used that symbol, as far as we know?"

"Two of my best people are researching possible links, sir, but we haven't been able to ascribe any significance to it yet," Tseng answered, his tone intimating a faint apology.

The president slumped back in his expensive desk chair, plainly showing his dislike of having to think. "What about them all having the brand on the same spot? Is that significant?"

Commander Tseng's half-Wutainese background had made him a target while growing up; there were plenty of times it had come in handy for him as a Turk. "Sir, there is an ancient belief in Wutai that the intestines are the seat of one's honor and integrity. Therefore, I would think a symbol worn on the stomach would represent a cause one is strongly devoted to, and has not undertaken lightly."

"Also, uh," Reno chimed in, and as always, Tseng held his breath. "The skin there is really sensitive, yo...uh, Mr. President. Maybe they had to prove their toughness to the ones who hired 'em."

To Tseng's relief, the president nodded shortly. He trusted his head Turk enough to give those he trusted a fair chance. But Shinra's beady eyes passed over the young redhead quickly and returned to Tseng, all seriousness now, no longer the man who was growing fat and lazy but the entrepreneur who had built his multibillion-dollar corporation out of nothing.

"All information related to these matters and referring to Wutai must continue to remain under wraps, Tseng. Any accusation or semblance of one could provoke Godo into action and I refuse to allow that until we have definitive proof."

"Of course, sir. You can depend on me and my people."

"My experience leads me to agree," Shinra said gruffly. "Is there anything else?"

"I don't believe so, sir, not at the moment."

"Very well. Wait a moment." The president peered at Reno and beckoned him closer. "Reno, Rude's partner. Are you the one who managed to diffuse the theulidium bomb in Sector Four?"

"Oh, yeah," the teenager said nonchalantly, flashing a dazzling smile. "Little bit of luck, a lot of skill."

Fortunately President Shinra was more lax with his Turks than he was with anyone else, requiring far less discipline from them than he did from, for example, SOLDIERs. And Reno's unfailing charm served him well; Tseng had seen it aid the boy many times. Behind his wide desk, the president chuckled.

"Well done, son. Just be careful that ego doesn't get too big for you."

"Got it, sir," the redhead drawled.

"You're both dismissed."

As they walked the lavish corridors lined with important offices, Reno said nothing at first, waiting to cutely smile his way out of any reprimands he had coming. But Tseng instead favored him with a look of stern approval, so the younger felt free to ask questions. To speak in general.

"He's not so scary. I could outrun that tub o' guts in my sleep."

Tseng halted and gave the boy a smart rap on the head, enough to make him wince and cry out. "Watch your mouth. Always assume someone is listening, Reno. Never forget."

"Sorry." The reprimanding hand went gentle and patted his red hair a few times; Reno squirmed away. "Tseng?"

"Yes?"

"Uh, could I maybe..." The office door Reno was nodding toward was Vice President Rufus's. "You won't need me again till later, right? Can I slip away?"

"Very well," his superior said with a resigned sigh. "But I remind you again, please - "

"Be careful, I know. Thanks, Tseng." The elder was about to continue on his way when the younger spoke again. "Tseng?"

"Hmm?"

"You gonna tell me what that word means? The one the symbol means? I should be allowed to know."

"I've been waiting for you to ask. Information only comes when - "

" - you seek for it, right. I'll remember. So what's it mean, Wise Teacher?"

"'Vengeance'," Tseng said softly as he turned again to depart. "It means 'vengeance'."

azazaza

Once he had his elegant office to himself again, President Rudolf Shinra sat still a long time, tapping his fingers on expensive polished wood, leaving a glass of imported brandy untouched. This predicament bothered him. All the challenges his company faced irked him, of course, and often more than irked; the recently-closed murder case in Midgar, for example. The president was not entirely heartless. He had a son of his own and, like everyone, felt a liking for Zack Fair, and so had breathed a sigh of relief to learn the pervert was dead.

Situations involving Wutai, though, were another matter. Wutai had been the company's greatest threat, a mass of warrior tribes united under one banner against the intruders, who made up for their inferior technology with fierce patriotism and a complete willingness to die. That unnerved and baffled Shinra, as it would any man who had never held a sword or loved an ideal greater than his own skin.

The war had been decisive; Wutai was thoroughly thrashed. But if not for Sephiroth...if that strange child raised in the labs hadn't grown up to be the demi-god Hojo had promised...

We would have lost. I would have lost everything. A few sips of the neglected brandy stopped the shudders that ran through his bulky frame. Shinra would not allow himself to show this weakness except in private. He couldn't do what he had always admonished Rufus not to do. Shinras shouldn't show fear in public, or bleed, or cry. And Rufus had grown up intelligent, serious, not as ruthless as he'd hoped but very studious. In time, he would run the company well...as long as they kept Wutai down...as long as they had their ultimate, inhuman weapon.

Shinra cancelled the company-logo screensaver by tapping his computer mouse and, without really knowing why, pulled up Sephiroth's file. It was more sparse than any of the others, with the spaces for parents' names blank and most of the medical information suppressed by Dr. Hojo. Only the scientist's brilliance excused his possessive selfishness and unpleasant character. Hollander wasn't nearly so difficult...but then, his specimens weren't the successes that Sephiroth was.

Shinra pulled up their files as well, and lined up the browsers so the three photos were side by side. In these men lay the true success of SOLDIER, of the corporation that had begun as a simple manufacturing company and now ruled the continent. Sephiroth, the murdering angel who drew recruits and slaughtered enemies with such effortless ease. Genesis, the SOLDIER supermodel, infuriating and uncooperative but a remarkable fighter whose charm had won over politicians and executives who then had a reason to be ShinRa's allies. And Angeal, the stoic leader everyone admired, as much an asset for his diplomacy and teaching skills as for his lethal sword. Three childhood friends who held up the program and the company on their shoulders by accident of birth and miracles of science, who fought for their own reasons. And fought for each other. Sephiroth may have beaten Wutai, but the general himself said it would not have happened without Genesis and Angeal.

Ice, Fire and Earth, people called them. The building blocks of the planet. The pillars of what made life possible. President Shinra gazed at the photos on his screen and saw the three Fates of folklore, the triplicity that held the destinies of men in their hands. No weaving of threads, though, only cutting them, though Shinra thought of Commander Hewley's talent for encouraging young SOLDIERs, nurturing them in his serious, distant way.

It seems, though, that Fair has changed him, as I've heard said, the middle-aged man thought. Other than Sephiroth and Genesis, Angeal never really formed any strong attachments before Fair. Maybe it wasn't so strange. The Trinity's middle child had always had a parental way about him. As long as he didn't spoil his student with coddling, Fair couldn't possibly be in better hands.

azazaza

As a rule, Zack Fair loved missions. Whether in cushy resort towns or zolom-infested swamps, missions meant constant movement, chances to fight and learn and meet new people, opportunities to hone his skills in preparation for the hero he wanted to be. Missions were awesome. But the night following his duel with Genesis, when informed that they would be departing the very next day for the village of Calora, Zack bounced even more than usual. Time alone (or practically alone) with Angeal, to get past this sudden awkwardness between them.

As he always did, Zack (gently, this time) glomped his mentor in appreciation, wondering with a bit of fear what the reaction would be. Thank Gaia, Angeal hugged him back, long and tightly, even rubbed his cheek against the glossy black spikes. But the embrace felt distant somehow, like Angeal was with him only physically, not mentally. When the elder began to let go, Zack clutched at him and hummed a soft whimper that made him blush with embarrassment. Immediately Angeal retightened his broad arms around the boy.

"What's wrong, Puppy?"

"S-Sorry..."

"I'm not aware of anything you need to apologize for."

"I just..." Zack spent a short pause snuggling closer into his teacher's sweater. Angeal knew he should discourage this, for the sake of propriety and his own emerging feelings, but it felt too good to have him close. "Am I doing okay?"

"As a SOLDIER, you mean?" Angeal felt him nod. "More than okay. I'm very proud of you. You know that, don't you?"

"Yeah, it's just that lately...y'know. I've been difficult."

"Not difficult, Zack, ill. That wasn't your fault."

Angeal put his hands on the 2nd's shoulders and edged him back a little to see his face. Satisfied for the moment, Zack willingly left the hug and smiled hopefully, which of course made Angeal smile.

"Are you sure you're up for this mission, Pup?"

"Hell yeah! I need to do something with this energy, now that I've got it back. We'll get to kick some butt, right?"

"Patience," Angeal laughed. "We'll be doing some recon first. We're going in without much information, so I want you to be prepared for anything and ready to follow my orders immediately."

"It's gang activity, right?"

"That's what the acts of vandalism and threats made to shopkeepers suggest." Angeal observed his precious student with the sternest expression he could manage. "This could be dangerous or it could be nothing, Zack. Be on your toes."

"Can do, sir!" Zack said cheerfully, rising up onto the balls of his feet. "See, I'm doin' it already. Whoa - !"

The teenager, normally so graceful in all his movements, lost his balance and tipped forward, briefly flailing his arms like birds' wings. Angeal easily caught him around his midsection, his head tilted down, Zack's tilted up and their eyes locked, both gazes holding confusion. Angeal felt a sort of warning tingle in his groin and quickly grasped Zack's waist to adjust him, before his close proximity triggered a full erection. Angeal was able to do so, and pretend he was just steadying the kid, but the pleasant feeling of his fingers on that slender warmth wasn't helpful either. Obliviously, Zack held onto his teacher's biceps as he settled back onto his feet, and laughed at his own klutziness. Angeal smiled tensely, as though his mind wasn't screaming at him for this near-violation.

"Okay, forget your toes. Just be careful."

"O-Okay." A slight stammer there. Could Zack have realized what Angeal just did? No...he would be scared and upset, and he only seemed a little tired and uncertain. "Varley's clumsiness must be rubbing off on me."

No one better be rubbing anything on you, Angeal thought absurdly, then told himself to shut up. "Maybe I should suggest ballet be added to the SOLDIER curriculum."

"Ugh, SOLDIERs in tutus? You're gonna give me nightmares," Zack pouted.

"Your sleep's been better, right?"

"Uh-huh." Oddly, Zack looked sad, not relieved. "I'm okay now."

"Good. Some things simply come and go at certain ages. It's all part of growing up."

The boy kept from blushing, though he was doubly embarrassed to realize he was still clutching Angeal's arms. Zack quickly snatched his hands away.

"You look tired, Zack. I think you should turn in."

"Okay, but make sure you get some sleep, too! Good night, Angeal."

"Sweet dreams, Puppy." Angeal's control held its ground through a brief hug, and he breathed out in silent relief as he pat Zack's hair a few times. "Be rested for tomorrow."

"I will be!"

Strangely enough, the willpower that kept Angeal from doing anything inappropriate in Zack's presence failed him in solitude. In his wide bed surrounded by darkness, the commander's fingers unconsciously rubbed together, trying to ignite the heat they'd felt from Zack. It shamed Angeal greatly, but semi-acceptable thoughts of his student in his arms were morphing into very very wrong imaginings of the two of them in the same configuration, only on the floor. And all the times Angeal had seen bits of Zack in the showers or the med lab, moments that had meant nothing...now he found himself trying to recall them all, piece them into a complete puzzle.

A long while of thinking unsexy thoughts cleared his mind sufficiently (nude Hojo covered in birthday cake was very effective, he'd have to remember that one), so Angeal could move on to berating himself. Finally, logic kicked in, There were really only two ways of dealing with this problem, as far as he could tell. One, give Zack to another teacher, as a precaution. Angeal rejected this option immediately. Even if doing so wouldn't break Zack's heart, Angeal knew he wouldn't be able to let go of him. Two, keep control and deal with his feelings so that they would never impact Zack. Guilt, Angeal could handle. Not having Zack, he could not. He could make this work. Zack need never know.

But the betrayal existed nonetheless, and the remorse that came with it was not likely to ever depart. For a man of such honor, there was perhaps no worse punishment.

azazaza

"What a gyp," Zack sighed, for roughly the hundredth time.

"I warned you, Pup. I told you it could be something or nothing at all."

"I knew there was a chance it was small-town stuff, not connected to this big conspiracy-thingy that no one will explain to me. But..." Zack made a childish whining noise and pouted at the campfire. "I mean, c'mon, a bunch of kids playing gang, extorting from their neighbors and committing petty acts of vandalism? I wanted a challenge, not a bunch of shrimps who cried their way out of real punishment and probably just got sent to bed without dinner or something."

"I'm sure you were always a perfectly behaved child," Angeal said with a teasing smile.

"I totally was! Ask anyone in Gongaga, they all love me!"

Angeal didn't doubt that. He could easily envision a tiny Zack with messy little spikes and the face of an angel running all over his hometown, so adorable that all his mischief was at once forgiven. That's a good idea, think of Zack as that little boy whenever the...bad images won't go away, the commander told himself.

"Angeeeeal! I was!"

"All right, I believe you."

The night was peaceful, and the sounds and scents of nature all around them helped to ease Angeal's tension down to a nearly subconscious level. They were no longer needed in Calora, and it was a short trip back to Midgar even on foot, but Angeal always brought camping gear on missions. Here was a chance to give his student more practice sleeping out in the field, and they couldn't have asked for a finer night. The full moon and stars were bright, the breeze fresh and cool, and all biting insects were repelled by the mako in their bloodstreams.

There were three of them in the clearing; Lieutenant Kleiss, a twenty-four-year-old 1st Class, had joined the teacher/student pair for the mission. He was a quiet, pleasant man, a great fan of Angeal's and very fond of Zack, and was currently snoring quietly over in one of the two tents. The night watch had been divided into two long shifts, and Angeal and Zack had volunteered for the first.

Full from a fire-cooked dinner and stream water fresher than any you could get in Midgar, Zack was feeling pretty good, aside from the day's disappointment. He was also happy to see Angeal so relaxed; he knew his teacher loved the great outdoors and never got to spend as much time there as he wanted. These were especially special times, with no paperwork or executive duties to get in the way of stories and conversation. And no one he had to share Angeal with.

"You've camped with Genesis before, right?" Zack asked. "What's that like?"

"Oh." Angeal chuckled. "Something I hope you need never experience. Compaints about dirt, animal noises, the hair products I'd make him leave behind. Also, he's terrified of snakes, so any movement in the grass and he'd leap on top of me, shrieking."

"Snakes?" Zack grinned. "Just the aggressive and poisonous ones, or - "

"All of them. Even Banoran hedge snakes, which are hardly bigger than worms and the gentlest creatures you can imagine."

The boy cracked up. "So if I came at him with a really convincing rubber snake..."

"I don't know if the fear of reprisal would be worth the entertainment value. Genesis is very very fond of you, but he can be quite ruthless to his nearest and dearest."

Zack's laughter faded away, and he looked pensively into the fire as Angeal fed it from the pile of fallen branches. Angeal gave his student this time to think, though he was concerned. Zack, he had recently realized, tended to get quiet whenever reminded of one or any of his many admirers. Do relationships frighten you, Puppy? There was no indication in Zack's medical records or psych profile that suggested any kind of abuse or trauma, and the boy had long been under orders to report any kind of harassment. These assurances comforted Angeal, but left him without an answer.

Maybe, in that aspect of life, Zack was just a late bloomer. After all, it was very likely that his recent night disturbances had been his first erotic dreams, while Angeal had first had that experience at age twelve. Normally SOLDIERs matured rapidly, they had to, but he had tried to shield Zack from that loss of innocence.

"Genesis and Sephiroth are...together, right?" Zack asked, abruptly breaking his reverie.

"That's...a complicated subject," Angeal said hesitantly. "One you're not supposed to know about."

"I'll never tell, I promise."

"It began as a sort of campaign on Genesis's part, to get Seph to open himself up further, maybe even accept another's feelings. I believe they love one another deeply." Angeal knew he shouldn't be discussing these private matters, but it seemed all right, he trusted Zack. "I don't know when or if their relationship will become committed and serious, but I would like to see that."

"Me too. I always kinda thought Genesis acts the way he does 'cause he's lonely."

"Perhaps."

"Is Sephiroth lonely?"

"Hard to say. He would probably find the question puzzling."

Zack sat up and edged over on the thick grass until they were sitting close together. "What about you?" he asked quietly.

Angeal smiled and ran his hand over Zack's hair, a gesture he couldn't back when he knew his touches were soothing. "You don't have to worry about me, Puppy. My hands and my life are full, between you, Seph and Genesis."

"Hmm." Satisfied, the 2nd plopped his head on a broad shoulder and murmured "Tell me a story."

"Once upon a time, there was a tired young SOLDIER who needed to be up at first light to help stow camping gear. So he went to bed when his mentor told him to, without any trouble."

"Angeeeal," the boy laughed, expelling warm breath through the sweater to Angeal's skin. "'M awake. Not sticking you with the watch."

"That won't be necessary," Lt. Kleiss said shuffling into their sight and rubbing sleep from his eyes. "Reporting for watch, Commander."

"Thank you, John. Alert me if there's any trouble. Come on, Puppy."

Zack yawned and slouched in the direction he was pointed, flopping down on his sleeping bag the moment he got into the tent. Shaking his head - How does he go from limitless energy to none so quickly? - Angeal removed Zack's boots himself and maneuvered him into the folded, insulated blanket before doing the same with his own equipment. The Buster Sword was placed carefully behind his back, and the commander lay facing his student, who mumbled something like "G'nite" and drifted off almost immediately.

Zack's beauty was no less when he was in repose, but it was a little different. Awake, the teenager's striking eyes and movements and the energy of his slim body were what one noticed first. In slumber, all Zack's youth and heartbreaking innocence rose to his face, flawless and doll-like in this stillness. His bottom lip, like the petal of a spring flower, poofed out slightly, as though in petulance, and long black eyelashes curled above his cheeks so, so prettily. Angeal wanted to pick him up, hold him close, but only permitted himself to adjust Zack's covering and gently brush his wayward hair back.

"Don't worry, Pup. I'll keep you safe," Angeal whispered, and let his eyes close.

Angeal woke with them still shut, to the sound of someone shifting nearby, and a breathy moan that was definitely not one of fear or pain. He thought it was a dream first, of sharing accomodations with Genesis during the war maybe, but then remembered his student, and shook himself fully awake. He was ready to do whatever was needed to care for Zack, to protect him from everything, from...?

There was enough moonlight pouring through the material of the tent to make clear what Angeal was seeing. Zack was flat on his back, covers pushed down to his waist, and - alarmingly - his arms were above his head with crossed wrists. They wiggled but remained in that position, as though...as though someone was holding him down. But no one was there, and Zack's pretty parted mouth continued to let out the little moans. He was arching up, rolling his hips beneath the covers in a rhythm that couldn't be anything else. But his hands, his hands were in plain sight!

"Zack..." He choked on the word, the name that usually leapt from his tongue with such grace.

The boy's head lolled from side to side, eyes still closed in sleep. His breathing sped up, the movement of his lower body too, and Angeal could tell he was getting close. What should I do? the commander wondered desperately, unable to tear his gaze from the beautiful, inappropriate sight. Interrupt a pleasant, normal dream and leave Zack frustrated and humiliated? But as the teenager writhed more and more, Angeal was really bothered by the way his wrists held together against the shivering and shuddering. It wasn't right, they were alone, but something was restraining his Puppy. Whether nightmare, memory, whatever, Angeal couldn't leave him like that.

"Zack! Zack - "

His hand clasped and jostled the boy's shoulder the very moment the dam burst. Zack convulsed under the touch, midsection fully off the tent floor, and groaned with pleasure as he released into his sleeping pants. Angeal was too flustered and frankly scared to get hard at the sight he had been secretly imagining. "Zack," he called again, firmly but coaxing, and pale blue eyes snapped open to stare at him in complete confusion.

"A-Angeal?" He sounded like a frightened child.

"Ssh, it's okay." Angeal went first for Zack's arms and drew them down, relieved to get him out of that forced-looking position. "It's all right."

"What happened? I..." Zack looked down toward his covered lap and went bone-pale with horror. "Oh Gaia, Gaia..."

"Calm down, Pup, you just had a dream, it's perfectly normal - "

"No dream, I wasn't dreaming. I don't remember...what...but it was real! I felt..." Zack swallowed a few times, with difficulty. "Someone..."

"Puppy, no one's been here, just us." Angeal got near enough to wrap his arm around Zack and hold him close. "Just a dream."

"I...I...oh Gaia not again, not here - "

"Breathe, Zack, it's all right. Don't be embarrassed, it's normal. Look...I'll get you another pair of pants..."

By the time he returned from Zack's pack with them, the boy had started to cry, and trying to hold it back only made him erupt into quiet sobs that wracked his body. Angeal dropped the clean garment and put both arms around Zack now, tucking the boy's head under his chin. Zack didn't exactly hug back, but he clung desperately, fisting his teacher's shirt.

"Zack," Angeal spoke over his student's weeping, "sometimes dreams seem very real. And these kind of dreams are normal for your age - "

"I don't remember any dream, it was real, I felt - " Zack lifted his wrists up and looked anxiously at them. In the dimness Angeal briefly thought he saw the imprints of fingers fading, but it must have been his eyes or the light tricking him.

"Zack, don't be embarrassed. I promise, this is perfectly natural for boys your age," Angeal said again, setting the pajama bottoms and a box of moistened towelettes (standard for a SOLDIER's traveling pack) down beside the teenager. "I'll turn around, okay, so you can get changed - "

He started when the tent's flap unzipped and Lt. Kleiss urgently stuck his head inside; the commander's attention had been so focused elsewhere that he hadn't heard anyone outside approach. Zack, already in a heightened state of anxiety, pulled his blanket up to his neck and began to hyperventilate, eyes bulging like twin orbs of sky.

"Sir, is everything...I heard crying. Is he okay?" Lt. Kleiss was trying to talk softly, and gazing at Zack with panic. "What's wrong, is Zack - "

"He's fine, John, he just had a very upsetting dream. Thank you. We're fine, please return to your watch."

"Yes, sir." Kleiss disappeared, though not without a last curious glance at each of them.

"Zack, it's all right, breathe. Puppy?"

Zack had closed his eyes, this was all too much for him. He automatically obeyed the order as he did all orders from his mentor, and began to counteract his hysteria with a breathing technique that SOLDIERs learned early in their training. It was torture to sit through this and have to be patient, but Angeal waited until Zack had calmed himself before laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Puppy," he murmured, and the eyes opened, but the 2nd was tense under his touch, frozen but for a slight trembling.

After a moment, Zack's confused stare flickered to meet Angeal's warm brown eyes. It was like a cry for help that the elder couldn't quite hear, and this made him feel like a failure. Time to fall back on his instincts, and Zack's unwavering trust in him.

"Okay, Puppy. Let me help you, let's get you cleaned up, okay?" Along with his worry, Angeal felt both grateful and guilty to see Zack make no complaint and hardly react at all to have the blanket peeled away and his pants tugged off. Zack closed his eyes again, slumped dejectedly and continued to cry in silence as Angeal hastily wiped him off and managed to get the green pajama bottoms on. Zack lifted up a bit to aid in this task, and once fully clothed he looked at his teacher miserably and whispered "I'm sorry, I'm sorry Angeal..."

"It's okay, Puppy. I've seen much bigger meltdowns, from SOLDIERs much older than you," the man said, an attempt at casual lightness. "It's okay, lay down."

Zack reluctantly let Angeal settle him back down and cover him up, blinking at the tent's ceiling, tired and dazed. The commander pulled his own bedroll over and stretched out beside Zack. They lay facing each other and Angeal ran his hand soothingly up and down the boy's arm, knowing he would be asleep again within minutes.

"Angeal." Zack tiredly slid his wrist into a patch of moonlight, and again he could swear that restraint marks were fading from it. "I think something's wrong with me."

Somehow the elder managed to speak, though his heart had gone up into his throat. "It'll be okay. Everything will be all right."

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 12 - In The Clamour And Rumour

 

"You really don't have to stay with me. It's not like you to delay writing a mission report."

Zack was looking at him, the little teasing grin that Angeal knew so well, but his tired voice and the beginnings of darkness under the boy's eyes were telling. Beneath the stark, overbright light of the med lab room, anyone would look pale, so Angeal couldn't tell whether or not Zack's skin really had gone a shade whiter. Had not the worrisome circumstances and uncomfortable setting and guilty desire been in place and gnawing at him, the commander might have enjoyed Zack's stillness on the exam table, the opportunity to stare at him.

Enemies constantly underestimated the slender, not-very-tall boy, always figuring him for an easy target rather than the lethal powerhouse Zack was in battle. Sometimes even Angeal was surprised by the disparity between his strength and his appearance. Especially now, making his eyes gleam like sapphires. Sitting beside him, stroking a clasped hand with rough fingers wasn't enough; Angeal wanted to pull Zack into his lap and see if that proximity would be enough to ease this ache.

"You know the rule, Pup."

"But Hojo's not here."

"Regardless."

Dr. Hollander bustled back into the private room, a graying man who seemed the opposite of his superior's smug confidence. "It seems," he began, scanning the paper he held, "that Zack's mako level is fine. High normal as usual. No fever, no infection as far as I can tell. And it seems it's not dehydration either," he said, removing the I.V. of saline from Zack's arm.

"So what is it? And please don't say exhaustion, that in itself is not an answer."

"My best guess would be stress."

"I'm not stressed. I'm happy-go-lucky, optimistic, the potion bottle is half-full, not half-empty. Ask anyone."

Hollander gave the boy a tight smile. "Stress often manifests as physical symptoms when it's not being dealt with. Mood swings, loss of appetite, vague aches and pains, restlessness, racing thoughts, irritability - "

"What, am I menstruating or something?" Zack grumbled.

Hollander ignored that. "I recommend continued appointments with Dr. Martin and restricted duty until his energy level rebounds. You'll need to make sure he eats properly as well."

"Doc, I'm sixteen, not five. And I don't want restricted duty, I'll feel worse if I'm bored!"

"I'll make sure you're kept occupied, Zack."

"What if you get a mission?" Zack refused to let himself cry like a child in front of Hollander, but Angeal discerned an upset wavering in the voice he knew so well. "You'll leave me here, and you promised you wouldn't!"

"Puppy, I have no missions scheduled," the commander said patiently, cradling Zack's hand still in fear that further touching might embarrass him here. "If I receive an assignment, I'll deal with it. I'm not going to leave you."

"You know, if it's for Zack's good, I'm sure ShinRa will give you some time," Hollander interjected. "They value him far too much to - "

"Would everyone quit saying that!?"

The doctor had only been trying to be helpful, of course; he just didn't know Zack well enough to know it was the wrong thing to say. As he watched with surprise, Zack found the strength to launch himself off the table and onto his feet. Clearly the boy wanted to leave, but Angeal blocked his path and drew Zack to his chest to spare him an undignified collapse.

"Pup, I understand you're upset," Angeal whispered, "but you need to relax."

The 2nd exhaled slowly to calm himself, feeling the aftermath of his earlier, too-hasty movement. His hands clutched at Angeal's shoulders for balance, and his head bowed almost low enough to rest on his mentor's chest. "Please excuse my rudeness, Doctor," Zack said, and as though in reward Angeal hugged him warmly and protectively. It felt too good to even remember what embarrassment was.

"Think nothing of it, please. Do get some rest, Zack. Angeal, contact me if he worsens or shows another symptom."

They both thanked him, and Angeal led Zack out, one arm around his back, the other holding Zack's arm over his own broad shoudlers for support. They didn't encounter many people on their way home, and the few they did were tactful enough to not interrupt or question. Once inside the apartment, Zack slid down onto one of the couches and looked up, waiting for Angeal to speak.

"I still think we should tell the doctor - "

"What?" Zack interrupted sadly. "About that? He'll say I was dreaming."

"You're sure you weren't?"

"It's hard to explain," Zack murmured, looking at his lap. He considered leaving it at that, but then Angeal sat close to him and - after a moment's hesitation that Zack didn't see - brought him back into a comforting embrace. This closeness made breathing easier, everything easier.

"I thought it was a dream at first. I couldn't see anything, only feel. It was dark, and it stayed dark, so I couldn't see...but I swear, it was real." Zack had gotten a little color back in the form of a faint blush. "You really didn't see anyone?"

Angeal shook his head. There was no need to say that if he had seen someone on top of his Puppy, the intruder would have had his neck snapped. But there was something, unfortunately, that had to be said. Zack guessed this by the way arms tightened around him, and tilted his head up just slightly in expectation.

"Zack...do you remember when I told you that having those kind of dreams is normal?" A nod. "Do you know what I meant by that? What kind of dream?"

"Uh-huh," Zack mumbled.

"Do you remember having any of them lately, before last night?"

"No. Is that weird?"

"No, Puppy," Angeal quickly reassured. "It's just...over the past week or so, I've been checking on you while you sleep. And twice I found you...moving the same way you were last night. You don't recall those incidents?"

"No. Oh, Gaia..."

"Please don't be embarrassed, Zack." Angeal wanted to tell him not to be scared, but couldn't get those words out. "Did you, uh..." Damn it, if you can't talk about it, how can you expect him to? "Have you been waking up with your clothes and sheets sticky?"

Zack couldn't bear to pull away from this safety, so he buried his head deeper into the hug, eyes stinging with humiliation in the warm dark. Fingers were stroking his hair now, and Angeal gently calling his name.

"I'm sorry, Zack, but it's important."

"Yes," came the muffled, shaky answer. "So what? You said it's normal."

"It is, it is, but I'm disturbed by the way you move during these episodes. It looks very much like someone or something is..." Angeal trailed off, trying to uncoil the ball of rage in his stomach. "That's what it feels like to you?"

"Uh-huh."

"Like...a man?"

"Y-Yeah. I don't see him, though."

"Can you guess his size?"

"I don't know...bigger than me. Strong."

"Did he speak at all?" Angeal continued to prod.

"No, not that I remember."

"Did he do anything besides touch you...externally?"

"Can we not talk about it?" Zack begged. "Please Angeal, I don't want to talk about it."

"Zack, I know this must be very upsetting, but I need to know how much and how badly this thing has hurt you," Angeal said, with heat, but not directed at Zack.

"I'm fine, I'm fine, please, I don't want to talk about it, please don't make me."

The spot on his shirt nearest Zack's eyes was growing quickly wet. "Okay," Angeal said, gently rubbing the boy's back. "Okay, we'll stop for now. I'm sorry. Understand, Puppy. I don't mean to pry, I'm just trying to protect you."

Zack nodded, pressing his face agains the solid chest so firmly that it was a wonder he could breathe.

"It's okay. I'll figure this out, and make it stop. Whatever it takes."

Zack squeezed his eyes shut tight enough to hurt, but he couldn't stop the tears, or figure out why they had begun to come faster.

azazaza

"Bullshit," the president said flatly and calmly.

"That's one possibility, sir, but - "

"It's bullshit. Do you concur, Tseng?"

"I concur, sir," came the stiff reply from Shinra's left.

"My most trusted Turk concurs. That's two votes for bullshit, and regardless, this is not a democracy. Remember who you work for, gentlemen."

The men in identical blue suits respectfully bowed their heads in unison, while President Shinra observed them with distaste. His company's legal department kept him free and the empire safe from outside law enforcement agencies. ShinRa would not have lasted without these well-paid employees, the best in their field, and the president appreciated them for that. However, personally, he disliked them as a rule for their lack of conscience and ruthlessness. And coming from a Shinra, that was saying something.

"Sir, it is precisely our great loyalty to you that demands we bring this matter to your attention," Mr. Kaplan (or Mr. Sanders, Shinra could never tell them apart) said smoothly, placing his hand over his heart for emphasis. "It is our duty to protect the empire you've worked so hard to build."

"Yes, and you do a fine job, that's why I pay you." I should really hire someone and pay them to deal with your obvious fawning and spare myself the headaches. "To keep lawsuits away and smooth the way for questionable business transaction. Not to investigate every ludicrous rumor that you pick up in the locker rooms." Does Legal have locker rooms? If I offer some, will they go away?

Shinra glanced at Tseng thoughtfully, and the man shook his head regretfully, as though he'd heard the wondered question. Such a thing wouldn't be all that surprising, actually.

"Sir," Mr. Sanders (or Kaplan) spoke up, moving forward to stand beside his colleague, "it's true that the accusation in question is still unsubstantiated, but we believe the source to be credible enough to warrant investigation."

"And this source is?" Tseng asked coolly.

"The claim was made in confidence, by an employee who fears reprisal. We cannot disclose his identity until and unless the matter results in a court martial or other official legal proceeding."

Shinra placed his hands facedown on his desk and leaned toward the lawyers before him, clearly displaying his opinion that this was all a tedious waste of time. "If I can't decide myself whether or not this mysterious informant is believable or not, then why should I allow you to proceed with this?"

"Because, sir," Kaplan-or-Sanders sincerely (though probably smirking inside), "if we do not handle and contain this matter, it will eventually leak out to the public and may cause irreparable harm to the company's reputation. We're talking civil suits, outside investigatiors demanding cooperation, potential loss of valuable investors and associates, and of course a crippling reduction in recruit numbers for SOLDIER."

"Especially considering the fame of those involved," Sanders-or-Kaplan added.

President Shinra's shoulders descended, just about an inch, his elbows moved slowly inward toward the portly body, and his flat hands curled until only the very tips of his fingers were left pressing agains the desk's surface. The lawyers, like most observers would have, hardly noticed their boss move at all. Only Tseng, trained to pick up the most subtle nuances of human behavior and closer to Shinra than almost anyone else, saw it all and realized the president was going to give in.

"Fine," Shinra said wearily, easing back into his chair with an air of dignified defeat. "Investigate. But I want this handled delicately, and privately, and anyone who does otherwise will be dismissed. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Yes, sir."

The lawyers left promptly, though not soon enough, in the remaining occpuants' opinios. Tseng stood silently still, his familiar presence a support and comfort to Shinra. Nothing was said for a few minutes as the two men considered the claim that had been brought to them, and what might come of it. The Turk felt quite certain that it was untrue, and that their only worry was the disharmony such a lie could bring to the order of ShinRa's world. Outrage, trusts broken, professional and personal relationships destroyed or changed forever, irreparably...Tseng looked at his employer and tried, this time unsuccessfully, to discern the other's opinion.

"Tseng."

"Sir..."

"Bullshit?"

"Bullshit."

"Either way, I've opened the door for a storm that I can't stop now," Shinra said softly, and Tseng had no reassuring response for that.

azazaza

"Oh my Goddess, you have to let me take a picture."

"Absolutely not."

"But he looks so precious! I could make a whole calendar out of - "

"Gen."

"Just for my own personal use?"

"I know what you mean by 'use'. No."

Angeal looked through the open doorway for a few more moments, reassuring himself that Zack's sleep was still undisturbed. The boy was curled up on his bed, more like a cat than a puppy, breathing softly into the purple pillow he was clutching. Faint dark circles were clearly visible under his closed eyes. Angeal closed the door quietly and steered Genesis back to the living room.

"I didn't ask you here to gawk at him."

"I can help and gawk. Multitasking comes naturally to me. That's why the Goddess gave me both an ass and a - "

Angeal turned and walked away to the farthest couch, and Genesis immediately shut his mouth and followed with a guilty slouch. Almost like a pet who'd just been reprimanded, Genesis sat on the opposite end of the couch and edged closer until his left leg was pressed up next to Angeal's right one. Angeal gave him an impatient glance, but made no move to leave. Genesis then kicked him six or seven times, Angeal grabbed a sleeve of his favorite jacket and threatened to rip it at the seam, and finally the two old friends smiled with repressed, nostalgic laughter.

"Sorry, 'Geal. You've got me worried, and - "

"When you worry, you joke. I know that by now."

'What does Hollander say?" Genesis asked, all seriousness now.

"Stress, but he doesn't know about the sleep disturbances. Zack doesn't want to tell him."

"I guess I can't blame him. Poor baby, he must be so embarrassed."

"This can't go on, Gen," Angeal murmured. "I've already cut back his training and withdrawn him from classes for the time being, but that doesn't fix the problem, only hides it. And people will talk, I'm sure."

"Well, Puppy doesn't need the classes anyway," the auburn-haired SOLDIER pointed out. "He knows it all."

"He needs the social interaction. He needs to be around people who aren't me."

"I don't know if Zack would agree. He absolutely worships you."

With a pained sigh, Angeal rubbed his forehead with his hand. "I'm supposed to be able to protect him. How can I stop this when I don't know what it is?"

"Well, if Puppy won't swallow his pride, you'll have to do it for him."

Angeal stared suspiciously and waited, suspecting that this might be leading somewhere dirty. Genesis 'hmph'ed indignantly.

"I mean, you tell Hollander. You've seen it happen, Zack's described the episodes to you. Dr. Boring should be able to come up with a few ideas. He's not completely hopeless, after all."

"Hmm..."

"Once you give Hollander the general idea, maybe then the Puppy will be more comfortable offering details. I know you don't want to upset the dear little delicate thing, 'Geal, but it beats doing nothing."

"Zack's hardly delicate..."

"He is on the inside, like every tough guy. Like us." Genesis's smile held a touch of sadness. "Like Seph."

Angeal gently grasped the back of Genesis's neck and pulled him nearer, until their foreheads touched. The elder gratefully accepted the gesture of comfort with a rub of his nose against Angeal's. His lips brushed his old friend's casually and left a few kisses on them. Angeal tousled the silky reddish hair before letting him go and sitting back.

"Time passes, huh?" Genesis whispered. Kissing was a very sensual thing for him, a prelude to more frenzied touching, but he felt no more than platonic love between them, and knew it was the same for Angeal.

"Yes, it does." Angeal's heart tingled with pain. He shouldn't be thinking of Zack now, Zack's pretty lips opening for him, Zack's body close and enfolded in his... "Gen, you know Seph loves you. It's just that he has to slowly figure out things that the rest of us know instinctively."

"Hmm," the elder hummed noncommitally.

"You know how analytical he is. He's looking at relationships the way he does everything else - gathering information."

"I know."

"It's a miracle in itself that he's begun to let anyone touch him."

"'Geal, you don't have to defend him." Genesis smiled, weakly but genuinely. "I love Seph with my whole heart. I cherish every moment he allows me. When he's ready, if he chooses me, I'll be here."

And if not, may Gaia grant Lazard the least painful death possible, Angeal thought wryly. He was about to speak again, to ask Genesis if he'd heard any news about the scattered incidents somehow all linked to Wutai, when a cry reached them from Zack's room. Angeal was up in an instant and running, throwing his student's door open and freezing to see it (whatever it was) happening again.

"What in Gaia's name..." Genesis whispered behind him.

From his previous curled position, Zack had turned onto his back and sprawled out. His arms were outstretched toward the upper corners nearest the headboard, his knees bent and above his chest, and he was panting and moving his hips up and down. No words were necessary, Angeal knew Genesis was seeing the same thing he did - that it was not normal, not even possible, for someone to do this on his own. The boy arched up wantonly and moaned in such a way that both 1st Classes had to push aside every impure thoughts; Angeal was snapped out of stillness by the guilt that accompanied them and rushed to the bed, ignoring Genesis's soft call of his name.

Feeling (and probably looking) like he was going mad, he waved his hands all around Zack's sleeping form, grasping only air where there should have been a strong male figure. Angeal continued this desperately - If I can't touch it, how can I fight it?! - until Genesis grabbed his arm and yanked him back.

"'Geal, there...there's nothing. We would sense it."

"Look at him!" Angeal hissed quietly.

"I know, I know. Should we..." Genesis swallowed and gazed down at the bed with wide eyes. "Should we wake him, or let..."

Were he not heated with anger and fear, Angeal would have stopped and considered. Instead he shoved past Genesis, gently touched Zack's shoulder and cheek and shook him a little.

"Puppy. Puppy, wake up."

To make matters more worrisome, Zack - who always woke up when Angeal called for him - only continued to gasp and writhe. He was too deep into this restless sleep to notice his teacher, only the touch that he registered subconsciously. Zack turned his head and nuzzled the palm with flushed cheek and damp lips, and though Angeal shook him by the shoulder he merely groaned and shuddered.

"Zack!"

"Nnn...no..." the boy whined distantly.

"Zack, wake up!" Angeal yelled, with a near-hysteria that startled and shocked Genesis.

With a string of the loudest moans yet, Zack threw his head back and his lower body lifted right off the mattress. Angeal let him go and watched in helpless horor as his student came with wanton thrusts into his loose pajama pants, and his thrashing slowed gradually into stillness. Zack's legs lowered back to the blankets and were straightened out into a position of rest, and after a few seconds of peace he began to frown, shift and whimper.

"...Angeal?"

"Puppy, it's okay," Angeal choked out, and it hurt so much to see him afraid like this that Genesis clasped the part of his own chest that covered his heart, as though to hold it together. "Ssh, it's okay now. Just sleep."

Zack's eyes remained close, but his hands groped for Angeal's arms and clutched them. "'ngeal, what's wrong?" he mumbled. "Don't leave me, don't leave - "

"Ssh, I won't leave you, I promised, remember?" Angeal had made his voice untroubled and calm, and Zack relaxed enough to snuggle against the chest he was brought to. "Just sleep, I'll stay with you."

Genesis waited a few heart-aching minutes, until Zack's breathing was slow and steady, before sitting carefully behind Angeal. He lightly rubbed his old friend's shoulder, hating that he didn't know how else to help, hating his own powerlessness in the face of a loved one's distress. Angeal acknowledged this with a brief nod, no more, because he couldn't bear to take either hand from its protective place on Zack.

"'Geal, at oh-nine-hundred I'm going to make a surprise visit here and insist on taking Zack to the materia lab to review the basics of fusion. Use that time to see Hollander. I'll tell him to expect you."

"Thank you, Gen." Genesis had joked that Angeal was an old man at heart; now he sounded like one.

The elder 1st squeezed the shoulder beneath his hand a few times, more to acknowledge the muscle tension than try to banish it. Then tentatively, knowing he would likely be denied permission, Genesis's fingers crawled to Zack's head and fondly caressed the disarrayed silky spikes. But Angeal let him, even turned a little to give Genesis easier access, and Genesis smiled. It was nice to see that Angeal's distrust of him, though not unearned, was not genuine.

Zack, however, had his own ideas about what was acceptable, even while unconscious. He tolerated the fiery 1st's petting for a few moments before sleepily shaking him off, to the quiet amusement of both observers. Genesis noticed, however, that when Angeal's fingers took his place, Zack didn't seem to mind at all.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 13 - In Dream Or Deed

 

"I...see."

Hollander said this for what had to be at least the fourth time, each with that hesitant pause in the middle. The man had seen a lot of bizarre things in his work with ShinRa, and Angeal found it vaguely annoying that he would show even a faint disbelief now. The 1st frowned darkly, the scientist understood, and Hollander quickly spoke again.

"I'm sorry, Angeal, this is just a lot to consider. I've never dealt with a case like this. You're sure that - "

"He was not just dreaming, I'm not overreacting, and Zack could not have moved the way he did on his own."

"But no one was there."

"No one that I could see or touch. But this...thing," Angeal nearly hissed, "feels very real to Zack. Doctor, I need your help. Something I can't fight, can't even identify, is harming my student."

Hollander looked with sympathy on the child he'd helped to raise, the gift his dear Gillian had sacrificed so much of her strength and health to give. So many times, the doctor had wanted to reveal his own part in Angeal's conception...all that stopped him was the memory of young Angeal's admiration for the man Gillian had married, the one Angeal believed was his father.

"Of course I will do everything I can. You realize, though, that I'll have to speak to Zack about this directly."

Angeal sighed. "I was hoping to avoid that. He's even embarrassed discussing it with me."

"It's important, I'm afraid," Hollander said, sitting back in his desk chair. "I'll keep the questioning as brief as possible. Also, I want to observe him overnight in the sleep lab. I need to witness these episodes for myself, if possible."

Angeal nodded reluctantly, not looking forward to Zack's reaction but accepting whatever was necessary to get to the bottom of this. "I'll talk to him."

"And if I need to call Hojo in for a consult?"

"If it comes to that, I'll take Zack to a doctor outside of ShinRa."

"The company strongly disapproves of, if not outright forbids, that," Hollander said with a frown.

"I'd rather face Shinra's displeasure than expose Zack any further to Hojo."

"Has something happened, Angeal? I know you dislike Hojo, but aren't you perhaps being overprotective? He is a brilliant scientist," Hollander admitted grudgingly.

Angeal wanted to explode into a fury and blast the madman for the pervert (in mind if not in action) he was, but now wasn't the time. It wasn't the right time for anything that could embarrass Zack further by the telling; the boy read people well, eerily well at times. Luckily, there was nevertheless no need to lie.

"Zack is stressed enough, and Hojo frightens him. He will not cooperate fully unless he is at least somewhat at ease."

"Understood," Hollander nodded very slowly, then his eyes seemed to fix on a distant point in space and remain there. "I watched Hojo, you know."

"Doctor?"

"When Sephiroth was small, before he could fight. We fired every lab employee who looked at him too much or too intently. After I realized the danger I watched everyone, Hojo included, to be safe. I know one reason you hate him is for seeing Sephiroth as a project and not a person, but Angeal...there are worse things."

Having never heard his old guardian speak like this, and feeling an odd mixture of revulsion and relief, Angeal needed a moment to consider before he could answer.

"Thank you, Doctor," he said, and meant it.

As he headed to the door, a faint pain glowed like light in Hollander's chest. At times like this he imagined he could feel the tiny hold Gillian still kept on his heart stretching. Tugging. Walking away without knowing his father loved him.

azazaza

"So, dear Puppy, are you bored to the point of desiring self-disembowelment yet? 'Cause I did bring a copy of Loveless."

Zack smiled nervously; he knew he'd never been forgiven for declaring the famous story a 'yawn-fest'. "I'm okay."

"You probably know all this, hmm?" the 1st asked, gesturing elegantly to the machinery and information stations around the fusion lab. "Head of your class and all, and you've probably had practical experience with Angeal..."

For some reason that casual comment made Zack's face feel warm. 'We haven't practiced any fusion. Angeal says it's best left to experts."

"As expected of Angeal, so unadventurous," Genesis sighed. "What about your Materia class?"

"I think we're only covering the theory of fusion."

"Oh, right. Anything beyond that is covered in an elective course. Think you'll take it?"

"Probably," Zack shrugged. "I've read about fusion, and it seems interesting. Um, Genesis?"

"Yes, baby?"

"Not that I don't like hanging with you, but why are we here?"

"I like this lab, and I'm not allowed to play in here alone since I tried to fuse Fire materia with an apple. And caramel. Some things are best left to a fondue pot, is my point."

Zack blinked guilelessly, but even the boy's innocence was disarming.

"Okay, okay. Angeal had an appointment with Hollander and he didn't want you left alone."

"Is he okay?"

"Oh, fine. The doc just wanted to check his mako level," Genesis lied smoothly. "Since your level was low recently, Hollander just wants to make sure it wasn't because of something you were both exposed to."

"Oh."

Zack shuffled over to a chart on the wall detailing the fusion process in layman's terms and looked at it with mild interest. Genesis followed, observing the boy's tired way of moving and greatly missing his old bounce and energy.

"It's weird about Fire and Ice," Zack mused aloud, referring to materia. "You'd think they'd always cancel each other out when they're fused."

Genesis slung an arm around the boy's shoulders, pretending to be playful but really wanting to give him at least half a hug. "It is funny, but when you think about it, it makes sense. True, they're opposing elements - "

"Also a neutralizing elemental pair," Zack added automatically.

"Yes, but unless the strength of each sample is exactly the same, one is bound to overpower the other when they're chemically combined. Think of me and Seph."

"You and Sephiroth?" Zack echoed, subtly easing further back into the arm's comfortable, supporting hold.

"People call us Fire and Ice, ne? But Seph is stronger and more skilled, so he tends to win against me. And when I win, it's possible he's just letting me."

"He wouldn't do that," Zack said gently. "He loves you too much."

"You think so?"

"He smiles when he talks about you. Not the fake smile he puts on when he's trying to appear more human, the real, little one that just comes out. I think it even surprises Sephiroth."

Genesis responded with his own content smile, a rarer sight than his sultry smirk, and gave Zack a careful squeeze. Typical Zack, always trying to comfort his friends even when he was busy dealing with his own difficulties. Completely apart from his admitted attraction to the beautiful boy, Genesis genuinely loved Zack, and leaned in to press a chaste kiss to his temple.

Zack laughed softly, and turned his gaze back to the charts on the opposite wall. "If only we had human metaphors for all materia pairings. I bet my class would have an easier time getting fusion."

"It's been agreed that Angeal's Earth, if that helps. And I would designate Tseng as Sense, because sometimes I'd swear he can see right inside people."

"What would I be? Some rare kind of bounce materia? Normally, I mean."

"Oh no, no, Puppy." Genesis unabashedly nuzzled the 2nd's hair with his face and snuck a sniff of Zack's violet-scented spikes. "No. You would be Restore, undoubtedly."

"Restore?" Zack asked, absently realizing that he did a lot of parroting people's words back to them when he was lacking energy.

"You make everyone so happy. Seph openly admits fondness for you, and he barely does that for me. You know I adore you, and Angeal...you don't know how much more content and sociable he's been since he acquired you. If you ever saw Angeal as he was without you, you'd probably find him dull and distant."

"Genesis?"

"Hmm?"

"Why do you like me?"

The question gave Genesis pause, and had an undertone of melancholy in it, so he tried to laugh it off. "Well, I'm sure 'Geal warned you that I'd love to get in your pants, which frankly I would, but aside from that, Puppy, I love your spirit and your mind and your heart. You've been like a breath of fresh air into this place."

Taking this in (and no doubt feeling a bit bashful about it), Zack tilted his face downward from the chart and edged still closer to Genesis, placing himself more in front of him than beside. Zack then tiredly leaned backward, and Genesis instinctively curled an arm around his waist and another around his chest. The intention here was to make the teenager feel loved and protected, but Genesis was ready to release him at a second's notice if Zack showed any sign of distress. Gaia knew, the boy had been under enough stress and trauma lately to make him cringe at touch. But no, Zack relaxed into the embrace, shrank into it as though he needed the contact and could draw strength from it.

Angeal. Zack's mind felt so tired, so hazy. One moment he was fine; the next, even thinking basic thoughts was like groping through fog for a tiny keyhole. I miss Angeal...Angeal's hugs...but he would never do it like this...

Zack grasped at the arms around him and nudged them to squeeze him tighter. With a soft cooing noise not unlike one Angeal would make - prompting Zack to snuggle back even more - Genesis obliged, cocooning his friend's student with affection and the physical closeness the boy seemed to need. It felt nice to be trusted, to be able to cuddle with someone who was normally off-limits but right now needed him.

It felt too nice. The large room was empty but for them, yet the air hung heavily as though too many people were breathing there at once. Zack was still gripping Genesis's arms, apparently not feeling the change in the elder's pants, so he couldn't release him. Instead Genesis cautiously eased his own hips back, but to his confused surprise, Zack moved his own backward to follow them. Then he...dear Gaia, was Zack actually rubbing gently against him? The boy's eyes were half-closed and distant, his body almost limp, he certainly didn't know what he was doing.

"Honey, are you okay?" Genesis murmured. "You want to go lie down?"

Zack shivered, earning himself an instinctive closer hug for the warmth it offered, and laid his head back to rest on a red leather-covered shoulder. He was pressed close all along Genesis's body, slender and smooth and sweet-smelling and this was so not good. This was jailbait according to ShinRa policy, his best friend's jailbait no less, a confused and half-asleep kid who, even if he wanted this, was in no condition to accept it.

"Sweetie," Genesis tried again, "are you okay?"

"Alone," Zack whispered, almost inaudibly, his eyes fully shut. "I feel so alone."

That hurt little voice wounded Genesis more than words alone usually could. He gently turned the boy around so he was hugging him chest-to-chest, which Zack didn't seem to mind. But this created new problems. The sweet face was practically nuzzling the sensitive skin of Genesis's neck, and against his leg was undeniable proof that the boy was hard. Zack's breathing had gone from barely audible shudders to soft gasps, and he was pressing closer and clinging at the same time he seemed to be drifting off.

"Zack?" Genesis tried to make his voice firm and yet calm. "Sweetie, talk to me."

"Feel so alone...except when I sleep..."

"Okay..." Genesis clutched the slumping teenager to his side and headed toward the exit. "We're gonna go see Angeal now."

azazaza

As much as Angeal detested the sight of needles breaking his student's skin, he couldn't help but be grateful for the stimulant Hollander hurriedly administered to him. When Genesis had first brought him into the lab, both Angeal and the doctor had been alarmed to see Zack nearly unable to stay on his feet. Privately, Angeal also didn't enjoy seeing how closely Genesis was holding the boy, how Zack was practically on top of him.

Now, mere minutes later, Zack was sitting unaided on a padded exam table, brighter-eyed as Hollander bustled around, manually checking his patient's vitals. (Most of which could be accomplished with Medical Sense materia, but the doctor figured this way would be more reassuring to Angeal.) Zack quietly and obediently allowed his pulse and temperature and blood pressure to be taken, now and then looking at his mentor to confirm his presence. Angeal desperately wanted to be closer, but had to give Hollander room to work.

And from here, Angeal was able to notice that Zack couldn't look at Genesis without ducking his head in embarrassment. What was that about? Genesis could be a lot for anyone to take, but Zack had always been a match for him, whether it was laughing off playful advances or countering his dirty jokes with scolding. Zack, obviously embarrassed? Mostly that happened when he was complimented or hit on. Gaia, Angeal had seen whole villages gawk at the boy, some admirers that were ill-intentioned, and then the ones like Genesis -

Wait a second. Angeal narrowed his eyes at his oldest friend. If you tried anything, so help me gods...

Genesis, who knew Angeal well enough to communicate a little with him without speaking, shot him a genuinely innocent expression. You know I wouldn't! Goddess, give me some credit. You really think I'd pursue the Puppy when he's defenseless?

"Please try to keep still, Zack," Hollander was saying.

"Sorry...it's just hard not to move now that I actually can."

"Puppy." Angeal laid a comforting hand on his student's shoulder, and Zack smiled instinctively. "I need to talk to Genesis over there for a few moments, but I'll stay where you can see me and I can see you. Will you be all right?"

"Um...okay."

Genesis knew he didn't really have anything to fear from Angeal, but he had to repress just a bit of apprehension once the two of them were on the other side of the spacious room. He himself was one of Angeal's few weaknesses, true, but Angeal's powerful attachment to his apprentice had taken everyone by surprise. Zack was one of those rare things that could make the stoic 1st irational, even dangerous, and not just in battle situations.

"I swear, I didn't try to do anything to him."

"Guilty conscience?" Angeal asked lowly. "I can read you both pretty well. Zack is embarrassed, and it has something to do with you."

"All right." Genesis was all solemnity now, worrying, but not for himself. "We were chatting in the fusion lab, we had the place to ourselves. He started to get drowsy, quite suddenly."

Angeal nodded. "That's been happening."

"Puppy seemed very down, and you know how huggy he is, so I was holding him, platonically, and keeping him upright." Genesis ran a frustrated, unconcerned hand through his perfectly styled hair. "It was like he was half-asleep, or more than half. He...I think he thought he was asleep."

"Gen, what are you getting at?"

"He got hard," Genesis said bluntly, "and he was rubbing against me. He didn't know what he was doing, 'Geal. I think he's begun to instinctively seek that kind of touch in his sleep."

Pained, weary frown lines took their usual place on Angeal's otherwise smooth face. "And meanwhile, you were...?"

"Hard and tempted and you know I wouldn't, 'Geal."

"I know. Thank you." Angeal glanced back at Zack, who appeared to be engaged in an awkward conversation with Hollander. "Did he say anything?"

The elder hesitated, not liking to burden Angeal any further. "That he feels alone, except when he's asleep."

"I don't understand it," Angeal murmured. "I know I hover, I know I intimidate potential suitors, but Zack could date practically a
anyone he wants. I wouldn't interfere - "

"As long as the extensive background check turns up no red flags."

"Yes. He's sixteen, and obviously he has the proper hormones that induce sexual desire." Angeal's face was tight as he said this, Genesis noted; was it hard for him to say such things about a boy he seemed to consider his own? "Zack's not shy once he gets to know someone a little. So why doesn't he date?"

"Or at least fuck around."

Angeal tried to hold back a glare. "That would be normal, yes, but I don't think Zack could do that. He puts his heart into everything."

"So what do we do? Find him his true love or get someone we trust to deflower him?"

"Neither! But that reminds me..."

"Hmm?"

Angeal shook his head dismissively and began to head back to the exam area, motioning Genesis to follow. Hollander met them halfway, and his troubled brown eyes were sympathetic.

"That poor boy. I'm starting to understand your weakness against his pouts, Angeal."

"What were you talking to him about?"

"I was trying to get information about the nighttime assaults. Sometimes such things are easier to reveal to a professional, but..."

"And?"

"What he describes resembles vivid and lucid dreams, of varying sexual contact with an unidentified male whom he can feel, but not see. I still want to put him in the sleep lab, that will tell me much more," Hollander continued, "but first, I'd like your permission to perform a physical exam."

Genesis blinked. "Uh, didn't you just?"

"I need to check his body thoroughly for signs of abuse," the doctor said flatly. "I hate to put the boy through it, but I believe it necessary."

"Can you sedate him?" Angeal asked softly.

"Do you really think it's necessary to go that far?"

"I...I want you to check Zack internally." Angeal had fully expected surprise from both of them, and with difficulty answered it. "The nighttime movements I've witnessed indicate possible p-penetration."

"Shit," Genesis swore. "That's right..."

"O-Of course, Angeal."

Zack looked at them all with faint suspicion when they returned, and displayed great reluctance when Hollander explained what they would be doing next. The paper gown he was handed, the syringe of tranquilizer, the equipment that would monitor his vitals and brain activity...with each, Zack looked more and more overwhelmed and small, and Angeal instinctively put an arm around him and drw him protectively close.

"Puppy, I'm sorry. I know you don't want to, but this is important. You'll be asleep, you won't feel a thing. And Gen and I can wait outside the curtain if you'd rather - "

"Stay, please," Zack blurted, snatching up his teacher's hand. "Will you stay?"

"Of course. I'm not going anywhere."

The other hand, the one holding the thin paper garment, shook, and Zack looked up with wide, frightened blue eyes, forgetting for that moment that they weren't alone. "Angeal..."

"It's okay." The commander, also forgetting everyone but Zack, smoothed the boy's hair until they both felt less uncertain. "I promise."

The word of his revered teacher was enough. Zack changed alone behind the curtain and called the others back in when he was ready. (Genesis slipped in to kiss his cheek and excuse himself with a hug.) Nervously, the boy then lay down on the padded table and drew strength from Angeal's smile and grip on his hand as Hollander attached several thin, colored wires to the pulse points on the 2nd's head.

"This will let me monitor some of your brain acitivty," the scientist explained. "It won't hurt at all."

The sedative came next, a large needle that Zack bravely didn't cringe away from. Thinking of what was about to occur, Angeal refused to let his own tension and tears reach the surface. He smiled benevolently at his sleepy Puppy, whispered promises that all would be okay, and stroked his hair until Zack was unconscious. When Hollander nodded, Angeal nodded back, nausea pulling at his stomach muscles. It was time.

Trying to let Angeal do as much of this as possible, Hollander mostly held Zack up off the table so Angeal could slip off the flimsy paper gown. Then together they examined the surface of Zack for any traces of any ill-handling, lifting his limbs and then pushing him onto one side to check for bruising and any other signs of violence. The boy's skin was unbroken, unmarred in its silky whiteness, and while the doctor merely nodded and continued, Angeal found this simple task much more difficult. This was a time to be professional, and yet he couldn't help enjoying the look and feel of Zack bared to him completely.

You should be ashamed, Angeal mentally snapped at himself, but it was hard enough not to be a little turned on. Even in stillness, even heavy with drugged sleep, the boy's arms and legs were so graceful. He was pleasant to touch under any circumstances, and it was a relief to see Zack seemingly undamaged. And to think Zack trusted him to do this, even if he had to be unconscious for it, was willing to let his teacher see him this way. Impulsively or in apology, the commander placed a gentle kiss on the teenager's forehead.

Hollander waited a moment, not commenting, before softly suggesting Angeal might like to sit beside Zack for this next part. He took the suggestion, pulling up a chair to the exam table and taking Zack's hand, determined to keep his eyes on the face he so loved while, on the periphery of his vision, gloved hands spread Zack's legs into stirrups and reached between them. Through the contact between their hands, Angeal felt the slight shift the penetrating finger caused, and Zack's face twitched and made a very faint whimper.

"Ssh, it's okay, Pup, it's almost over."

It was quick, fortunately. Moments later, Hollander removed his gloves with two brisk snaps and motioned Angeal a few feet away. It seemed strange, since the patient couldn't hear them anyway, but Angeal followed and waited anxiously.

"No penile penetration, recent or otherwise." Hollander paused for Angeal's relieved sigh. "That doesn't mean he can't have been penetrated digitally or with something else small, but I can at least tell you he hasn't been raped."

"Thank Gaia."

"Since he's had a stimulant and a sedative today, his sleep for the next twenty-four hours will not be completely natural," Hollander went on. "So even if I monitored him tonight, I wouldn't get the data I need. But please make time in both your schedules for the sleep lab, within a week at most. I assume you'll wish to be there."

"Yes, I do, and I will." Angeal looked at Zack's still form, redressed in the paper gown, with a sigh. "I'll limit his activity until then to classwork and light exercise. Can he handle that much, do you think, or should I confine him to bed?"

"I won't ask the impossible. In fact, I'll give you some stimulant potions, have Zack take one each morning. That'll allow him to function, at least, and if he can tire himself out, that itself will likely make him sleep better."

Angeal nodded, and his eyes then immediately crept back to Zack. "Understood. How long will the tranquilizer take to wear off? I want to get Zack home and he'll be annoyed at me later if I carry him."

"Let me see...I had to use extra to nullify the stimulant's effects, and he was fatigued already...maybe an hour, no more. You're welcome to wait, or I can watch him if you need to go some- "

"No, no, nothing that can't wait. Thank you, Doctor."

Angeal returned to the bedside chair and settled into it, brushing Zack's hair back and folding his large hand around Zack's smaller one. Undisturbed, at peace, the boy breathed softly and rhythmically, and Angeal watched him with a gentle intensity that was both touching and hard to decipher. The sterile white room was cool under its harsh lights, so Hollander fetched a blanket from the supply room and draped it over the boy. The genuine smile this earned him from Angeal made the doctor determined to be a good father, for once, and help what the young man loved most.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 14 - Startled And Stricken

 

"Some good news, finally!" Zack reacted to Genesis's announcement with a grin that was very like his old self. "Did they say why they're postponing your deployment?"

They were in the living room of the Hewley/Fair apartment, seated on opposite couches but close enough for both of them to reach the game board between. Normally Zack liked thelema, a sort of Wutaian version of chess, and was good at it, but now that it had become one of the few distractions he was strong enough for, it was kind of depressing. Therefore, he welcomed all the more eagerly the news that Genesis in fact wouldn't be shipped off to Wutai. Yet, at least.

"Not really." The fiery 1st scanned the green and brown checkered board and wiggled his mouth in thought. Thelema was a game of endless variation, all the intel skills and strategy of battle with none of the adrenaline; Sephiroth was much better at such things. "Something about giving Commander Tate a chance to prove his ability to lead and earn his recent promotion. His is the unit I was intended to take charge of. Also, I got a notice that Legal wants to talk to me or something."

"The legal department?" Zack looked concerned. "Are you in trouble?"

"Not as long as that stockboy at Yes & M really was eighteen."

"Gen," a voice called in a warning tone. Angeal was over near the main entrance, picking up the last of the celebratory confetti their guest had flung upon coming in.

"Sorry, 'Geal."

"I'm not five, you know," Zack said with a pout. But the expression softened and faded when his mentor returned and sat down beside him. "Can I get up now? Just for, like, fifty squats?"

"No."

"Thirty?"

"Sorry, Pup."

"Fifteen?"

"This exchange reminds me of one of my more bizarre blind dates," Genesis said languidly, stretching cat-like once he completed his turn. "I mean, really, who goes to a masked ball at Boyztown dressed like an old man? Had to give him snaps, though, never thought I'd get turned on by anyone in a walker. I've got to tell you that story, Puppy - "

"Genesis."

"When you're older. Like, forty maybe. Or the next time 'Geal goes to the bathroom, whatev."

"He won't let me train at all," Zack complained.

"We trained this morning, Pup."

"That was jogging, not exercise. I feel like I'm gonna leap out of my skin or something."

Angeal gently patted his apprentice's back in apology. "I know it's frustrating. But you're at nothing like your usual energy level, and if you overdo it even a little, you could seriously damage your health. Try to be patient for a few days, okay?"

"I'll try," the boy said grudgingly.

"If you're feeling up to it, we can try some light hand-to-hand tonight."

"'Cause it won't matter if I suddenly pass out at night," Zack interrupted glumly. "My friends are doing sword drills right now, and sparring."

"Well, they need much more work than you do," Genesis said brightly. "Think of this little vacation as a chance for them to catch up to you a little, hmm?"

Zack continued to pout, but nodded a reluctant acceptance. Genesis earned a quick glance of gratitude from Angeal.

"So, Gen. What depths have you sunk to, that you've got Legal coming after you?"

"Nothing! Not more than usual, I mean. And even if I were, you'd just yell at me for polluting Puppy's ears."

"I'm not a baby and I don't like either of you."

Genesis continued as though Zack hadn't grumbled, twirling his stemmed glass of wine in his elegant fingers. "Obviously, yet another company's advertising division is desperate to get me under contract, and Legal is tired of fielding so many offers. Poor dears. I've slept with a few of them, but maybe I should be charitable and - "

"Gen."

" - um, bake them brownies. Like the kind we had in Ilyra that made me hallucinate."

Zack nudged his warrior-monk piece forward two squares and sighed defeatedly. "You know, recent events should have made it clear to you that I do actually know what sex is. Hell, I might've had it without realizing, right?"

Light-hearted mood gone in an instant, Genesis shared a worried look with Angeal as the younger of them eased a protective arm around Zack's shoulders. The boy slumped and made no attempt toward a hug, but nor did he shrug away. It would've been childish and probably futile, considering how weak he was. And anyway, though he didn't want to admit it, there were almost no times or situations in which he didn't want Angeal's comforting presence close.

"Hollander says you haven't," his revered teacher was gently reminding. Zack kept his eyes down, having understood when he was told about the exam being performed but still embarrassed about it. "It's okay."

"Does it hurt?" the teenager asked flatly. "If you won't tell me, I'll just ask Genesis."

Angeal cleared his throat. "That...depends. It...well..." Gaia damn it, his student's adorable sexual ignorance was turning on him. "It feels...like..."

"A stretching that hurts at first, sort of burning, and then it stops hurting?" Zack interjected.

"Honey, how exactly do you know that?" Genesis asked, on behalf of Angeal's moving but silent mouth.

"I remember feeling...it doesn't matter. It can't have really happened."

"It's okay," Angeal soothed, determined to soothe no matter how uncomfortable the subject was. "Your clothes weren't removed during these occurrences, and...Hollander would have been able to tell."

"Did it hurt afterward, you know, in your bottom?" Genesis asked, as casually as he could. Valid question, after all.

"No," Zack mumbled, anchored by Angeal's cradling arm though he was trying to sink through the floor and hide. "But it didn't feel good...after."

The adults understood without needing to probe that further. Angeal's life had become a rather chaste one lately, but he'd had a decent amount of sex before then, and he well recalled (from the rare times he'd bottomed) the feeling of loss and disconnectedness that comes after the act is finished. Withdrawal, emptiness. Damn it, sex was complicated enough with a trusted partner, what was happening to Zack was -

Fume later, take care of him now.

Zack roughly rubbed at his eyes under the pretense of brushing his hair out of them, and predictably found himself drawn protectively to Angeal's warm chest. He gave in and hugged back, feeling almost like he could absorb much-needed strength from the friction their spirits produced. Strange, when this larger body used to make him feel weak and tiny by comparison.

"Can we go back to talking about how Genesis is gonna get in trouble?"

Genesis chuckled. "Don't worry about me, Puppy. If things get sticky, I'll just flirt my way out."

Zack withdrew from Angeal's hug and leaned back against the couch cushions. "I'm glad you're not going to Wutai. But if you were, maybe you could find out what ShinRa's not telling us. About Wutai's involvement in all the recent flare-ups, I mean."

"Not likely. They even have Seph on a need-to-know basis."

"Really?" The boy looked surprised and thoughtful. "He must not like that."

"It's hard to tell how Sephiroth feels, even for us," Genesis said, and Angeal nodded. "But I imagine you're right."

azazaza

Sephiroth slowly and methodically paced the area of floor behind his desk, his steps as effortlessly graceful as a dancer's. With each turn his luminescent silver hair billowed slightly out behind him and caught the overhead light beautifully, though there was no one present to marvel at this, and the general had never understood why people fawned so much over his hair. Yes, it was a rare color, yes, it was different, but what about him wasn't that word that meant alone?

As his purposeful strides continued, Sephiroth's liquid-mercury eyes frequently darted to the screen of his desk computer, on which several files were displayed. All complicated documents, regarding old and recent missions having to do with Wutai, as well as the latest reports from the Turks. They were professional, well-organized, detailed enough. It wasn't anything he was seeing that was bothering Sephiroth; it was what he wasn't seeing. A few prisoners had been taken by the Turks and interrogated; here were the results, complete with doctored death certificates. But no photos of the corpses with the autopsy reports, and that was not standard procedure.

At first, the general thought it was a clerical error, that the photos hadn't been uploaded yet or had been misplaced. But out of a feeling of obligation (and perhaps a dislike for SOLDIER's rival program), Sephiroth had always paid close attention to the relatively few prisoners who'd ended up in ShinRa custody. This attention ensured a certain amount of justice was accorded to these unfortunates...not that Sephiroth was concerned for such criminals, of course. His loyalty belonged only to the company. This thought would have made the young legend smirk had his mind not been too preoccupied.

The general remembered all these prisoners, and of the ones who had died while in custody, post-mortem photos had always been included in the final report. Someone less familiar with company procedure might shrug off this anomaly, but Sephiroth knew that everything the Turks did and didn't do was for a reason. Of all the many exceptional skills and attributes the general possessed, he depended upon his remarkable memory more than most of the others. It was memory that allowed him this suspicion of something being hidden, and memory that he probed now, searching for a possible answer.

What logic is there in suppressing autopsy photos? They are always heavily restricted, so this cannot be about autopsy photos in general, only these particular ones. There may be something about these recent bodies that the Turks do not want revealed. Not violence, certainly, they kill without leaving a mark. What, then?

Though most of their information had been stored in his mind already from repeated readings, Sephiroth looked over the classified files of the five prisoners again. Only one was Wutaian, but two others were half-Wutaian. One was a prominent public speaker and teacher of cultural history from Kalm (reported missing), who had long been on ShinRa's to-watch list for loudly spouting his views on the mistreatment of Wutai by the company. The general remembered him, a man who looked like any harmless intellectual, who had held a small protest the last time Sephiroth was in Kalm. "Demon," they shouted at him, and he'd had to restrain a few of his 1sts from retaliating.

Demon. It had made him think of the battles of Wutai where Sephiroth had forged his reputation, the warriors who ran screaming just from the sight of him. The villagers who had shouted the same insult in their own language. Oni. Fiend. Demon. Different. The faint, silent pain of these thoughts prompted a memory of Genesis talking about this to him years before.

"Yes, Seph, half the world thinks you're the spawn of Hades and the rest want to get in your pants. It balances out. Ooh, look at me, I'm Sephiroth! I'm an inhumanly hot genius and unbeatable in battle, but I'm also all emo 'cause no one understands meeee and the peasantry call me mean names - ow, 'Geal! He knows I'm kidding! Seriously, Seph, forget everyone else. The people that matter love you."

With little difficulty, the general shifted his attention back to the computer. The last prisoner's name was not a familiar one, but the file stated that he had made frequent trips to Wutai over the past several years, presumably as part of his work as an importer. Each prisoner had been a ringleader in the recent acts of anti-ShinRa activity. Wutai was the source of these attacks, and they were all connected. The Turks had evidence of this which the general was not yet permitted to know.

Could this evidence be present on the bodies themselves? Is that why there are no photos?

With purposeful strides and his eyes fixed determinedly forward, Sephiroth left his office, speaking to no one as he walked, until he was at the medical labs. At first, the personnel there were a little surprised, as the general's health was under Dr. Hojo's supervision and so he never had need to come here unless he was visiting an injured subordinate. Sephiroth was not the kind of person who was safe to interrupt for mere curiosity's sake, so the doctors and assistants stayed out of his way and only snuck curious glances. Not until he made a beeline for the morgue door did one of the senior physicians hurry over with his hands raised in a 'Stop!' gesture.

"General, sir, I'm sorry, but you aren't authorized to enter."

Sephiroth stared at the doctor, an average-looking man in his thirties, analyzing the reaction to himself in order to know how to proceed. Once, he would have used fear to get his way no matter the situation, but since then he had learned to tailor his attack to fit the target's weaknesses. This particular target was Dr. Brennan, a no-nonsense but kind surgeon that the general had known for many years. It had taken Sephiroth a few of those years to realize that Brennan's concern and pleasantness masked stronger feelings; whether lust or something purer, these feelings were a target. And everyone knew what, who, ShinRa's best weapon was.

Sephiroth gentled his eyes and expression as best as he could and titled his head so that a long shock of bright hair fell forward past his shoulder. Brennan's eyes widened at that, at Sephiroth's ethereal beauty so close, and the faint beseeching look directed at him from marble features and pink lips frowning.

"I understand, Doctor, and I aplogize for the intrusion. You see," he said in a confidential tone, "there is something in that chamber that I must confirm with my own eyes. The lives of my men and perhaps many others are at stake. I would greatly appreciate your cooperation, as a personal favor."

Brennan hung without blinking on every word, losing himself in the shifting pools of silver full of or feigning an unexpectedly human concern and pleading. One had to look closely to ever pick up emotional changes in the great general (unless you were one of the very few who were close to him), but Brennan was quite certain of what he was perceiving. What he was being gifted with the sight of. Sephiroth, Sephiroth, needed his help. Just the thought of doing an appreciated service to the ethereal angel made Brennan feel light-headed and giddy, on top of the high that merely being near Sephiroth brought, close enough to catch the lingering scent of violets from his hair.

Then a tiny smile (no less beautiful for its faintness) came to the surface of the marble face, seductive whether its owner intended that or not. Before he'd made a conscious decision, Dr. Brennan fumbled with the ring of keys of his belt, and after a few slips of his clumsy fingers, made haste to unlock the heay morgue door.

"O-Of course, General, I'm sure you wouldn't ask unless it was necessary, please go right in, and if there's anything else I can do, please don't hesitate - "

With a difficulty and discomfort he hid, Sephiroth briefly brushed his soft hand over the doctor's trembling one. It was a casual touch, implying nothing sexual, but it was enough to daze Brennan and make him breathe more rapidly through his smile.

"There is. My own physician - " He avoided using Hojo's name whenever possible. " - were he to know I am about to look at dead bodies, would insist upon observing me as I do so, for his own curiosity. I would prefer to avoid that, so I ask that you not speak of my visit here."

Brennan nodded with a frown, a fervent glow of righteous indignation in his brown eyes. Like many within ShinRa, he knew of Hojo's possessive, scientific attitude toward Sephiroth and hated it.

"Of course, sir, my lips are sealed."

Another slight smile, a nod of thanks, and at last Sephiroth was in the large, cold room that served as the med lab morgue. In the center of the bare cement floor, four slab-like autopsy tables rose to about waist-high. Upon each was a drain similar to the ones here and there on the floor, and the lights above very nearly matched the stark, bright chill of every medical place the young general had ever known.

He had been in morgues only a few times in his twenty-two years, mostly to look his last on a fallen comrade who'd been high-ranked or well-liked. The first time was long ago - he couldn't have been more than seven or eight - when Hojo had brought him here to understand the impermanence of the body. The coroner at the time was horrified to see a child allowed to attend an autopsy and had made his objection known, but the little boy had been calmly fascinated, pointing and naming each organ and bone as Hojo smirked proudly.

"This is death, Sephiroth," the scientist had said, but no, to the precocious child it was merely another puzzle, another informative lesson. One can't experience the truth of death, which is merely loss, until one has something to lose, and that didn't happen for Sephiroth until he was fourteen and in command of a force of men. The first he lost was a Lieutenant Anthony Pavao, aged nineteen, from Junon, and Sephiroth remembered every detail he'd ever known of that life and death, that irreparable rite of passage.

The compartments that filled the metal walls were all marked by numbers that corresponded to names on a list posted by the door. Sephiroth found one of the conspirators right at the top, Hanaki Lancier, and yanked the matching door open easily to slide the bagged corpse into view. He unzipped the shroud all the way down, exposing its front completely, feeling no particular unease about the cold, dead flesh but accepting that he'd have to examine it thoroughly...and then Sephiroth saw the man's chest, and for a heartbeat his insides felt as cold as the steel and concrete of this room.

The mark was distinct, eye-catching, obvious. There was clearly no effort made to make it inconspicuous, as it extended from groin to abdomen, clear accross the stomach and about the size of two hands laid closely side by side with palms down and fingers together. The ornate character had been seared deep into the torn flesh and healed cleanly, preserved as a deep red scar of lines and curved angles that stood out even more now that the color of life had faded from its deceased canvas.

Numbly, Sephiroth stretched a hand out and hesitantly let his fingertips fall upon the brand, tracing its strokes in the correct order he had learned for Wutainese characters. It took no measurable time to translate a symbol that he knew, whose meaning he had seen before. On other bodies.

It can't be. Sephiroth didn't sweat (no one knew why), but if he could, he would have been shivering in a cold one. This was the answer, this was the secret ShinRa had been keeping from him...Lazard had been keeping from him...

"Why?" Sephiroth asked aloud, and the heavy air echoed the word back to him as though in answer.

azazaza

Zack wondered if this was a bad idea before he even reached his classroom, despite having had to beg Angeal to let him go. Yes, he was excused from his lessons for the time being, but today's test on materia was an important one. Though Zack didn't need good grades to assure his future with ShinRa, he did need to pass certain exams in order to use high-level magic, receive promotions, etc. Zack felt he already got enough special treatment without asking for a make-up test too, and Hollander's stimulant potions gave him enough energy, if not to fight, then at least to function. He left Angeal's hovering and protective presence to head to the classroom, and only then realized how wide rumors of his illness had spread.

Barely ten steps from the apartment door, Zack ran into a pair of 1sts who had heard a bizarre theory about a debilitating disease that struck every Gongagan in his/her teen years. Had Zack been his usual self, he might have mischievously feigned sadness and asked them to keep it a secret so no one would treat him differently during his last days. Instead he smiled wearily and practiced his I'm-fine-just-tired-and-Hollander's-investigating-it speech.

This was repeated to the cadets who'd heard he was in a mako-overdose coma, the 3rds who thought he'd been given a deadly form of flu by ShinRa's enemies, and the fan club representative who'd snuck past security somehow to tearfully offer any of her organs that Zack needed to be well again. The boy pulled out all his charm to reassure the awed girl, and even signed a hand-drawn comic of himself for her, deciding not to question why he and Angeal both seemed to be naked in it.

Just when he thought the Gauntlet of Reassurance was over and he had arrived, Zack met Lts. Kunsel and Varley together just outside the door. Whooping happily, they leaped onto him for a three-man hug, and after Varley stepped back, Kunsel was startled to realize how much effort Zack was putting into merely standing after being glomped, how thin and pale he seemed, how he had bags under his eyes where they had never been before. Under the pretense of making the hug last, Kunsel silently urged his friend to lean against him, which Zack gratefully did until he felt better and wiggled away to smile.

"Lemme guess, you heard I lost all my limbs in an industrial accident?"

"Nah, Commander Helwey told us you haven't been feeling well and that we shouldn't worry," Varley said. "But..you know. He also said you couldn't have visitors yet and it's too quiet around here without you, man."

Kunsel looked at the younger 2nd solemnly. "You're not really back yet, are you?"

"No...I just didn't want to miss the test. And I'm getting claustrophobic at home, so..."

"Well, when will you be back?" Varley asked with a pout.

"I don't know. Dr. Hollander's still trying to figure out what's wrong so he can fix it. I'm okay, though," Zack said quickly. "Tired all the time, that's all."

"Well, can we come by and annoy you, at least?"

"I'll ask Angeal. I would appreciate the company, definitely. Angeal's good about playing video games with me, especially now that it's practically the only thing I can do, but he doesn't understand the fun of playing for six hours straight. I don't get how he can be so clueless when he's so smart and good at everything else," Zack finished with a fond smile.

"Only you could get away with talking about a legend that way," Varley laughed. Kunsel merely looked thoughtful, and slung an arm around Zack's shoulders as they walked into the Materia classroom.

Waves and a few cheery hellos were directed at Zack from the rows of desks. Instructor Marten greeted Zack warmly and asked after his health, and Rudner and Kabe glared at him with contempt. Oh, well. Even Zack couldn't please everyone.

The three friends all spotted Declan at the same time, standing alone in the far left corner where the morning sunlight poured through a line of windows. Zack's friends gave him a word or two of encouragement and a nudge in that direction, then disappeared toward their desks. The teenager made his way across the room, slowly, not just because he lacked energy but also because the awkwardness he felt toward Declan's feelings made him nervous. Declan was an ideal boyfriend for him. Whatever the reason their relationship couldn't happen, Zack knew the fault lay with himself.

And yet the older boy never showed frustration or blame. He was grinning now, clearly thrilled to see Zack and worrying about him at the same time. Declan let out a slow breath and blinked with relief, and Zack felt very suddenly that he should speak first.

"Hi. Um, I'm sorry if you've been worried like the others."

"Kunsel and Varley told me you're okay. Are you really?"

"I guess. I feel..." Zack hesitated. "I don't know. Foggy, maybe? Dr. Hollander's handling it, so really, you don't need to - "

"Worry?" Declan smiled sadly. His handsomeness and affection made Zack's chest ache. "I'll try. Is there anything I can do?" An unspoken "Please?" hovered in the air between them.

"Just keep being my friend."

"Just...friend?"

Zack looked at his boots. "I'm hopeless," he murmured. "And defective. You deserve someone better."

"No such thing." Declan, mustering his courage, lifted Zack's chin with gentle fingers and caught his eyes in a calm gaze. "Of course we're friends. Just...think about it awhile, okay?"

Why couldn't the soft touch of skin on skin be a revelation, a surrender that made Zack's heart pound and limbs tingle? Instead it was like being this close to Kunsel and Varley, warming and appreciated but...nothing else. Blinking away the sting in his eyes, Zack nodded, turned away and took a seat at his desk. The test paper passed to him just moments later was a welcome diversion from his confusion and guilt.

Maybe it had been a good idea to come, after all. It was relaxing and oddly soothing for Zack to work his way through the exam; with his good memory and natural intelligence, the only difficulty was sitting still, and not wondering how much he was hurting Declan. And trying to shake off the feeling of loneliness and unsafety he'd had since leaving Angeal's presence.

What's wrong with me? Have I really become such a baby lately that I need him to hold my hand every second? Ugh, I'll never be a hero at this rate, just Angeal's hopeless sidekick, forever.

His pencil was hovering over the last question when he heard the classroom door open without a knock proceeding it. Zack and the rest of the students looked up to see two unfamiliar men in blue suits approaching and quietly talking to Instructor Marten. A bad feeling swept over Zack like a wave. These were not Turks, Turks wore black, but they walked with a similar strut of arrogance and confidence. And oh Gaia, they were walking toward him.

"Lieutenant Zack Fair, 2nd Class?" one of them asked.

The instructor was hovering behind with an expression of worry, his classmates were watching curiously and nudging one another. Zack noticed none of this, though, because he was unconsciously shrinking back in his chair.

"You're not in any trouble, Fair," one of the men said with a patronizing smile. "We just need you to come with us."

azazaza

Zack had left for class hardly ten minutes earlier, and already Angeal was distracted from his paperwork by the apartment's emptiness. With his student temporarily withdrawn from classes, he had grown used to sensing (if not seeing) Zack close by, knowing that any moment he would see Zack's beaming smile, hear him laugh or insist they have a spar. In his pre-Zack life, Angeal had never known he was lonely; only the arrival of the remedy had made him realize the problem.

He's just taking a test, the commander reminded himself with annoyance. He'll be back soon. If Zack is safe without me anywhere, it's here within the Compound.

Angeal was jerked out of his reverie by another distraction, the sound of the main door opening and someone coming in at a rapid, boot-stomping pace. He wasn't expecting anyone...could something be wrong?

"Pup, is that you? Is everything - "

But no, it was Genesis who came into sight. He didn't walk from the entrance hall into the living room as much as stagger there, with his face clenched tightly and carefully styled hair a mess, like he'd run at breakneck speed from the other side of Midgar. Genesis's slumped posture was nothing like the upright, proud way he usually held himself, and he was out of breath. Genesis was never out of breath.

Angeal leaped to his feet, intending to go to his friend, but felt like his boots were glued to the floor. "Gen, what's happened? Are you okay?"

Electric blue eyes burning with fury, glowing with mako and hurt. Genesis nodded with a few robotic jersk of his head and continued to breathe in gasps, reminding Angeal of him as a child when Genesis was trying to not cry and not ready to be comforted. What had worked then? Calmness, what Genesis had always lacked and Angeal had in abundance.

"Did something happen with Legal? Are you in trouble?"

As if to complete the picture of all things Genesis was not supposed to be and do, two perfect tears the same color as his eyes broke free and streamed down his cheeks.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 15 - Death Could Not Sever

 

Jerome Kaplan and Matt Sanders had done well to lock the door of the interview room behind them, though at the time it had merely been a precaution of habit. Fair had been quiet and intimidated on the way here, every bit the innocent and delicate boy he looked like, and they hadn't guessed that would change once the questions began. But indeed, once he realized what he'd been taken from class for, Zack's posture straightened and pretty eyes flared, and just like that, the child was gone.

"Fair, if you would please sit down, we'll be able to finish this and let you - "

"Go to hell!" the teenager growled, and Kaplan felt a moment of genuine fear for his life. He looked to Sanders, who was much more diplomatic, and indicated the latter should get closer to Zack.

"Fair, I'm sorry if we upset you, perhaps we were being insensitive. Please sit down - " Both lawyers winced as Zack pounded the door and made it groan on its hinges. " - and we'll clear this up."

"Commander Tseng!" Zack called out desperately. "If you're listening, make them stop! You know Angeal would never - "

"Fair," Kaplan broke in authoritatively. "This matter is under investigation by the legal department, not the Turks. If you want to help Commander Hewley, you can do so only by cooperating with us. In any case, you will not be allowed out of this room until we are finished."

The 2nd seemed to shrink into himself at that. He faced away from them, palms on the heavy locked door, shoulders beginning to unwillingly tremble. Zack was enraged, yes, but there was too the irrational fear that came in Angeal's absence...he wanted Angeal...

"Zack?" Mr. Sanders was approaching, looking at him with sympathy. "Can I call you Zack?"

The boy nodded, because he preferred everyone to use his given name, not because he wanted to be nice to these people.

"Zack, please help us." Sanders bravely placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, and his feigned sympathy crossed into genuine when he realized the kid - for all his bravado - was shaking like a leaf. "We have to investigate what we hear about. If we're wrong about Commander Hewley, that's fine, we just need to know. Help us. Help him."

Zack's skills at detecting deception were not yet finely-honed; he was young, and unusually naive, and still wanted to believe that everyone was who they pretended to be. All Zack needed to hear was that his cooperation could help Angeal, and he let Mr. Sanders coax him back to his seat at the table.

"Thank you," Mr. Kaplan said, as one would to a repentant child. "Let's start over, then, shall we?"

"Why are you asking me these things?" Zack whispered, staring at the table between them. "Please tell me."

"There have been..." Sanders paused, groping for words that wouldn't provoke anger. "...employees of ShinRa who voiced certain concerns to us. They believe, or have reason to think, that Commander Hewley might be engaging in inappropriate behavior."

"Who?" Zack asked in an almost-growl. "Who's saying this?"

"We can't give out that information," Kaplan said bluntly. "Don't concern yourself with who brought this to our attention. Just answer our questions as best you can."

The boy glared, but there was little power in it now, the fury of a teenager rather than a SOLDIER. Kaplan refused to be daunted and, since his associate was hesitating, went ahead and began again with the questions that had set Zack off.

"Has Commander Hewley ever asked you to do something that made you uncomfortable?"

"You mean other than 'Be polite to ShinRa executives'?" Zack said scornfully. "No."

"Has he ever touched you outside of training?"

"You guys got something against high-fives? C'mon, I live with Angeal! Is he supposed to run away every time I go near him?"

Sanders put up a hand for silence, and spoke gently. "He means, has the commander ever touched your genitals, or asked you to touch him?"

"I know what he meant, and no. You think I wouldn't report something like that?"

"Would you?" Kaplan asked with chilly seriousness. "Even if it meant getting your dear teacher in trouble?"

"Yes," Zack fired back. "It doesn't matter, though, because Angeal would never do anything like that. Whoever's telling you this crap is a perverted liar."

"That is a possibility. Nevertheless, we must do our jobs," Kaplan said dismissively. "Has Commander Hewley ever said anything sexual in nature to you, or shown you pornographic material?"

"Have you ever met Angeal? He's practically a monk," Zack scoffed. "And why would he show me porn? I'm a kid, to Angeal. He does not think of me sexually. Is this getting through to you yet?"

Kaplan remained unfazed, calmly taking notes though the interview was being recorded on video. Like the other company executives, he had a healthy, though mostly unspoken, amount of fear of super-fast, super-strong, mako-enhanced SOLDIERs. But, again like many people, he had trouble thinking of Zack Fair in that way when the boy wasn't fighting. He just looked too innocent, like someone's son. Like Commander Hewley's, the lawyers had heard, and that made secretly-kind Sanders more determined to make sure Hewley wasn't taking advantage of that bond.

'What about Commander Hewley's close friend Commander Rhapsodos? He has a reputation for being sexually promiscuous. Do his attentions extend to you?"

"Sometimes, when he's joking," Zack conceded. "Genesis is like that with everyone. And when he flirts with me, Angeal tells him to stop."

"I see. Commander Hewley is very protective of you, isn't he?" Kaplan said smoothly. "His conduct toward you during the recent mission in Sector Three certainly supports that theory."

Zack went very still in reaction to that, his rebellious slump replaced with straight-backed tension. The boy's eyes - that pale, remarkable winter-light blue - were open but frozen, like a chocobo caught in headlights. Sanders recognized these signs of trauma but had no time to intervene before his associate continued.

"On the other hand, one might also consider the commander's behavior toward you that of possessiveness rather than a desire to protect. Zack, if something happened between you and Hewley, no one will blame you. Just tell us so we can help you both."

The pale child-eyes regained their focus, narrowed like targeting lasers, and for a heartbeat Sanders was reminded of Sephiroth, of the lethal combination innocent beauty and the willingness to kill made. They had made a mistake in forgetting that this teenager was also a SOLDIER, and that only his control of himself kept Zack from venting his fury with violence.

Zack took a deep, shaky breath, the kind that often precedes sobbing, and fixed each lawyer in turn with a hateful glare. Then he turned his chair to face the wall. No matter what the interrogators said next, whether provoking or cajoling, Zack refused to say another word to either.

azazaza

"I want. To see. Zack. Now."

"Commander Hewley," Merritt Crane of the ShinRa Legal Department murmured, "as your attorney, I advise you to - "

"I will answer your ridiculous questions when I know my student is safe," Angeal hissed, and Mr. Kaplan smiled coolly to hide his fear of this brawny man.

"Commander, I assure you, Zack is in our custody and perfectly fine. We're trying to protect him. As his mentor, shouldn't you appreciate that?"

"Forgive me if I don't trust you." Angeal's glare made the room feel like an icebox. "When Zack became my apprentice, he became my responsibility. I will not answer questions until I see for myself that he's well!"

Wordlessly, with no sign of defeat, Kaplan went to the TV - set up on a table in the interview room's corner - and switched it on. Angeal started and sat up straight as the screen showed another interrogation room, and Zack. There was someone beside him who looked like a lawyer, that was good...but the boy himself was motionless, hunched over in his chair, facing a wall and ignoring those who were with him. Angeal recognized the physical signs of Zack being upset, and his fists clenched. His heart seemed to tense up as well, nearly choking the words he tried - and failed - to say calmly.

"I am responsible for my student's emotional welfare, and he needs me, surely you can see that. Allow me a few minutes with Zack, and then you can ask me as many questions as you like."

"Commander, we're investigating allegations of abuse here. It would be unethical of me to let a victim anywhere near his abuser."

"That's 'alleged victim' and 'alleged abuser', Jerome," Crane said, without aggression, as though he'd expected this. "Let me remind you that the commander is not required to remain here, as he's not been charged with anything."

"Yes, but you'll agree, Merritt, that it's in the commander's best interests to cooperate. If he ever wants to see his student again, that is."

"I have never abused my student." Angeal's hands were pressed against the table with enough force to make them go bone-white. "I would never hurt Zack."

"Because you care for him, or because it would be morally wrong to have sex with him?" Kaplan asked.

"For both reasons! This is ludicrous, I demand to know where these ridiculous allegations came from!" Angeal looked to his attorney, who sighed.

"They don't have to tell you, unless charges are filed and we proceed to the court martial phase. Of course, I doubt Mr. Kaplan will be able to find sufficient evidence to do so."

Ignoring the lawyers' sniping, Angeal looked Kaplan steadily in the eyes. "Have you asked Zack if I ever hurt him?"

"Yes, we have. So far, he denies it, quite vehemently."

"So far?"

"Perhaps Zack doesn't know what is abuse and what isn't," Kaplan said flatly. Certain of his questions and comments were specifically intended to provoke Angeal's anger, the reasoning behind that being that an emotional questionee is more likely to slip up and give something away. "You've been in charge of Zack since he was...fourteen, correct? A naive child of that age can be coerced into allowing anything if it comes with assurances of love."

A low growl began in Angeal's throat. Crane, intending to try to calm his client, found himself instead edging away in fear.

Kaplan leaned back against the opposite wall, studied his fingernails and spoke with deliberate casualness. "I suppose I can understand. He's quite a pretty boy."

"How dare you!" Angeal roared, leaping up from his chair. He wanted to lunge across this small room, put his hands around Kaplan's neck and choke the life from his eyes and the arrogance from his face, but Crane gripped his arm, with urgency and more strength than one would expect.

"Commander! If you take his bait you only weaken your own case! Do you want your student back, or do you want to be handcuffed and sedated?"

Slowly, Angeal settled back into his seat, breathing slowly in a controlled rhythm designed to calm the mind and halt the body's flow of adrenaline. He looked toward the screen where Zack could still be seen, unmoving but now being spoken to by a familiar figure. Angeal couldn't hear any of it, but it was encouraging to see Dr. Martin, and more so to look at Zack. The sight of his precious student startled the commander into remembering his priorities. Zack topped the list, and anger wasn't on it at all. He had to deal with this mess and get his Puppy back in order to keep him safe.

"I assume you have more questions?" he asked through clenched teeth.

This time, either out of decency or a realization of his opponent's strength, Kaplan did not smile.

azazaza

One of the benefits of being Angeal's student (though not as great as getting to spend time with him) was that Zack learned SOLDIER skills not in the order the ShinRa curriculum chose, but rather in the order his teacher thought best for him. SOLDIER cadets began learning how to dissociate their minds from their bodies and surroundings in their second year, and even then not with any great urgency; the reasoning was that it would be many years before they were worth taking as hostages or torture subjects.

Angeal's protectiveness of his student made him overly cautious, or perhaps he'd worried that Zack being close to him would make the boy a target. Whatever the reason, he had begun teaching Zack to 'detach', as they called it, almost immediately. It was a difficult skill to acquire for anyone, much less an easily distracted fourteen-year-old, and a testament both to Angeal's patience and Zack's eagerness to earn his mentor's pride. Zack worked hard and learned every form of relaxation he was taught, and upon turning away from Kaplan and Sanders, put his detaching skill into practice.

In that state (which required at least a few minutes to get into), a SOLDIER's environment and emotions became distant to him, and a forced calm set it. Depending on how deep one went, one could even withstand enemy torture. Of course, there was no danger of that here; Zack was just trying to escape this nightmare the only way he could. The lawyers had assumed the boy was merely ignoring them, and Kaplan had left soon after. It wasn't until Sanders, acting on instinct, tested Zack's reflexes and found him unresponsive that he became seriously concerned and summoned the boy's psychiatrist.

"We pushed him too hard, didn't we?" Sanders said anxiously, the second Dr. Martin entered. "I didn't want to, the poor kid, Kaplan just...he gets so..."

Martin gave the younger man a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "I'm sure you didn't mean to upset him so. Please, give us a little room so I can take a look at him."

Nodding earnestly, Sanders flattened himself into one of the corners. Dr. Martin pulled a chair to face his young patient and looked Zack over. He had seen this before and knew what it was, luckily, though he'd never before observed it in such a young SOLDIER. The doctor suspected Angeal's presence would snap Zack quickly back to reality, but since that wasn't currently possible, he took the boy's hand in both of his own and began to firmly massage it with his fingers.

"Zack, it's Dr. Martin. You don't have to come out until you're ready, and no one will make you. But you need to listen to me, all right?"

No answer, no movement, and the unfocused blue eyes continued in a stare broken only by blinking. But Dr. Martin saw the faintest flicker in them that seemed to indicate a willingness to hear him.

"I know what's happening here, and I know this must be agonizing for you," the psychiatrist said gently. "I know how fond you are of Angeal, and he of you. I promise, I will do whatever I can to help you with this."

"We will need to speak with you regarding Zack, Doctor," Sanders broke in awkwardly. "Um, later, of course."

Martin nodded quickly, without turning away from Zack. He continued to rub and warm the boy's cool, soft hand and hope that it was a comforting gesture and not a reminder of recent unwelcome touches. Martin had known Angeal a long time, enough to be certain these allegations were false, so he had no need to wonder about them. His concern was to get his young patient through this awful ordeal with as little psychological damage as possible.

"He's, uh, he's not in a coma, is he?" Sanders spoke up in a timid voice.

"No, no. Zack put himself in a detachment trance, which SOLDIERs do when facing torture or any situation they can't physically or emotionally handle. He must have been very upset."

"We didn't mean to hurt him. We were only hard on him because it's not uncommon for a victim to protect his abuser." Martin sensed that Sanders was speaking more for himself than Kaplan, and felt a faint pity for this man. His concern did appear to be genuine. "Can you wake him up?"

"Not by force, unless I want to risk fracturing his mind. It's better to create a reassuring atmosphere and try to lure him back. I think...I think Zack would return without delay for Commander Hewley."

"I take it you believe Hewley is innocent."

"I've seen them together," the doctor said with a nod. "Angeal loves Zack very much."

"No disrespect, sir, but it's our job to ensure that that love is not an inappropriate one," Sanders said, a touch defensively.

"Actions can be inappropriate. Feelings are out of your jurisdiction, Mr. Sanders. Yours and every other human's." Sanders had no reply for that, and merely looked on in meek silence. "Would it be possible to bring Commander Rhapsodos in here? His presence would likely be reassuring for Zack."

"I'm afraid not. Rhapsodos himself is not under investigation, but he's biased in Hewley's favor."

The doctor made a soft noise of displeasure, but shook off his annoyance quickly; such an emotion would be no help here. There was no one or even dozen prescribed methods for luring a SOLDIER out of a detachment trance, as it was different for each individual, depending on his personality, what he found reassuring, and of course what he was trying to escape. Usually a detached SOLDIER brought himself back to awareness when the unbearable trauma was over. Zack obviously couldn't be permitted to remain a zombie through this entire investigation.

I'm sorry, my boy, but I'm all the comfort they'll allow you, it seems. Martin gently nudged Zack's chin up so the blue eyes were aimed at him, if not exactly looking at him, and offered a paternal smile. He continued to stroke one of the hands with his fingers, trying to trigger Zack's mind with this continuous touch and movement.

"It's me, Zack, Dr. Martin. I know I'm not the person you need right now, but I am here for you. And I understand that you're angry and afraid, and that's okay. But you can't escape these feelings this way. They'll only be forever waiting for you to come back. I'm sorry. You need to wake up soon, all right?"

The psychiatrist tried to keep his tone light and pleasant, but he was becoming increasingly unnerved by the dulled shine of those eyes that were usually so striking. Zack was such a strong spirit, with such a bright aura, that it was disconcerting and just wrong to see him immobilized by this hurt and loneliness. Martin wanted to either shake him or hug him, something, anything to make Zack Zack again, and he could ethically do neither.

"Zack," he relented, "Angeal will need you to get through this. We have to resolve this and get you back to him, right?"

A single, shimmering tear formed at the corner of one eye, and traced a path down Zack's face to drop to the floor. A barely audible breath pushed the boy's lips apart. No change in the eyes yet, but the doctor held back his relief and waited patiently, squeezing encouragement when he felt the hand he held twitch. Then he took a chance and did what he thought Angeal might do, briefly running an open palm over the black spikes.

"Zack. Whenever you're ready."

A sob forced its way out of the teenager's throat, and his body lurched forward as though he had to choke it up. The doctor caught him, hardly startled, and lightly massaged the trembling shoulders in his grasp. The way he both clung and struggled reminded Martin of a rescued drowning victim shocked back to life and fighting to remember the taste of air.

"It's all right, Zack." He tried to ease the boy back into the chair, to keep at least some professional distance, but found he couldn't let go, not with Zack crying so pitifully. This was, after all, the one who had broken through the walls around Angeal's heart, solitary, closed-off Angeal. Martin let the boy recover in a loose, cautious embrace and murmured "It's all right. It will be okay."

Zack, meanwhile, was trying to pull himself together, pull back the splinters of himself that had begun to drift while he was in the numb void. But even there, even there, even his minimal awareness had cried out over and over for one person only. Now he didn't dare to weep the name aloud, for fear it might damn its owner even more than their closeness already had.

azazaza

Angeal Hewley wasn't know as "The Stoic" SOLDIER for nothing. Once he had resolved to keep calm, he was able to sit through both the quiet meant to unnerve him and the questions intended to provoke him. Kaplan was bold sometimes to the point of stupidity, he had to be to go after a famous warrior like this, and he hid his intimidation of the large man well. But as time dragged on, Kaplan felt wearied and frustrated by his opponent's refusal to be baited.

"Again, Commander, just for clarity. You've never touched your student's genitals or asked him to touch yours?"

"Never."

"How many times does he need to give you the same answer, counselor?" Angeal's lawyer, Merritt Crane, asked dryly.

"If the commander has nothing to hide, he should be eager to clear this matter up. How often have you seen your student unclothed?"

"Perhaps a few times in the shower rooms after training. Nudity is common there."

"You supervise Zack very carefully, don't you?" Kaplan had deliberately not used the alleged victim's name for some time, and got only the faintest reaction now, in the way the commander's eyes twitched.

"Of course."

"In the showers too?"

"Jerome, your case must be weaker than I thought if you're stooping this low."

Kaplan ignored the other attorney. "Are you aware, Commander, that your student has been under Turk surveillance for the past two years?"

"Yes." He had known, and been grateful for this additional protection.

"Why has he had no relationships?"

"What?" Angeal said, almost as a reflex. Of course, the Turks would know this, but it startled him to hear this man bring it up.

"No relationships. No dating, no sexual liaisons. He's sixteen, he's healthy, so why? Do you forbid him?"

"Of course not. Zack and I haven't discussed this at length, but I assume he's choosing to focus on training and classwork right now, and leave romance for later. And I don't believe Zack's choices are your business."

"You must be able to guess why I'm asking," Kaplan countered, keeping a steady, challenging stare on his seated nemesis. "You're an intelligent and literate man, Commander. What's one reason an adolescent boy might not show any interest in sex?"

"Abuse," Angeal answered lowly, digging his fingernails into his left palm. "Zack is under orders to tell me at once if anyone speaks inappropriately to him or tries to touch him."

"It's a serious concern, isn't it? According to the Turks, your student draws a lot of attention. Is that true?"

"Yes...it is."

"I hear that makes you angry. Why is that?"

It was a ridiculous question, but Angeal knew he had to answer. "Because many of these...interested parties do not care that Zack is not similarly inclined. Because Zack is naive about this sort of thing and often doesn't realize the danger. Because that kind of attention embarrasses and upsets Zack when he does understand."

"I see." Kaplan left a pregnant pause here, either to think or for effect. "So, your student is afraid of sex? I wonder why..."

"I have never abused him." Angeal's calm was being strained. "I would never do that. How can I convince you?"

"Would you be willing to take a lie-detector test?"

"Yes, fine."

"We will be administering one to your student as well, and a physical exam."

Angeal's face tensed. "What?"

"As long as Zack Fair is a minor and an employee of ShinRa, he is under the guardianship of Commander Hewley," Crane spoke up. "You need his permission to put Zack through these procedures."

"Not while the commander is under investigation. We're assigning a temporary guardian in addition to separate counsel for the boy."

"You don't need to do a physical exam," Angeal broke in, forcefully.

"It's standard procedure in these cases to check for physical signs of abuse," Kaplan retorted with a faint smirk. "Are you afraid we'll find something?"

Crane was looking at him pointedly, silently saying that the objection was making him seem suspicious. And Angeal understood that it was, that relenting was the smart thing to do, for his own sake. But when he weighed himself against the ordeal another rape kit would be for Zack (he surely would be kept awake for this one), it was no contest.

"No. I mean there is no need. Dr. Hollander performed that exam on Zack just days ago, he can give you the report."

Kaplan came closer, and the triumph he kept out of his professional smile sparkled in his eyes. "Why, Commander, would you have your own physician check your student for signs of sexual assault out of the blue like that? Maybe you were somehow warned of this investigation and turned to your doctor to - "

"To what, have him write a false report?" Angeal interrupted, his tone chilly. "I had no knowledge of this idiocy before today. Surely you can confirm whether or not any such leaks came from your own department."

"Yes, I'll be checking that. But then the question remains, Commander Hewley. Why did you force your student to undergo a rape exam?"

In the silence that followed, Angeal imagined what Zack would say if he were here in this room. The boy would think nothing of his own feelings in the face of his teacher's dilemma, he would insist Angeal reveal whatever he had to to prove his innocence. Zack was soft-hearted that way, not just with people he loved but everyone. It was this naive quality and sweetness that put Zack in danger, and that Angeal needed to protect. The boy was going through hell already; Angeal would not add his own betrayal.

"I choose not to answer."

"Angeal," Crane hissed, "this looks bad, just tell him the reason - "

"Zack doesn't want it known, and I will respect his wishes."

"But Angeal - "

"You realize, Commander," Kaplan interrupted, "that we will uncover the truth, whether you aid us or not?"

"That is my hope, Mr. Kaplan." Had the lawyer been willing to admit it, he would have had to say that Angeal's eyes were very clear, unburdened by any guilt. "And when you do, if Zack hasn't been harmed, perhaps I will forgive you."

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 16 - If I Lose You Now

 

"There is nothing you can do?"

"I'm sorry, Sephiroth. I tried to speak to the legal department head, and he refused to hear me out. He thinks SOLDIER wants to intimidate them into dropping the matter entirely. Gaia, I wish we could."

Lazard extended a hand to touch Sephiroth, and was saddened but understanding when the general moved away before contact could be made. Sephiroth slowly walked a few paces away over the office floor, and Lazard found himself still, every time, struck by the grace of this unique creature and the way the light made his hair shimmer. This was not the time for such things, there was a crisis in progress that could tear SOLDIER apart, but since Lazard had accepted his longing for Sephiroth, he had never been able to turn it off.

"I cannot speak for him," the general murmured, barely above a whisper.

"What?"

Sephiroth faced the perfectly organized bookshelves of his immaculately clean office, face tilted toward the carpet and hands clenched. As though he were trying with quiet desperation to hold onto what was left of his ordered universe.

"I cannot speak for Angeal. I am known to be his friend. Any action I attempt to take on his behalf will be seen as an effort to circumvent the legal process and use my influence to have him cleared."

"I'm sure that if the president thought you could be used as a threat against Legal, he would have used you already." The director mentally kicked himself for his choice of words and hurriedly kept talking. "Like the Turks, the top lawyers know too much, and are too useful. Sometimes he has to give them their way."

"Angeal is innocent," Sephiroth said abruptly. "He would not intentionally harm anyone he cares for."

"I know. If I could do something, I...I'm sorry."

"Legal will not say who made the accusation. Depending upon the accuser, such an allegation may have as its source jealousy of Angeal, or of Zack...they won't tell me anything..."

"Angeal is innocent, as you say. They won't be able to convict him merely on someone else's word." Lazard cautiously edged around Sephiroth's motionless form until they were facing each other. "This will pass. All we can do right now is be supportive of Angeal. And look after Zack."

"They wouldn't let me take Zack." Hurt shone through the general's voice like the light through his hair. "Or Genesis. They said we're too close to Angeal, that it wouldn't be healthy for Zack."

Bastards, how many people do you plan to hurt? "I know. I assigned Commander Hathaway to be his temporary guardian. I figured he was the next best choice."

Sephiroth nodded slowly. Hathaway was a friend of Angeal's, liked and trusted by him and everyone else. Hathaway had also been the cadet corps. C.O. during Zack's time as a cadet, and had remained friendly with the boy since, rather like an uncle and favorite nephew. Undoubtedly, Hathaway was the best available shoulder for the kid to be leaning on, but Sephiroth obviously wasn't much comforted by that. Lazard suspected he tried to care about as few people as possible because he was, contrary to his cold image, extremely empathetic. When his friends were in trouble and he couldn't help them, even Sephiroth had difficulty hiding his frustration.

"Maybe I can get you and Genesis permission to see Zack. The visits would almost definitely have to be monitored, though."

"I would appreciate that, Director."

"Sephiroth." Lazard moved to gently grasp the SOLDIER's upper arms; Sephiroth stepped back, leaving the fingers to grab at empty space. "Sephiroth, please - "

Sometimes it was like taming a wild animal. Several months of dates and liaisons had brought Sephiroth a long way in terms of accepting intimacy, but his old fear of touch still reared its heartbreaking head now and then. Lazard prayed that the only reason for this was Sephiroth's loveless upbringing; he didn't yet have the courage (or, he felt, the right) to ask for confirmation. Now, the director swallowed his hurt, waited a moment and tried again, just one hand now. Sephiroth turned away from the hand that caressed his cheek and neck, but at least he allowed it.

"Sephiroth," Lazard whispered, leaning in, drawing him closer.

It was always up to Sephiroth. Lazard was no match for him in strength, after all, and could be easily subdued if he pushed too far. But just as the general could be alluring and aroused behind closed doors and in private, he was also uncertain at times, and at these times, Lazard had to decide whether to coax or back off.

"Sephiroth," he murmured again, stroking the flawless face and encircling the legend's waist to bring their bodies together. It was a relief and joy beyond description to feel Sephiroth's lips parting for him, however slightly. Both arousing and comforting to hold and stroke this body, like silk draped over steel or marble made warm and living.

Privately, Sephiroth felt comforted too, by this gentle intimacy and support in this time of worry for his dear friends. He wondered if he should say something to express his appreciation...but what? Anyway, Lazard seemed to like nothing better than having him close.

"This doesn't help Angeal," the general heard himself say, as though he didn't want it to be known that he was enjoying this.

"We'll do everything we can for him," Lazard murmured back, his lips brushing the delicate shell of an ear. "But there's nothing we can do right this minute. So for this minute, just stay here like this, with me. Please."

"You want me...to remain still?"

"Angeal and Zack will be all right."

"You cannot know that."

Hard to dispute the logic of that, but Lazard did anyway, with a passion in his voice one rarely heard. "I do know. Sephiroth...the world won't end if you take a few minutes now and then, just for yourself."

"I didn't believe the world would end," Sephiroth said, before realizing that it had not been meant literally.

Lazard was always amused when he witnessed these moments of metaphor-related confusion. Now a soft, kind laugh began in his chest and came out as a warm chuckle; Sephiroth felt the whole process as a pleasant tremor that passed between their touching bodies. Almost instinctively, he turned his face to the sound, and his lips were captured by Lazard's again. Sephiroth had been raised to never surrender to anyone, but each time, this became a tiny, just a tiny, bit easier.

azazaza

"Hi, Kunsel," Commander Hathaway said, with a touch of weariness, as soon as he opened the apartment door.

"Good day, Commander. Um, I was wondering..."

"You want to see Zack."

"Can I? No one knows what's going on with him and I've been worried..."

"He's..." The brawny 1st hesitated where Kunsel had hoped to hear the word 'okay'. "He's hanging in there. Look, I'll ask if he wants to see you, but be advised, he's refused everyone else."

"Thank you." The 2nd's face was lined with concern as he was ushered inside and stepped into the main room. "Sir? You can't tell me what's going on?"

"No, I can't. And if Zack chooses to, consider yourself sworn to secrecy. Wait here."

"Yes, sir, thank you."

It was a long, anxious thirty seconds or so as Kunsel wondered if he would be allowed to comfort his best friend. He held his breath when the commander reemerged from the hallway, and let it out as he was gestured to follow. Hathaway stopped and turned when they reached the guest room, and softly said "Zack's in a fragile state right now, Lieutenant. Don't push him. About anything."

Kunsel nodded understanding, and Hathaway opened the door and moved aside to let him in. The eighteen-year-old put on a cheery grin as he entered, thinking with a pang in his heart that Zack was usually the one gifting everyone with smiles. Then he saw his friend, and the pang became a clench, maybe the sort of thing that inspired the word 'heartbreak'.

First to strike him was Zack's smallness. Zack wasn't tall and he was slender, an agile, lithe SOLDIER rather than a bulky one. Also, Zack was the youngest of every group he spent time in, so he was naturally of a lesser size. But now, the way he was sitting on the bed with his arms around his legs and knees pressed to his chest, Zack looked so damn young, and helpless, which Kunsel knew he wasn't. Had never been, wasn't supposed to be.

Zack looked up, and his pallor was the next surprise. He had always been quite fair-skinned, especially for a country boy who loved the outdoors, but his wet face was white now in the default sense, like a canvas from which all the color's been bleached. The red of tears and tiredness distorted the blue-crystal clarity of eyes that looked a hundred years older than the last time Kunsel had gazed into them.

"You boys want anything?" Hathaway asked, breaking the breathless silence. His tone gentled when he spoke again. "Zack?"

The younger SOLDIER shook his head, and Kunsel did the same, finding the gesture robotic. Hathaway excused himself, murmuring to Zack that he'd be nearby, and left them alone. Only when the door closed was Kunsel able to move, to shuffle awkwardly toward his comrade, who avoided his eyes but patted the mattress in invitation.

"Zack," Kunsel croaked as he sat, struck by the anguish in his face. "What's going on?"

The boy's hands, curled around his own shins, tightened and released, tightened and released, several times. His tremors as he steeled himself were subdued, but mako allowed Kunsel to feel them through the bed they were on. Zack wasn't facing his direction, but Kunsel knew he could be seen, and resolved to show only concern and not pity. Words were coming, he could sense something awful approach that would explain Zack's seclusion, the air's tension.

"Th-They think..." The voice hardly sounded familiar. Zack took a shaky sip from a bottle of vitamin water, and that helped a little. "Legal thinks...Angeal hurt me."

"Hurt? You don't mean, like - " Kunsel gaped at him, dazed by the sheer impossibility of such a thing. "What? Why?"

"Complaint. From someone. They..."

"Zack, keep talking. Don't worry about what comes out. My lips are sealed."

"They kept asking me...these awful questions. They pretended to be caring, but they w-won't let me see h-him. I told them nothing ever, ever...but they made a doctor from the med lab...examine..."

"Fuck, Zack. Are you okay?" Can I hug you, or have they ripped that part of you away too? Kunsel wanted to ask, but feared upsetting him more.

A short, bitter laugh, utterly unlike Zack. "I don't...remember 'okay', I don't think."

"Zack..."

"How can they think...I don't...I can't..."

His voice broke on that last word, and Kunsel couldn't hold back another second - only hope that Zack's affectionate self was still in there somewhere. Sliding closer was all the warning or request for permission he would give, then Kunsel began with a careful arm around his hunched back. Thank Gaia, Zack didn't recoil, only collapsed into sobs as he was wrapped in his friend's warmth and drawn into an embrace. Not the one he wanted, needed. The heat, strength and love of every other body was cold compared to what he was used to.

"Zack, it's gonna be okay." The right words but the wrong voice above and around him, and the dry heaves came harder. "Ssh, let it out if you need to but trust me, no one'll believe bullshit like that, this'll get cleared up. You'll see."

"Th-they won't let me s-see h-him, I don't know if h-he's okay - "

"Of course he is, this is Commander Hewley we're talkin' about. He's probably scaring the crap out of the dicks from Legal."

"...not even Genesis or S-Sephiroth, so I can't ask them. I can't do this, Kunsel - "

"Yes, you can, I promise. You're not alone, you'll get through this."

"I can't without A-Angeal, I need...Gaia I'm so fucking pathetic."

"Don't say that," Kunsel gently scolded, mussing the silky black spikes with his hand. This seemed to calm Zack, but only for an instant. "Of course you miss him, of course you're worried about him. You guys are tight, it's normal. But Commander Hewley wouldn't want you beating yourself up like this when you've done nothing wrong."

"He hasn't either. I swear."

"I know."

"H-He protects me! I n-never realized how m-much..."

"Yeah, we love that about you. Zack, c'mon, breathe. You gotta stay healthy, that's what the commander wants, right?"

He had begun to hyperventilate, but Zack took in a deep breath and released it slowly. He edged back and Kunsel let him go, watching anxiously as Zack held himself up with hands palm-down on the bed. The younger boy took a minute to get his breathing under control, then slumped, embarrassed and angry at himself though he knew Kunsel would tell him there was no need to be. He wanted to fight something, someone. He wanted to hurt the men from Legal who were causing all this, and the feeling of wanting to hurt (to kill) anyone was making Zack feel nauseous.

"I'm okay," he heard himself say, though he didn't believe it and doubted Kunsel did either.

"At least they didn't stick you with Commander Okuda," Kunsel said lightly, referring to a strict, humorless 1st who wasn't greatly liked by the younger SOLDIERs.

"Y-Yeah." Zack tried to laugh and couldn't.

"Zack. Talk. You know keeping stuff in makes you feel worse."

"I was just remembering..."

Zack trailed off, his chest tightening painfully to complement the sick feeling in his stomach. He couldn't get the memory of recent events out of his mind, they kept flashing like a malfunctioning holograph program. Strangers surrounding and steering him, treating him like a traumatized child and some even daring to pet his hair, which very few people were permitted to do. Lawyers accompanying him like bodyguards to the apartment where he was made to pack and leave the place where Angeal's presence was strongest. Having his every protest answered by patronizing reassurances. And the physical exam was the worst. As Angeal had suspected (and tried in vain to stop), Zack was awake the whole time, for the full humiliation of the hospital gown and padded table and stirrups and cold gloved hands, and the med lab's Dr. McCall apologizing quietly the whole time.

"On the other hand...maybe sometimes things happen that suck enough already, without being nagged to talk about them?"

Shaking off the flashback of being spread open and probed, Zack gave Kunsel a watery smile. And a light shove, which told the elder 2nd that his friend really was still in there, however damaged he was at the moment.

"Hey, you brought your GamePro."

Zack nodded. He hadn't actually wanted it, he just didn't want a memento of himself left in the living room to remind Angeal of his absence.

"Wanna play some Assassin Anteater?"

"Nah...can you tell the guys, when you see them, that I'm okay?"

Kunsel nodded. "Of course. Do you want to be alone?"

"I'm not pleasant company right now."

"You don't need to entertain me, shrimp," Kunsel laughed. "Just lemme hang a little longer. Look, I brought you the new issue of Ghost Detectives."

With a slightly stronger smile, Zack took the offered comic, and was about to say thank you when his fingers felt something stiff beneath the smooth cover. He opened the thin book to its center page, and there, tucked neatly against the binding, was a cream-colored stationery envelope. His own name was written on it, and Zack at once recognized Genesis's beautiful script. Jaw slack, he looked up at Kunsel, who was refusing to meet his eyes and staring into space with a secretive smirk.

"How..."

"He asked me to sneak it to you. Must've figured I have no respect for rules, which is fair enough, I guess."

"You could get in huge trouble."

"That's why you're supposed to tear it up and flush it." The young man laughed dryly. "Might as well read it first, huh? Go on."

Zack ran his fingertips over the surface of the expensive paper first, imagining that he caught Genesis's exotic-spice scent in the air. Tears pricked the soreness of his eyes to think that Genesis cared enough to risk Legal filing charges of investigation interference against him. Zack wanted to make this moment of anticipation last, but his eagerness foiled that plan. He carefully tore open the envelope and slid a folded, monogrammed notecard out of it.

Baby, Seph and I aren't allowed to see you yet, but we love you and we're going to do everything we can to fix this. You don't need to tell me the allegations are bullshit, I know Angeal. I'm trying to make the dickless fucks in Legal understand this.

I know that, in addition to your own agony, you're worrying for Angeal. Don't, baby, try not to. He's all right. The best thing you can do for him is take care of yourself. Don't let Legal push you around, but keep out of trouble. Be honest, and listen to your lawyer.

If the Goddess wants my continuing devotion, She won't let this farce go on much longer. Hang in there, Puppy. Don't forget for a second that the three of us are always watching over you and that you are divinely protected by our love. For our sakes, for Angeal's, be and remain well. Genesis.

With trembling hands, Zack closed the notecard to keep it from being further spotted by his tears. He pressed the letter to his heart like a poultice against a wound, knowing he had to dispose of it but wanting to cling to its warmth a little longer. He swayed a little where he sat, from exhaustion or emotion or both, and Kunsel laid a hand on his shoulder to steady him. But Zack knew it was love, more than anything, that was anchoring him amidst this pain.

azazaza

The bottle of expensive Mideelian rum sat untouched on the coffee table, as Genesis had known it would. True, when he had entered Angeal's too-damn-quiet apartment with the liquor in hand, he held a faint hope that his friend would agree to get completely wasted and have a brief reprieve from the circumstances weighing upon him. But that wasn't Angeal. It wasn't any of the three. Seph killed things, Genesis vented, Angeal sat still and hurt. It was agony to watch for someone who loved him so much.

"You want to watch the Gardening Channel and binge till we're fat and useless, 'Geal?"

"No."

"You want to lecture me about pride and responsibility and I'll listen as long as you want?"

"No. Thank you."

Genesis was draped across the couch like a stretching cat, heading resting against Angeal's chest and a broad arm slung comfortably around him. Their left hands were resting on Angeal's knee, fingers entwined, and the silence that filled the air was that of two best friends who needed no words to communicate the most important things.

Genesis was tired. Being upset drained him much faster than any physical exertion. (Angeal liked to say that if Genesis's emotions could be made into weapons, ShinRa would have no need for SOLDIERs or any other kind of fighter.) And Angeal's familiar, close presence relaxed most of the tension out of the elder's body, as though they were children in Banora again, and Genesis was huddling near to his protector to let comfort pass between them. Back then, he would lay problems at Angeal's side that ran the gamut from a hatred of insects to the coldness of his parents, never anything like this, and Angeal...the only sign he gave of needing reassurance was this rare tolerance for cuddling.

Genesis groped for Angeal's free hand, accidentally brushing his crotch (not accidentally-on-purpose like usual). He found the ungloved hand, brought it to his own mouth and pressed his lips to the sun-bronzed, life-scented skin. Angeal allowed this briefly, then tugged free and ran his fingers along Genesis's cheek and down the fine-boned face that was not Zack, though similar to him. Angeal's heart glowed with affection for Genesis, with gratitude for his friendship and stubbornness and entire existence. But the fire Zack evoked in his chest...it was wrong. And if not put out, it could burn them all.

"I'll fix this, 'Geal, I'll find a way..." He sounded sleepy.

"It's okay, Gen. I'll get him back." If I have to steal him, if I have to reduce every building to rubble...

"Mmm, why do they have to pick on you? Why you?" Genesis's drifting voice crackled with an electric, empathetic agony. Angeal instinctively stroked the auburn hair that caught the dim light beneath his hand. "You were always the best of us..."

The spoiled child in Genesis could be eased with this kind of touch, Angeal knew, and continued it until his friend's breathing was slow and painless. Left alone with his thoughts, the commander looked at the shelf below the vid-disc player where Zack's GamePro was supposed to be. The living room had been cleared of Zack's things (probably the boy's doing, trying to be helpful), and Angeal didn't trust himself to go into his student's room and not cry or bury his face in the pillows to seek Zack's clean-youth, wind-and-water scent.

This is wrong...if this is how I think of him, I don't deserve to get Zack back. But if I gave him to another teacher, it would break his heart. Though Angeal seemed to most people to be only slightly less emotionally-challenged than Sephiroth, his only problem was in truth a reticence to express his feelings. Everyone who knew Angeal at all knew of his fierce, protective love for his best friends and student. Angeal, in turn, realized that his Puppy loved him back (though not how much) and that Zack looked up to him, admired him, wanted to be like him. And trusted him completely.

He doesn't know I've begun to betray that trust. So what do I do? I can't give him up. Even if I could explain this to Zack without traumatizing him and destroying our friendship, how could I hand him off to another 1st? He'd be so hurt, and I...I don't know how I could possibly go back to life without him.

Of course, before Zack had come along, Angeal had been pretty content with his work and friends and the occasional fling with a colleague or casual acquaintance. He had been valued by ShinRa for his talents both on and off the battlefield, and was greatly respected (though considered stern and intimidating) by everyone he worked with. Life had plenty of excitement, satisfaction in work, the comfort of his dearest friends, the pride he took in the men under his command as they became more skilled. Angeal had not been actively seeking anything, but then Zack entered his life, and a veil seemed to lift, and the planet was more beautiful than ever before.

I never knew how empty my spirit was, until he filled it.

As though he didn't have enough to be stressed about, Angeal grumbled quietly at himself for having such a cheesy thought. He cleared it away and groped for logic, for an answer. Down near his waist-level, Genesis was apparently having a pleasant dream, because he was smiling and shifting with contented noises. Angeal smiled. The two of them were like night and day, Genesis incapable of concealing his his emotions, Angeal doing so instinctively.

If I could just hide my feelings from Zack..never let him know. The musing was a sad one, but nothing compared to the possibility of not getting to try this idea. Before life could go on in any meaningful way, Angeal had to get his student back.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 17 - In The Coil Of Things

 

"I don't think I have anything to say that will be of help to you," the brown-haired 1st Class said stiffly and coldly.

Kaplan was annoyed, but not surprised. Every high-ranking SOLDIER he had brought in to question had said nearly the same thing, as though they were all reading from a shared script. So Kaplan knew, with bored resignation, what to expect from Lieutenant Roger Carson. Defiance, outrage, denial that the great Commander Hewley could do any wrong, concern for their poor little pet Zack Fair. There had been no violence yet, but Turks were standing by with trank darts, just in case.

"As I explained, Lieutenant, all I need you to do is answer my questions honestly. You've known and served under Angeal Hewley for...five years now?" Kaplan asked, glancing at the open file on his laptop.

"Yes."

"And how long have you been acquainted with Zack Fair?"

A muted glare came before the spoken answer. "About two years. I was introduced to Zack when he was assigned to be Angeal's apprentice."

"And since that time, you've often seen them interact? On missions, in training, off-duty?"

"Yes."

"Have you witnessed any unnecessary touching between them?"

"Define 'unnecessary'," Carson shot back. "Hand-to-hand combat training is very similar to wrestling. Should I have made a report every time the kid got pinned?"

"Did that happen suspiciously often?"

Mako green swirled in the brown of the lieutenant's eyes. "No. Angeal would rather die than harm Zack. If you knew him at all - "

"Have you ever thought that Hewley is unusually close to his student? Unusually protective?"

Truthfully, Carson had wondered. "Zack is exceptionally talented, but unfocused. He requires close supervision. And Angeal cares for the boy like his own son. There are no rules against that."

With no change in expression, Kaplan slightly shifted tactics. "Is Hewley a secretive man?"

"He's private."

"And chaste? I'm told he's sometimes called 'the SOLDIER monk'."

"Angeal is dedicated to his work."

"Or he has no need of age-appropriate partners because he gets all he wants at home." The lawyer continued before the inevitable objection could be voiced. "The Turks tell me the boy has had no romantic or sexual relationships."

"Oh no, a late bloomer. Why didn't I call you in sooner?"

"Have you noticed any odd behaviors in Zack? Extreme mood swings, daytime drowsiness, aversion to touch, loss of concentration, deliberate acts of insubordination?"

"He's a teenager."

"So that's a yes?"

"No! What I'm saying is that all that could describe any sixteen-year-old. Others much more so than Zack, in fact."

"Are you aware what those behaviors are all symptoms of? Besides adolescence?"

"Sexual abuse," Carson said through gritted teeth. "Look, you're wrong. We're all fond of Zack. If any of us ever suspected he was being hurt, we would have - "

"Stopped it? Spoken out against the revered commander? Perhaps. Shall we continue?"

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Carson asked with quiet amazement. "You're actually having fun turning people's lives upside down. You get some twisted pleasure out of believing Angeal hurt Zack?"

Kaplan showed no anger, only an enigmatic, indecipherable smile. "I like my job, yes. I like putting away criminals who take advantage of the innocent. In my work with this company, I rarely get a chance to do this. Shall we continue?"

In an adjacent room, watching this through a one-way mirror, Tseng of the Turks kept a silent vigil. From long motionlessness he stirred, to raise a fist up to the glass. His fingernails bit into the flesh of his palm, and tiny rivulets of blood wound like vines around his fingers.

azazaza

"How are you holding up?" Merritt Crane softly asked his client, leaning across the small space between their chairs.

"Fine," Angeal answered, though he plainly wasn't. Frustration and guilt and worry for Zack had kept him up most of the previous night - even with the warmth of Genesis there to soothe him. "How much longer will this go on?"

"In the absence of any real evidence, and with only one, anonymous complainant? Not long."

"I wouldn't be so hasty, Merritt, were I in your shoes." Jerome Kaplan was across the small interogation room, facing the wide window with hands folded neatly behind him. A hurried observer would likely assume the man was looking out at beautiful scenery and not an identical - though uninhabited - room. "Perhaps my recent questioning of the 1st Classes yielded something."

"I doubt that," the elder lawyer scoffed.

"I believe that, before I began, you issued a written order to your subordinates, Commander Hewley. Remind us of what it was?"

"I ordered them to cooperate fully, be completely truthful, and I gave them my word that there would be no blame, reprisals or consequences at all, no matter what they say."

"That's quite noble of you, Commander."

"I've done nothing wrong. I have nothing to hide, nor do they."

"I see." Kaplan came to the table and sat down opposite them, feigning a pleasant curiosity. "Would you like to know what they told me, Commander? Your comrades and subordinates?"

Angeal made a casual, go-ahead gesture. He had a pretty good idea about what the other 1sts would have said, and how unharmful it must be. He didn't encourage the awe they felt for him or the pet-like way they viewed Zack, but at least all that loyalty and care would aid the commander now, or if nothing else, not harm his case.

"Your men are extremely devoted. That must be gratifying." Kaplan folded his hands on top of the table. "You must have no trouble at all getting them to obey."

Angeal, who vaguely sensed some sort of trap, said nothing.

"I'm thinking of one in particular...that was a difficult interview. Like the others, he expressed outrage when I told him what we're investigating you for. But it seems your order to be completely honest put your Lieutenant Kleiss into a bit of a crisis of conscience."

"John?" Angeal asked, more of himself than the lawyer.

"Yes, he was quite anguished. Finally, I convinced him to unburden himself and confess what was paining him." Here Kaplan left a short, thoughtful pause, and Angeal found himself wondering (not for the first time) if the man thought him guilty or if he just enjoyed his position of power. "I understand you and your student were sent, along with Lt. Kleiss, on a mission to the village of Calora a few weeks ago. That night, the three of you made camp on the outskirts of town. You and Fair took the first watch. Kleiss relieved you around oh-one-hundred, and you and Fair retired to your shared tent."

Oh Gaia. How much had Kleiss seen? What kind of assumptions had he made and been forced to carry since then? Angeal sat still, letting none of his rising panic show.

"Apparently, shortly after beginning his shift on watch, Lt. Kleiss became alarmed by the sounds he heard from your tent. Crying, he said. Moans, heavy breathing. The noise of a struggle. Understandably concerned, he entered the tent and found you and Fair sitting very close to one another. Kleiss said the boy was flushed, breathing heavily, distraught, hiding his body with a blanket."

"Zack was having a nightmare. I woke him, but it was several minutes before he calmed." Speaking of calm, Angeal's voice remained so but was straining, privately and quietly. "I hugged him while he did so. Kleiss did nothing wrong, but his abrupt intrusion was startling. And Zack was already upset."

"What did he dream about?"

"I don't know, he didn't remember anything." As though I would tell you if he had.

"Why did Fair hastily pull the blanket over himself when Kleiss entered?"

"I don't know. Zack was fully clothed, if that's what you're asking," Angeal said icily.

"Of course. And if we ask Zack about that night, will he also say he had a nightmare?"

'Yes."

"Because he's embarrassed or because he wants to protect his teacher?"

"Because it's the truth," Angeal said angrily.

"Perhaps. But you understand my doubt, surely. Lt. Kleiss's testimony would be quite convincing if placed beside the original complaint."

"I demand to know exactly what this complainant said," Angeal insisted. "How can I properly defend myself if I don't know what I'm accused of?"

"He's right," Crane spoke up after a long silence. "Enough posturing, Jerome. Produce the official complaint or I'm making a request for dismissal."

As though he'd fully expected this, Kaplan removed a sheet of paper from a folder in front of him and handed it over. Crane accepted it and held the copied document so both he and his client could read it over. It was much shorter than either of them had anticipated.

"This is an awfully vague accusation," Crane commented, shaking his head. "You must be desperate to kick up some trouble, if you actually took this seriously."

"The complainant has nothing to gain and everything to lose, were he to falsely allege criminal behavior on the part of a 1st Class. Furthermore, he was very sincere, explaining that he was afraid of reprisal but could no longer stand by and allow a classmate to be - "

"So it's a 2nd or 3rd Class?" Angeal asked, and the way Kaplan's mouth tightened was all the confirmation he needed.

Merritt Crane continued to skim through the report with a dry, scoffing smile. "Supposedly, this anonymous young man witnessed something first-hand one night while passing by the 1st Class gym. Hmm. This has got to be the first time I've ever read a description of dry-humping in a legal document."

Angeal's face felt hot. Partly from arousal/shame at the thought of doing that with Zack, but mostly from anger that anyone (much less a lower-ranked SOLDIER) would dare to make up such an outrageous lie.

"Commander Hewley, I believe you and your student have, in the past, used the gym after-hours, for private training."

"Yes, we have. For training. I have not molested my student, there or anywhere else! This...person...is lying!"

"Why would he?"

"That is what you should be investigating. Either the young man is severely troubled, or intentionally fabricated the lie out of jealousy or cruelty or a desire for attention."

"I'm sure the complainant's background and possible motives are being investigated as well. Right?" Crane fixed the younger attorney with a challenging glare.

A steely brown stare looked back at him. "We work for the same department, you should know that we pride ourselves on being thorough."

"Oh, yes. But I also know you and your tendency to make a crusade out of any high-profile case that comes your way. Who do you have checking out the complainant?"

"Callahan," Kaplan shot back.

Crane merely nodded reassurance to his client, though he was secretly relieved. Callahan was a young associate, not long out of university and inexperienced; no doubt that was why he'd been chosen. But he was also refreshingly unjaded, still full of ideals and dreams of justice, and he would do his job thoroughly and without bias. Let's hope he finds something...

"A few more questions, Commander - "

"No," Angeal said in a deadly voice, green burning behind his brown eyes in a controlled fire. "Obviously you do not want truth, you merely want to enact this judicial farce your sick mind has cooked up. I will not answer any more questions."

Kaplan stared at him a few moments, then shrugged, got up and left the room. The remaining lawyer immediately looked suspicious.

"That was much too easy. He's up to something."

A sudden light startled them both, and they turned to the wall that was half a thick window covered by blinds. Angeal raised them and found himself looking into the interrogation room next door. What - was as far as his thought went before screeching to a halt. The door beyond was opening, Kaplan was ushering Commander Hathaway inside...and behind him, Zack.

Without thinking, Angeal pressed his hands to the glass, leaning almost close enough to squash his face against it. "Puppy," he said, softly as though he feared the boy would hear him. Zack looked unlike himself, unchanged physically but tired, moving wearily, shuffling instead of bouncing. Zack was such a bright, trusting spirit...how horribly and heavily this ordeal must be weighing on him.

The windows between interrogation rooms could be adjusted, and obviously this one was set so it could be seen through by Angeal but appeared as a mirror on the other side. Sound, too, could be controlled, and Angeal couldn't hear anything that was being said, only watch his student's face for signs of trauma. At least, he was grateful to see, Hathaway was beside Zack, hovering protectively and keeping Kaplan at a distance.

Zack was shaking his head vehemently. Hathaway squeezed his shoulder, and it looked like he was telling the boy to be calm. Now Zack was saying something. Demanding, actually, from the way his lips (which for once Angeal had an excuse to stare at) moved over the same syllables over and over. The commander's best guess was that he was saying "Who is it? Who is it?!" So Zack didn't know who'd made the accusation either. Now Kaplan was speaking, no doubt using that damned superior tone of his, and Zack was looking at his lap and visibly shaking. Despite the barriers of glass and space, Angeal could feel his Puppy's humiliation and fury as palpably as his own.

Hathaway broke in, objecting, it seemed, but Kaplan fired a quick comment at him and the 1st went quiet. A threat to send him out of the room, probably. Bastard. Hathaway seethed in silence, gripping the back of Zack's chair as though he wanted to touch his temporary charge but couldn't. Or Kaplan asked if I've brought him and others in for a gangbang, Angeal thought, holding back vomit at the mere idea.

Damn it, Gaia damn it, Zack was pretending to brush hair out of his eyes to hide the motion of wiping tears, Angeal had seen it before. Purely on instinct, he turned toward the door, and Crane leaped up, waving his hands in alarm.

"Commander, I know, but think about what Kaplan's doing. He's baiting you on purpose! I know you want to rush in there to protect your student, but if you try, Kaplan will spin it as you trying to silence your victim or you being possessive of him. This is a trap, that's why he left the door ajar and let you see the next room. Don't give him what he wants."

Crane's plea made too much sense to dismiss, no matter how irked Angeal was by its logic. "What's wrong with this man?" he whispered, turning his attention back to his weeping Zack and the adult grilling him.

"In most men stubbornness is either a strength or a weakness. For Kaplan, it is his whole character. He's not really a cruel man. Just ruthless and unthinking, and too smart to excuse any of that."

Zack had left his seat at the table and was leaning against the wall behind Commander Hathaway. He faced away from the window, curled against the plain white wallpaper as if he wanted to disappear into it.

"Puppy," Angeal murmured, fogging the glass with warm breath. "It's okay. Even if you can't see me, I'm watching over you. I'm here."

Zack started, looked up and slowly turned around. He looked at Hathaway and Kaplan, but they were both occupied in arguing with each other. Though he was doubtless the subject of the conversation, for the moment, the boy was forgotten. He edged unobserved to the mirror, drawn to it like a magnet, and hesitantly pressed a few fingertips to its cool surface.

Angeal immediately put his own fingers against the window, the closest he could get to holding Zack's hand. He looked tenderly and sadly at the face he'd grown so fond of, and slowly it tilted upward, until...Angeal could swear Zack's pale eyes were seeing through the mirror-illusion, were seeing him, were gazing straight into his tainted, unworthy soul. Before Angeal could cringe back, Zack was turning and gone, dashing with SOLDIER speed past both Kaplan and Hathaway to the exit.

"Shit," Merritt Crane cursed, standing up again, but Angeal barely heard him. He was busy watching the ajar door in anticipation, knowing in his mind that this was not a good situation, but after all, Zack was only doing what he himself would...if only he were as brave and foolhardy as that reckless, precious boy. The commander's heart lodged in his throat when Zack appeared, throwing the door open with a mess of motion and noise behind him, but for once the stoic 1st's heart told his brain to fuck off, and he opened his arms.

"Angeal!"

In less than a heartbeat (a racing heartbeat, no less), Zack was against his chest, fitting perfectly, holding on for dear life and crying with too many emotions to count. Angeal knew the right thing to do was to hold the 2nd back, talk him down and hand him back to Hathaway before their side of this case was further weakened. Instead he wrapped his broad arms around Zack and let the kid burrow into his hold, trying to speak and only able to get out "Ssh, ssh."

"Commander, no!" Crane exclaimed, but was quickly drowned out by Kaplan's imperious voice demanding that Commander Hewley remove his hands from the minor.

Hathaway joined in, angrily stating that this should be proof enough and that if anyone was hurting Zack, it was Kaplan himself. All the yelling only made Zack cry harder and cling more tightly, so Angeal again let his heart veto logic and spun around to put Zack nearer the wall and his own back to face the noise.

"Better take note of this, Merritt. I plan to introduce this little incident as evidence of the powerful hold an abuser can have over his victim."

"Bring in all the psych experts you want, Jerome. I'd like to know just how many victims run from their so-called protectors back into the arms of a pedophile."

Technically, I would be an ephebophile. Zack's an adolescent, not a child. Angeal rested his chin on Zack's head and smoothed his silky black hair. This felt too good. Perhaps he was - in his heart - the monster Kaplan thought, but then why was the glow of happiness in his chest stronger than the gnawing of his conscience? Could monsters rationalize? Maybe just the calculating human kind?

"Angeal." Hathaway, his cool, commanding voice reaching over the bickering of the lawyers. "I'm sorry. I know you're innocent, but I can't let you hand your enemies more ammo."

"I know..." He did, but didn't loosen his hold on Zack.

Smartly, Hathaway spoke to the boy rather than simply grabbing him away. "Zack, I know you're upset and angry as hell, so am I, but if you want to be returned to Angeal for good, you need to move away from him and come with me. Please."

Very slowly, reluctantly, Angeal turned them around until he was facing the room and Zack was visible to the others again. The boy cringed from their eyes, kept his own shut as tears began to dry on his pale cheeks.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "Angeal I'm sorry - "

"You haven't done anything." The commander edged Zack away from him, just a little, and clasped his hands on the 2nd's shoulders. "None of this is your fault."

"Commander, I demand that you - "

Hathaway fixed Kaplan with such a fiery green glare that he immediately quieted and staggered back. "He'll comply, now shut the fuck up and give them a minute."

"Zack, don't worry about them, okay?" Angeal spoke calmly and clearly, forcing a smile. "We don't have long, so listen. I want you to listen to Commander Hathaway, and take care of yourself, and tell the truth when they ask you questions. Understood?"

"Y-Yes, sir."

"It's going to be okay. I promise. I'll straighten all of this out."

Angeal couldn't stand another moment of this. He nodded to Hathaway, who gently took Zack's arm and, with a few soft words, led him toward the door. Angeal watched them go, trying hard not to show on his face the pain in his chest, until they were out of sight. Then he glared defiantly at Kaplan, who stared back with more fury than usual. He would be back to smugness soon, but hadn't yet recovered from the embarrassing fear he'd shown of Hathaway.

"Clever performance, Commander Hewley. If only you were a bit smarter, you'd have remembered Clause A of SOLDIER Rule of Conduct number eight." Flushed and twitching, Kaplan practically stomped out of the room.

"Clause A...?"

"ShinRa's policy that an employee's age of consent is determined by the custom of their hometown, not Midgar," Angeal wearily explained, leaning against the wall. "Zack is from Gongaga, where it's seventeen."

"Ah, yes. I see." Crane fumbled with his briefcase a moment before sighing and addressing his client with a sad tone. "As a member of the legal department, I apologize for Kaplan's behavior. I've never seen him this bad. Were he not being such an asshole I'd be genuinely worried."

Kind-hearted though he was, Angeal was in no mood to take pity on his new enemy. "So what now?"

"We may as well get the polygraph out of the way. They don't mean much, as it's an imperfect science, but a good result will still help you out. Also, just agreeing to take the test is a sign of compliance, and therefore innocence."

"Fine."

"Commander - "

"Please use my name."

"Angeal, then. I hope you feel you can be totally honest with me."

"We have confidentiality, I understand."

"Then what really happened the night of your mission to Calora?" Cran shook his head ruefully at the other man's silence. "You don't practice law for thirty years without learning to tell when someone's holding back something important."

"It's not pertinent to my legal situation, I assure you."

"Does it have to do with the frequent medical appointments your student has had these past couple weeks?" No answer. "Did Zack really have a nightmare the night of the mission?" Silence. "Angeal, Kaplan will ask these questions too, and not in private, if possible. If you need to lie, we need to prepare a good one."

"It's none of Kaplan's damn business."

"You think that'll stop him?"

Angeal rubbed his sore eyes and said nothing.

azazaza

"Zack, are you sure?" An immediate nod. "No, look, think about this. I know Angeal told you to be honest, but I'm sure he didn't mean you should offer information you're not comfortable revealing."

"I'm fine."

"I wouldn't be," Hathaway said bluntly. "Whatever's going on with you, whatever the cause of these episodes of yours, this is a private thing."

"Mr. Kaplan has already asked me why I've been seeing Hollander lately, and why I've been out of classes. And about my supposed nightmare after the Calora mission." Zack swiped at his eyes - out of habit, maybe, because he had stopped crying. "If I don't tell the truth, he'll assume Angeal and I are hiding something worse. I know he'll ask again, so I might as well - "

"Angeal wouldn't like this. He would say it's not your place to protect him."

"Then he's an idiot."

Commander Hathaway chuckled at that and ruffled the teenager's hair, despite the grumpy expression aimed at him. Zack's lawyer had gotten them both out of Kaplan's clutches for the rest of the day, but who knew what tomorrow might bring...

"Zack, don't take this the wrong way, but even if you tell Kaplan what's really been disrupting your sleep, he might not believe you. If I didn't know and trust you, I might think you're making it up to exonerate Angeal."

"Hollander knows. He can confirm it. And I told Kaplan I'd do the lie detector test, that'll show him I'm being honest. Besides," Zack said softly, hair hiding his eyes, "who would make up something so humiliating?"

"Don't be embarrassed, kid. Weirder things have happened, I'm sure." Hathaway's eyes were more gentle than most people got to see them. "We should work on putting a stop to these attacks. You said Hollander wanted to observe you in the sleep lab?"

Embarrassed enough, Zack wasn't about to admit that he felt odd about someone calling his nighttime episodes 'attacks'. "Yeah, but I'd rather wait. I can't worry about solving that until..."

"Again, Angeal wouldn't approve. Have these attacks been happening since you've been here?"

Another wave of faint annoyance at that word. After having forced himself to tell Hathaway his humiliating secret, no matter the agony, giving this answer shouldn't have been that big a deal. But Zack's face immediately felt warm - all his recent embarrassment was like a long and intermittent fever - and his boots made a shuffling noise on the carpet beneath the couch.

"Yeah, but it's really not that big a deal. I can handle it."

"At the very least, let me wake you up when it starts."

"You can't."

"What?"

"It seems like...I can't just be woken up. Not until it's over. Angeal's tried, and...it has to be over."

"Shit," the commander said softly. "Kid, I'm really not comfortable back-burnering this. You're dealing with enough as it is."

"It really is okay," Zack tried to assure him, wondering if he would be able to explain the odd combination of need and disturbance he felt and didn't understand himself. "It's not like I'm - "

"Being raped?" Hathaway knew his bluntness risked upsetting his charge, but it was the best way he knew to get to the truth. "It seems like it to me."

Zack's eyes flickered away, but he refused to be cowed. "I was gonna say, it's not like I'm awake for them. It's like a really vivid dream that fades away afterward."

"You're sure it isn't a dream?"

"It doesn't feel like just a dream...and apparently I don't look like I'm dreaming. But it feels real...feels like I suppose...that stuff would." The boy's voice had become a soft mumble, signaling uncomfortable territory. "And Angeal and Genesis say it looks...y'know. Real."

"Zack..." Hathaway had never had this kind of problem with any of his men before. In fact, he'd never had a subordinate he was so fond of as Zack Fair. Hathaway thought he understood why solitary Angeal had completely lost himself to this kid; Zack was just something special.

Hathaway picked one of the soft, fair hands off the teenager's lap and held it, hating this powerlessness and missing the bouncy little cadet who answered every positive review with an impulsive hug. Eventually the kid had stopped aplogizing for these, and Hathaway found himself unable to disapprove. Zack had that brightening effect on everyone, he'd give anyone he knew a squeeze or sweet smile when they needed it. Considering recent events (and the fact that Zack reserved the bulk of his affection for his revered teacher), Hathaway wasn't sure if touching Zack was all right, but the loneliness radiating off him like an aura cried out for comfort. For someone.

For Angeal, not for me. Well, I can try.

Zack must have understood and appreciated the effort, or maybe he was doing a favor by accepting what his former C.O. was kindly trying to give. He had leaned tiredly back on the couch, tilting his head back to rest it on the soft cushions, and looked into space with a pensive and waiting frown. Hathaway hesitantly put his fingers, then hand, into Zack's attractively tousled hair and began to comb through it, tracing soothing lines on the scalp.

Zack closed his eyes and allowed this, breathing out slowly - that was a good sign, surely. A touch that wasn't Angeal's was a terrible reminder of what he was missing, but he did appreciate Hathaway's care, and trusted him. There wasn't the strong connection and closeness in the skin grazing Zack's that he was used to, but it was gratitude as much as longing that filled the boy's rain-colored eyes and spilled a few drops that coursed down his face.

Hathaway patted his cheek briefly and swiped the tears away, just as Angeal would have done. A big part of Zack wanted to curl up and sob, but instead he opened his eyes, offered a weak smile, and sat up with more difficulty than he'd expected.

"I'll order us up dinner...something unhealthy that Angeal would have my head for. Don't say you're not hungry."

"I'm tired," Zack murmured, and his eyes shut again. He and Hathaway were both trying to believe that it was just stress, and not that - on top of everything else - his recently-cured exhaustion was returning to further complicate matters.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 18 - The Bitter Root

 

"So what were the results?"

Sanders, already uneasy being alone with a Turk in this small observation room, looked uncertainly at Tseng, then through the large window. In the chamber beyond, his associate Kaplan was examining documents and now and then speaking sharply to the expert who had just administered Commander Hewley's polygraph test. Perhaps the hot-headed lawyer was hoping to find evidence of guilt previously missed...or maybe he was too disappointed to face anyone yet.

"I'm authorized to know," Tseng pointed out. "I have to be able to update the president."

Sanders glanced again at Kaplan, thinking of getting permission first, but ultimately the solemn-faced Turk intimidated him more. "All right. We have to conclude that Commander Hewley passed. His responses were clear and predictable, and according to the polygraph tech, Hewley at least believes he is innocent of any wrong-doing that concerns his student."

"I don't suppose that clears everything up."

"No," Sanders agreed, and he seemed genuinely sorry. "Polygraphs can be tricked. Also, there was something of an anomaly in the results."

"Anomaly?"

"It was the...seventh question, I believe, after the initial baseline queries. Kaplan asked if Hewley was concealing something about his student's recent medical appointments."

"He lied?" Tseng asked, quirking an eyebrow.

"He refused to answer. Hewley must have known that if he denied hiding something, the machine would most likely reveal his lie."

Tseng was quiet for a few moments, his serious face showing nothing but a faint displeasure. "Must you put Fair through this same test?"

"If the boy isn't hiding anything, he has nothing to worry about."

"You and I both know there is something going on that Angeal and Zack are determined to keep secret," the head Turk said softly. "But I would wager anything that it is not the crime Kaplan is so determined to find." An uneasy silence, mercifully brief. "Can you not persuade him to end this madness?"

"He's...he's not really as bad as he seems. I know Kaplan's been difficult lately, but if you knew why, maybe..."

"Tell me."

Tseng spoke the two words in his best head-Turk voice, coaxing but firm, conveying a sympathy that - whether it was real or feigned - always lowered the guard of its target. Tseng often used this tone on his subordinates, to whom he was a figure of respect and paternal authority. (He was too even-tempered to yell, though Reno could occasionally provoke him into doing so, a fact the young Turk took great pride in.)

Sanders seemed to take the bait, leaning down to rest his elbows on the wide windowsill and beginning his hesitant explanation. "Many of us in the legal department don't work exclusively here. We who have only light ShinRa duties also have private practices, that sort of thing. Until last year, Kaplan worked part-time as a city prosecutor for Midgar's justice department. It suited him well," Sanders said with a soft smile. "Jerome's always had a zeal for punishing evil-doers, as long as I've known him. Even though he's helped ShinRa too."

As a Turk, Tseng was supposed to report such treasonous statements, but he merely nodded. "What happened?"

"His brother Myron...he and Jerome were always close. And Myron's kids were like his own to Jerome, he adored them. You'd think he was their dad instead of uncle. Twins, a boy and a girl. A little over a year ago, Jerome confided in me that he was worried about his niece, Meia."

"How so?"

"Such a beautiful girl, and so big-hearted. She loved too easily, Jerome said, trusted too easily. Meia had just begun dating an older man, a supposedly rehabilitated gang member. She was only fifteen, and he twenty, and Jerome tried to put a stop to it. He told Meia it was dangerous, she was being naive, but she insisted she loved the guy, that she could bring out all the best parts of him."

Tseng had heard and seen hundreds of stories of heartbreak and hurt in his unique life, and was each time grateful for the wall he had learned to make around his heart. "What happened?"

"The bastard hadn't reformed at all. He tricked Meia into going off with him. He returned to his gang and...sold her for drugs to their leader, a man over forty. We'll never know how many times she was raped before he strangled her."

Trained to be an expert in human behavior, Tseng correctly assessed that there were no right words for this. He touched Sanders' shoulder, and the gesture gave the lawyer the strength to go on.

"Jerome already hated child-abusers fiercely...you can probably imagine what Meia's death did to him. Against department advice, he prosecuted the case himself. The gang leader will die behind bars, but we couldn't get the boyfriend who delivered Meia to that awful fate."

"I see. So that is why Kaplan wants so desperately to believe in Angeal's guilt." Tseng looked at him through the window. A man haunted by regret and pain, scanning the same documents furiously like a being possessed. "On some level, he's reliving the past. Equating Zack with Meia."

"Not just Meia," Sanders said heavily. "Her twin brother. Just when Jerome had begun to recover and return to himself...Gaia. How much tragedy can befall one family?"

"Brother?"

"The recent sexual serial killings in Midgar, the bastard that Fair caught. Alec was one of his victims."

"Alec?" Something clicked in Tseng's mind, and he remembered one of the photos in the case file, and the name beneath the image of a pretty blond boy. "Alec Kaplan. I didn't make the connection."

"Few did, and I think Jerome prefers it that way." Sanders looked at the other man earnestly, obviously weighted by his friend's heartache. "I know this doesn't excuse Jerome's obsessive zeal for this case. He's been unnecessarily taunting to Commander Hewley, and much harsher than he realizes with the boy. I just...someone should know why. Even if it doesn't fix anything."

"Insight never made a problem any worse. Thank you, Mr. Sanders."

The lawyer nodded, and gestured to the exit as he stepped toward it. "Of course. If you'll excuse me, I should help him. Try to, at least."

Only after the door clicked shut and he was alone did Tseng allow lines of thought and frustration to crease his mask-like face. Turks fed on and survived by the information they could accumulate and put to use. But, as Sanders had intimated, there seemed to be nothing they could do with this knowledge that explained Kaplan's character so well. People see only what they want to see, are prepared to see. If the imposed guises of lecherous criminal and naive child were to be ripped from Angeal's and Zack's faces, it would need to be done soon. And not by Tseng.

It takes two to make a mask work, the Turk thought pensively. One willing to wear it, one agreeing to see only the pretense of truth it offers. And when the mask comes off, this too is a partnership, a subtle dance of two souls. It is not enough to show one's true face. One has, somehow, to make it be seen.

azazaza

"Is your name Zack Fair?"

"Yes."

"Are you from Mideel?"

"No."

"Are you from Gongaga?"

"Yes."

"Are you nervous, Zack?"

"Yes."

"Have you ever told a lie?"

"Yes."

"Have you ever, during your time with ShinRa, broken a rule?"

Zack hesitated only an instant. "Yes."

"Have you ever stolen?"

"No."

Crenshaw, the polygraph technician from ShinRa's mechanical department, made a note that the subject's baseline had been determined. The real questioning could start now, and he indicated this by nodding to Kaplan. The lawyer cleared his throat, reminded himself to be calm, and began.

"Zack, do you intend to be honest during this test?"

"Yes."

"Do you dislike me?"

"Yes."

Kaplan smiled ruefully at the truthful answer, spoken so inoffensively. The pretty teenaged boy sitting opposite him across the small table was remaining still, in a relaxed, almost meditative posture. I might get more out of him if I provoke him to anger...but the kid's been through enough. If he's determined to show me strength, I'll have to look for an opening some other way.

"Zack, I'm sorry if my conduct thus far has been upsetting," Kaplan said, with an unconsciously patronizing tone that earned twin frowns from the 2nd and his lawyer. "You may not believe this, but I am just doing my job, which is to make sure you're not being harmed."

"Angeal doesn't hurt me," Zack said clearly. "I don't know where you've gotten your information, but Angeal would never hurt me."

Analyzing the polygraph machine's screen, Crenshaw signaled truth with a thumbs-up.

"Let's be more specific, Zack. Has Commander Hewley ever made you do something you didn't want to?"

"That's not specific enough," the boy retorted. "SOLDIER training is tough, you know. Angeal made me do a lot of focusing exercises in the beginning, and a lot of repetitive stuff. I needed to do all that to become a SOLDIER, and I did, but I didn't always want to."

"Fair enough." Clever child. "So Commander Hewley's feelings toward you are not sexual in nature?"

Zack's lawyer, Jason Hahn, intercepted that one, a handsome blondish man in his early thirties who - like most people - had taken an instant liking to his young client. "You know he can't possibly answer that with certainty. Whatever result you get from it will be useless."

"I'll answer anyway," Zack insisted. "No, Angeal does not think of me sexually. He treats me like a kid half the time, ask anyone."

As expected, Crenshaw waved his hand palm-down, indicating an inconclusive answer. Kaplan continued anyway.

"But he cares very much for you."

"Y-Yes," Zack said, looking afraid for the first time since this interview began.

"Would you say he loves you?"

For a moment the boy looked like he was going to break into sobs or a fit of rage, as he had done previously, but then Zack's youthful pout relaxed into an adult frown, and he tilted his head up defiantly. "So what? I love him too."

"How do you love him?"

"I don't know, okay?" Zack said heatedly. "But nothing inappropriate has ever happened between us!"

"Are you certain you'd recognize an inappropriate behavior?" Kaplan sedately replied. "You have a reputation for being charmingly naive."

"I'm not an idiot." I wish Angeal was here. He'd mess up my hair and tease me for sulking, and I can't help but feel better when he's with me. Close to me...

"In June of last year, you and your teacher stayed overnight at an inn called Johanne's, in the Icicle area."

Zack went very still; even his breathing seemed to cease for a moment. The way his cerulean eyes opened wider and glimmered wetly was noticed by the other three inhabitants of the interrogation room. Hahn tensed and leaned forward, anticipating that he might need to intervene.

"So?" Zack whispered.

"Do you know what this is?" From a plain folder, Kaplan produced a copy of...what? "It's a letter ShinRa received from the inn's proprietor, dated the day following your stay there. Would you like to read it?"

Zack shrank back, slowly but recognizably. He didn't answer, but it was obvious he didn't want to touch the paper. Hahn looked at it and then his client, curious and concerned.

"That's all right." Kaplan seemed to truly not realize that his adult-speaking-to-scared-child tone was not helping. "I'll summarize. Mr. Johanne expressed his apologies to ShinRa in writing for the harassment a Lieutenant Fair received at the hands of his regulars and other guests. He assured us that nothing similar will happen again, and says he bears no ill will toward Commander Hewley for all the threats of violence he made. Mr. Johanne is only 'relieved that, due to Commander Hewley's careful attention and alertness, the young man was not harmed'."

Smaller. Zack always looked smaller when he was upset or embarrassed, and right now he was both. He forced himself to sit up straight, to cling to his former bravado, but as his eyes dropped, unable to look at Kaplan, Zack squeezed the seat of the chair he sat on. He could feel Hahn edge closer in support, but it wasn't Hahn he wanted.

"You didn't know what was happening at the time, did you? You only knew that you were uncomfortable, and those men wouldn't leave you alone." Kaplan's eyes were oddly far away and misty, as though he were speaking to someone else. "No matter how friendly you were, they weren't satisfied. They wanted something you couldn't give. Something you didn't understand."

"Get back to the test questions or I'm taking my client out of here," Hahn threatened, but his warning seemed to fall on deaf ears.

"Zack, none of that was your fault. And I know you care about your teacher, I understand that. But if he's ever done something uncomfortable to you, that's not your fault either."

"Why won't you listen?" Zack whispered unsteadily. "Angeal protects me."

"But you don't know why."

"He loves me."

"Yes, he certainly seems to. My concern is that if you can't tell when strangers' actions are inappropriate, how can you be sure about Commander Hewley's?"

What the hell is he doing? Hahn thought, too surprised to intervene. He should be saving this strategy for the hearing, not handing it to us. There was a desperation, a hope to be understood, breaking through Kaplan's expression.

"Angeal doesn't make me feel what those men did."

"What does he make you feel?"

"Happy. Safe. Good."

"According to the intel I've gathered, Commander Hewley is intimidating to most people. But he treats you differently from everyone else. He keeps you safe."

"Yes."

"And you like that feeling of safety?"

"Yes."

"You don't feel very safe away from him, do you?"

"I don't know what you mean..."

"You don't date. You're sixteen, handsome, highly-sought. Innocence like yours doesn't last long in a place like ShinRa, and yet you take part in no relationships, casual or otherwise. Somehow, you've remained a virgin."

"Kaplan!" Hahn said sharply, and again went unnoticed.

"Meanwhile, Commander Hewley, who similarly could have anyone he wants, by all reports lives like a monk. Maybe you don't yet have sexual needs, Zack, but he must. He must be satisfying them somewhere. And he spends all his time with you."

"Stop," Zack breathed out, barely audibly.

"You are a minor, according to the law of your village. You should not be the center of a grown man's life."

"Why are you doing this to us?" Tears glimmered on Zack's long eyelashes. "Why won't you leave us alone?"

"Zack," Kaplan said gently. "I want to help you. I owe you that much, to make sure you don't suffer like he did."

"This interview is over," Hahn said loudly and hastily. He stood and tried to tug Zack up with him, but the boy jerked away and stared at Kaplan, bewildered.

"Wh-What are you talking about?"

"Zack, it doesn't matter. This is entirely inappropriate and you don't need to be exposed to - " Hahn tried.

"I want to know. Please."

"You are what a SOLDIER should be." To Crenshaw and Hahn, Kaplan's desperate, glassy eyes indicated a man who'd simply lost it. To Zack, however, the man looked pained and misunderstood, and the teenager couldn't help but pity him despite all he'd done. "You protect those who can't protect themselves, even if by doing so you have to risk death or worse."

"I - I don't understand - "

"You got justice for Alec. He would want me to do the same for you."

"...Alec?" The name was so familiar.

"My nephew. Without you, the bastard that killed him would still be out there."

Zack slumped back in his chair, and his mouth fell open. His mind flashed to the photos of Jonah Keller's victims he had been allowed to look through, both pre- and post-mortem, each with a name in neat print under the image. A blond boy with almost feminine beauty, looking out from a blissfully ignorant past and smiling sweetly. The one the designer Guy Madell had mourned, the one who had searched in vain for Mr. Right. Alec Kaplan.

The lawyer must have seen realization spill into Zack's eyes, because he nodded. "Alec never saw people's real intentions either. Just like his sister. And now they're both..."

Hahn swore softly, under his breath. Crenshaw looked thoroughly awkward, like he wanted to sneak out of this room and its tension-choked air. Zack firmly set his jaw in a neutral, adult expression and fixed his eyes on Kaplan's.

"I'm not them. I'm no one but me. I'm sorry I wasn't able to do more for your nephew, and I'm sorry you lost him. I wish Alec had had someone to protect him from that killer. But you know what? I did. Angeal protected me, like he always does."

Kaplan's mouth worked silently for a few seconds. Then he cleared his throat, and shuffled his papers till he reached the one he wanted. "Then, what are you and Commander Hewley hiding about the Calora mission? Why did he withdrew you from classes, and have Dr. Hollander do a rape exam on you?"

"You don't have to answer that, Zack," Hahn said quickly.

"Yeah...I do. Hey," the boy addressed Crenshaw, "pay attention to that machine. I really don't wanna repeat myself."

Hahn seemed displeased but made no further objections. Zack looked down, determined but dejected, with one hand twitching nervously in his lap. The other rested on the table, and his fingers toyed with the wires that attached sensors to the pulse point in his wrist. He wanted to rip the damn things off, throw a tantrum like the child Angeal permitted him to be...but what was the use of doing anything, unless he could get Angeal back?

"I've been having very vivid, sexual dreams," Zack calmly forced out of a dry throat. "When Angeal sees me having nightmares, he wakes me up, but he can't with these, no one can until they're over. Apparently...these dreams affect me physically, as if they're really happening. The only thing is that I haven't ever really...well you heard what Hollander said..."

Zack's cheeks had flushed a faint, becoming shade of humiliation-pink. Through an agonizing pause that felt endless he waited for laughter and disbelief, but upon looking up, he found Kaplan showing curiosity.

"Are you saying...someone is having sex with you while you sleep?"

"Y-Yeah, it feels like that, but Angeal and Genesis didn't see anyone with me when it happened. Angeal thought they were just dreams, but I..."

"It's okay." For once Kaplan managed to sound soothing without patronizing. "You what?"

"I c-can't move like that on my own, even awake, much less asleep..."

"Machine says he's telling the truth," Crenshaw volunteered, speaking up for the first time. Hahn seemed to be shocked into silence.

"Do you have any idea what's causing this?" Kaplan asked slowly.

"No. Hollander was trying to help us find out, before this mess got in the way." Zack's grown-up guard fell down; his eyes looked suddenly tired, even as hope brightened their uncommon color. "Do you...believe me?"

"Yes...I do. And I'm grateful for your honesty."

"Then, can you drop this investigation, so Angeal and I can get back to trying to figure out what's wrong with me? Hollander wanted to observe me overnight in the sleep lab, and I need to get back to training..."

"I'm sorry, Zack," Kaplan said genuinely, or at least sounding so. "I do believe you, but my job requires me to investigate thoroughly."

"But - "

"For all I know, this phenomenon you're suffering may be a reaction to sexual trauma."

Hahn spoke before Zack could. "If it is, then it's much more likely a result of the Sector Three mission. As you know, my client is presently seeing one of the ShinRa psychiatrists to cope with the trauma of that experience. The stress of being interrogated and seeing his teacher investigated isn't helping, I'm sure."

"I'm not doing this to hurt him, I'm trying to help. Since when do you care so much about your clients, Jason?"

"Are you going to accuse me of impropriety next?" Hahn shot back. "I don't care how pure you claim your intentions are, Jerome, you're too biased and you have no business taking part in this case at all. I'm sorry about your niece and nephew, but they're gone and you won't get them back by torturing a boy who's done no wrong and a man you have no evidence against."

"How dare you - " Kaplan began to fume, then halted unexpectedly and directed a concerned gaze to his opponent's left. "Zack?"

Hahn knew something was wrong the instant Kaplan jumped up. He turned and with alarm saw his young client first swaying in his chair, then sinking, and caught the boy just before he fell to the floor. He's so light, Hahn registered absently, and gently shook Zack as he cradled him, calling his name with increasing urgency.

"Zack? Zack!"

Tseng threw open the room's door and hurried in just as Kaplan began to jab frantically at the intercom panel on one wall. "Commander," Hahn called, and turned toward him with Zack dangling limply from his arms. Wordlessly Tseng felt the skin of Zack's face and found his temperature normal, checked his airway and saw that it was clear, took his pulse and determined it to be in the normal range. The boy's breathing was slow and steady, his eyelids faintly twitching every few moments.

"He's asleep. He's all right," Tseng breathed out in a sigh.

"Asleep?"

"Did he seem tired?"

"I don't think I've ever seen him not tired, but he was awake, how could he fall asleep that quickly and suddenly?"

Kaplan, having summoned help from the med lab, stood watching them, twisting his hands together uselessly and with guilt wrinkling his features. Hahn glanced up at him coldly, but only for an instant and with very little real venom.

"They're on their way," Kaplan said softly, keeping his distance.

With the situation as under control as it could be at the moment, Tseng instinctively shifted into observation-mode. Kaplan's guilt and pain filled the room like continuous waves of heat, palpable even without looking at his forlorn expression. Far more interesting was Mr. Hahn, who had known his client only days and yet was holding him as carefully as he might his own son. Tseng smiled, and Hahn caught it.

"What?"

"Nothing at all." You are far more powerful than you know, Zack. Even more blessed, and more cursed.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 19 - A Fugitive Pain

 

"As I was going up the stair
I saw a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away"

- William Hughes Mearns

 

The vast, well-maintained ShinRa Compound always looked ominous on cloudy days. (Or more ominous, depending on your point of view.) Brightly lit, the buildings gleamed like the promise of order and wealth and a prosperous future; beneath the faint illumination of an overcast sky, the same structures were dull, menacing, the face of technology with no heart to tame it. It was a brisk, breezy day, and the grass Kunsel sat on felt chilly as stone. He turned his face upward to look for optimistic blue and found only gray.

Zack, even the sky knows you're missing. On the heels of this glum thought came the sound of soft footsteps. Normally Kunsel would jump up and excuse himself, on the chance it was a superior about to ask why he wasn't in class. But today he couldn't make himself care much, only enough to be relieved when Lt. Hunter came around the concealing hedge and dropped to a sitting position beside him.

"Nice day, huh?"

"Lovely. I should've brought my frisbee."

"You must enjoy crappy weather a lot, if it's the reason you're cutting."

Kunsel snorted softly at that. "Did Instructor Eidlin send you to find me?"

"Nah. I told him you came down with that seasonal flu, and he let me leave to check on you."

"He bought it?"

"He had to excuse Kabe before class even started," Declan explained. "The guy looked like he was about to hurl everywhere."

"Good. I hope he infects Rudner and they both go impotent from it." A leaf fell into Kunsel's open hand; he crushed it into powder and cast it away on the wind. "Shouldn't our instructors, being SOLDIERs, remember that even 2nds and 3rds rarely get sick?"

"I think they do. I think they remember the pressure of working your way up, and try to give us little breaks when they can. As long as we don't slack off too much."

"I'd like to believe that..."

"Besides, Zack's sick. Right?" Declan's dark-violet eyes made clear the subject he had really come to discuss. "Edward?"

"Ugh, don't call me that." Everyone who knew Kunsel knew he hated his given name.

"He's not answering his cell. I was on my way to see him and one of the 1sts stopped me on the way and told me not to go near Commander Hewley's place."

"Zack's not there," Kunsel sighed hollowly.

"Is he in the med lab? Is it that bad? Kunsel!"

"I can't tell you."

Declan, who had never raised a hand to anyone or anything but an enemy or sparring partner, grabbed hold of the other SOLDIER's arms and twisted him, forcing Kunsel to turn and face him. "Can't tell me? You better fuckin' tell me! Where is he, is he okay? If you won't tell me then I'll just - "

"What?" Kunsel snapped, jerking free. "Force your way into the med lab? Beat the truth out of me? That won't endear you to Zack, believe me. Zack may have been born to fight, but he hates destruction of any kind. And so do you."

"I'd fight for him," Declan said, jaw set defiantly.

"You can't fight what he's facing right now. Look...I haven't been able to see him much either. Physically, he's okay. Mentally, he's going through some hell right now. Trust me, if I could think of a way to get him out of this, I'd let you in on it."

The anger on Declan's face softened, leaving room for more concern. Embarrassed for having nearly attacked his friend, he scooted over the thick grass to sit facing him, and leaned forward, his expression pleading and his hands clutching fistfuls of green blades.

"Why isn't he at home, then?"

"I can't tell you. Commander Hathaway made me swear."

"Is he with Commander Hathaway?"

Kunsel nodded shortly, biting his lip and staring across the grounds as if fearing to say too much. Or, more likely, feeling frustrated that he couldn't tell all he knew. The wind whipped at the grass and hedges and tree branches around them for a few moments, cold and intimating an oncoming rain. With a blank, wistful smile, Kunsel reached for the long hedge he sat against and gently fingered one of the buttery yellow blossoms that dotted it.

"The first spar Zack and I ever had was here. He was kicking my butt, but he stopped the fight to yell at me for letting my sword graze this bush. He always liked growing things, even before he had Commander Hewley to influence him."

Declan looked at the flowers intently for the first time, feeling a rare appreciation for something he'd never before given much attention. Their petals looked so perfectly smooth, he had an urge to touch one...then, like a punch in the stomach, Declan remembered the softness of Zack's skin, and his hand dropped back to the ground.

"Look, you should go back to class. No sense in us both risking getting in trouble."

"I can't concentrate on a history lesson right now. I can't think about anything but..." Declan trailed off.

"Declan..."

"I love him," Declan said quietly, looking at the ground. "I think I love him."

"A lot of people think they love Zack. He's easy to care about."

"I'm nothing special, I realize that. And I realize I probably don't have much of a chance with Zack, but I don't care, I'm not gonna sit here and do nothing." The young SOLDIER made to leap up and was stopped when Kunsel's hand shot out to grab his wrist. "What?"

"What are you doing?"

"I'm gonna find Zack. If he doesn't want to see me, that's fine, but I want to see with my own eyes whether or not he's okay."

"You can't!" Declan jerked away; Kunsel had to scramble to his feet to stop him from stalking off. "Look, Zack's not allowed visitors right now, especially if he's still in the med lab! Declan, damn it, will you listen to me?!"

"Tell me what you know, and I will," Declan said in a low, deadly serious voice.

"Fuck," Kunsel swore softly, shaking his head in resignation. "Swear on your life and what you feel for Zack that no one will ever know I told you. I mean it, I'm putting my career on the line here."

"I swear."

"Look...someone in the 2nd or 3rd Class anonymously accused Commander Hewley of being inappropriate with Zack. So the legal department swarmed in and separated them and the fuckin' vultures are trying to worm a confession out of them and to top it all off, something's messing up Zack's sleep patterns and making him tired all the time."

By the time Kunsel finished this rapid-fire explanation and was able to take a breath, Declan's purplish eyes were wide with disbelief.

"Commander Hewley? But he'd never - "

"I know, everyone with a brain knows, but not Legal. Zack told them nothing happened, but they're interrogating him, giving him polygraphs...they even had Medical check him for signs of rape," Kunsel said heatedly. Now that the decision to confide in someone couldn't be taken back, he found that being able to vent was a relief.

"Gaia...is he okay?"

"Zack's tougher than most people realize, including himself. But he's upset. I mean, he practically worships Commander Hewley and now he's being used against him. At least Commander Hathaway's taking care of him, he always liked Zack."

"I...I can't see him?" Declan asked, in such a small voice that Kunsel's earlier annoyance at him was forgotten.

"He'll barely even talk to me."

"Isn't there anything we can do?"

"I don't know, man. Maybe if knew who made the bullshit allegation, and why."

Declan was quiet for a few pensive moments, looking at the sky. "What motive would someone have for doing it?" he asked, aloud but more to himself than Kunsel.

"Since it's not true, it would have to be to hurt either Zack or Commander Hewley. My guess would be Zack...SOLDIERs our age have more reason to resent him than the commander."

"Most people like Zack."

Kunsel nodded. "Except the dicks that are jealous of him. Wait a sec...Rudner and Kabe! They're the worst, I bet it was them!"

"You think so?"

"Kabe isn't actually so bad, I've talked to him. Rudner's the one who really hates Zack, Kabe's just a total follower. If it was them, it had to be Rudner's idea."

"Kabe got sent out of class sick today," Declan said slowly, "but he hasn't been looking good for a few days. Come to think of it...since the day those suits took Zack away during our test."

The wheels in Kunsel's head were clearly turning. "Kabe's not sick, he's feeling guilty!"

"And Rudner's been looking extra-smug." Declan's jaw hardened and his fists clenched. "I'll kill him."

"Exposing his lie would be enough. We'd just have to somehow prove he made a false report."

"How?"

Kunsel smiled coldly. "What do we learn in Tactics? Find and target your enemy's weakest spot."

"Kabe."

"Kabe."

azazaza

"Thank you for arranging this." Angeal spoke to the faithful shadow of the lawyer beside him but didn't take his eyes away from the observation window before them. "I appreciate it," he added, genuinely and in a voice that throbbed with hurt.

"Of course," Crane answered. "I'm just sorry I can't get you into that room."

'That room' beyond the unforgiving barrier of wall and glass was a private room in ShinRa's medical lab, a typical hospital room made of sterile white and monitoring machinery beside the bed and a few pitiful touches intended to soften the hospital-coldness. One of these attempts at warmth was the baby-blue blanket draped over the sleeping patient; Angeal was too tired of suspicion to wonder if it had been chosen because it made the sleeper look younger. The stuffed chocobo at his side accomplished that already, but hopefully it would also serve as some small comfort.

Of course, the truly heartbreaking sight, for Angeal, was Zack himself, looking pale and fragile even in what seemed a peaceful sleep. Angeal had always known the boy well enough to not be fooled by his appearance of delicacy, but now...

"Commander Hewley?" A familiar voice, and Angeal turned to find a familiar face had approached. "I thought you'd want to be updated."

"Dr. Oren. Yes, please. Is Zack all right?"

"Well, he hasn't woken, so I haven't been able to talk to him. His vitals are all stable and he seems to be sleeping without distress. Mr. Kaplan suggested I call Dr. Hollander in, so I've requested him for a consult. Until then, we're monitoring Zack and giving him fluids. We'll see what Dr. Hollander wants to do, I understand he's been handling Zack's recent troubles."

Dr. Oren excused himself then, and Angeal went back to staring intently through the window. Crane wondered what he was thinking about, but not for long; the commander turned to him and spoke with a sudden, resigned lifelessness.

"Zack told Kaplan what's been happening to him."

"Are you certain? But why would he - "

"For me. To protect me." Angeal's fingers pressed tightly against the glass. "To explain the night of the Calora mission and what Lt. Kleiss feared he saw. Damn it, Zack..."

"You're disappointed in him?" Crane asked.

"I've told Zack, it's my job to protect him, not the other way around."

"Is that fair? The boy wants to be a hero. I would think it's his nature to help the people he loves any way he can."

"I didn't want him to have to explain his sleep disturbances. I didn't want him to suffer the humiliation of that."

"So...no warm fuzzy feeling that your student was willing to undergo unpleasantness for your sake?" Crane asked, in a calculated but subtle manner. "No pride for his strength of character?"

"I am always proud of Zack," Angeal insisted softly. His warm breath obscured a small part of the window he peered through. "I just..."

"What? Can't bear his pain? That's not shameful, Angeal."

"It's problematic. I'm supposed to make him strong, not coddle him."

"Sounds like he's strong despite your supposed failings, if he's willing to confess something private, to Kaplan of all people, for your sake. I have boys who were that age once, and I learned that even kids simply are who they are. From all that I've heard, I gather that Zack is an extremely caring person. You can't ask him to be otherwise without stifling his true nature."

Angeal sighed glumly as he absorbed this, further fogging the pane of glass that his forehead was now pressed to.

"Can you tell me, at least, what's happening with Zack?"

There no longer seemed any reason to hold back. "You see," Angeal began, then paused as movement in the adjacent room caught his eye. It was only Dr. Oren, checking on his patient, and Angeal was about to turn back to Crane when he noticed Zack's sleeping form begin to shift. The commander pressed close to the window, thinking his student was about to wake...but no. Zack rolled onto his back and, with eyes still closed and a confused expression, his hips started to slowly lift and fall.

"Oh no," Angeal whispered.

"Angeal? What's going - " Crane began to ask, but his client had already pushed through the door to the next room, and all he could do was follow. Dr. Oren stepped forward as if to stop them, but he must have seen the desperation in Angeal's eyes.

"All right, Commander, but only if you stay over there, against the wall." A brunette nurse quickly handed the doctor a yellow Medical Sense materia, and he aimed it at Zack.

"Angeal, what the hell is this?" Crane whispered.

"This is what's been happening."

The sleeping teenager tilted his head back and let out a moan that everyone in the room recognized as sexual. In the midst of his fearhorrorfaintarousal, Angeal thanked Gaia in the back of his mind that Oren and the nurse (Calla was her name, he remembered) remained professional, and Crane gaped and looked at him with concern but said nothing. Zack... At his sides and in plain sight, Angeal's hands clenched into shaking fists. He knew he'd probably be unable to wake Zack, he hadn't been able to before, but now he couldn't even hold him.

Zack made a sudden, sharp yelp, and at first Angeal thought it was one of pain, that his Puppy was also feeling hurt at the distance between them. But the boy's frame was moving again, this time his upper body lifting as though an invisible partner were cradling him, an infuriating parody of something intimate and real. That was bad enough, but the baby blue blanket was shifting now, the thighs beneath it spreading open...

"Gaia," he heard Crane whisper in fearful awe.

Oren passed the materia to Nurse Calla - who, to her credit, stayed calm and held it steady - and dashed to Zack's side. There he did what Angeal had once, waving his hands around the slightly writhing body where, according to logic and physics, a body or some kind of solid support had to be. His fingers clawed frantically at empty air, and the bewilderment that came over his face made Angeal's heart race. If medical professionals found this as unbelievable and baffling as he did, then...

Oren stumbled back a step or two, trying to get his bearings in the face of this impossible sight. A glance at the monitors assured him that Zack was asleep (though, he noted with surprise, not in REM), and yet the position he effortlessly held would be difficult if not impossible for even a conscious human being to maintain. A sleeping person just did not have the necessary muscle tension. In a last-ditch effort to deny what he saw, Oren clasped Zack's shoulder and firmly tried to shake him out of it.

"Zack! ZACK!"

"He won't wake...till it ends," Commander Hewley choked out, and Angeal's worry snapped Oren back into his usual calm.

"Three milligrams Adrenosine," he called out, and a blond nurse jogged in from another doorway and slapped a syringe into his hand.

"It's a stimulant, a mild one," Oren explained as he wiped Zack's arm with sterilizing gel and prepared to administer the shot. "This should - "

"Doctor, heart rate is up," Calla interrupted.

"How high?"

"Eighty bpms and rising."

"Keep a close watch." Dr. Oren put the syringe down and began to examine Zack's back, sides and legs through the hospital pajamas he'd been put in. "Delia, prepare five mgs of Cardiosil. If he gets up past ninety beats per minute, better safe than sorry."

"BP's one-forty over ninety, temperature at one-oh-one point four."

"What's happening?" Angeal yelled in desperation.

"I don't know yet," Oren admitted, pausing to feel Zack's warm forehead, then resuming his clinical patting-down. "There's - There's nothing behind him, nothing holding him, but he can't be doing it on his own, his muscles aren't even rigid - "

"Just help him, please!"

Zack was practically sitting up, leaning back against something no one else could see, with his head lolling on what seemed to be an invisible shoulder. His legs had opened so wide that his feet almost dangled off the sides of the bed, and the boy's slender, graceful form slithered in the air like a serpent. His hips were rocking back and forth, soft rustling as his bottom brushed the mattress, and Gaia this was exactly the kind of guilty-pleasure sight that no one could turn away from.

Dr. Oren thought, as did the others, that it looked like he was thrusting into a hand, or whatever Zack was experiencing that was stimulating him the way a masturbating hand would do. Mindful of the boy's privacy (asleep or no), Oren drew back the blanket from his lap just enough for himself only to take a look at the boy's crotch. Obviously the pajama pants were in the way, but he could see Zack was erect, at least, and getting the friction he needed from the fabric of the pants...or was it something (someone) cupping him?

Zack's lips parted to let out a series of needy, pleading whimpers, sounds that in a sexual context begged for more. Oren swallowed a lump of dry air and reminded himself that this was a patient, a sixteen-year-old, a boy ill and unaware of what he was doing.

"Doctor, heart rate and blood pressure are rising, should we - "

"Commander Hewley," Oren began unsteadily, "is Zack going to..."

Words failed Angeal, and he could only nod.

"Okay...then..." The doctor awkwardly stumbled over each word. "Delia, Calla, please wait in the next room, quickly." He waited until the young women had gone before continuing. "Angeal, you've seen this before, how long does it last?"

Angeal had been staring dumbly at Zack, who was thrusting harder and with increased urgency. Before he could say something like "Not much longer", the boy's body had spasmed briefly, and with his head thrown further back Zack spilled himself into his pajamas. This time, as with all the others, his hands were in plain sight and unoccupied the entire time. Dr. Oren, embarrassed but relieved, cast Medical Sense on him again and nodded.

"Blood pressure lowering, heart rate and temperature returning to normal. He's okay." Zack had slumped back down to a laying position; Oren went to the bed and adjusted the unconscious body a little to make him more comfortable. "Gaia, if I hadn't seen it for myself..."

"He usually wakes," Angeal said in a soft, sad, longing voice. He took a few halting steps, only to have Crane grasp his arm and try to tug him back. "He usually wakes up afterward, for a minute, at least. Are you sure he's all right?"

"Vitals are all stable...monitors indicate normal brain activity. He's fast asleep." Dr. Oren gave Angeal an apologetic look. "Commander, I'm sorry, but I can't let you any closer. Legal will already be furious enough that I let you in the room."

"I understand, Doctor. I'm very grateful."

His voice sounded so lifeless. This evoked Merritt Crane's pity, but he had to put protecting his client above sympathizing with him. He patted Angeal's thick, muscled arm, though, before lightly pulling it and him toward the door they had come through before.

"Angeal...now that we know the boy is all right, we should go. It wouldn't be good for Kaplan to find you in here."

Reluctant, knowing Crane was right but hating it, Angeal nodded robotically. He took a step back, but before turning caught Dr. Oren's kind eyes with a silent plea.

"Doctor, when Zack wakes, will you tell him..."

"Commander?"

"Never mind. He knows already. Thank you." One last gaze at his sleeping Puppy, a few seconds of rememorizing the youthful beauty that threatened to break his heart every moment. That was all Angeal allowed himself before wrenching himself away.

The med lab was, mercifully, low-traffic and largely unpopulated that afternoon, though in Angeal's half-numb, half-frustrated state, the oppressive, humming quiet and white everywhere and harshly bright light was all as overstimulating as a crowd would be. The two men were silent through the bone-colored rooms and squeaky-floored halls, then exited the med lab area into the sleeker, darker tones of the rest of the building.

"It was good you stopped yourself," Crane spoke up suddenly as they headed back toward the interrogation rooms. "That you didn't say it aloud. Good for our case, I mean."

"You...you know what I almost said?"

"I've had a lot of practice reading faces and tones and body language," Crane said thoughtfully. "It wasn't hard to guess."

"You don't disapprove?"

"On the contrary. If I had needed any convincing of your innocence, Angeal, the obvious love you have for your student would do it. Zack is lucky to have you."

"You aren't going to ask me what kind of love it is?"

"I would, perhaps...if I thought you knew."

azazaza

"Kabe! Hey Kabe, I know you hear me!"

He most definitely did. The half-Wutaian 2nd increased speed through the populated corridor, trying to hurry without running, which would have only called more attention to his retreating figure.

"KABE!"

People were looking at him curiously, probably not believing that he didn't hear his name being called. Cursing softly in his father's language, Kabe ducked his head and kept going, trying to disappear in the thinning crowd. Thank Leviathan, the heated voice shouting for him had ceased at last, had Kunsel given up? A hand suddenly descended upon Kabe's shoulder and whirled him around, but it was Declan's angry face that he was made to look into.

"What - "

"We need to talk. Now."

Kunsel caught up to them and looked over his comrade's shoulder with a similarly warning expression. Kabe's shoulders slumped. If it came to a fight, he couldn't take them both at the same time, and getting in trouble for an unauthorized duel would perhaps delay this conversation, but not prevent it. So when Kunsel opened the nearest door and Declan gestured to the empty classroom, Kabe shuffled inside. There he sat on one of the desks, resigned to what was coming. His fellow SOLDIERs didn't make him wait.

"Thought you could run away?" Declan asked through gritted teeth.

"What the hell's your problem, Hunter?"

"My problem? Mine? What about you? Zack's never been anything but nice, to you and everyone else!"

"I don't know what you're - "

"We know it was Rudner and we know you helped him, what else could we expect, you're his fuckin' lapdog - "

"Cool down, Declan," Kunsel murmured, and Kabe was relieved a little. He wasn't exactly afraid, but found it unnerving to see mild-mannered, amiable Lt. Hunter so furious. "Just tell us the truth, Kabe."

"I told you, I don't know - "

"You don't know why Zack's been out of classes? Why he's sick from the stress of being used against a man he idolizes?" Declan nearly shouted. "Rudner made the false allegation and you helped him, just admit it!"

"Declan," Kunsel said sharply. Threats of violence wouldn't work here; appealing to Kabe's conscience and honor might. He looked at him seriously. "Look, Kabe, you're Rudner's closest friend. Whether you helped him or not, you must know what he did."

The tanned face with faintly Wutaian features held an expression of defiant calm, but his dark eyes were tortured and tired. Oddly similar to what Zack's had been recently.

"Zack's been ill?"

Declan scoffed at this, as though to accuse the other of feigning ignorance. Kunsel, playing the role of 'good cop', answered calmly.

"Zack's hospitalized at the moment. They're not sure what exactly is wrong yet, but my bet is stress. Zack looks up to Commander Hewley. They're like a family, and this lie Legal's running with is tearing him apart."

Kabe's chin shook a little, before he set it to form a mournful frown. "I...I didn't..."

"Didn't take part in this? Or didn't want to? Of course not." Kunsel wasn't as charming as Zack, but he still had a way of kindly coaxing information out of targets. "We know this was Rudner's doing. He's the one who really hates Zack, right?"

Defeated, Kabe avoided both their eyes. "Victor was never a bad guy. He's just been so jealous, so long...after a while, he wouldn't talk about anything else. Something about Fair makes him so angry, and add Commander Hewley to it and Victor just went..."

"So he wanted to hurt them both," Kunsel prompted.

"It was like an obsession with Victor." Kabe's face was contorted, as though the telling of this was some kind of agonizing self-exorcism. "He would get angry, and say things...like he needed to rationalize Commander Hewley giving so much time and attention to one person, someone so young who picked up everything so easily. He'd say it had to be sexual, that..." Kabe swallowed with difficulty. "That that was the only way someone could care for Zack."

Kunsel shot a glance of warning at Declan, but the other boy was controlling his fury well enough already. "So what happened?"

"Victor was always saying that Zack was being favored, that the commander was using him for sex, that what bound them together was anything but love. He said people would believe it. I didn't think he was serious, until..."

"Until?"

"Until he went to the head of Legal and dragged me along to back him up. He..." Kabe shook his head, his veiled eyes at last betraying disgust. "He behaved like a saint tormented by his conscience, and told a story like the ones he'd made up before. He said he passed the 1st Class gym one night and peeked in to investigate a noise, and the commander had Fair against a wall and was rubbing on him. Then he forced him onto the mats and...Victor was so convincing I almost believed it. But he laughed when we left. I didn't know he could be like that."

"Why didn't you stop him, or reveal his lie?" Now a bit calmer, Declan nonetheless gave off an aura of fury that was clearly intimidating Kabe.

"You wouldn't understand..."

"Try us."

"Once Victor sets his mind on something, nothing can stop him."

"And you didn't tell on him because?"

"Look..." Kabe was taller than most of Wutaian descent, broad-chested, with long arms that unconsciously began to wrap around himself as he slumped forward. "My father immigrated, with his family, from Wutai to avoid the tribal wars they wanted no part of. Even in as diverse a place as Midgar, hardly anyone accepted them. The whole neighborhood treated them like potential spies, and it was hell. Until a popular local boy befriended my dad, made him his best pal. Because of that boy, we were accepted, and allowed to build a good life. Our families have remained close ever since. I don't want to destroy what my father and Vincent Rudner began."

"Rudner's dad," Kunsel said, understanding. "Your dads were best friends like the two of you, and that puts pressure on you to maintain the friendship."

"It's more than that," Kabe said, patiently but clearly not expecting them to fully understand. "The Rudner family has done so much for mine. I can't dishonor that bond by betraying Victor."

"But what about Zack?" Declan stepped closer, all solemnity, no visible anger. "Is it honorable to stand by and let an innocent guy be hurt, all for Rudner's jealousy?"

"I know...I just..."

"It's not too late to make this right. Zack'll forgive you. And if Rudner doesn't, well, be our friend instead. He's the dishonorable one anyway."

Kabe answered with a weak, brief smile, but it didn't quite reach his uncertain eyes. His conflicting feelings rose visibly through his face, and the others waited in silence and patience to see which emotion would win, which concern would win Kabe's doubts over.

"Will...will Fair be okay?"

"You tell us, man," Kunsel sighed.

"He and Commander Hewley aren't really...are they?"

Before Declan could rush in with an assurance that they weren't, Kunsel said, in a challenging tone, "Rudner lied about what he saw. Does anything else matter?"

Kabe didn't answer that - not in words, at least. But by the way he took hold of the desktop beneath him and the way he slowly straightened his posture, an observer might guess that a weight had just been released from his shoulders.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 20 - And Tears Unshed

 

Zack sensed someone else in the room before he was fully awake. Not Angeal, so not even for an instant could he pretend his whole recent ordeal had been a bad dream, and he didn't feel the presence of any mako stimulating his own. For fear that he'd open his eyes and find Kaplan close by, or a doctor waiting to ask embarrassing questions, Zack remained perfectly motionless for a short while, and gathered information with his other senses.

The darkness of his closed eyelids was bright, suggesting surroundings that were white or some other light color. The smell was overall one of cleanliness, but not the well-kept, plant-scented sort that the boy associated with home (and Angeal). This was antiseptic, medicinal...a hospital environment. If Zack's sinking heart needed any further proof, the unfamiliar pajamas and sheets around him did it. Not to mention the I.V. taped into his left arm. I'm getting really sick of these things.

"Did you have a good sleep?" a kind voice asked.

Huh? I know that voice. But -

"How did you know I'm awake?" Zack's voice sounded like he hadn't used it in years.

"Your breathing and your eye movements changed. Dr. McCall isn't the only one around here who's studied sleep."

Zack hadn't known that, about either man. He opened his eyes at last and saw Dr. Martin, the psychiatrist, at the bedside table, pouring a cup of ice water from a pitcher. He passed the cup to Zack, who thanked him and drank, finding the taste welcome in his dry mouth. Since the I.V. had probably been keeping him hydrated, Zack wasn't thirsty enough to gulp the water, so he sipped quietly and hoped he wouldn't be asked anything embarrassing.

"How are you doing, Zack?"

"Okay...I guess. What am I doing in the med lab?"

"You collapsed during an interview with Mr. Kaplan. Medics were summoned, and they determined that for some unknown reason you abruptly fell asleep. As you can imagine, this was very startling for those who witnessed it."

"I remember the interrogation, I think," Zack said hesitantly. Yes, he remembered Kaplan's glassy, desperate eyes as he spoke of Alec, the boy whose awful death was driving the lawyer to protect Zack in Alec's place.

"You've been asleep for a few hours, being carefully monitored. That's what those wires taped to your head are for." The psychiatrist smiled benevolently as Zack gingerly touched them. "No one's been able to wake you, so we've been keeping a close eye on your vitals."

"You...know what's been happening to me, don't you?"

"I hope you don't mind, Zack. The choice normally would have been yours to divulge to me or not, but the medical doctors on your case wanted me brought in as quickly as possible. I promise, this sensitive information is safe with me. Confidential, just like all our communications."

"I don't mind you knowing." Looking down at the sheet covering his lap, Zack traced the cloth's simple border of intertwined loops. "I'm kinda glad I don't have to explain again."

"Try not to be embarrassed, son. It's not your fault that this is happening to you."

"So, you don't think I'm just having vivid dreams?"

"We have scans of your brain activity during one of these episodes. Dr. McCall and I agree, the brainwave patterns are not like anything either of us have ever seen in any sleep studies. You seemed to be having something more akin to a waking, vivid hallucination. No, we don't think you are merely dreaming."

"How did - " The answer came to Zack before he completed the question. "It happened again. Since I've been here. Right?"

"Yes." Cautious of the boy's embarrassment, the psychiatrist tried to offer reassurance. "All non-essential personnel were sent out of the room immediately."

Zack didn't brighten at this, merely nodding as he sank further into the pillows and protectively wrapped his arms around himself. Martin waited quietly, giving him time to think, absorb, whatever he needed.

"Have you seen Angeal?"

"A short time ago, yes."

"Is he...okay?"

"Yes, he is. Worried about you, of course. Thinking of strangling Kaplan, I believe, but yes, Angeal's all right."

Eyes pointed determinedly downward, Zack stared at his lap to avoid Martin's face. His fingers traced repetitive patterns on the smooth sheet that covered his legs, not idly or boredly but with a frustrated energy and a need for distraction. Inside, Zack felt fractured. His bouncy self was too weighted down with tiredness and remnants of anger to emerge, and a hundred other emotions were playing tug-of-war in his head. But the most dominant of them all was a simple, lonely sadness.

Do not cry. Act like a SOLDIER, you're a SOLDIER. Zack leaned his head back in the hopes that gravity would prevent tears. It didn't work, just slowed them down.

"Zack. Why do you get so annoyed with yourself when you cry?"

"I hate crying," the boy mumbled. "I'm a SOLDIER, and usually I...but lately I just can't stop it."

"Disruptions in sleep can temporarily mess with hormone production, you know. Add that to your tumultuous age and recent stress, and I'd be worried if you weren't crying."

"Do all your SOLDIER patients cry?"

"Not as much as my Turks."

Zack laughed weakly at that, he couldn't help it. He was friends with a few Turks, but whether good-natured or genuine, all SOLDIERs had a rivalry with them.

"But seriously, yes, my SOLDIER patients cry. That's how I know they're progressing. The issues and emotions that prompt tears are usually the ones that need the most attention," Dr. Martin explained. "Also, successful therapy requires strength in a patient. Willingness to cry shows me it's there."

"If you say so, Doc."

"I do. By the way, I was asked to tell you that Dr. McCall and Commander Hathaway will be back soon, after their other duties are attended to. Mr. Hahn also plans to stop by when his meeting is over."

"Meeting?" Zack blinked. "What meeting? I'm his client, shouldn't I be there?"

"I believe counsel for both sides are meeting with the head of the legal department to discuss the case. This may be a good thing; if Mr. Croft finds insufficient evidence to proceed he may dismiss the charges. Commander Hathaway is there as your representative. Zack, what are you doing?"

"Not just laying here, that's for sure." Ignoring Martin's protests, Zack withdrew the I.V. needle from his forearm with a faint grimace and began to push himself out of bed. "Sorry, Doc. Crying might be good, but it's not gonna help me right now. I'm sick of them treating me like some baby who can't be told anything."

"I understand that, Zack," Martin said in his soothing-therapist voice, "but you're supposed to be resting. A lot seems to get taken out of you during these, uh - "

"Incidents?" Zack scoffed, pushing his bare feet into slippers that had been placed by the bed. "I'm sick of words like that. We need to come up with a name...like 'unconscious booty' or 'date that's not only blind but invisible'. Something catchy. I'll ask Genesis."

"Zack, I really must protest."

"Sorry, Doc." With minimal difficulty, the teenager got to his feet and offered the psychiatrist a smile so beautiful that it nearly disarmed him. "I may be suffering from 'incidents', but I'm still a SOLDIER, and you're no match for me."

"But you don't know where..." Martin half-gibbered, understanding now in the back of his mind why Zack brought out people's protective instincts. Even in disobedience, the boy was just so damn charming.

"I can always find Angeal. Don't ask me to explain." Zack paused at the door, turned back and gifted him with another gorgeous smile. "Of course, if you wanna keep poor helpless me company, you can come with."

Out of both professional and friendly curiosity, Dr. Martin had many times wondered how a stoic like Angeal - who was restrained in his affection even for Genesis and Sephiroth, his adopted brothers - could allow himself to be so open in his love for a kid he had known only a couple years. Now Martin had to wonder why, when he had volunteered to keep Zack in bed, he was willingly leading him to the last place Angeal would want his student to be.

azazaza

A tense silence pervaded the room, broken mostly by occasional coughs and the shuffling of papers. The room looked like what it was, a place where hearings were held to resolve ShinRa's internal legal disputes, a smallish sort of courtroom made with serious colors and all the furniture a dark, highly polished wood. Merritt Crane had whispered to Angeal that an informal proceeding like this one could be held in any conference room; probably Kaplan had requested this venue for its intimidation factor.

Which was working, a little, though you'd never know this from Angeal's neutral expression. He had never much felt at ease in big, dim rooms, especially ones designed for more people than it held; the emptiness was worse than a noisy crowd. At the moment he'd have even welcomed Genesis, Genesis, who would have caused at least some mischief while trying to 'help' and refused to leave without a date.

Crane was at Angeal's side behind a sort of desk/table intended for up to three people; at another across the room's middle aisle, Kaplan and Sanders sat, one looking slightly desperate and feverish, the other sneaking them looks of apology. In one of the rows of seats behind the attorneys waited a young man that Crane had told Angeal was Nicholas Callahan, the associate assigned to investigate Angeal's still-unnamed accuser. He had tried a few times to speak and each time been told to wait, which seemed to be annoying him. And Angeal, who wanted very much to hear what he'd found out. The commander also desperately wished to talk to Jason Hahn and Commander Hathaway, both behind him, but had been advised by Crane to wait.

At the front and center of the room, on a raised dais and in the judge's traditional place, was Steadman Croft, a once-famous defense attorney who, since retiring, had headed ShinRa's legal department. It was a position of great prestige and not much work, since he had so many subordinates, on several levels, to delegate to. When asked by his client if Croft's involvement boded well or ill for him, Crane said it was hard to tell, that it was probably just procedure - a man of Angeal's fame and high rank could not be judged by anyone less.

Personally, Angeal didn't really know Croft, or know much about him. Just that he was respected and looked up to by everyone under him, even those who had one reason or another to not like him. As a founder of Midgar's most successful law firm, Croft, Surrey & Moore, the man - now in his early seventies but with the body and mind of a younger guy - Croft had built the business up to such renown that his name on it kept it the busiest firm on the continent, and hence on the planet.

Also, Croft had come to ShinRa around the same time as Angeal and Genesis had. Even with willing parents, transferring guardianship of two children to a corporation and science department required a lot of paperwork. The two boys had therefore spent some time in Legal's section of the Compound, and once been reprimanded for running in the corridors by a grandfatherly yet stern figure, with salt-and-pepper hair, beard and mustache and a preference for less expensive suits than his salary could easily afford.

That trait, at least, Angeal shared and respected, but he couldn't stop thinking of that long-ago day when, as bored twelve-year-olds, he and Genesis had decided to play tag and nearly knocked right into the frowning man. He had made them feel so young and tiny. And now this same man might very well hold Angeal's fate in his hands.

Croft was currently reading through the pile of documents that had been submitted by both prosecution and defense - transcripts of interviews, witness depositions, polygraph results, and of course the original complaint that started all this. If nothing else good came of this, Crane had told Angeal earlier, at least Croft was sure to demand that the liar's identity be revealed. For now, though, the chief lawyer was absorbed in the papers spread before him, not seeing them for the first time, just refreshing his memory on the major points. If he did intend to render a decision today, he would have to carefully review the arguments of both sides.

At last, Croft looked up, and to everyone's surprise, addressed Zack's current guardians first. "Mr. Hahn, Commander Hathaway, how is your charge doing?"

Hathaway stood up. "His exact condition is uncertain, sir, as the submitted report explains, but Lieutenant Fair is presently resting and in the care of ShinRa's medical lab."

"I don't wish to aggravate the boy's stress. That's why I'm hoping we can resolve the matter of the accusations against Commander Hewley here and now, and put this unpleasantness behind us."

"Forgive me, sir," Kaplan said, a faint tinge of hysteria in his voice, "but I had expected to have more time to - "

"It's my understanding that you have one witness's testimony, Mr. Kaplan, to offer against the service record and reputation of one of SOLDIER's very finest. Upon review of these documents," Croft continued, "most notably the medical and psychiatric reports on Zack Fair, I must say that I don't think further time to prepare your case will improve your situation."

"Sir, the deposition of Lieutenant John Kleiss, 1st Class - "

" - can hardly be of much use to your case, now that the defense has provided Fair's nighttime incidents as a plausible explanation for what Kleiss saw. Mr. Hahn, does the alleged victim continue to deny that any abuse took place?"

"Yes, sir, vehemently."

"Mr. Crane, I believe you and your client had a request?"

"Sir, we ask that the prosecution produce the complainant, or at the very least reveal his identity to us."

"I agree with defense, Mr. Kaplan, Mr. Sanders. This secrecy has gone on long enough. If your witness wants his testimony to carry any weight, he'll have to unmask."

Sanders spoke this time. "The witness is not present today, sir, but I can summon him..."

"Do so, Mr. Sanders. Step outside and inform this person by phone to report here ASAP. Meanwhile, Mr. Kaplan, a name."

"Lieutenant Victor Rudner, SOLDIER 2nd Class, sir."

"Mean anything to you?" Crane asked Angeal in a whisper.

"He's not one of Zack's friends, but that's all I know." Angeal sounded quietly stunned. True, he had probably only met Rudner once, if that, and knew only that he was a 2nd who was in some of Zack's classes. But having a name at last made complete the awful realization - a fellow SOLDIER was doing this to them, with what could only be ill intent. Why?

Croft was speaking again, his booming voice hardly needing the microphone on his podium/desk. "Mr. Callahan, your assignment was to investigate the background and credibility of the complainant. Now that his identity is known to us, you may reveal your findings."

"Thank you, sir." Callahan was quite young, Angeal noted, a bit nervous to stand and report but obviously devoted to his work. "Lieutenant Rudner is eighteen years old and an employee of ShinRa since age fourteen. His academic record falls into the 'Acceptable' range and his stats and fieldwork are considered high average. As a cadet Rudner was written up twice, as a 3rd Class once, all for provoking fights. There have also been unreported but widely known instances of bullying - "

"Objection, sir! Relevance?"

"We have a witness whose testimony will be extremely relevant, if I may..." Hahn interjected, sharing a nod with Callahan.

"Proceed, Mr. Hahn."

Hahn went to a side door, passing by a scowling Kaplan, and disappeared through it, reappearing with a black-haired, well-tanned young man, who wore a 2nd Class uniform and an expression of nervous reluctance. Hahn guided him to the witness box, where he was addressed kindly by Senior Attorney Croft.

"No need to be apprehensive, son. This is an informal legal proceeding and you are not in any trouble, as long as you are honest and cooperative. Do you swear that all testimony you give in this room will be, to the best of your knowledge, the complete truth and nothing else?"

"Yes sir, I do."

"Please state your name and rank for the record."

"Lieutenant Tamamuro Kabe, SOLDIER 2nd Class, sir."

"Is the testimony you intend to offer today given of your own free will, given freely without promise of reward or punishment?"

"It is, sir." The young half-Wutaian was tense, Angeal noted, but in his dark eyes was a determination born of an innate sense of justice. Seeing this made him miss Zack all over again.

"Begin, Mr. Hahn."

The handsome, blue-suited young attorney came back toward the witness box, movements suave, confidence and seriousness perfectly balanced. Angeal, who had little love for lawyers (perhaps the only humans more deceitful than the Turks) sensed fairness and honesty from this man, and silently thanked Gaia for Hahn being assigned to represent Zack.

"Lieutenant Kabe, you are here today because of a confession you made first to Lieutenants Kunsel and Hunter, and at length to me. Was this revelation of yours true? Remember that you are under oath."

"It's true, sir," Kabe said, looking somewhat miserable.

"Tama, what the hell are you doing?!"

No one had noticed Victor Rudner arrive through the main doors at the back of the room, but now all turned to look, startled. Apparently he had gotten Sanders' summons and hurried straight here, because his greasy, stringy brown hair was windblown, and he was catching his breath as he looked around the courtroom and realized that this did not bode well for him. Rudner's face was flushed an unbecoming red, and the glare he pointed at Kabe indicated that anger rather than exertion was heating his blood.

"You will be given your chance to speak, Lieutenant Rudner, but not yet," Croft said placidly. "Until that time, be seated and silent. Outbursts will cost you my patience and the privilege of remaining in this room."

Looking very much like he wanted to protest, Rudner quietly stalked his way to the aisle headed by Kaplan and Sanders and slouched into a seat several rows behind them. A few of those present noted his refusal to look at Kabe, though the latter was watching him with a pitiful, apologetic frown.

"Lieutenant Kabe." Cleverly, Hahn positioned himself so that he blocked his witness's view of the friend he was being made to betray. "You gave me a very pertinent piece of information earlier today. Please repeat what you said for the court."

"Yes, sir." Kabe took a slow breath, stealing himself for this betrayal of his closest friend by reminding himself that Rudner's act of injustice had been the worse of the two. "When Lt. Rudner reported witnessing Commander Hewley molesting Zack Fair...he was lying."

Kabe glanced in his friend's direction, perhaps anticipating an outburst as they all were. But Rudner merely seethed and continued to look anywhere but at Kabe.

"How do you know this, Lieutenant?"

Hesitantly at first, then more smoothly as he went, Kabe explained first his own long friendship with Rudner, their long practice of confiding in one another about everything. He spoke, voice still apologetic, of Rudner's jealousy of Zack, how it had begun around the time Zack had joined ShinRa and persisted, becoming a sort of obsession. Though it was plainly hard for him, Kabe repeated the conversation he and Rudner had had in the weight room - including Rudner's musings about what he himself would like to do to Zack, and what he thought Commander Hewley must do to his student as compensation for putting up with such an annoying charge...

Merritt Crane gently placed his hand over Angeal's white, clenched, shaking one. His client's fury was palpable and understandable, but must be kept under control. Croft looked intrigued and swayed, if not already convinced, and Kaplan was clearly hoping for a reason to object.

Hahn proceeded skillfully with his line of questioning. "Did Lieutenant Rudner tell you about the allegation he planned to make against Commander Hewley?"

"Y-Yes, sir."

"How did you respond?"

"I thought he was joking, at first. Then I tried to talk him out of it. But after it was done, he..." Kabe seemed to be choked up for a few seconds. "Victor reminded me of the debt my father owed to his, the bond of friendship between our families."

"And this is why you've kept silent?"

"Yes, sir." Dark eyes, pained and sharp and cutting only inward, flickered over to Angeal. "Commander, I'm so sorry."

Hahn gently redirected Kabe's attention back to him. "You're coming forward now, though. In spite of that loyalty."

"Yes, sir. Fair hasn't been in classes, and everyone's saying he's sick and..." Kabe swallowed and bowed his head in shame. "I never hated Zack, I was just jealous of him. I can't keep letting Victor hurt him like this, even if he is my best friend."

"Lieutenant Kabe, for the record, have you been offered any kind of immunity or leniency in exchange for this testimony?"

"No, sir."

"Thank you. I reserve the right to recall this witness, Mr. Croft, but I have no further questions at the moment."

"So noted."

Kaplan stood up from his seat but didn't otherwise move. "Lt. Kabe, who else was present during your conversation with Lt. Rudner in the weight room?"

"No one, sir."

"And who witnessed Lt. Rudner divulging this nefarious plan of his to you?"

"We were alone, sir."

Kaplan's voice was tense as a taut bowstring, firing his questions as soon as Kabe's answers were out. "You admit you've been jealous of Zack Fair. Why? Because of the attention he gets?"

"No, sir. Zack is just smarter and a more skilled fighter than I."

Kaplan flipped a few pages into an open file. "I believe you are...number seven in your Class, and Fair is ranked number one."

"Yes, sir."

"Your so-called 'friend' Lt. Rudner is ranked at number five. How do we know you're not jealous of him, and using this opportunity to get him out of the running?"

"Objection."

"Withdrawn. In all the time you've spent with Lt. Rudner here at ShinRa, have you seen him get in trouble for fighting?"

"Yes, sir." Kabe couldn't help a faint, sad, perhaps bitter smile. "Victor's always been hot-headed."

"How many times has he been disciplined for lying to superiors?"

"None that I know of, sir."

"Thank you. You may step down."

"Lieutenant Victor Rudner, please step forward," Croft commanded.

Clearly agitated (and keeping clear of Angeal's controlled rage), Rudner shuffled up to the witness box and was sworn in. Kaplan rose to question him first, this time leaving his chair to move closer.

"Lt. Rudner, you have a good record as a SOLDIER. Is it your aspiration to make it to 1st Class?"

"Yes, sir."

"So you wouldn't want to risk that by lying to the legal department, I assume."

"Careful, counselor," Croft warned.

"Lieutenant, do you like Zack Fair?"

Rudner all this time avoided looking into Angeal's merciless eyes; now he actually edged away from them. "No, sir, not really."

"Why is that?"

"We're just very different, that's all. We hang out in different circles," Rudner explained, with almost believable sincerity. "Also, Fair's never been around as much as my other classmates, so I never got to know him well."

"Let the record show," Kaplan said, holding up an employee file, "that not one of Mr. Rudner's few, minor disciplinary infractions involved Zack Fair. He has never bullied or fought with this supposed enemy of his. Mr. Croft, would you please instruct the defendant to stop his silent intimidation of the witness?"

"All defendants are innocent until proven guilty," the senior attorney said dryly. "If Commander Hewley is indeed innocent, he has a right to be angry, and in any case, glaring is not cause for contempt. Move on."

"...yes, sir. Lieutenant, if you don't like Zack Fair, why did you report what you saw while passing the 1st Class gymnasium last Thursday night?"

"Because it was the right thing to do."

"Talking about what you saw must have been uncomfortable, and embarrassing. Were you afraid to accuse such a decorated officer?"

"Yes, sir," Rudner said after a brief hesitation. "But I was more concerned about Fair than myself."

"Thank you, Lieutenant."

You little bastard. Angeal was so busy glaring daggers at Rudner that he hardly noticed Crane, rather than Hahn, stand up to question the intimidated teenager. Crane's grandfatherly aura may have put Rudner at ease for a moment, but his piercing eyes and stern voice quickly made clear that this gentleman was no pushover.

"Lieutenant Rudner, what time did you witness Commander Hewley allegedly molesting Zack Fair?"

"Maybe around midnight? I know we're not really supposed to wander the hallways after curfew without permission..." Rudner offered an uneasy smile. "But I couldn't sleep."

"Where were you going?"

"Nowhere in particular. I just happened to pass by the eastern entrance to the gym, and that's when I saw...what I stated in my report."

"You saw 'Commander Hewley holding Fair up against the wall, forcibly kissing him and rubbing their groins together'. Correct?"

"Yes."

"Did Fair seem upset?"

"He was crying and saying 'Please stop.'"

Clenched fists hidden beneath the table, Angeal closed his eyes and lowered his head, feeling nausea swirl in the pit of his stomach. Hearing a description of anyone, especially himself, doing such an horrific thing to his Puppy...Senior Attorney Croft observed Angeal's discomfort for a moment before looking back to the cross-examination.

"You must have been quite disturbed," Crane prodded.

"Yes, sir. I wanted to do something, but I was afraid of the commander."

"So you left."

"Yes, sir."

"Quietly, so neither Hewley nor Fair noticed you?"

"Excuse me?" Rudner asked nervously.

"Well, the gym's eastern doors are solid, so you can't have seen anything through them. You must have opened the doors, at least."

"Y-Yes, that's right - "

"Why, Lieutenant?" Crane asked sharply.

"Why...why what, sir?"

"You aren't authorized to use the 1st Class gym, as a 2nd Class, correct?"

"That's right - "

"So you had no business opening those doors. Why did you?"

Rudner was clearly taken aback, but his feigned earnestness seemed to embolden him anew. "B-Because I heard Zack crying. I wouldn't have gone in without authorization otherwise, of course."

"Are you sure about this? Your report was rather vague."

"Yeah, I'm sure."

"That's very interesting. You aren't aware, then, that all ShinRa gymnasiums and their doors are soundproofed?"

Someone, somewhere in the room, gasped softly, and the echo carried, as damning as a judge's gavel. Rudner's mouth fell open just slightly, and the way his unremarkable eyes widened gave them a bulging effect that might have been comical under other circumstances. He started to speak once, twice, again, again, and failed to make an audible sound each time. Angeal's aching heart felt a faint, hopeful respite, Kaplan looked stricken, and Hahn smiled at Crane with admiration.

The elder lawyer didn't allow himself much time to bask in the warmth of a clever victory. "With your permission, Mr. Croft, I would like to offer the complainant a deal, subject to your approval."

Croft was giving Rudner a cold look of disappointment. "What did you have in mind?"

"If Lt. Rudner persists in his dishonesty and the court decides against him, he will be dishonorably discharged from SOLDIER and prosecuted for perjury and libel." Taking in Rudner's horror, Crane continued. "But if the lieutenant cooperates and answers all questions honestly, he will be given the opportunity to join the ShinRa army and begin his career over. As a member of the army, he will be on probation for the first two years, and he will never have any chance of returning to SOLDIER."

"I find these terms not only acceptable, but generous. Does the prosecution concur?"

Angeal couldn't see Kaplan's face, only that it was turned away and tilted down, and the lawyer's body language expressed, oddly, a greater defeat than even Rudner wore. Having been filled in earlier by Crane about the tragic deaths of Kaplan's niece and nephew, Angeal thought he understood. Kaplan had, albeit unfairly and erratically, been trying to get justice for them, and that desperation made him need to see Zack as a victim. Someone he could protect.

Despite the accusations, the insult that this ordeal had been, Angeal found himself looking at Kaplan's suddenly small form with genuine compassion. You poor man. You were trying to make right something that can never be so. Trying to heal a wound that will pain you forever. Angeal could almost hear Genesis's sweet-acid voice scolding him for any kindness toward the man who had become their enemy, but that was Genesis's way, as gentleness was Angeal's, on the rare occasions it was possible. People are, in the end, only what they are.

"Mr. Kaplan?" Croft was repeating.

Sanders hastily stood. "Prosecution has no objection, sir."

"I feel I would be remiss if I didn't ask your opinion, Commander Hewley. After all, it is you who have been wronged."

Angeal slowly rose from his seat, gesturing to his nervous lawyer to be still, that he wasn't about to do anything reckless. Angeal cleared his throat first, and in his most commanding voice said "I will not pretend I am not angered by Lt. Rudner's lies and the damage they have caused."

Here the newly-accused had the decency to hang his head, even if only for show.

"For myself I am not concerned, but my student, who is presently ill, has suffered the most. I cannot at this time forgive Lt. Rudner for this, but nor will I deny him an opportunity to reform. I have no objection to my attorney's offer. I do ask, seeing as the subject of this inquiry has begun to leak out to the rest of the company, that as part of this bargain Mr. Rudner be made to submit a written confession and apology to Zack and myself for dissemination."

"You live up to your reputation, Commander," Croft said, lips forming a faint smile before he turned to the witness box. "You have the offer, Lieutenant. Do you wish at this time to revise your testimony?"

"Y-Yes...yes, sir, I do." No tears fell, but Rudner's eyes glistened with a strange mixture of humiliation, anger and perhaps genuine remorse. "I never saw Commander Hewley touch Fair intimately or inappropriately. I'm sorry...I made it all up."

"Why? Why would you do that?"

In various degrees of surprise and curiosity, every head turned toward the small, rarely-used entrance in the room's left wall. He had recognized the plaintive voice, of course, but not until Angeal actually looked did his heart leap into his throat and his eyes suddenly, uncharacteristically, flood. There in the doorway, with an apologetic psychiatrist behind him, was Zack.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 21 - A Desire That Reposes

 

Angeal felt himself stand, though he hadn't made any decision to do so. A warning tug from Crane told him to remain where they were, but no need - Commander Hewley, a man of decisiveness and action, was frozen in place, staring. He should have been experiencing simple joy to see his beloved student, simple concern at how pale and tired Zack looked, an uncomplicated obligation to get to his charge as quickly as possible and reassure him. But clouding his relief and love and anticipation to hold Zack again was a shame and an affront to the purity of those emotions all over again - the devastating and wrong appreciation of how blindingly beautiful the boy was.

As usual, Zack was oblivious to his own appearance, still wearing the white pajamas and slippers from the med lab and with his glossy spikes mussed from the bed. Zack was more attractive without trying to be than most people who put in their best efforts; maybe the teenager's indifference to his loveliness even added to it. But more importantly, Zack was obviously weakened, leaning on one side of the door frame to support himself. His striking blue eyes were bright against his white skin, and brighter still from gathering tears.

Though Zack had clearly addressed Rudner, his gaze locked on and met Angeal's, and when the mentor gave his student a comforting smile, the boy offered one of his own. It wavered, though, and from Zack's face it was clear that he was being overwhelmed by a lot of emotions at once. One thing Angeal knew for certain, as the others all (save Croft and Rudner) rose from their seats as though someone senior to them all had come in. And that was that Zack wanted to run to him, but would not. Because he was wearied enough from just walking, true, but even more because the boy was putting his teacher's reputation above his own needs.

Merritt Crane had stood when the other lawyers did, and softly warned Angeal, "This isn't over just yet. Stay put. You can wait just a few more minutes to hug him, can't you?"

"I honestly don't know," Angeal murmured back.

"Zack, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be resting," Mr. Hahn admonished his client.

Zack didn't answer, but Hahn's voice apparently broke the boy out of his spellbound stare. Slowly, Zack took his eyes off Angeal, and first looked at his attorney blankly. Then he moved his dripping, crystal-blue gaze to the witness box, from which Rudner was watching him and recoiling in actual fear. Fear of a fellow SOLDIER who was six inches shorter, forty pounds lighter and drained by some unexplained malady...the hurt in Zack's innocent eyes nonetheless was like poisoned arrows.

"Why did you do this? What did Angeal ever do to you? What did I?"

Rudner looked away, staring darkly and scowling at his feet. Hahn rushed over to his client with an unseemly haste, saying "Since Fair is already here, Mr. Croft..."

"He may remain, but Mr. Hahn, advise your client to speak only when asked to do so." The senior attorney's eyes were much softer than his stern speech. "How are you feeling, Fair?"

"Better, sir, thank you."

"Commander Hathaway." The SOLDIER had hurried to Zack, to the seat where Hahn and Martin were settling the boy, and looked up when Croft addressed him. "For the moment, you are still Fair's in loco parentis guardian. Do you judge him well enough to be out of bed for a little while and to hear Mr. Rudner's confession?"

A pale hand seized Hathaway's wrist, and its owner whispered "Please, sir." Feeling a renewed sympathy for the thoroughly-whipped Commander Hewley, Hathaway sighed and nodded. He sat down between Hahn and Zack, with Dr. Martin on the boy's other side, forming a sort of protective shield all around him. Hathaway noticed that Zack was now looking at the floor, not Angeal, but sensed that the body next to him wanted very much to leap over these pew-like seats until it reached Angeal and the arms Zack had obviously been missing.

Just a bit longer, kiddo, and we'll have you home.

"If you please, Mr. Rudner, confess your crime clearly."

"I accused Commander Hewley falsely," Rudner's voice rose up from his slouching form. "I lied about seeing him molest Fair. And I guilted Lt. Kabe into keeping my secret."

Here he looked out into the defense section's rows of seats, where Kabe had gone earlier and remained. A few moments of silence passed between them, and facial expressions that no one present could quite decipher. They both turned away at the same time, though, both as if they could no longer bear to face the other any longer.

"Why did you do this?" Croft asked the witness.

Rudner's mouth hung open for a few moments before he spoke, and when the words came they were very unlike the arrogant boy's usual way of talking. "I...don't know, sir."

Kaplan stood up, not yet steady on his feet. "Request that the young man be ordered to mandatory counseling as well."

"So ordered. Do you have anything else to say, Mr. Rudner?"

"I'm sorry," the eighteen-year-old mumbled.

"You have the chance now to prove that with your future actions and behavior. You will be confined to your quarters until oh-nine-hundred tomorrow, Mr. Rudner, at which time you will report to the office of Executive Director Lazard. He and General Sephiroth will handle your discharge from the SOLDIER program."

"The...the general?" Rudner softly repeated, eyes shiny with fear.

"I doubt he'll injure you with a witness present, but if you like, I can have a clerk escort you," Croft said dryly. "In the meantime, I advise you to think about what you've done and begin writing those apologies. If there's no further business, I declare this case closed and express, on behalf of the legal department, our regret for the distress caused Commander Hewley and Lieutenant Fair. You may step down, Mr. Rudner."

A clerk was gestured forward and led Rudner out. This seemed to signal a flurry of movement all around that startled Zack in his lethargic state. Almost regally, Senior Attorney Croft swept down from his desk on the dais and hurried out, off to his next task. Crane and Hahn were shaking hands in turn with Mr. Callahan and thanking him for his work digging up Rudner's background. The young lawyer modestly insisted that they really had Kabe to thank, but smiled at the received praise anyway. At the mention of the helpful 2nd's name, the three lawyers looked around for Kabe to thank him as well, and caught a glimpse of him exiting quietly out the main door.

As he stepped out of everyone's sight, Kabe breathed a sigh of relief that he could at last seek the solitude he wanted. A hand grasping his shoulder made him jump, and he looked up from the floor to Kunsel's smirking face.

"When you feel ready for company, let me know and we'll hang out."

"I'm not going to stop being friends with Victor."

"If I can put up with Varley's snoring, I can handle that," Kunsel said wryly, and gave his fellow SOLDIER a playful shove.

Back inside the hearing room, the three victorious lawyers remained grouped together, talking softly about the follow-up work ahead of them. Every now and then, one or all cast sympathetic glances toward the prosecution's desk, which Kaplan was slumped over. Sanders had stayed by his side, a comforting hand on his arm, and was talking to him softly and receiving nods in response.

"Is there anything we can do?" Callahan whispered to the others.

"Maybe in time, when he's ready. Anyway," Crane said with a faint smile, "one victory a day is enough, I think."

On either side of Zack, his psychiatrist and temporary guardian had stood up, while he didn't budge, feeling so exhausted physically and mentally that he didn't know what he should do now, or what he was capable of. Dr. Martin quietly observed, shifting his penetrating eyes between his patient and the other side of the room. Commander Hathaway leaned down and touched Zack's shoulder.

"It's all over. It's okay now. Kid, what's wrong? I know you're in no condition to glomp, but I figured you'd even crawl to get over there."

"I started everything..."

"What?"

"The things people say...and believe...it wouldn't be like this if not for me," Zack murmured, hardly sounding like himself, harshly twisting the loose fabric of his shirt with his fingers. "Maybe...if I hadn't started hugging Angeal, this - "

"Your behavior didn't make false allegations, Zack," Dr. Martin said reasonably. "Rudner made the choice to do that on his own."

"Kid, believe me, Angeal doesn't do things he doesn't wanna do. Do you see him hugging everyone who wants to hug him? If he wanted you to behave differently, he'd tell you, that's how Angeal is."

"But..."

"He gets as much from you as you do from him, if not more," Hathaway said, softly and with certainty. "If you don't see that, Zack, you're the only one."

With that, the boy finally allowed himself to look directly across the room at his teacher. Patient as always, Angeal was watching him with his usual combination of quiet affection and puzzling concern. (Well, maybe not so puzzling right now.) But staying back, keeping distance though he plainly didn't want to. Drawing on the strength that Zack often forgot he had, he searched Angeal's earth-colored eyes for the answer and thought he saw guilt, maybe the same pain that was pricking at Zack's insides.

Also, Angeal didn't cry, but Zack had seen him close a few times, and he was close now. He had been holding back his own tears, but this realization made Zack's eyes flood before he knew what was happening. This was wrong. Why on Gaia was Angeal hurting so far away from him? And why wasn't Zack over there and trying to hug that gloom off his face?

Hands flew out to grip the seat directly in front of him for leverage. Necessity lent energy to Zack's limbs enough for him to pull himself to his feet. Hathaway reached to help him up, and Zack said determinedly "I can do it myself". The commander smiled, unsurprised, and moved aside to let him pass.

Angeal... Not wanting to appear any more helpless and in need than he was already feeling, Zack walked more slowly than he would have liked, and consciously didn't lean on anything he passed by for support. This became easier when Angeal's eyes locked on his, and they glowed gently, like the beam of a lighthouse guiding him home. The beginnings of tears had not left either of them, but for now, at least, the reuniting student and teacher could see each other clearly, needed to. Especially considering that Zack halted a few paces away, not yet quite over the idea that his touch had nearly damned Angeal and might do so again.

"I'm sorry about all this, Zack," Angeal spoke up first, with a strange timber to his voice that made it seem muffled, far away.

"It wasn't your fault - "

"Nor was it yours. Is that clear?' The momentary sternness evaporated the second Zack nodded, switching to concern when Angeal noticed the gesture had made the boy a little dizzy. "Are you all right, Puppy?"

That did it, the sound of his nickname that Zack had missed, and warm streams of wetness were coursing down his cheeks. Zack wouldn't have been all that embarrassed to admit the reason for this, but Angeal knew it already, no question about that. There was one confession, though, Zack couldn't hold back.

"I...missed you." Don't sob, don't sob... "A lot."

Angeal was in motion before he finished speaking. Had he had more warning, Zack might have been able to hold to his reservations about continuing to show each other affection in public, and his horrible aching willingness to give up the tactile part of their relationship to protect his teacher's reputation. But today especially, Zack was no match for the speed of a legend among 1sts. By the time he realized what was happening it had happened, Angeal's arms were protectively and wonderfully around him. Overjoyed and terrified, Zack emitted a sob that was half-laughter, and stiffened even as he gripped Angeal's upper arms.

The commander must have sensed the conflict Zack was feeling, because at once he bent his head to whisper, "No one on this planet can tell me not to hug you, except for you. Understood?"

Face pressed tightly enough to Angeal's shirt to dry his eyes, Zack nodded, and pressed in even closer when a hand pet his hair encouragingly. The familiar stroke of those fingers soothed away tension that Zack had almost forgotten he was carrying, distracted as he'd been by fatigue and loneliness and the dreams that he both feared and secretly looked forward to. Breathing for what felt like the first time in days, Zack slipped his arms around Angeal's torso and soaked up the warmth and care he was being given.

Angeal, meanwhile, was determined to banish his Puppy's hesitation with certainty, and only lifted his head away from Zack's to flash a look of challenge at those who were subtly observing. The commander's own concern about touching was a different one, now that he realized his love for his student was more than platonic, but that didn't matter, he reminded himself. He was a natural at keeping his emotions controlled, no one need ever know that even in this courtroom that had exonerated him, Angeal nonetheless bore a guilt. But it was worth bearing for the rest of his life, anything was worth having Zack back safely in his arms.

Gaia, I sound like a lovesick teenager, Angeal scolded himself. Aloud he said gently, "It's all right, Puppy. I'm here."

Zack laughed. It was brief and shaky and half a whimper, but it was still a Zack-laugh, so Angeal drank it in gladly. "I know...I know."

"I'm sorry I had to leave you."

Zack looked up, charmingly innocent and sincere as always, and dislodged one arm to wipe his eyes with a sleeve. "Not your fault."

You know so little of my faults, Puppy, you trust me so much. I will keep it that way, no matter the cost. Gently pulling Zack to his side and keeping an arm around him, Angeal gestured Commander Hathaway over, and when he arrived said "Thank you, Hathaway. I hope Zack didn't give you much trouble."

"Trouble? Zack?" Hathaway smirked. "My pleasure. But I'm glad to be able to give him back."

Angeal nodded his gratitude once more. "Let's go, Zack, before you fall asleep on your feet."

"We can go home?"

"The med lab first. If they say it's okay, we can go home."

"I'm not tired," Zack mumbled, without grumpiness, though he was leaning on Angeal more and more with each passing second.

"Sure you're not, kid," Hathaway laughed.

Holding Zack securely to his side, Angeal headed for the main exit at the back of the room. As they passed the cluster of chatting lawyers, the commander paused and looked at each in turn, Merritt Crane last and longest.

"Thank you, for everything."

"Thank you," Zack softly echoed.

Hahn and Callahan smiled and nodded. Crane shook Angeal's offered hand and said, with a trace of laughter in his voice, "I work for ShinRa. It's too rare that I get to defend an innocent man."

azazaza

The knock on his apartment door surprised the executive director, and as he rose from the couch and approached the entrance, he wondered who it could possibly be. Lazard was normally in his office all afternoon on weekdays; today he had begun early and worked quickly so he could leave for lunch break and not return. Years of training himself to focus on work in his office got in the way when he wanted to think deeply and intently of Sephiroth. He had seen little of the general since the investigation started. If Sephiroth needed some space and time, well, Lazard could accept that. He would use the opportunity to figure out how to close the distance Sephiroth had recently increased between them.

Emotional distance, that is. Lazard didn't have mako in his system to sense the presence of SOLDIERs. But somehow he wasn't startled to open the door to this rare interruption and see silver hair that reflected dull corridor light, and silver eyes that looked through or past him. Lazard rarely felt that Sephiroth was trying to see him and nothing else.

"Sephiroth. Come in." Trying not to sound too eager (or desperate), Lazard stepped aside and gestured to the living room.

The general was always a bit reluctant when entering anyone's private quarters, even those belonging to a many-times sexual partner. Every one of his soundless steps was weighted with this hesitation, or some other kind. Lazard watched him move in a straight line from the door toward the window seat in the opposite wall, waiting, and he started when Sephiroth abruptly turned (his speed was hard if not impossible to get used to) and fixed a serious stare in his direction. Not at him.

"I know," the general said flatly.

"...know? Know what?"

"What you and ShinRa have deemed unnecessary to inform me of. I have seen the bodies, and the brands on their stomachs."

The executive's face wore a peculiar expression. Sephiroth wasn't sure what one would call it, but it reminded him of battle, of what subordinates looked like when they brought unpleasant news. Sort of a prolonged, guilty flinch.

"I'm sorry I couldn't tell you. The president didn't want rumors flying about a connection to Wutai, and Genesis travels there whenever he gets the chance, and as fond as we are of him he has such a big mouth..." Lazard trailed off, and smiled sadly where a frown would have been more fitting. "How did you see them?"

"The morgue. Dr. Brennan let me in."

"He wasn't supposed to."

"He prefers not to displease me."

Now Lazard did frown. "Did you...spend much time with him?"

Jealousy was one of the few emotions Sephiroth had had lots of practice observing, so he recognized it at once. "Do you dislike everyone I interact with?" he asked, genuinely curious.

Lazard too had learned - and one important lesson had been that with Sephiroth, the simple, direct truth was usually what he wanted. "I resent other people who are close to you," he confessed.

"Dr. Brennan was only near to me for the few moments during which we spoke, and when I brushed past him to access the morgue."

"I didn't mean physically close."

"Ah. The doctor is merely an acquaintance, one I rarely see." Sephiroth watched Lazard's face for signs of relief, and thought he saw it. "I am capable of concealing information from Genesis. If the president believes otherwise - "

"Sephiroth..." There was that wince again, anticipating this time. "I was the one who urged the president not to tell you about the evidence of a connection to Wutai."

No visible hurt showed on the general's face, but the soft silver of his eyes chilled to cold steel. "You do not trust me."

"I do! Sephiroth, I do." Lazard groped for Sephiroth's hand, and when permitted to hold it, warmed the cool skin lovingly in his fingers. "It's not about that. I know..." He cleared his throat. "I know that Genesis means a great deal to you. I thought it would be awkward for you to have to hide something from him."

Sephiroth was unsure what the correct response to this would be. Annoyance, for the implication that he couldn't keep work and private life separate? Coldness, to avoid showing the wrong emotion? Or gratitude, for Lazard treating him like a human? Leaning toward the last but hesitant, Sephiroth forced his stiff arm to relax, and curled his fingers around Lazard's hand. Just slightly, but he immediately noticed the director smile.

"Besides," Lazard continued, his tone cheerier, "there was already speculation that the linked acts of terrorism had a Wutaian source. The symbol branded on the bodies supports that, but it hasn't given us anything more specific."

Puzzlement spread over Sephiroth's face, and Lazard quickly registered the cuteness of his expression before saying "Sephiroth?"

"Not specific? Surely you know the character's meaning?"

"Of course. In the written language of Wutai it signifies 'fukushuu', 'vengeance'. Wait...does this mean something to you?"

In response, the general requested paper and an ink brush, which Lazard willingly retrieved and set out on the coffee table. The two men sat down on the couch facing it, and Sephiroth's long fingers skillfully traced the discussed symbol perfectly. Lazard was admiring but no longer surprised every time he found something Sephiroth was talented at.

"'Fukushuu', right?"

"Currently, yes. As Old Wutainese gradually evolved into modern Wutainese, the writing system underwent changes also. New characters came into use, some were discarded completely, and some pairs of words even switched characters with each other. This caused confusion until about a hundred years ago, when Lord Kodo, an influential ruler, passed a decree formally adopting the changes. Since then, old and modern Wutainese have been very similar yet separate languages."

"So," Lazard said slowly, "you're saying this character means something else in Old Wutainese?"

"Yes, 'ai'."

"'Love'?" Lazard chuckled shortly. "An odd thing to confuse with vengeance."

"When Old Wutainese became its current self, the characters for 'ai' and 'fukushuu' were switched."

Lazard nodded slowly, feeling a bit confused. "Let me get this straight. This symbol used to mean 'love', and now means 'vengeance'."

"Yes."

"So, there is a character that now means 'love', but used to mean 'vengeance', the word indicated by the brand on the dead ringleaders' stomachs. Is this important, Sephiroth? We haven't been able to find any significance in the use of this character as a symbol."

"That is because the significance belongs to the older character used to write 'vengeance'." The general picked up the brush again and swept it over the paper in brisk, smooth strokes. "This character, too, is 'vengeance', and it is the reason the word means something."

Lazard adjusted his glasses and leaned in. He was not expecting to see what Sephiroth meant, as he could not read any Wutainese, and was about to ask for clarification. But something vaguely familiar about this second character, this earlier 'vengeance', leapt off the paper at him.

"Wait," he murmured, "where do I know this from?"

"Reports from years ago," Sephiroth answered, without the hinting lilt many people would use. "It too was branded on the stomachs of ShinRa's enemies, a specific group."

Realization brightened Lazard's dark, thought-creased face like the metaphorical light bulb over one's head. He turned to face Sephiroth's solemnity with disbelief, and was about to ask how, how on Gaia...but the general mistook his shock for distress and awkwardly, but kindly, touched his forearm. Had their discussion not taken a serious turn, this new and troubling information might have been discarded in order to pursue more touching. To remove all the vexing distance between them, Lazard edged closer and put his arm around Sephiroth, giving his fingers access to the silver hair that spilled down his back.

"Could someone else be using the symbol?"

"I know of no other enemy organization likely to use both 'love' and 'vengeance' as a calling card," Sephiroth said, unconsciously shifting to make his hair more accessible. "This is why I need to be told everything."

"I agree." Lazard looked into his face with a soft smile, distracted from the troubling new information by Sephiroth's beauty and proximity. "I hate hiding anything from you."

"Perhaps you should inform the president."

"Yes, of course...can I see you tonight?"

"Genesis is planning a celebratory dinner for Angeal and Zack and is demanding my presence, but he has to speak to Angeal first about what day would be best. If it's not tonight, then I will be free after eight." The general willingly closed his eyes and accepted the slow kiss Lazard drew him into, but pulled back after a few moments. "The president should be notified - "

"I don't care about the president," Lazard said, a little harshly, but immediately afterward his tone softened to one of apology. "I'm sorry. Just stay with me a little longer, please."

A brief pause. "Very well. But a short time only. I have an appointment in the labs in twenty minutes."

"With the doctors? Is it about Zack?"

"It does concern Zack," Sephiroth conceded, sounding oddly hesitant to be telling Lazard this. "I don't want the medical lab's staff to call Dr. Hojo in for his opinion on Zack's case. Therefore I've decided to speak to him alone, so any suggestions he might have can be passed through me to the medical team. Zack need not suffer his presence...what are you doing?"

As Sephiroth flatly said all this, Lazard had been pulling him further and closer into his embrace, then leaning toward the back of the couch. This had put Sephiroth in the strange position of being held against Lazard's chest with his head on the director's shoulder. Awkwardly, Sephiroth made to pull away, but Lazard's hands were stroking him with a puzzling urgency. It seemed to the general that this touching was a quiet pleading for...what?

Lazard, meanwhile, understood that Sephiroth was unused to being held like this, but that only made him more determined to do it. Had the general ever been held this way, even as a child? He never spoke of his childhood, but the little Lazard knew sounded very lonely.

"What are you doing?" Sephiroth repeated.

Lazard's fingers combed soothingly through his silver hair, and though he'd intended to be more nonchalant about this, he couldn't help but clutch Sephiroth to him in a protective way. He did manage to refrain from making hushing noises as he lay his cheek down on the general's head.

"Lazard." Sephiroth's voice was progressing from questioning to cautioning.

"Let me speak to Hojo. I won't understand him as well as you, but I can take notes of what he says, so you need not..."

"Need not...?" Lazard's sympathetic tone was both perplexing Sephiroth and beginning to anger him. "Do you doubt my ability to obtain information from the doctor?"

"Of course not, I would just rather you not have to deal with him any more than necessary."

This position continued to be awkward for Sephiroth, it felt like weakness, but his curiosity about something new made him willing to tolerate it a little longer. "It is necessary. Dr. Hojo does not willingly share information with most people. He will be more forthcoming with me."

"I don't want you to have to see that monster," the director blurted out. "It's bad enough you had to be brought up by that snake."

Is he pitying me? Stung, Sephiroth easily disentangled himself from Lazard's clutches and sat up, fixing him with a chilly stare. "My past is none of your concern. It's not important."

"It is to me," Lazard said bravely. "It's part of you."

"A part that is none of your business."

"I'm sorry." Lazard waited, looking pathetically forlorn, until Sephiroth accepted with a brief nod. "I just wanted to help. I know you hate him - "

Sephiroth fixed him with a look of warning, a look that plainly told Lazard he was skating on thin ice.

" - um, because everyone does. But of course, if you prefer to handle it yourself, General..."

Establishing a protective distance with the use of rank titles - a trick Sephiroth knew well. Clearly Lazard was attempting contrition despite the discomfort it caused him, and seeing this eased Sephiroth's previous urge to get away from those affectionate hands. He was not heartless, he had no desire to hurt, even when battle made it necessary to kill. Why not give Lazard the little he could?

"As I said, I have a short time before I must leave. But if you think the president should be updated immediately - "

Sephiroth would not admit to himself the relief he felt to see Lazard brighten. If they were quick, there was enough time to...but oddly, Lazard didn't seem to have sex on his mind every moment as the general's many fans did. The director brought their bodies close together, like comrades sharing warmth, and though Sephiroth was by far the stronger of the two, Lazard took the lead at such times. He seemed to value moments like these, when Sephiroth accepted his embracing arms and consented to be comforted.

Comforted about what, Sephiroth wasn't exactly sure. Lazard appeared to see through his reputation for strength and coldness, to the lonely child who'd taken on that persona in order to survive.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 22 - If You Saw With Your Soul

 

After the hearing concluded, the med lab agreed to discharge Zack, with the condition that Angeal bring him back the next day. Mentor and student happily agreed, anything to go home. Even Angeal's new-found guilt over his feelings for Zack were almost forgotten now that he could put his arms around the boy again; Zack's tiredness provided them both with an excuse to stay close together.

Smiles greeted them from every passerby on the way back to the apartment, and congratulations and assurances that everyone in the know hadn't believed the allegations. A handful of them were brave or cheery enough to muss the hair of an increasingly-grumpy Zack. He each time nudged closer to Angeal, which the elder did not at all mind.

"Hathaway brought your things back," Angeal said softly as he swiped his key-card, "so there's no need to worry about that, or anything else. You need to get some sleep, Pup, okay?"

Zack didn't answer, at least not in words. But his faint trembling could be felt, courtesy of mako-enhanced senses. The moment the door shut behind them, before Angeal could say anything else, Zack turned to closely face him and threw his arms around Angeal's torso with a muted whimper. Angeal understood and had been expecting this. After their reunion hug in the hearing room, Zack had been keeping very close to him but cutting short any contact that could be considered intimate. Now the commander embraced him protectively, encouraging this part of Zack he had come to love and praying it had not been frightened out of him.

"It's okay now," he murmured into the boy's ear. "It's all over and I've got you, Puppy, I won't go away."

"I'm sorry - "

"No more apologizing," Angeal ordered, firmly but gently. "None of this was your fault."

Zack took a few slow breaths, prompted to do so by the hand rubbing his back. "Are you okay?"

Angeal smiled wistfully. That was his Zack, all right, putting other people above his own pain. "It was hard being without you, but I'm fine now. What about you?"

"Tired."

"You should eat first. I can tell from that jasmine scent in the air that Genesis came by, no doubt to stock the cupboards and hide inappropriate comics in the couch."

He felt Zack's soft laughter - Gaia, he had missed it. "Not really hungry. And yes, Commander Hathaway made me eat while I was with him."

"You don't think you can stay awake long enough even for soup?"

"Please? I promise I'll eat tomorrow..."

He could hardly say no to Zack now, after having missed him so much. Angeal rested his chin on the 2nd's head and smoothed his raven hair. "Okay. Let me help you to bed."

"Um, could we...hang out here for a little while first?" Zack asked timidly, hopefully. "Look, Genesis left new horror movies for me."

"I don't know why you like to watch that stuff right before you sleep."

But Angeal willingly settled them down on the couch after putting Zack's choice of the films into the vid-player. As the disc's previews led up to the main menu, Angeal made some tea and brought it back on a tray with two cups and a plate of cookies, thinking he could at least induce Zack to eat something small and sugary. Zack curled up comfortably against his teacher, feet tucked beneath him, and drowsily smiled his thanks when Angeal wrapped a blanket around him.

"'Blood Stream 3'? Did we see the first and second?"

"Uh-huh," Zack yawned, snuggling close and sending a thrum of happiness all through Angeal's being. "You remember...every year the killer returns to the stream where his dismembered body was scattered, and attacks the people campin' in the cabins nearby..."

"Ah," Angeal said with an indulgent chuckle. "Of course."

"Aw, don't be like that...the scripts aren't so good, maybe, but the effects are awesome..." Zack yawned and rubbed a fist over his eye, such a childish gesture that it made his teacher hide a smile. "Angeal? Do I really have to spend tomorrow night in the sleep lab?"

Maybe more than one night, the commander thought, but decided to hold back that bit of information. "Sorry, Zack. But it's for your own good. And I'll be right there with you."

Another yawn, amusingly similar to the yap of a puppy. "And then we can get back to training?"

"As soon as you're better, yes."

"Angeal?" Zack's voice went soft and serious. "It...always happens around the same time, doesn't it?"

"Yes." Angeal knew what Zack was referring to, made obvious by his arm unconsciously tightening around the boy. "It seems to always occur around zero-one-hundred hours."

"I've tried to stay awake, to see if...but I never can." As he tended to do when feeling troubled, Zack nestled closer to Angeal's broad body, and it of course accepted him, cradled him warmly. "I don't want to make you worry. I'm okay, I promise."

"I know...but we still need to find out what this is and stop it. You don't want to be tired and barred from duty forever, do you?"

Make it stop? Do I want...? "Of course not! I'm going crazy with boredom already."

"I'll keep you occupied. ShinRa will give us all the time we need, and there's plenty of things we can study without exerting you too much."

Zack groaned, a bit playfully but clearly not pleased about this continuing restriction on movement. Since he had begun to crawl at an early age, the young man had loved to be in motion at all times. In Gongaga, he had been the bouncy child every family loved, easily spotted dashing around through the streets and the surrounding forest paths. SOLDIER, training, fighting had given Zack the unending rush of exhilaration he'd long sought, and his tireless love of movement surely was part of what made him such an enthusiastic and capable fighter.

Mako had reacted with Zack Fair even better than it did most SOLDIERs, giving him capabilities beyond what normal humans had, allowing him to use his energy in ways never possible before he'd joined ShinRa. Running, leaping, sparring were what fed Zack's remarkable spirit. And he even got to save people sometimes...what could be better? Now, trapped in a body weakened by causes unknown, even his high mako level wasn't enough. It was like being his unenhanced, pre-SOLDIER self again, and the contrast was jarring. And frustrating.

"And if whatever I come up with bores you, I'm sure Genesis would be happy to challenge you to a round of 'Ultimate Battle'. He's much better at video games than I."

"I like playing with you, though," Zack murmured. "Angeal...if I fall asleep out here, wake me up before one and send me to my room, okay? I...I don't want you to see that."

For now, they were both ignoring the TV screen, on which a gullible camper was investigating the eerie sounds of a nighttime wood. Angeal turned his head and, with only the faintest stirrings of guilt, pressed his face into Zack's lavender-scented hair. (The boy preferred to use purple-colored products and thus always smelled familiar. Angeal thought he caught a whiff of lilac body wash on Zack's clean skin, then stopped himself from inhaling any more deeply.) Aside from his divided feelings of love for Zack, the kid's request, too, split him down the middle. On the one hand, if he couldn't stop the night assaults from coming, why embarrass the poor boy by forcing an audience on him? On the other...being in another room doing nothing while his student was being assaulted? There was no correct decision.

Forced to make one anyway, Angeal gave a slight nod and a noncommittal 'hmm', not really an answer at all, but Zack seemed to accept it. Angeal could feel the slender body relax in response, one weight at least off his mind. This wasn't something Angeal could intervene in, anyway, but...

Unsurprisingly, Zack didn't make it through the entire, rather bland horror movie. The plot didn't really pick up until about forty-five minutes in, and by that time the boy was still and peaceful, breathing in the recognizable rhythm of untroubled sleep. It was comfortable for Angeal to have Zack so close, especially after their recent ordeal of separation, so he remained there on the couch and watched the whole film, though most of his senses remained focused on Zack.

I don't deserve you, Puppy, and I don't even dare tell you why. But I'm lucky enough to have your love, and I hope you would forgive me for not risking losing it.

Maybe he was still too wound up from the stress of the day, maybe he was just reluctant to surrender any of this peaceful time watching over his Puppy. Whatever it was, Angeal didn't feel tired at all. Only tension and uncertainty rose up in him as the clock on the mantel above the fireplace ticked the night onward. As it got closer to one a.m., Angeal knew he should respect Zack's wishes, wake him and help him to bed. But...

Maybe if I'm with him, holding onto him, this thing will leave him alone.

With a soft "Mmm" sound, Zack's head lolled onto the back support of the couch. Angeal was momentarily distracted by the boy's bared alabaster neck, but concern quickly took over. This time the commander could not only see the telltale movements that began but feel them as well, Zack's serpentine undulating that was erotic and unwholesome and definitely not something Angeal should be looking at.

"Pup," he tried, giving Zack a firm shake, but as expected, the boy was completely unaware of him. "Zack - "

He was only making it worse for himself, making Zack confuse his own touches for the Thing's. Angeal lightly smacked his cheek; Zack turned into the hand and made it a caress. Angeal instinctively, protectively drew his student closer, only to have Zack's lower body thrust against his knee. It was wrong to take advantage this way, and unsafe to allow these teases of what Angeal secretly, shamefully desired. He had no choice but to lay Zack down by himself on the couch, and sit in tense wait on the opposite coffee table.

"Uh, ohhh," Zack shivered, his closed eyelids faintly fluttering. On his back on the couch cushions, his knees slowly gathered closer to his body, pointing toward the ceiling and spreading open. As he was fully clothed, Angeal couldn't tell exactly what was being done to his student, but Zack's thrusting and groaning narrowed the possibilities down. Wrong, wrong, he couldn't watch with any kind of detachment, not even the clinical anger Sephiroth was so good at, and it was wrong.

Perhaps worst of all, Zack's head lay on its right side, his face pointed toward Angeal. And though Angeal believed nothing was more beautiful on those delicate features than innocence, arousal and sexual pleasure was remarkable on that baby-soft skin. The commander would not touch, would not dare defile his unconsenting student with unworthy hands, but it was disturbing enough to have to fight this battle at all. Torn, anguished, Angeal wanted to soothe the boy, but didn't trust his touches not to become sexual...or at least be perceived that way.

Zack's head turned (or was turned) sharply to face upward again, and his pretty lips opened and moved in a one-sided but very passionate kiss. Zack whimpered into it after a moment, and his hips rocked faster, faster, lifting clear off the couch, and his arms seemed to be clutching at a man-shaped figure of air above him.

"Leave him alone," the commander growled lowly. "Whatever you are, I will not let - "

Zack's climax and the accompanying cry interrupted, and Angeal's heart skipped a few beats while the boy spasmed and shivered and came down from what was obviously a satisfying orgasm. Fingers shaking, Angeal waited until Zack went still, then reached out to brush back a few fallen spikes. Before he could reach them, something unseen but undeniably there smoothed Zack's hair back on its own. This usurpation of his trademark gesture somehow, ridiculously, stung Angeal most of all.

At last Zack breathed a relieved sort of sigh, and went still. Angeal knew - how, he wasn't sure - that the Thing had gone. There had been a temporary feeling of thickness and weight in the air that now lifted and departed, like a scent carried off by a prevailing wind. Now that they were alone again, Angeal carefully slipped an arm beneath Zack's shoulders and pulled him into an awkward but much-needed hug.

Zack smiled sleepily at this, and from the depths of his slumber made a rumbly noise of contentment and a murmur that resembled Angeal's name. "It's okay, Puppy," the commander whispered, and lifted the boy gently into his arms. Zack snuggled against him, recognizing this body and trusting it, and otherwise didn't stir as he was carried to his bedroom and tucked in.

Angeal smiled tightly at the sleeping figure for a few long moments, finding it very hard to tear himself away and retire to his own room. In the aftermath of yet another "assault", Angeal would have been shocked to know that the loneliness welling up in him was very like what his apprentice was feeling.

azazaza

It wasn't surprising at all, really, that Tseng answered his door at two a.m., or that he did so in his usual, unrumpled suit. His Turks whispered among themselves that he either slept very very little or dressed very very fast, and Reno was currently leaning toward the former, because Tseng's dark almond eyes were completely awake as they looked him over.

Awake, and showing no surprise, though in truth the head Turk was slightly startled. Reno had long had permission to come to him at any hour if he needed something, but had not invoked this privilege since he turned sixteen - over a year now. Probably out of defiance, to show that he was independent like his older colleagues. Also, he had Rude, who as Reno's partner had smoothly slid into the caretaker role that Tseng had tried to fill for Reno, and had had some limited success with.

"Uh...hey, Boss."

"What brings you here, Reno?" Tseng had no pressing need to ask if he was all right. The hastily thrown-on clothing only indicated that Reno had earlier been with Rufus, and whatever was causing this unusual, hesitant apprehension in the boy could quickly be resolved.

"Sorry, I just couldn't sleep...and..."

Reno's normal self would have barged in and commandeered the TV remote by now. "Come in, please."

The redhead shuffled quickly inside and made a beeline for his boss's long, comfortable leather couch. Tseng offered a choice of beverages (all non-alcoholic) and when they were declined, resettled back into his favorite chair, having already forgotten the book he'd just been absorbed in. Tseng was accustomed to Reno requiring his full attention, and anyway he had not seen his youngest subordinate looking this tense in a long time.

"Are you feeling all right, Reno?"

Pale hands, softer than a stranger might expect, clutched the couch cushion beside his knees. The teenager's wiry fame was so taut, so tightly coiled, that Tseng was put in mind of one of Rude's flash-bombs moments before detonation. In striving for motionlessness - the refuge of any human presently feeling too much and, among those feelings, a desperation to show nothing - Reno was rapidly rocking back and forth. The movement was so minute and so quick that no civilian would have noticed it.

Tseng was about to fetch a tranquilizer when Reno went abruptly still, and looked up with jade eyes that could be lasers when they wanted to be but for now preserved a hint of a child, a pinprick of innocence.

"I need to talk to you."

"I am listening," Tseng said, in a paternal tone that Reno generously chose not to glare at.

"It's not a bad time or anything?"

"No. And it's not like you to be so hesitant or so concerned about disrupting me."

That did earn him a dirty look, but it passed quickly, and Reno's words came out in an urgent rush. "Look, Rufus has been askin' me, yo, like non-stop, and I hate tellin' him no."

"Reno." Tseng looked disturbed. "If you are referring to some sexual matter, I would rather not - "

"Dude!" Reno laughed and shuddered all at once, which seemed to put him more at ease. "Ew, yo, no! Nothing like that! Dude, like I'd tell you, you already get all parent-y when I bring up Rufus, so...no. Dude."

Tseng didn't like to be called 'dude', almost as much as he disliked being called 'yo', so he put up his hand for silence. "Fine, good. Then what is the problem?"

"This thing...about the marks on the bodies and what they might mean." There was no need in these secure quarters to speak so vaguely, but Tseng didn't point this out; might as well encourage the boy's developing ability to beware of who might be listening. "If the prez knows and we know and Lazard gets to know, then why can't Rufus?"

"It's not our choice to make, Reno. The president will inform the vice president when it's the right time for him to know."

"But he knows there's stuff we're keepin' from him, yo!"

"The vice president is intelligent."

"It's gettin' awkward. He wants to know what's going on, he knows I know, and I can't say anything." Reno did look genuinely distressed. Tseng sighed.

"This is why I opposed your becoming involved with him."

"Really? I thought it was a conflict-of-interest thing..."

"An attachment to one's protectee only gives more incentive to guard them, provided one can keep a cool head. You are a good Turk, and will continue to be."

Reno smiled, a genuine soft grin somewhere between his playful smirk and his seductive, come-hither smile.

"But being a Turk will complicate every relationship you ever have. You will always have to keep secrets from those close to you, even if doing so costs you those relationships."

"You told me that during training..."

"I meant it."

Reno was quiet for a few moments, either absorbing or gathering his next words, gearing up for a confession he knew he might get scolded for. "Sephiroth knows. So Rufus should be able to."

"What? The general doesn't - "

"He does," Reno insisted. "He at least knows about the symbol branded on the bodies, I dunno how he found out. Why were we keeping it from him anyway?"

"Sephiroth can be trusted, certain of his closest associates cannot necessarily be, and one of them makes frequent trips to Wutai, where he could cause a great deal of diplomatic trouble. Also, it would be premature to inform the offensive branch of ShinRa until the symbol's significance has been further researched. How do you know the general - "

"Heard him talkin' about it, yo. Not very much, but I was goin' through the air ducts from Rufus's place to mine and I overheard His Royal Sexiness grumbling about having to sneak into the morgue to examine the corpses."

"Who was he talking to?"

Reno winced sympathetically. "Uh, pretty sure it was Genesis."

"Gaia damn it." Tseng rarely swore at all, so when he did it always drew the attention of those present. "This is what we were trying to prevent. Are you sure it was Commander Rhapsodos? You don't know his voice very well, do you?"

"I spoke to him yesterday. He was inviting me to a celebratory threesome or something - "

"What?"

"I said no, Tseng. Don't make that face, yo. In fact, I said 'No, thank you'. Aren't you proud of me?"

"...Yes." Where did I put my strongest brandy... "I believe accepting may have risked exposing what you and the vice president are to one another."

"That's not why..." the redhead said quietly.

"Reno?"

"Oh! Nothing."

"Reno, I don't want to be made to think of you having sex, but you can talk to me about anything else." Tseng gave the boy an encouraging, faint smile; not hard to do, as he was genuinely fond of Reno. "Do you think what you say will disappoint me?"

"Well...you said it's not a good idea to get too involved..."

"After a certain point, such things are beyond our control. And I would not wish you heartless, even if I had the power."

Reno's eyes warmed a little, cold jade softening to lush spring grass. "Rufus says he loves me. That's dangerous, isn't it?"

"Love? Yes. Having the attentions of a Shinra? Yes. But Rufus is a good man, I believe," Tseng said, choosing his words carefully though they came out blunt. "And what's done is done. How do you feel?"

"I dunno. It's so different from anything else I've ever known." A bit of hardness returned to the young Turk's eyes, as always happened when he spoke or thought of his past. "I really like it. Him. That enough, do ya think?"

"Yes." Tseng rose, went to Reno, and brushed an open hand over his shoulder. "The rest will come."

Reno looked up, smiled tiredly. "Sorry. I kinda dropped more stress on you with the Sephiroth thing, huh?"

"You reported valuable information promptly. You've done well. Now go get some sleep."

"Roger that, Boss." Reno made a face and stretched awkwardly as he got up. "Sleep sounds good. I'm all sore from bein' on my hands and knees so long."

Tseng was wearing a stricken expression, which Reno laughed at. "Not like that! From working on one of the choppers all morning, perv. Gaia, why does the fact that I have sex freak you out?"

Not wanting to appear overly paternal, Tseng lied. "It doesn't."

Cocky swagger regained, Reno turned back from the apartment door and scoffed cynically. "You do know what I was before I joined ShinRa?"

"Yes...I do." Memories of a younger Reno's suspicion of everyone, his too-old eyes, the way he flinched at touch. Yet another reason to locate that brandy ASAP. He had been a haunted man already, before his heart took on Reno's ghosts as well.

azazaza

The air of Lazard's apartment had an electrical charge to it, a thrum of anticipation like the pounding of a heartbeat or some tribal instrument. The outer rooms pulsed with this noiselessness, amplifying the sounds concentrated in the bedroom where two entangled bodies radiated heat and desire and a subtle struggle for power outward from the wide bed.

Prior to their relationship, Lazard had watched every recording of Sephiroth he could get his hands on - any excuse to look at the being he worshiped - and had noted, among many other things, that Sephiroth never sounded overexerted, just like he never sweated or stumbled or got dirty. Which made the general's current soft panting a considerable victory in Lazard's mind, though he was not so egotistical a man to dwell on this for long. And certainly not when he had Sephiroth on the bed, both of them nude, with articles of clothing and armor (and a famous, priceless katana) strewn in a haphazard trail from the door.

"You said...you would inform the president..." Sephiroth's attempt at distraction was sabotaged by his own moan. Lazard's mouth seemed to know every ultra-sensitive spot on his neck, and the general thought this should bother him but Gaia it felt so good...

"He wouldn't pay attention yet. Never does before sunrise." The director's line of damp kisses stopped where silver hair began, and Lazard buried his nose in it with a groan of deep pleasure. "Relax. Forget work, just for a while."

"You are my colleague," a slightly teasing voice reminded him, "not my superior."

"Nothing is superior to you," Lazard murmured, and locked their mouths together.

The director's tongue, like the rest of him, had grown bolder over time. (Even in the midst of a passionate kiss, some part of Sephiroth's brain carried on his usual analytical thought process.) Sephiroth's acceptance of this was another of those things that he felt should bother him, and yet he couldn't deny his enjoyment of it. With both Lazard and Genesis, it had been difficult to allow them to be on top and himself beneath - being hovered over evoked memories of Hojo's lab, of being secured with restraints instead of embraced by arms.

Yet now, with them, it was a turn-on (albeit an embarrassing one) to be dominated, subdued sometimes gently and other times forcefully but always, always with his consent. A single word could stop it anytime, and that bit of maintained power was enough safety to make it okay. Logically, Sephiroth knew that in sexual matters people take on roles that may have nothing to do with the rest of their lives; Genesis had explained this, even insisted that it was normal for powerful men to enjoy the variety of being submissive. Confusing as psychology often was for Sephiroth, apparently everyone's quirks were perfectly normal. Genesis liked to play both roles, depending on who he was with. Lazard was a docile, agreeable executive by day, only desiring control and possession in the bedroom, and even then always with such care, such gentleness...

"Sephiroth," his mellow voice whispered in rapture. Lazard threaded fingers into the silken hair, cradled the head in his hand, and placed reverent kisses all over the face and jaw. "Sephiroth."

Sephiroth was embracing him from below, tracing the muscles in his back that held unexpected strength and curiously exploring the blondish tresses that felt rougher than his own hair. Lazard's other hand was between his solid marble thighs, stroking the younger's erect shaft and ignoring his own for now. The rhythm was torturously slow but perfect as always, and Lazard whispered encouragement as he rocked into the cupping hand.

"Sephiroth." I love you, and if I told you you would only push me away... "Sephiroth."

"What?"

Laughter, a very human laughter, light-hearted like the ringing of small bells. But kind, indulgent, like that of the general's closest 1sts when he didn't understand a metaphor or needed a joke explained.

"I just like saying your name. It's beautiful. Worthy of you."

No embarrassment caused by that, fortunately. Sephiroth had been told he was beautiful and every synonym for that word a million times since his birth, and it no longer fazed him in the slightest. Taking the SOLDIER's silence for permission, Lazard continued to reverently whisper the name as he reached for a bottle of lubricant and smeared oil onto his hand. It perfumed the space between them with the scent of exotic herbs and wildflowers.

"Oh..."

Sephiroth stretched cat-like when the first finger, after circling for permission, slid inside and found the sweet spot immediately. He opened his sculpted legs, effectively opening and offering himself, and glassy-eyed Lazard wasted no time working in the second and third digits. He stretched and slicked, prepared as he always did in case this was the night, but gave the prostate plenty of attention. He knew by now what Sephiroth liked, merciless pressure, and clustered his fingers to give it.

"Like this?" Lazard asked breathily, unable to resist.

"Yessss." Sephiroth's eyes blazed, turning to boiling puddles of molten steel. "Harder."

The general's hand was made to wrap around Lazard's wrist. "Show me," a voice instructed, harsh and excited.

Elegant fingers tightened their grip. Sephiroth took in a calming breath, and jerked the wrist he gripped roughly upward, impaling himself further -with a flash of pain - on the exploring fingers. Lazard watched with concern, but Sephiroth only shuddered with pleasure. His need to be dominated was a touchy subject with the unbeatable legend, but moments like this illustrated gorgeously that he was meant to be this way, had to be. The world craved beauty and cared for it in its own fashion - the balancing opposite of its mercilessness, its Hojos and Jonah Kellers.

"Careful," Lazard croaked, when the motion was repeated several times, with increasing urgency.

"I need more..." Sephiroth truly must be in need, to say such a thing so plainly and clearly. "Harder."

"I know what you need. Will you trust me to give it?"

Sephiroth's eyes, though still on fire, cooled enough to look seriously into Lazard's, probing without words. Not debating whether he wanted to, only whether or not he dared allow himself this. Further vulnerability, further exposure. Letting someone else in, both literally and figuratively.

"Do it."

"Are you sure?"

"Do it," Sephiroth repeated, taking hold of Lazard's shoulders with both hands.

The ecstatic director needed no further convincing. He withdrew his hand to a hum of protest and quickly slicked his hard and ready length. His heart pounded near to bursting when he lifted Sephiroth's thighs toward his chest, and the vulnerability of this submissive position not only made his cock throb. It made his heart cry out protectively, shout that he wished he could wipe every moment of hurt from this angel's life and past, every trauma and absence of love that made the giving of this so difficult, and therefore all the more precious.

The unearthly perfection of this body was a little intimidating, and Lazard felt briefly like a fumbling teenager again. But Sephiroth had relaxed for him, and he eased into the tight sheath of the young man's incredible heat with care but no trouble. Lazard pushed forward, sinking into a bliss he had only ever imagined before, and thank Gaia, Sephiroth smiled. He looked relieved, peaceful, satisfied, then he peered coyly up at Lazard and purred "Move, do it." Take me, was left unsaid but came through loud and clear, and with that Lazard couldn't have aborted this even if he wanted to.

Sephiroth caught the rhythm quickly, and from the first thrust on he arched up to meet Lazard and drive him deeper, so that with each push the executive's cock was fully buried. Physical and emotional ecstasy had wiped most of the thought from Lazard's mind, but he did vaguely register some surprise at how tight Sephiroth was. He wasn't a virgin, after all...not that Lazard knew what a virgin would feel like, as he had never been with one. But no one, whatever their level of sexual experience, could possibly feel or look so glorious as the body beneath him.

The sheets and pillowcases were black silk, chosen especially for the way they looked under Sephiroth's marble skin. And his hair, like fragments of stars threaded over a midnight sky. The smooth fabric also allowed the two to fuck at a rougher pace, because it was so easy on the bodies that rubbed furiously against it. Sephiroth used the same kind and color of bed linen, and often afterwards, before he went to sleep, would lay in bed and relive Lazard's body arching into him, caressing him with worshiping hands, making him cry out with each roll of deceptively unmuscular hips.

Lazard had bent down, and into the general's parted and panting mouth he whispered "Tell me what you feel."

"G-Good..."

"Do you feel me? Feel so full that you can't take any more?"

"Y-Yes!"

"Talk to me." Lazard's voice rose in tone and desperation. "Tell me what you want me to do..."

"Fuck me. Please."

The uncommonly-used word felt strange coming off his tongue, but Lazard seemed to like hearing him say it. A hand under the small of his back lifted and brought them closer together, deliberately, so that his erection could get its needed stimulation against Lazard's abdomen. Sephiroth didn't need a hand or mouth to come as long as he was being penetrated, and Lazard loved that too. He was far less kinky and more chivalrous than Genesis, though.

Lazard was getting close; Sephiroth could tell from the strain on his face and the change in his respiration. They always tried to synchronize, to orgasm together, and it helped things along when the quickened assault on the general's prostate made him involuntarily clench his muscles. Also without meaning to, Sephiroth let out his most unrestrained moan yet, and Lazard - as though he wanted to swallow it - claimed possession of his mouth in a breath-heaving kiss. Their lips moved together and hands wandered as they came down from the shared climax.

"I love you," Lazard whispered, brokenly and desperately in a voice that hid tears. His arms must have felt Sephiroth freeze, because they wrapped around him, not tight enough to hold him unwillingly but as tight as they were capable of. "No, no, Seph, listen. You don't have to do anything. You don't have to feel anything. Just please...don't push me away."

The director was upset, Sephiroth could feel the distress in the body that settled beside him and stubbornly refused to let go. Faced with this upset of not knowing what to do, the general as always felt an urge to run. Instead - out of pity or fondness or some other tiny word meant to describe an emotion that was endless and bottomless - Sephiroth settled against Lazard and felt his own anxiety slowly fade as the older man's did. Lazard drifted into sleep first, and the general did not slip away even though he easily could have.

Sephiroth's coldness was a lifelong characteristic, a trait that had protected him from childhood trauma and shielded him from the powerful feelings he evoked in enemies and admirers both. He was Ice, not Water; he could be softened, but not melted. Years of devotion from his 1sts and unwavering love from Genesis and Angeal had brought out a clumsy but genuine warmth, and Lazard too was among the few who got to experience this blossoming humanity. This affection that, with a child's innocence and a victim's fear, gave cautiously, but within those bounds, gave all it could.

Beautiful white fingers curled into mussed, shoulder-length blond hair. Sephiroth placed his head on the nearest pillow so Lazard would see his face immediately upon waking, knowing the director loved that. Sephiroth recalled briefly, uncomfortably, that Lazard was one of the few who seemed to care for more than just his looks, but soon followed his bedmate into the quiet of rest.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 23 - My Sweet One Love

 

"Sorry about all the forms, Zack," Dr. McCall said as he returned to his desk, and seemed to mean it. "I know it's annoying, but we need all the information we can get."

The boy, tired from a night of restless sleep but clearly happy to be back in his uniform, pouted ruefully. "Same with all the blood samples?" he asked, indicating his recently prodded arm.

"Afraid so. So far..." McCall tapped a folder that lay before him. "Your bloodwork hasn't given us any leads. It's shown no sign of toxins or unprescribed medications, no bacterial or viral infections, no abnormalities in white or red cell count."

"That's good...right?"

"Yes, indeed. Other than this nighttime difficulty, you seem to be in excellent health."

Angeal - naturally present - smiled at Zack's mollified expression but continued to look critically at the doctor. "What about his mako level?"

"Normal. On the high side, but normal for Zack, at least."

"Dr. Hojo was unable to explain why Zack's base level has lately risen."

"It's rare, but it does happen occasionally, always in SOLDIERs who, like Zack, have tolerated and adapted to mako better than most. I think Dr. Hojo's surprise was mostly due to seeing it happen in such a young SOLDIER."

"You don't like him either, huh?" Zack asked suddenly.

"Zack," Angeal gently admonished, but Dr. McCall only chuckled.

"Caught me. Dr. Hojo and I don't see eye to eye on most things, so it's a good thing we have very little contact." Recently and specifically, McCall knew Hojo had offered to testify for Kaplan's prosecution that Zack's recent shift in mako level could be a result of abuse-related stress. (Wisely, Kaplan had declined, knowing the scientist's unpopularity would only be detrimental to his case.) But no need for the commander and his friendly student to know this... "Now, the questions on this page here, see? These are intended to try to rule out, or in, the possibility you've been having waking hallucinations."

"I'm not awake when it happens," Zack said, but Angeal asked "What do you think?"

"Well, Zack's answers and his file tell me he hasn't been exposed to sleep or sensory deprivation, and that he has no history of mental illness." McCall rifled through a folder of papers and scans that the SOLDIERs wouldn't have been able to easily decipher. "Bloodwork rules out drugs, and the images we took of your brain, Zack, show no damage, lesions or unusual electrical activity."

"Told ya."

"Well, it could still theoretically just be stress...you're sure they only happen while you're asleep?"

"I am sure," Angeal said authoritatively. "He is always deeply unconscious. Is that significant?"

"I think so. From what you and Dr. Oren have told me, Zack's movements during these episodes are not ones an unconscious person is capable of."

Angeal felt Zack shift with embarrassment beside him and, without thinking about it, briefly stroked the boy's hand in reassurance. "Yes," he admitted, "that's true."

"It is possible, don't you think, that Zack wakes up without showing visible signs of doing so, and has these episodes as he is falling back asleep," MCall said thoughtfully.

"I suppose so."

"Zack?"

"I don't really remember any of it," the 2nd mumbled. "Why?"

"Do you know what hypnagogic hallucinations are?" As expected, both men shook their heads. "These occur right at the onset of sleep, and frequently involve movement, even sleepwalking. Intense visual and auditory phenomena may be experienced, and it's not rare for such hallucinations to be frightening."

Zack had shrunk back a little; Angeal took and held his hand before speaking. "Can you test for this?"

"No, but clarifying a few things may be able to rule it out. Or in." Seeing Zack's renewed apprehension himself, the doctor smiled at him, a fitting expression for his kind face. "You don't remember waking up prior to an episode, not even once?"

"No, sir."

"How often would you say you wake during an average night?"

"Once I'm asleep, I stay that way till morning, unless someone wakes me." Angeal nodded his confirmation at this.

"Angeal, you haven't been able to wake him during these episodes?" McCall continued to make hasty notes of their answers. "Interesting. Zack, what do you see when this is happening?"

"Um, I don't remember seeing anything. Is that weird?"

"Highly uncharacteristic," McCall conceded, appearing less certain with each passing second. "You weren't very specific in your description...do you hear anything, like voices?"

"N-Not that I remember, sir."

"You just remember being touched?" McCall asked, sympathetic to the boy's bashfulness. Zack nodded, refusing to make eye contact. "The touching is all you can recall?"

"Yeah...some of it, I guess I don't always, 'cause Angeal's told me about a couple times I don't remember..." Zack felt his mentor's hand run gently down the back of his head, and relaxed just a little. "I wrote down what I remember, like you asked."

He had, as briefly and vaguely as possible. McCall understood, but it only made verbal prying necessary. "A figure that felt like a large, broad man, touching you intimately."

"Yeah."

"To the point of ejaculation."

"Zack, it's okay," Angeal said softly, edging his chair closer. "I know this is uncomfortable, but we need to know, to figure this out and stop it."

McCall nodded, pitying the sweet boy but determined to do his job. "Zack...does the man also ejaculate?"

"Zack was examined by Dr. Oren following the assault he witnessed," Angeal broke in. "He told me that he would collect samples for testing."

"Yes, the tests were performed. The only DNA found was Zack's." Respecting the commander for trying to block the spotlight of inquiry from his student, McCall directed his serious eyes and his next question to Angeal. "I assume you know what I'm getting at."

"You want to know if Zack was penetrated," Angeal said, quietly but with some unavoidable, protective anger. He was close enough now to put his arm over Zack's shoulders, while the boy slumped and stared at his boots. "I reported to you that it looked very much like he was. But I can tell you that at no occurrence of which I'm aware was there any semen..." Angeal's professionalism was failing him, losing out to parental discomfort. "...in the back."

"Zack, I'm truly sorry we need to be talking about this," McCall said sincerely.

The teenager lifted his slightly pink face and tensely pressed his lips together. "It's fine," he mumbled, a polite lie. "So are they hypno-whatever hallucinations?"

"Hypnagogic. I don't think so. They're usually not of a sexual nature, and tend to feature more visuals than any other kind of sensory experience. Do you feel, during the episodes, that you've lost muscle control? Are you unable to move?"

Zack didn't answer for a long pause, and there was a sudden glimmer of tears in his eyes. "I..." he began, choked up, and had to try again. "I can move, I just feel tired and...I don't remember, but I don't mean to just let it...it..."

"Zack, no one is saying you're to blame for any of this," Angeal said emphatically. His eyes made it clear he would injure anyone who would claim this, McCall took note. "The doctors and I know that there's nothing you can do about this, you're asleep when it happens. Zack, look at me. I don't know if this is an illness or a real attacker, but either way, this is something happening to you without your consent, that you can't fight alone. That's why we're here. Okay?"

"Zack, I'm sorry," McCall added. "I didn't at all mean to imply that you were asking for or allowing any of this."

"It's okay."

To hell with not trying to embarrass Zack by hovering or coddling. Angeal put his chair directly beside the other, sat back down, and drew Zack into a hug that - thankfully - was accepted. Zack rested his head against the familiar, wide chest and steady heartbeat, and pretended that the hand stroking his hair was also hiding him from the doctor's eyes.

"Pup, do you want to stop for now?"

"I'm okay." Now. "Really. Go on, Doctor."

"All right...if you're sure. You know, one of the symptoms of sleep paralysis is the imagined presence of either a visible or invisible entity. I haven't encountered any cases of the entity being physically interacted with to this extent, but that doesn't mean it's impossible." Though slightly distracted by the heartwarming (and unusual in ShinRa) sight of cuddling in front of him, McCall was nonetheless regaining enthusiasm. "Also, intense emotions are present, ecstasy, even to the point of orgasm."

Angeal looked interested. "How can we confirm this diagnosis?"

"I would need sleep lab data to look for abnormalities in his REM patterns. Zack, do you recall any sensations of being suffocated or crushed?"

"No...but I don't know. He was heavy, so when he's...on top, I can't really move." Angeal's arms tightened around him as he said this. The warmth of his closeness intensified Zack's drowsiness, but it was calming and felt so good.

"Okay. Did you hear any odd noises, like humming or buzzing?"

"Just breathing...and moaning." Only his own, but Zack didn't specify.

"Have you had any sense of rushing or tingling?"

"Uh-huh. Both."

"Puppy, does it hurt, at any point?" Angeal broke in quietly. He had never seen Zack appear to be in pain during what he'd witnessed, but the question was one the commander had been holding back and agonizing over.

Zack tilted his head back so that his face pointed up to meet Angeal's eyes, and he found their brown to be less clear than usual. Pain without tears, clouds heavy with unreleased rain. Instinctively he clung tighter to Angeal, comforting the way he was always comforted, and with an intimacy unheard of in public, Angeal lowered his head and hovered his lips over Zack's hairline, brushing the spikes with a sort of almost-kiss.

"No," the boy whispered to him, offering a weak smile. "I promise. It never hurts."

"Zack," McCall broke in quietly, reluctantly, "has this...thing had sex with you?"

The simplicity of the question, somehow, allowed Zack to blurt out a simple, honest, abrupt answer. "Yeah."

Angeal's arms tightened again, holding the boy in a protective, trembling squeeze. He put his face into Zack's soft, sweet-smelling hair, determined to hide his filling eyes until they dried and this feeling of having failed to protect his student went away. Understanding, Zack hugged back and whispered "Angeal, it's okay" into the elder's shirt and warm, tanned skin. It was becoming hard to stay awake (not surprising; he'd nearly collapsed during the walk to this office) but Zack tried, considering it his duty to stop Angeal from despairing.

As his limbs relaxed and went limp, Angeal seemed to calm at the same time, rocking gently and apparently forgetting the doctor was present. The commander seemed to forget all rooms on Gaia but this one, McCall observed with touched interest, and all the world's inhabitants but the one he held. The nature of the love filling the quiet office was not his business to unriddle; he knew only that it was much bigger than him. The doctor softly excused himself and slipped out the door, offering privacy to make up for his earlier prying.

azazaza

"So, the president does know?"

Sephiroth shrugged. However elegant all his movements were, the hesitant gesture looked odd on him. "Lazard is meeting with the president and Commander Tseng to inform them."

Genesis impatiently made a "Yes, and...?" gesture with his hand, which earned him only a curious tilt of the general's head. Earlier, Sephiroth had taken him aside in an empty corridor, dropped the bombshell news about the symbol on the corpses and what it might ultimately indicate, then had excused himself for a meeting and left his slack-jawed friend gaping at thin air. Sephiroth really had no idea how vexing his brevity of speech and tendency to skip details really was. As the workday wound down into evening, Genesis had managed to corner his beloved in the latter's office, hoping for further information.

"Hmm, how do you suppose they'll react, Seph?"

The general briefly wondered if Genesis was quizzing him on the subject of human emotion, as he occasionally did, or if he was really wondering. "Concern, I would think. Perhaps some displeasure relating to my method of obtaining the knowledge I needed. They may feel some relief that our adversary is, it seems, one we have faced before and at least know. And further displeasure that I have told you these things."

"Very nice. Wait, they know you told me about the brands?"

"I assume so. We were overheard by someone - a Turk, most likely - during our earlier conversation."

"I didn't notice anyone nearby. How do you know someone was spying?"

Sephiroth looked at him blankly. He understood that other people didn't have the same level of perception and heightened senses he did, even his 1st Classes. But that didn't make explaining his abilities any easier, and therefore he counted on at least his closest friends to not require him to try. Genesis got it, and nodded.

"Where was the little eavesdropper?"

"The air ducts."

"Did you happen to smell cinnamon at the time?"

Sephiroth's thin silver eyebrows shot up. "How did you - "

"Then it was that little redhead, Reno, crawling above our heads. How dare he be on his hands and knees without me." Genesis pouted petulantly, an expression he had practiced since infancy. "You know, I asked him if he wanted to play and he turned me down, even though it was obvious he was interested. Whoever's fucking him must be either a god in the sack or violently possessive. I wonder if it's Tseng. That'd be hot."

"Genesis," Sephiroth stopped him firmly. Just the idea of Tseng having sex with anyone had always unsettled him, he had no idea why.

"What's the matter, angel?" Genesis looked pleased now, like a large cat digesting a tasty bird. "Feeling violently possessive yourself?"

The confusion directed at him was genuine; Sephiroth was not in fact feeling jealous, at least not consciously, which was a bit disappointing. But if this uncertainty was distracting enough, maybe it could be turned to Genesis's advantage. It seemed silly to waste the privacy of this office on work.

Sephiroth had begun to talk again, eyes full of thought. "I expect word from Lazard as soon as the meeting has concluded. And I am sure the president will want to speak at length with myself, you and Angeal..."

The silver eyes flickered up, like moonlit pools being stirred, realizing Genesis's intent only when a hand caressed his cheek and a coyly smiling face hovered closely. Sephiroth opened his mouth to...question? Protest? It didn't matter. Genesis's lips were on his, gentle and coaxing as the arms around him were domineering and insistent. Their identical heights made it easy to press the entire lengths of their bodies together, easy for Genesis to push the general's coat to the floor and shudder with pleasure as all that silk-marble skin was bared to his hands.

"Genesis," Sephiroth started to scold, but faltered as his own desire was kindled. Fingers slid up from his nape into his long hair, massaging and cradling his scalp. "Ohhhh..."

The general's head was tilted, exposing his neck for Genesis to suck, vampire-like, on the warming flesh above the jugular vein. Without pausing this, the elder 1st helped Sephiroth's unsteady hands discard his red leather jacket, then took hold of Sephiroth's hips and pushed a knee between his legs.

"You're hard," Genesis whispered, the electricity of his voice tingling against the wet skin. He retracted his leg and pressed their crotches together, heat and thickness rubbing heat and thickness. "I'm hard too. I don't think I've been soft since I met you."

"Nnn...you were seven..."

"You could make a fetus go into puberty, baby." The hands clutching Genesis's arms were needy, but the angelic man seemed faintly troubled as well. Genesis comforted him with kisses, stroked his hair, lazily circled a nipple with his free thumb. "Gaia, I want you. Tell me what you need."

Sephiroth let his face fall out of sight against Genesis's neck. It was so rare and touching an act of vulnerability that Genesis hugged him tightly and made a low questioning noise into his ear.

"What is wrong with me?" The words were only just loud enough for Genesis to pick up; it helped that he had heard them before.

"Nothing, Seph. I told you. There's nothing strange about wanting to be dominated. You only think there is because it still frightens you to relinquish control."

They were nestled as close together as two people could possibly be, and thoughts seemed to pass from one to the other, absorbed through skin or kisses. Sephiroth didn't deny what could be taken as an insult, because he remembered that all his worst times in Hojo's lab while growing up involved being physically or chemically restrained. There, it didn't matter how famous or lethal he was, he had never been strong against the needles and straps and the pinched, spectacled smile of triumph that loomed over him.

"There's more strength in giving than in taking," Genesis's melodious voice soothed, chasing back the demons of the past even if it couldn't destroy them. "More control in offering yourself, for as long as you give it willingly, you are the one who has cast the spell. No matter how much anyone fears or worships or loves you, no one owns you, Seph. No one ever will. I promise."

Genesis knew he had spoken right to the heart of Sephiroth's deepest, most fearful insecurity, and even if the words were helpful, the general was unsettled by anyone delving so deeply into his soul. He would seek either distance or sexual distraction now...oh thank the Goddess, he was pulling Genesis back into a kiss, an eager one. Genesis let him call the shots for a few moments before backing him against the large desk and asserting dominance with tongue and hands. Sephiroth tensed for a moment, as he always did, then relaxed into it with a noticeable relief.

Sephiroth made no attempt to scold or even squirm when his pants were slid down to his thighs, and hands groped his bare cheeks to lift and ease him onto the desk. "Legs up," Genesis whispered, and hoisted them over his own shoulders. As he opened his own pants and fit their bodies snugly together, Sephiroth said - with just a faint tremble of need in his voice - "It's in the third drawer."

"I carry my own, remember?" Genesis dug the expensive lubricant from his pocket, and a few heartbeats later his cool, slick fingers began to probe the sensitive skin and muscle inside Sephiroth.

"Do it now." That last word came out as a moan; Genesis had found the right spot and massaged it between his fingers. The faintest pain, overpowered by pleasure, and Sephiroth made a very unprofessional, strangled noise. "Genesis," he murmured, and his eyes rolled as the fingertips sped up, "now..."

Genesis didn't respond verbally, merely brushed his lips over Sephiroth's faintly flushed jawline and pushed his hand inside further, moved it in a rough frenzy with the intent to undo his precious prey completely. The stimulation was making the heat tense and relax in turn, spasm but allow the intrusion that invoked so much trembling pleasure; Sephiroth gasped and pulled Genesis closer by the hips, indicating what he wanted with a rare whimper.

"I made you warm," Genesis sang in a low, hypnotic voice. "You can't stay cold, not with me."

Sephiroth's below-human temperature had indeed risen, up to around normal for most people but feeling like a fever to him. Aware that he couldn't control his expression or utterances, the general dropped his forehead onto Genesis's shoulder and turned his face into his neck, biting lightly at the sensitive skin just the way the Red SOLDIER liked. For a moment, Genesis thought his cock would literally explode from built-up arousal and frantically unfastened his burgundy leather pants.

Relief hand-in-hand with rising need flooded them simultaneously as Genesis withdrew his fingers, applied lubricant and sheathed himself, all in one hasty, fluid movement. He gripped Sephiroth's narrow hips and impaled the slim body to the root of his shaft, then pulled all but the very tip out before slamming back inside. A violent shudder went through the younger body, exhaled in a groan of satisfaction. Genesis thrust in a rolling motion, determined that there would be no nerve in the tight passage left untouched, and as silver hair spilled forward with each jolt he rubbed his face rapturously into the heavenly silk of it. Sephiroth rocked in response to Genesis's movements, drawing him in deeper, frustrated even amidst the pleasure because it was never deep enough, wouldn't be unless he was split apart and left in sated pieces.

Genesis slowed, somehow, though it was clearly just as frustrating for him as it was for Sephiroth to delay the burst they were working toward. The younger groaned pleadingly, and Genesis whispered "Ssh", kissed and nuzzled Sephiroth's face, stroked his hair with loving but desperate need.

"Am I still the only one?"

"No."

Where another might have hesitated or apologized, Sephiroth sounded puzzled, probably wondering how Genesis would react, and whether this was a situation in which it would have been kinder to lie. But he wouldn't lie to Genesis, and Genesis knew it. The general wasn't sure what he'd been expecting - he knew well that the elder had a jealous streak - but it could certainly have been worse. The thrusts remained slow but pushed as deeply as possible, filling him wonderfully and keeping merciless pressure on the prostate. All that seemed to change was that the caressing became more possessive.

"Did Lazard enjoy you?" No anger in the whisper, it was only sensual and aroused. "Did you enjoy it?"

"Yes..."

"Good...mmm, maybe sometime you can take us both." Genesis's movements and breathing were becoming rapid again. "Come, come for me like you came for him...yessss, take it, you need it all and I need to fill you up - "

Sephiroth's bent legs, wrapped around the pistoning hips, stiffened and spasmed, and his head fell back, allowing Genesis to latch onto his neck and suck with breathless moans. Milky white splattered Genesis's midsection and trickled down Sephiroth's thighs, and it was one of those rare moments that the order-obsessed general didn't care that a mess was being made in his office. A bit dazed, he made sure Genesis was steady on his feet before lowering his legs, and in turn Genesis put his arms around Sephiroth and held him close while they recovered.

"I was thinking I'd do my celebratory dinner tomorrow night," the commander murmured. "If the doctors aren't still hogging Puppy by then. You'll be there, right?"

"Yes. Are you displeased?"

"About what?" Genesis asked lightly.

"That I had sex with Lazard."

"Oh. No. It was only a matter of time. I'm bigger than him, right?"

"Yes."

"Length and width?"

"Only slightly so in width, but approximately two inches longer."

"Excellent," Genesis cackled before his voice dropped into a serious tone. "He loves you too, right?"

"He said he does."

"Just remember that I love you more."

"Very well."

"And I'm bigger. And I know you love me too. You don't have to say it."

"Thank you," Sephiroth whispered, running his fingers over mussed auburn hair, and the two words and gesture conveyed the sentiment Genesis had spoken back to him. It did hurt to have to share Sephiroth, but at times like this, he could at least believe that Sephiroth's heart was all his.

azazaza

"I hate that people are...y'know...gonna be watching."

One of Angeal's hands was holding one of Zack's, while the other was out of the boy's sight, clutching the side of the hospital bed's mattress - the only visible manifestation of anger he would show. The commander understood that this sleep lab observation was necessary in order to diagnose his student, but he didn't have to like it. By putting Zack in this room to observe and having him sleep, it felt uncomfortably like they were putting him out as bait for whatever this incubus-thing was.

"I know, Pup. But it's doctors, professionals, at least. And me. Is it all right if I stay?"

"Yeah." Zack squeezed his hand impulsively. "Please."

"I wish I could make this just stop," Angeal said quietly. "I hate that we have to put you through this."

"It's okay, Angeal. Not anyone's fault, like you said, right?"

"That's right." The 1st relaxed his hand from its grip on the sheets and began to stroke Zack's hair back from his forehead. "I'll stay right here until you fall asleep."

"You don't have to..." But Zack's hand tightened its hold on Angeal's and showed no sign of letting go.

Angeal sat down on the chair that had been placed there for him. "I would like to."

"Don' worry, Angeal." The boy blinked his half-open eyes and offered a sleepy smile. "'M okay. Really. Doesn't hurt."

It does, Puppy. It's hurting us all, but you the most, and I could never forgive that. Not thinking, moved by the warmth that connected their hearts in an invisible line, the commander leaned in and left a light but unhurried kiss on Zack's forehead. Zack made a soft noise of pleasure, Angeal was instantly reminded of the beautiful, heart-tearing-out sounds he made while he was being touched, and the commander didn't draw back so much as he recoiled in flushed shame. Luckily, the exhausted boy was already on his way into sleep and didn't notice.

"Commander?" Dr. McCall said lowly from somewhere behind. "We're ready."

I wish I was.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 24 - Dust And Laurels

 

There was nothing about this situation that wasn't unnerving. The tall, wide window in front of them that gave a clear view of Zack's unconscious body would have been enough to make this feel like some creepy stalking venture. But then there was the monitors. Not only the one that displayed Zack's vitals, and the one that showed his brain-wave patterns - there was also one that was fed from a camera aimed in a close-up of the teenager's face, its pure beauty unknowingly staring Angeal down in accusation. Worst was the camera angle Angeal almost objected to aloud, blatantly offering a zoomed-in view of the underaged boy's blanket-covered hips. If arguing that wouldn't have risked drawing suspicion to his secret feelings, the Stoic Commander would have thrown that camera to the hard floor, or at least smashed the offending monitor.

"Such a great kid," McCall mused from the chair beside him. "It breaks my heart."

"He's...remarkable."

The doctor chuckled; as he was not a military man, he was not quite as intimidated by the famous Commander Hewley as the members of SOLDIER were. "Lucky, too. You puff up like a proud parent whenever Zack is complimented. It's sweet."

Angeal wasn't sure how to respond to that without either admitting his attachment or futilely trying to deny it. "There seems to be a change in the wave pattern."

"You're right, he's moving from low alpha waves into high beta. So far, his sleep progression is going normally."

"If this is a vivid dream, it will come during the Rapid Eye Movement phase, correct?"

"Yes," McCall said with a serious nod.

"When will that begin?"

"REM typically sets in between eighty and a hundred-twenty minutes after onset of sleep. If Zack were narcoleptic, as we thought he might be, REM would have begun much faster, in as little as fifteen minutes."

"Do you still suspect narcolepsy?" Angeal knew little about the disorder, but was fairly certain it could be treated.

"Zack does fit many of the symptoms...but I think that would be too simple an explanation. Narcolepsy is not so rare. Being sexually assaulted in sleep, whether by something real or a figment of imagination...that is rather unique." McCall felt Angeal's discomfort palpably in the space between them, and spoke with respectful sympathy to it. "This must be agony for you."

"It's...frustrating to watch Zack deal with an enemy I can't fight for him."

"Every loving teacher's worst nightmare," McCall agreed, and Angeal was wondering if he should wave this suggestion away or if it was harmless, but the doctor spoke again before he could decide. "It's beginning. That's odd.."

"What?" Angeal's gaze was fixed on the nearest camera feed, the monitor that was showing Zack's closed eyelids twitching. "He's gone into REM?"

"That's just it, he hasn't. There shouldn't be dreams or hallucinations at this stage of beta sleep, he's not under deep enough."

"What does this mean?" Angeal demanded, still seated but just barely touching the chair.

"It...it would be premature to - "

"Doctor, please, just tell me what you're thinking, however unsupported a theory it might be."

Zack's limp arms were hanging off either side of the hospital bed, hands at rest save for a curling of his fingers. His upper body seemed to be pressing back against the mattress, while the lower was lifting slightly, with the knees slowly inching apart. Zack's head had fallen to one side so his face pointed toward the cameras, and even if the microphones hadn't picked up the sound of his louder breathing, the change was easily discernible from his parted lips and the rise and fall of his chest.

"Doctor."

"This may not be a mystery of what is happening inside Zack...but rather, what is being done to him, and by whom."

It was one thing for Angeal to have wondered that very possibility, when only his own inner voice wailed it and he could summon reasonable doubt as a shield against such horror. It was quite another to hear McCall agree so solemnly, with a voice weighted by shock and helplessness and pity. Fists clenched into weapons as lethal as his sword, Angeal swept his eyes over the monitors and observation window. Zack was arching and writhing on the disarrayed bed, his legs up out of the way and body raised off the sheets from the waist down. McCall made no attempt to stop the commander when he headed urgently for the door - only followed him.

"Zack!" Angeal called as he approached; as expected, the boy didn't hear him. But "Zack" he said again as he touched the flushed face, too worried and angry to enjoy the way Zack nuzzled his hand. "Dammit, whatever you are, show yourself!"

McCall, meanwhile, flung the blanket off of Zack and - professionally, without, embarrassment - lifted the thin hospital gown up so the boy was nude from the chest down. Angeal was about to object - purely out of instinct, as he knew the doctor was just doing his job - but then he saw the color drain from the man's face, and moved like a runner through quicksand to see what could have made McCall go pale and wide-eyed.

First to ensnare Angeal's eyes, to his shame, was the hardness between his student's bent legs. He'd seen this part of Zack in occasional glimpses, but not swollen and reddened like this, ready and needing stimulation...and by the way Zack was thrusting, someone or something may have indeed been taking care of it. McCall was indicating something else, with shaking hands and an inability to speak. Then Angeal saw, despite knowing he should never under any circumstances be looking at so private a part of his Puppy's anatomy.

There was no delicate way to describe it, no tactful words the mind could form to detail what the doctor and the SOLDIER were looking at. The entrance to the innocence Angeal had long protected was spread and held open, exactly as though an invisible phallus was easing its way in and out and making the muscles contract and quiver in what was obviously a very satisfying rhythm for Zack. They didn't need to speak to each know what the other was thinking - that this could not be explained by anything psychological or neurological, or anything that could be found on scans and in blood tests. What they were looking at could be one thing and one thing only. Someone they could not see or touch or stop was having sex with Zack.

Though he knew it was futile, Angeal - after determining that his hands only flew through the figure he wanted to wrestle away and kill - shook Zack's shoulders and spoke to him, trying to wake his student up. So focused was the commander that he barely heard McCall ask permission to perform an exam. When Angeal heard the snap of rubber gloves being donned, he turned to watch with a desperate expression, holding Zack's shifting head and shoulders to his chest.

"Doctor?"

McCall's professional determination was giving way to a helplessness that was the bane of every devoted healer. As he withdrew his gently probing fingers, his mouth worked soundlessly in Angeal's direction before managing "There's nothing there."

"There has to be, just look!"

"I know, but I can't feel anything, anywhere. How can it be affecting Zack physically and yet not be tangible to us?"

Oblivious to their presence and worry, Zack continued to move as though accepting the thrusts of a dominant partner, thrusts that sped up and made the boy moan and his head loll against his teacher's abdomen. His expression became one of confusion when Angeal grabbed and held his hand. Zack squeezed back, and though this acknowledgment pleased Angeal, he regretted seeking it. Because as awful as it was to see Zack enjoying this kind of assault, seeing him look puzzled and conflicted was worse. Angeal wondered if he was waking, or being made to feel pain...then Zack spasmed in the hands that held him, his hips jerked a few more times, and without thinking McCall put a folded towel down to catch the semen the boy released. Eyes still closed, Zack caught his breath as his legs were straightened out and returned to the tangle of sheets below.

"I'll - " McCall cleared his throat and began again. "I'll check him for foreign ejaculate and clean him up."

Angeal nodded, not trusting his voice. His thick arms adjusted the sleeping teenager to rest more comfortably, hugging Zack protectively and keenly aware of the soft, warm breath being exhaled onto his bicep. After a few moments of listening to the sound of his mentor's heartbeat, Zack seemed to recognize it and sleepily nuzzled closer. Sighing, Angeal rubbed his cheek and nose into soft black spikes, even left a few kisses before being reminded that they weren't alone. The doctor had finished and was tucking a clean blanket around Zack, covering him securely from the waist down. A pathetic shield against the assailant they had to contend with.

"I need to analyze the recorded brainwave patterns," McCall was saying, "and confer with the other doctors. We will find out what is causing this and put an end to it."

"Thank you," Angeal murmured. Wondering if Zack would be more comfortable laying flat, he moved to put him down.

The teenager's body thrashed in a brief, sudden tremor - "Myoclonic jerk," the doctor's mind volunteered unbidden - and still asleep, Zack scrambled puppy-like to stay where he was. His fingers dug into Angeal's shirt, stretched and pulled at it, and his face sought its former resting place over the heartbeat with a pitiful whimper. Angeal understood and obliged, increasing the tightness of his arms around Zack until the boy settled down.

"Doctor...does he know, do you think? Know what's just happened?"

"Hard to say. Does he commonly cling to you like that?" McCall waited for an answer that didn't come, and offered a smile of understanding. "You are, indeed, both lucky."

"I don't know what you mean, Doctor."

You're going through a lot, Commander. So I'll pretend to believe you. McCall nodded and went back to his equipment; as he did so he caught a glimpse of reflection in the wide window. For someone who had played dumb only moments before, it was with obvious and protective love that Angeal held and pet his student.

azazaza

The meeting room's large display screen currently showed two ornate symbols side by side, thick, skillful black brushstrokes against a background of clinical white. Sephiroth had drawn them for Lazard to feed into the computer, and of course, they looked like the work of a calligraphy expert. Lazard had, on receiving the Wutainese characters from a casual and thoroughly unimpressed general, to resist the urge to gush and compliment and be unmanly to an extent that the mere thought made him cringe. Also, Sephiroth always reacted to praise with either confusion or blankness, which led the director to believe he didn't like it. The infatuated executive settled for a subtle gaze of adoration from his place at the conference table and hoped no one would notice.

Tseng would, normally, but he was unusually preoccupied today, with most of his thought and concern devoted to a Turk mission presently underway in the city. As ShinRa's intelligence-gathering agency, if the Turks determined information was credible, it was, and this operation was a chance to take down and hopefully capture a group of insurgents native to Wutai. Like Lazard, Tseng was attempting to appear nonchalant. This mission was an important one, and on top of that, he had never lost the habit of worrying whenever work took Reno into danger.

The only person here who seemed genuinely relaxed was the president, and that was likely because he didn't yet understand. He frowned and nodded as Sephiroth explained the history of the two characters (as simply as possible): the familiar one that used to signify 'vengeance' and now stood for 'love', and the one branded on the corpses in the morgue, originally meaning 'love' but now holding the menacing connotation of 'vengeance'. The president shifted uncomfortably as the general remorselessly reported his unauthorized observation of the branded bodies; of course Shinra could hardly reprimand a disobedience that had led to a revelation, and that he had not even expressly forbidden anyway. The silent agreement seemed to be that he would not punish, Sephiroth would not apologize, and they would all focus on more important matters, like the rather perplexing one at hand.

"Very interesting, Sephiroth," Shinra conceded. "Are you suggesting that the first symbol may also be utilized as a brand on our enemies?"

"It already has been, sir."

Sephiroth glanced quickly at Tseng, who was suddenly sitting up straight and staring at the display board with surprise and recognition. The head Turk, being half-Wutaian, could speak the language, but was not completely fluent in its writing system. Still, Tseng scolded himself, he should've recognized that first symbol immediately.

The president was even more baffled now, and turned to Tseng for help. The faithful Turk rarely exhibited such strong feelings of surprise and annoyance at himself. Shinra was as a rule not terribly skilled at reading his most trusted servant, but for once his hunch was correct - Tseng was mentally slapping himself upside the head.

"Tseng, what is it?"

With a nod, the Turk snapped himself back to full alertness, rose (with less than his usual steadiness) and went to the conference table's computer interface controls. A few moments of taps and clicks followed, then images began to appear on the large screen to the left. It was a gruesome slideshow to be sure, prompting a silence that was sad, perplexed or respectful, depending on which face was examined. Photos of battle - someone as knowledgable as Sephiroth or Tseng would easily recognize the engaged parties as SOLDIERs and Wutaian troops. ShinRa had faced Wutaian forces of all different kinds - ninjas, guerillas, suicide attackers, paratroops, environmental activists. There didn't seem, Shinra thought, to be anything that stood out about them. Vicious, fearless, scantily-clothed, wielding swords with curved blades. The only eye-catcher was that, while Wutai soldiers tended to fan out and spread themselves thinly, these were staying in pairs.

Shinra glanced around the table, seeing that everyone else understood what they were looking at and feeling annoyed to be the last left in the dark. Certainly, these fighters captured on film in their last moments were a bit familiar, but he was the president. What did he pay so many people for if not the comfort of not having to remember everything?

The images continued, documenting the mess and chaos of war - lightened by a few of Genesis posing for what had doubtless been an intimidated photographer - and the pictures of action gave way to the stillness that always followed eerily on the heels of battle. Assigned to document the military action and ShinRa's victory, the unseen man behind the camera had done his job faithfully. There was the destruction of plant life and buildings, there the weary victors tending to their wounded comrades. And then the corpses of the enemy, laying mostly in twos on the bloody ground, some couples even embracing or holding hands. A few shots, like afterthoughts, were close-ups of various cold body parts - chests, biceps, wrists, fingers, etc. - each adorned with the first character Sephiroth had shown them. Formerly 'vengeance', now 'love', the opposite of what had been found recently in the morgue.

"I've seen that before," Shinra said lowly, mostly to himself but also to indicate that he at least had a clue what he was being informed of. "That symbol. Those warriors."

Tseng had not taken his eyes from the screen since the last photo had appeared. Having made many childhood and adolescent trips to his father's homeland, he felt a familiarity for the landscape of these pictures, though not any particular attachment or homesickness. What was surging up in the respected Turk was memories of a tale out of Wutai's rich history that had risen up years ago and cost ShinRa many irreplaceable lives. A tradition of coupled warrior-zealots whose fierceness and patriotism had inspired the nation of Wutai for centuries, who had been identifiable by the mysterious brand they wore, until they were wiped out and scattered only a handful of years earlier. Or...were they?

Sephiroth's mercury eyes left the screen and flickered back and forth between the president and Tseng. He saw the Turk commander's realization, and saw that he was not yet willing or able to speak. Tseng's finger on the dark, polished wood tabletop moved trance-like to trace the symbol in question. The man understood, but out of sympathy for their similar personalities and command styles, Sephiroth spoke for him.

"The Koibito, Mr. President. It is my present hypothesis that they have re-formed, and are the orchestrators of the recent attacks upon us."

azazaza

"I'm sorry for laying all this on you, Gen," Angeal sighed, referring to his responsibilities as head of the 2nd Class.

"Don't worry about it, not for a moment."

"But you hate paperwork."

"I'll pretend I'm signing autographs. Besides, you belong here, taking care of him, and I'll help you be there, whatever it takes."

The two famous 1sts were sitting on either side of the hospital bed, forming a wall of protection around the sleeping boy between them. Their fingers entwined together in the air above Zack, the familiar gesture of love that transcended all words and all other touches. Angeal's other hand was occupied scribbling his signature and organizing the documents on the nightstand, but it frequently, absently, went to Zack's hair - still damp from Angeal bathing him a short while ago - and stroked it.

"When are they going to let him wake up?" Genesis's voice was more careful and deliberate than usual, every word like a cautious step over rice paper.

"Soon. They wanted him to have some undisturbed rest...not that any drugs so far have been able to stop..."

Genesis's eyes glowed with concern for the way his decisive friend trailed off, so hesitating. Or angry, yes, surely Angeal was merely taking refuge from his fury by displaying this heartbreaking weariness. Genesis had to believe this, because the alternative was accepting that his kindred-spirit, his indomitable protector, was truly being defeated, by an opponent that couldn't be slashed to pieces for having dared to hurt him, hurt them.

"Well. They better not interfere with my dinner party."

Angeal shook his head. "They won't. They want Zack back here tonight, but until it's time for him to sleep, he's allowed to leave."

"Poor little thing." Genesis placed a chaste kiss on Zack's cheek, and laughed briefly at the sleeping boy's responding pout. "And in the midst of this, an old enemy arises out of what we thought was a past at rest. I'll hate it if Seph and I get called into another war before Puppy is all right again."

"The past is never at rest," Angeal murmured. Memories of summer nights spent with his body entwined with Genesis's, then alone, knowing it was better to be so than with the wrong person. Years of casual partners, unmemorable trysts, heart steady as earth and calmly cool as frost...then winter blue eyes met his, and his heart warmed and cracked open, and the ground under his feet turned him and the world upside down.

"'Geal? I'm afraid for you."

For me? "Zack's the one being violated."

"Which he would gladly bear, and anything else, to have you with him," Genesis said, the hint of a sigh lifting his melodious voice. "You're the one putting me in mind of an old house trembling on its foundation. One more strong wind, and the walls fall down."

"My walls are strong." You, Seph...Zack...

"We are. Won't you lean on me more, 'Geal? Let me hold some of the weight you're carrying."

In that moment, he almost blurted it out. Every inappropriate thought, every surge of shameful longing, every accusation that ShinRa had been right to nearly take Zack from him, that they had guessed his guilt when he had scarcely realized it himself. Genesis would reassure, fiercely if necessary, proclaim him blameless, insist that this was a good thing, even save his I-told-you-so! for a more light-hearted time. Confessing would have been an unburdening. But Angeal couldn't bear to be encouraged in something he hadn't entirely made peace with yet, maybe never would. Besides, if he was going to keep it a secret from Zack, it was safest to not let Genesis know either.

"I'll be fine, Gen, really. But it's only fair to warn you - if I get called up to go to Wutai before Zack is a hundred percent, I'll refuse."

"Oh, no worries about that, at least." Flipping back his sleek auburn hair, Genesis went on. "The president told Seph and I that he won't force you and Zack apart."

"He said that?"

"I think he saw in our eyes that if he tried to send all three of us to Wutai, we'd just kidnap Puppy and go AWOL. Bye bye, Trinity. He may have also heard me say I'd find it interesting to be one of the Koibito, if I weren't so happy in ShinRa, of course." Genesis smirked. "Did I mention we're all getting pay raises?"

Angeal scoffed, not enough to laugh, but he did smile. For a man of his austere tastes, their salary was already laughably huge to him. He mostly just let it sit in his account; as far as he knew, Zack did the same, except when a new game system came out. Did I influence him in that? Well, better me than Gen...

"Thank you. Have you or Seph any idea when you might leave?"

"No...not too soon, of course, no one plays their trump card in the first hand. Seph's probably holed up somewhere with his maps, working out our victory down to the last detail."

"That should keep him busy at least an hour." Genesis let out a full laugh at that; it was like a potion to Angeal's sore heart. "If you two have to go without me...I'm sorry, Gen."

"You belong here, with him. Seph and I will just have the glory and all the best fucking spots to ourselves. And I'll bring you some toys, because I'm sure your right hand must be getting boring."

"That again?"

"No." Genesis's unnatural-blue eyes seemed to shine with something more than usual, though it could have just been the reflected white of the room. "I believe you. You're happy with me and Seph and your Puppy. Then I don't need to push you anymore, do I?"

No. But considering the ledge I'm standing on, it might be a mercy.

azazaza

Genesis had redecorated the dining area of his apartment yet again, possibly - Angeal suspected - merely for this one night. The under-a-night-sky theme of only a week before had been replaced by colors and objects clearly intended to evoke the feel of a Wutaian temple. Native flowers, popular national dishes, a low ornate table, delicate paper lanterns hanging all around.

He had even presented each guest with Wutai-style ceremonial robes to change into. Genesis wore gold, Sephiroth black, Angeal dark green, and Zack pale blue. They all played along, with some good-natured eye-rolling, but Zack had to admit to himself that the flowy silk draped around him was quite comfortable. And in this atmosphere warm with safety and friendship, his appetite returned enough to eat a little. Genesis had surrounded the boy with cushions and told him it was fine if he wanted to nod off, but the need to listen to the elders discuss ShinRa's unveiled threat was too strong. Zack drank several cups of tea as they spoke, hoping the caffeine would keep him awake.

"You mean you haven't decided every detail of our strategy yet? I'm shocked, Seph. It's been hours."

"This is not a simple assault on a fixed location, or a defense of one. There is presently too little information and too many variables to be certain of anything. We are not even sure it is the Koibito."

"I was kidding," Genesis sighed. "And of course it's them. We know the culprits are Wutaian at the source. And no Wutaian would anger the gods by posing as a Koibito. Their vows are serious."

"Vows?" Zack echoed.

"Oh, you know, the usual. To leave no lover unavenged, to fight without surrender against spoilers of the land and the planet. The rules they live by are quite complex, and not fully known to outsiders."

"They would, more than any group I can think of, have reason to strike at us," Angeal said heavily. "And to use the symbols for 'love' and 'vengeance' as though they were the same thing."

"If they care so much about love, why do they fight and kill?" Zack asked, unaware of how young he sounded.

The others exchanged quick glances. How to properly explain the similarity between the rush of battle and the frenzy of sex? How to describe the ferocious lust for both blood and flesh that characterized the Koibito, who were known to copulate even in the midst of battle - with one another or captured opponents - and think nothing odd or immoral about it? And then, how to defend Genesis's respect for them, for their fidelity of heart to each other? The eldest of them had less than ten years on Zack, but still, in terms of worldliness, the boy was just a baby. Some knowledge can only be understood through experience.

"It is hard to say," Angeal said finally. "They seem to believe that they honor one another by the blood they shed, that both love and death are equally celebrations of life. The Koibito were not always the villains they became, Puppy. They began as protectors of Wutai and servants of Musubi-No-Kami, the god of love."

"So what happened? It was ShinRa, wasn't it?"

"Work for this company a while longer before you get all jaded about it, sweetie," Genesis said with a knowing look.

"I just want to know the truth."

"All truth is subjective," Sephiroth said evenly.

"He's right, Pup." Angeal brushed a shock of black hair out of Zack's face. "Besides, it doesn't matter now who started it. The Koibito are dangerous, to their countrymen and everyone else, and they do not forgive. If they have truly decided to take us on, nothing will deter them from their goal."

"Except maybe Seph, if he pulls the same ingenious trick as last time."

Sephiroth hesitated, glancing at Angeal for permission to speak of this in front of Zack. He received a slight nod, and turned a faintly disgruntled expression on Genesis.

"A diversion was necessary. I had little time to make the decision."

"Oh, it was brilliant. Don't get me wrong. Wouldn't mind seeing it - "

"Gen," Angeal said lowly. Zack was fine, hiding a smile behind his hand, but Sephiroth's face had a stony look to it, a sign of discomfort.

"Sorry, sorry."

Zack mercifully shifted them both back onto their topic. "Are the Koibito very fierce fighters, like the ninjas?"

"Their styles and choices of weaponry vary," Sephiroth answered, his expression already warmer and more animated. "But yes, they are quite ruthless. Especially when one of a pair is killed. The other will then often seek revenge to the point of his own death. The last battle we fought against them, the one in which we nearly wiped them out, was the result of such a loss."

"Mmm, yes," Genesis chimed in, resting his chin in a cupped hand and looking into empty space dreamily. "A sad love story. In the penultimate battle between us, the chief's son Tatake led them while his father lay dying. He had a young lover to whom, our sparse intel told us, he was extremely attached. The boy was killed during the engagement."

"Oh," Zack said softly, sympathetic even for an enemy.

"Tatake would have drowned the valley with our blood and theirs, if he could have."

"But you won."

"Not exactly," Sephiroth said, shaking his head. The soft lamplight reflected in his hair and eyes and made him look like a pool of flames. "I believe we would have won, though at great cost. But the Koibito retreated, and we let them, to seek a stronger position for the next time."

"I thought they never surrendered or ran away."

"One vow they make is to obey the omens of the gods, sometimes divined by a wise man or leader, sometimes too obvious to ignore. It was a cloudless afternoon, yet a single, startling clap of thunder came from the clear sky. A sign that the gods wanted all present military action halted at once."

"Wow, how lucky," Zack mused.

Sephiroth nodded shortly. "I would have liked to continue the battle, but the respite was best for the men, many of whom were wounded. So yes, most fortunate."

"Aw, Seph loooves us," Genesis cooed. He was saved from a glare or reprimand, because the general's phone rang and he answered it, speaking softly so the others could continue the conversation. Zack seemed troubled; Angeal ran a petting hand over his hair to get his attention.

"Are you all right? You look worried."

"Yeah..."

"I know you don't want to go to the sleep lab, or sleep at all, but I'll be with you, and we'll put a stop to this."

Zack smiled, uneasily at first, then it softened into affection and tiredness. "I meant about fighting the Koibito."

"Ah, about Seph and Gen."

"We'll be fine, baby," Genesis said confidently. "None of us were even minorly wounded last time. And it'll be easier this time," he added jokingly, "without Angeal there nagging me."

"I want to go too, I want to help."

"Absolutely not," burst firmly and without though from Angeal's lips. "You're in no condition for sparring, let alone battle."

"When I'm better, then."

"I don't think so."

"But why?"

"Probably because those pervs make me look like a complete prude," Genesis said airily. "You'd only end up serving as bait."

"But I want to help."

"Maybe you can," Angeal said vaguely, "but making too many plans now would be unwise. We still don't know very much."

"That may be about to change." Sephiroth snapped his phone shut and looked up passively. "The Turks have taken new prisoners."

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 25 - Pure As Prayer

 

"Our intel indicated that a group of men, all with ties of some sort to Wutai and all with anti-ShinRa sympathies, were engaging in suspicious activity centering around an abandoned warehouse in Sector Four. We had gathered credible reports of them dealing with weapon-sellers, obtaining explosive materials and trying to recruit local gang members into what the targets described only as 'revolt against the tyranny of ShinRa'. We surveilled the location for three days. We had intended to do so longer, but the sector's civilian population was beginning to notice the strangers and was growing alarmed. Thus we were forced to act yesterday afternoon at precisely four-thirteen, at which time we surrounded the facility, secured all exits and proceeded inside.

"Of the five targets, four were discovered inside. Target One, identity unknown, set off a flashbomb as a smokescreen and escaped under its cover. Target Two, identity unknown, triggered an incendiary device he was holding and died instantly. Target Three, who has given us the name Hankan, was subdued after a brief chase and is now in custody. Target Four, who has given no name but whom I believe to be a Wutaian kenjin or wise man, surrendered peacefully and is also in custody. We also seized a cache of weapons that seemed to be bound for Wutai's northern port of Kitakaikou, and documents that are being examined and translated now."

"I will assist with that, if necessary," Sephiroth said from the other side of the conference table.

"Thank you, General." His report given, Tseng sat down.

The president nodded. "All in all, a satisfactory mission. What do you think, Rufus?"

Beside him, the reddish-blond figure of the young vice president stirred out of deep thought, having heard everything but clearly not where he most wanted to be. Rufus had come into the meeting late, as he'd left Reno's side since the mission only reluctantly. If his lover had been injured, even the elder Shinra's wrath would not have been able to drag him here.

"I think, Father, the prisoners must be made to talk."

President Shinra took note of the chill in his son's voice and patted his shoulder with a soft laugh. "No need to be bloodthirsty quite yet," he said with a hint of pride. "Verbal threats first, right, Tseng?"

The head Turk nodded, but his eyes lingered for a few moments on Rufus. He'd known the boy for years, knew Rufus was not bloodthirsty, merely quiet and analytical; a son who wanted to please his father, and his only ruthlessness came out of that wish. Tseng remembered what Reno had confided to him about Rufus's feelings, and understood the young heir's quiet anger. He had long been lonely and did not wish to be so again, and every mission Reno went on threatened the happiness they'd found together.

Rufus and Reno are growing up. What a company to have to do it in. What a world.

A voice that sounded faintly musical had begun; Commander Rhapsodos was speaking. "I have a thought. Going with the theory that it is the Koibito we are facing again..." Here he paused, and when Sephiroth said nothing, continued. "They're fanatics who oppose not only ShinRa, but the established order of Wutai. I suggest that we inform Lord Godo of this developing danger and propose a temporary truce, so that together we can rid ourselves of a shared menace."

"Which will give us another foothold in Wutai and relieve us of providing all the manpower ourselves," Shinra murmured with a pleased expression. "Excellent, Genesis. What do you think, General?"

"I believe Godo could be convinced. Furthermore, he has the resources within Wutai to overcome any national sympathy that the Koibito may still be accorded." Sephiroth's liquid-silver eyes rested on the table as he spoke, deliberately. Whether other people realized it or not, those who didn't know him well, at least, always looked at him with an annoying intensity. "But the evidence must be presented in person, by someone Godo trusts to speak honestly. I will go."

"No!" Lazard said before he could stop himself, and flushed when he found all eyes curiously on him. "I mean, Godo himself informed us that he could not guarantee the general's safety in Wutai, even in a time of peace."

"I guarantee it," Sephiroth said coldly, looking straight ahead with a chillingly blank expression.

Genesis scowled prettily and leaned forward, undaunted by what he sometimes called Sephiroth's 'pissiness'. "Back then, the Koibito targeted you in particular. Are you insane?"

"No."

"I'm inclined to agree with them, General," the president said, putting an instant stop to all other voices. "We can't afford to risk you on an assignment someone else could do."

"Godo and I get along pretty well," Genesis volunteered. "And my sympathy for the Koibito is known. Moreover, of us three, I'm probably the best-liked in Wutai. Let me go."

Sephiroth's fingers tightened around his chair's arm-rests. Lazard hadn't though his beautiful hands could get any whiter. He looked at Sephiroth's face and found it pointing in Genesis's direction, seemingly expressionless but with eyes that appeared to be shouting something.

"Actually, sir," Lazard found himself saying, "maybe a non-SOLDIER would be less threatening. I, as a mere executive - "

"What is this?" Shinra interrupted wryly. "Has Wutai turned into a prime vacation spot without my knowledge? What's making everyone want to go?"

"The porn, would be my guess," Genesis said, and repressed laughter jostled the table from all sides. Even the president shook his head and chuckled.

"We require not only diplomacy but strength. Commander Rhapsodos, take a few SOLDIERs with you as an escort, light armor only."

"Yes, sir."

"Dismissed." President Shinra took note, with some passing curiosity, at his son's hasty departure, then shook it off. "If you are planning to stock up on...artwork, Genesis, see me before you depart. I have a list."

"Of course, sir." Once the bulky man had left, the 1st wrinkled his nose. "Ew, he's gonna make me buy het, or Gaia forbid, yuri! Tseng, help!"

The Turk commander looked with faint amusement at Genesis for a moment before excusing himself and heading in the same direction his employer had. With only Genesis, Lazard and Sephiroth remaining, the room's atmosphere turned instantly heavy with awkwardness and hesitation. In the moments before he succeeded in making it blank, the general's face resembled that of a creature suddenly caught in a trap. One in front if him and the other behind, Genesis and Lazard gazed at each other, showing no outright malice, nothing but cool courtesy, with only a hint of challenge. Sephiroth felt their emotions pulling at him like children engaged in tug-of-war, and anger flared up that he directed at Genesis.

"You should have spoken to me before volunteering for the Wutai mission."

"You're not mad about that," Genesis said, with a comfort and informality that Lazard envied. "You're just annoyed that I'm trying to protect you."

The temperature dropped several degrees in the space around Sephiroth's rigid frame. "I do not need to be protected," he said coldly, spitting out that last word as though it had a bad taste.

"Fine. But I'm not gonna stop. And don't think I'll be respectful about it, like the director."

What is he doing?! Lazard thought in alarm. "Actually, Sephiroth, I'm sure Genesis was only...uh..."

"I love you the most." The commander spoke as though he hadn't heard Lazard at all. "I'll protect you even if you come to hate me for it."

A beat of silence and stillness. Then Sephiroth, speechless from anger or confusion or something else his mask-like face didn't show, turned and, with his remarkable hair billowing out behind him, stalked out of the room. Left alone with Genesis, Lazard looked at him with incredulous shock, and a little anger.

"Well, Director," the SOLDIER sighed, "shall we scramble ungracefully past each other in a race to see who can comfort him first?"

"I...I don't think Sephiroth would like that."

"He wouldn't. Very good."

Strangely, when Genesis smiled, there was very little malice in it - just about the same amount as usual. As a competitor for Sephiroth's heart, Lazard had expected sabotage, veiled threats, even an outright challenge. And yet what he was facing was barely a smirk. They had never faced each other like this, had hardly spoken since love had made them adversaries. Lazard was unsure what to say, so he settled for the question that was presently puzzling him most.

"Why did you antagonize him just now? It almost seemed like - "

"Like I was doing it on purpose?" Genesis sighed, and it sounded like a brief laugh. "Of course."

"Wh-What? Why?"

"Because, Director." A hint of scorn now crept into Genesis's voice and expression. "Because I'll be away for awhile, so he has time to stop being angry with me. I couldn't have him isolating himself from both of us, so I decided to jump in and rescue you. You'll forgive the absence of a white horse and heroic music, I trust."

Lazard's mouth fell open, his jaw wobbling. Genesis was pushing he and Sephiroth together, at his own expense, for Sephiroth's sake. Most people would not think him capable of such selflessness. The director, who had never hated Genesis but envied and felt bitterly toward him, felt humbled, impressed...and hurt. Lazard liked to think that no one cared for Sephiroth as he did, and yet Genesis.... He puts me to shame.

"You...really love him."

Genesis's eyes gazed at him solemnly, displaying both peace and pain. "Boundlessly, eternally, infinitely. Since we were children."

Gods, how do I compete with that?

"You too, hmm?"

"Yes. Commander...I respect you. I'm glad Sephiroth has you in his life. But even if you believe you're the better match for him, I won't give him up."

A wide smile, a laugh that came out more haughty than it was meant to. "Of course I am, and of course you won't. I'd beat you bloody if you did."

"...what?"

"Seph cares for you," Genesis said airily. "If you abandoned him, I would make you pay. I would do the same if I thought you were toying with him or just in this to sleep with him. But it's more than that, it's love, and I must honor that."

"But you won't back down either."

"Never."

"Then, what do we do...with..."

"With this impasse we've reached? Well, we could fight to the death for him, with swords or subtlety. We could wage our own private war with lies and intimidation and perhaps a goblet of poisoned wine for good measure. Or you could grab one arm, I the other, and we could pull on dear Seph until he breaks. And he is capable of breaking."

"Stop," Lazard said harshly. "I don't want to do any of that. Who he is with should be Sephiroth's decision alone."

"How troublesome you are, Director. How unlike the previous admirers. Well, I'll win, ultimately, but if someone was going to come close..." Now Genesis strolled to the door, glancing back over his shoulder. "I'm glad it was you."

azazaza

Zack was restless from the moment he fell asleep, frowning, shifting, emitting soft groans that had Angeal on the edge of his seat, wanting desperately to comfort him. But the commander had been given permission to be in the room with his student only after promising he wouldn't approach or touch him without the doctors' permission. In the small observation room, three faces watched the sleeping teenager through the glass window...though Hollander's eyes frequently wandered, sadly, over to Angeal's tense form.

"He's taking a rather long time to get to the beta level," Dr. Oren commented, glancing at the brain-wave monitor.

McCall nodded. "Do you think it's the commander's presence? Should I pull him out?"

"Possibly, and no," Hollander murmured. "Wait a little longer."

Five minutes passed. Ten. If anything, Zack looked even more agitated; those watching him began to squirm in response.

"He needs to relax, the episodes only occur during beta," McCall said. "Should we give him a tranquilizer? Drugs don't seem to affect the attacks."

Hollander shook his head. "Give Angeal the okay to touch him. I think he can calm the boy."

Oren went to the door and softly called something to the commander. Angeal rose from his chair a little more eagerly than he'd intended and was at Zack's side almost instantly. "Puppy, it's all right," he murmured, running an open hand over the silky black hair. Oren and McCall were surprised to see Zack quiet and go still almost immediately.

"Remarkable," McCall whispered, as they watched Angeal regretfully return to his chair. "Brain activity's already decreasing. Beginning the shift into beta waves."

"How long - " Hollander began, but stopped at the sound of a chair suddenly pushed back over a linoleum floor; Angeal had leaped up. Oren and McCall, interrupted just before they could call attention to the video monitors, closed their mouths and looked directly at the subject.

Unmistakable. First, Zack's breathing began to accelerate. Then his hips jerked upward, again and again in a desperate, anxious sort of rhythm. Please, no more than this, Angeal prayed to any god who might be listening, and a silent wail ripped through his frozen body as Zack's bent legs lifted up to his chest. He heard the doctors enter (except Hollander, who stayed behind to watch the monitors and avoid facing his son's anguish any closer) but didn't take his eyes from Zack.

"Let me try to wake him."

"Commander, that has no effect, except possibly for hurrying the experience," Oren said apologetically. "Let me try something else."

Even as Oren spoke, McCall had hurried past them, a blur of white, and yanked the blanket off of Zack. After the now-routine attempt (and failure) to grasp hold of the invisible assailant, McCall began pinching Zack's skin in different spots, first lightly, then more sharply. Angeal held back his automatic objection to this in hopes it would actually work, but Zack didn't seem to register the rapid touches. The commander did step closer when McCall took a needle-like implement from his lab coat pocket, but Oren grabbed him by the elbow.

"We're trying to help him. Trust us."

He did...at least as much as he could bear to trust anyone with Zack. But Angeal could swear he felt each prick of the instrument. Zack yelped softly at them, though it was hard to be sure exactly what he was reacting to. His face showed both pleasure and pain, with the pleasure growing ever more dominant. It was the opposite for Angeal, who had felt a brief rush at seeing Zack aroused but now felt only anger and sickness at the horror of this.

"Minimal response to pain," someone said. "Brain waves?"

"Middle beta, no sign of REM."

"Prep five mgs of Revival and get a Med Sense readout."

The medical banter came to an awkward halt at what happened next. Angeal had thought this couldn't possibly get any harder to witness; he had forgotten Fate's indifference to human hurts. Zack's limp arms slowly, weakly rose as though reaching for something...his hands easily found what the others had sought without success, settling in mid-air as though clutching a pair of shoulders above him. "Fuck," Oren swore in a shaky voice. McCall, a steadfast worshiper of science alone, unconsciously made the Mideelian sign for petitioning Gaia, thumb and forefinger forming a circle in front of one's heart.

They recovered faster than Angeal, who felt his feet turn to lead at the sight of Zack smiling, smiling, the poor child forced to take pleasure from this violation. How dare this thing touch him, Angeal fumed, relieved the thought hadn't been How dare this thing touch what's mine! Oren went past him, slapped a syringe into the other doctor's hand, and McCall quickly wiped a spot on Zack's forearm before injecting it.

"What - " Angeal choked out.

"A stimulant, a strong one. It may be able to wake him."

"Now?" Didn't they realize how embarrassed Zack would be?

The medicine entered Zack's bloodstream quickly. More suddenly than the assault had begun, the boy's limbs fell back onto the bed, and there was a moment of silence and stillness. The oppressive air of the room was only noticeable now that it lifted, as if something were departing. But before anyone could express relief or even exhale, Zack's fingers flexed and scrambled in search of something they couldn't find, and still unconscious, the teenager broke into sobs that shattered every heart in the room. From a content albeit disturbing pleasure, they had consigned Zack to what looked like a nightmare of abandonment and misery.

Screw permission. Angeal practically flew to his student and lifted the slender upper body to hold against his chest. It was a small but welcome mercy that Zack hugged him back, burying his face in Angeal's shirt and clinging to him the way Zack always did in the aftermath of trauma. Heart aching to see his apprentice so distraught, Angeal tucked the boy's head beneath his chin and gently rocked him, whispering words of comfort.

"Ssh, Puppy, it's okay, I'm here, everything will be all right..."

Zack continued to wail and hold on as though he feared being ripped away, crying too hard to speak any audible words. Angeal hardly noticed the tear that ran down his own cheek as he soothingly stroked Zack's hair, but he noticed Dr. McCall approaching, and shot him a malevolent glare that halted him in his tracks. For a moment.

"I'm sorry, Commander. Please, I just want to take a look at him."

Angeal allowed this, grudgingly. Luckily Zack was too focused on his misery or the arms around him or both to notice the hands and eyes that carefully examined him for bruises and other evidence of assault. It was Angeal who tensed, not Zack, when the doctor folded back his hospital gown and frowned with a faint blush.

"What is it?"

"He...he hasn't ejaculated," McCall said quietly. "I believe he needs to, quite badly."

Angeal stared at the doctor. He would not let himself look...there.

"It's a simple biological imperative, Commander, and I think it may be why he's crying. Of course it's not Zack's fault that he's forced to enjoy what this thing does to him, but it is obviously pleasurable for him. If you look at it that way...then we didn't rescue him. We interrupted."

With this in mind, the way Zack's legs were squirming could be taken as the boy trying to get the stimulation he needed. Angeal held Zack tighter and realized for the first time that Zack had now and then looked sad when someone vowed to stop the unseen assailant from touching him again. He thought of the way Zack looked and behaved during the 'attacks' - happy, willing, writhing, moaning. And what had the boy said to Genesis? That he felt alone, except when he was asleep.

Angeal was startled out of his thoughts by the sight of McCall's hand going where he had never let anyone touch. "What are you - !"

McCall didn't seem thrilled about this either. "Angeal, he's too far gone to leave like this. It may be part of what's upsetting him, and we need to calm him. He's asleep, he won't remember and he'll feel better."

"You're not touching him."

"Angeal - "

"I understand your reasons, Doctor, but too many strangers have touched him without permission. Too many have tried. I can't let you do what I've spent two years guarding him from." Zack's sobbing was a little quieter, but it was still with urgency that his hidden face nuzzled Angeal's throat and neck. Angeal brushed his lips over the spiky hair, smelling the familiar purple-flower shampoo. A scent of innocence. Angeal swallowed, with difficulty. "Zack is my responsibility. I'll do it."

McCall nodded after a moment. Behind him, Hollander was coming closer and saying "Angeal, that's not a good idea. You were just on trial for - "

"This is a necessary medical procedure that I can't allow a virtual stranger to perform," Angeal said shortly. "If required, you can all swear to that. Now, please. Zack would not want anyone to see this."

After a brief discussion among them, Hollander and McCall agreed to leave. Oren would remain as a witness for Angeal's protection, in the observation room with all the monitors. Impatient and knowing it was the best he'd get, Angeal agreed and waited till they were out of sight before drawing Zack's hospital gown up and folding it out of the way. If Gaia was merciful, Angeal thought, then the fire he felt in his face wouldn't be visible to the cameras. There was that rare, forbidden, so-beautiful-it-damned-him sight of Zack fully aroused, hard beyond the point of return. Being this far gone might even be painful...whatever the consequences, he couldn't allow his Puppy to remain like this with no relief.

Despite knowing he should hurry, Angeal rubbed his hand in a circular motion on Zack's taut stomach and murmured "Puppy, it's me. I'm gonna help you, okay? If you want me to stop...let me know somehow." More clinging, more heaving sobs. "Ssh, okay, you'll feel better soon. Just...s-sleep, Puppy."

Trying not to think, warning himself to not get anything out of this, Angeal finally took him in hand, and was encouraged with a groan that sounded needy. As business-like as he could, the commander wrapped his fingers around the blood-darkened shaft and started to work it carefully, up and down, doing what he did to himself when he needed release. It must have been what Zack wanted, because he thrust further into the hand that stroked him, and though he continued to weep the sobs had faded into aroused gasps. Angeal couldn't bring himself to hurry, as though this were a distasteful obligation. Conflicted though he was, there was one thing Angeal was sure of. He wanted Zack to feel loved and accepted and cared for.

"It's okay," he reassured, sensing that the boy was holding back. "It's all right, baby." Baby? Where did that come from?

Whether it was the endearment or not, something was getting through to Zack. The flood of tears dried up and the kid displayed only pleasure and urgency, his breathing matching Angeal's strokes in speed as he neared the peak.

"Ah! Ah! Ah..."

His cry was exultant as he came, its relief uncomplicated and un-guilty. Angeal wasn't so lucky. With one arm he cradled Zack and held him as he came down. His free hand hovered in mid-air, claw-like and frozen, splattered with sticky white. Zack was now sleeping in peace again, obviously it had been the right thing to do, but...

Angeal stared at his soiled hand, remembering suddenly his first kill and the remorse that followed. That guilt was nothing to this.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 26 - Between Sadness And Bliss

 

"If I find out you lied about your departure time, or that you changed it, I'll be very displeased."

"Your threats lose some of their power when you're distracted, dear 'Geal. I've still got an hour."

Angeal had to take his word for it. Of course, Genesis's luggage would already be loaded onto the transport and thus was not with him. (Good thing, as the eldest of the Trinity was not a light packer and his bags would probably crowd them out of this room.) If Angeal needed more than Genesis's word to be convinced, there was the luxurious, fur-lined red cape attached loosely around his shoulders with a gold clasp. It had been a gift from Genesis's fan club and he only ever wore it when traveling, when the large hood attached to it could be donned to keep his prized auburn hair from wind and rain.

Though they were in the same room where the sleep lab experiments took place, the bed was empty and unmade, as though its occupant had left hastily - or in this case, been hastily removed. On a cushioned bench against the far wall, Angeal sat beside Genesis, with Zack wrapped in a blanket and held on his lap. With all that happened and was happening, the 1st couldn't bear to have his student any farther away than this, at least for awhile. Only Genesis remained with them, and if he thought Angeal's clinging behavior odd, he said nothing about it.

"Did they drug him again?"

"No. He's just exhausted. Have the prisoners said anything?"

"The younger one is low-rung in his operation, carrying out orders without knowing what the top dogs are planning, only that it's 'vengeance for ShinRa's crimes', yadda yadda. They probably only gave him the brand to make him feel important," Genesis scoffed.

"And the other?"

"Oh, the kenjin. Very interesting. He still won't give us a name, he says it's unimportant, but he's been surprisingly cheerful and cooperating. His only request has been that, if we kill him, we give him time to prepare to meet his gods."

Angeal frowned, displeased at the thought of executing innocent old men. "I assume he's been questioned."

"Mostly he asked for mercy for the other one...Hankan was his name, I think. Kenjin, as we've taken to calling him, has no allegiance to the terrorists, he says, and only tagged along with this group to try to dissuade them from hurting anyone. He doesn't have the brand. I like him, you think ShinRa will let me keep him?"

"No. We can't execute him."

"Of course not. If he won't give us information, we'll probably hold him for a future captive exchange. We could ransom him now, if only he'd give us a name. Wise men are highly esteemed in Wutai."

"Could you take him to Godo, as a gesture of good will?" Angeal asked.

"I suggested that, but the prez said no, not yet. I can tell Godo about him, though, if I need a veiled threat or something. I wish the guy would tell us his name, for all we know he's hugely famous."

"Seph might recognize him."

"We tried that, he came with me to see the prisoners." Genesis shook his head and started laughing.

"What?"

"It was so funny. Kenjin smiled at Seph and said 'The silver demon. I thought you'd be bigger.' Seph was speechless."

Angeal smiled. "I see why you like him."

"You will too, I think. The prez wants you to do your good-cop routine on Gramps while I'm gone, see if you can get him to spill anything."

"I will. I want to help as much as I can, I just..."

"'Geal, of course Puppy comes first." Genesis stroked Zack's cheek with his fingers, stopping when the boy began to stir. "Even the suits agree."

"They think he'll be like us."

"I hope not. I like Puppy the way he is."

"Gen..." Angeal's voice came out strained and heavy. Genesis's hand immediately moved to rest on his arm. "I..."

The hand squeezed lightly, saying with the gesture I am here. On top of the longing and adoration and guilt he felt, all Angeal's affection for Genesis and the feeling that this old flame of his, at least, deserved to know...these emotions pushed the knot of anxiety out of Angeal's stomach and made it burst, albeit haltingly, from his lips.

"Gen...I think I...I know I..."

"I know, 'Geal. I've known for a while."

"What? How - "

"I know you." Genesis gave him a serene, beautiful smile. "I only teased you so much because I wanted you to realize, and be happy."

Mouth open but empty of words, Angeal looked down at his precious student's face, snuggled against his shoulder with an expression of contentment. The commander felt and saw his own hand picked up by Genesis and placed over Zack's.

"I know what you're going to say, Gen."

"You think you don't deserve to be happy? Angeal. I love you. I wouldn't have let you go if I hadn't been sure there was a soul mate out there for each of us. And come on." Genesis nudged him playfully. "You don't have to let yours be pawed by a freak in a purple jacket."

"He's - "

"Completely legal for sexing in a few months."

"I - "

"Have been cleared of any wrong-doing, and no one believed that crap in the first place."

"I - "

"Love him and don't want to ever hurt him, and you won't."

"He doesn't - "

"You won't know that until you ask him." Genesis's electric-blue eyes twinkled. "See, I told ya I know you. Puppy worships you. He probably does want you, and even if not, your feelings won't bother him. He trusts you."

Angeal let his cheek rest on Zack's hair and sighed. "He's going through so much."

"And the cause of it might be sexual frustration."

"I can't, Gen. I can't risk losing him."

"Okay. Okay." Genesis slipped one arm around Angeal and lay his head comfortably on the younger's shoulder. "Just keep it in mind. That's all I ask."

We must look like some bizarre family portrait, Angeal thought. But he had no desire to move or object, and the three of them stayed like that, comforting and comforted, until it was time for Genesis to go.

azazaza

"What is it, Director?"

"I hope I don't have to have a reason other than wanting to see you."

Sephiroth's eyes wouldn't meet his, but he did step aside to let Lazard in. Boldly, rather than standing awkwardly or taking a seat, Lazard followed him to the shaded window he faced and wrapped his arms around the general from behind. Sephiroth stiffened, not liking to feel restrained, and the arms remained, but loosened to reassure him. Lazard's face was burying itself in his long hair, lips pressing the back of his neck through the silver strands.

"Genesis will be all right," the mouth murmured into his skin.

"He has come through more dangerous missions unscathed, if that's what you mean."

"It's not. But you're right. Do you understand why you're worried anyway?"

"Yes," Sephiroth said defensively, choosing this response over a dishonest denial. "Is that what you came to ask?"

"I told you. I wanted to see you."

The waterfall of shimmering hair was being gathered up in careful, reverent hands. Lazard put his face into it for a moment, savoring the feeling of silk and the smell of vanilla before moving it to drape over Sephiroth's left shoulder, thus giving him access to the right side of his neck. Thankful as always for their similar heights, the director opened his mouth on the flawless skin, kissing and gently sucking with lips and an eager tongue. Sephiroth exhaled a short and quiet breath and made no objection. And when a hand rose to brush his throat and tilt his chin back, the legend willingly let his head fall back on a waiting shoulder.

The long leather jacket was folded over a nearby chair; Lazard's only obstacle to Sephiroth's chest was the belts he wore crisscrossed over it, and he had by now some experience removing them. They fell to the carpet with scarcely a sound, and Lazard's busy mouth made a muffled groan of pleasure as his palm caressed the sculpted torso. Once he had awoken warmth into the cool marble flesh, Lazard moved to the nipples and toyed with them one at a time. (His other hand was occupied, arm encircling Sephiroth's waist and fingers running over his hip.)

Sephiroth's body was quickly relaxing, and his breathing had the heavier, distant quality of arousal to it. The pale nubs hardened and became sensitive beneath Lazard's insistent thumb. Once stimulated properly, Lazard flicked at them, lightly scratched with his fingernail, and squeezed them in firm pinches. It was this latter that got the strongest reaction, a shudder that went through the whole perfect body. Encouraged, Lazard pinched a little harder, and Sephiroth moaned beautifully, even thrust his ass against an erection that went from hard to urgent at that one touch.

"Is that good?" the director whispered.

"Yes..."

"Okay." His fingers soothed the abused flesh a little before clasping it again, more firmly this time. Sephiroth gasped a young and needy sound that was like a lightening bolt to his groin, and urgently grasped Lazard's encircling arm with a long-fingered hand. "Gaia, yes, Seph."

The way the younger man moved made it clear he wanted more, and Lazard, who upheld as much control as possible at times like this, felt it falling away in a feverish haze of lust. He wanted to undo Sephiroth completely, arouse him into a state of unabashed need and make him thrash and writhe and drop to the floor, then take him...

Harder now, harder than he would dare before, enough pressure to hurt anyone else. Yes, Sephiroth was enjoying it, he was rubbing against Lazard's erection and rapidly destroying his ability to think. The director let go only so his fingers could get a better grip, then pinched as sharply as he could. Sephiroth's breath came out in gasps, his head lolled and body swayed and then...a whimper of pain.

What abruptly happened next made Sephiroth wake as though from a trance and blink in confusion. The harsh touch that had felt so (shamefully) good was replaced by fingers gently caressing the sore spot, the hand on his waist was rubbing now as though to comfort, and instead of sucking at his skin, Lazard's mouth was murmuring guilty apologies.

"...sorry, Seph, so sorry, got carried away...I wouldn't hurt you, ever, I promise - "

Something unpleasant (embarrassment? frustration?) rose like heat from the legend's midsection to head, and he squirmed at the coddling way he was being held. He would have jerked away completely if Lazard's hurt voice hadn't woken a sympathetic pain in his heart. "Of course you have a heart, Seph," Genesis's voice spoke softly from his memory. "This wouldn't be so hard for you if you didn't."

"Stop," Sephiroth said, suddenly and awkwardly. "Stop apologizing."

"But I hurt you, didn't I?"

Sephiroth looked at the carpet and didn't answer. Hurt him? True, sex with Lazard had always been more gentle and careful than the frenzy and consensual force of being with Genesis. Lazard perhaps had not yet discovered Sephiroth's liking for a little pain, the way it fed his arousal and played into his submissive role. But to be this concerned and remorseful?

Who told you I am capable of being hurt?

"Sephiroth, please say something."

Hesitation. "If I do not like something you do, I will not allow you to do it. Why do you believe otherwise?"

This seemed to give Lazard pause, because he didn't answer right away. "I guess...I guess because human reactions and tastes in sex are affected and shaped by our sexual pasts, and...I don't know anything about yours."

"The past is not relevant to what we are doing."

Both of Lazard's arms wrapped around his torso, hugging his body close. "I know," he said, and Sephiroth easily heard the lie in it.

"Is there something you want to ask me?"

I don't want to upset or offend you, Lazard thought, but Sephiroth's voice had had that rare intimation of permission in it, and such an opportunity couldn't be wasted. Lazard braced himself for anger, for distance.

"You haven't been...hurt, have you? Sexually?"

Inappropriate though it would have been, the general almost laughed. Him? Sephiroth? Who could possibly do such a thing even if they wanted to? Even if they dared? Fans and infatuated colleagues, with few exceptions, were wisely too afraid for their lives to try touching. Enemies who entertained the desire didn't live long enough; even the famous and vicious Koibito, who had a few times ganged up on him for that purpose, hadn't even gotten close. No one had asked Sephiroth this question since he was in his early teens, and Genesis and Angeal had come to him with stricken and serious expressions, respectively. He supposed he could reassure Lazard with the same answer he had given them.

"Of course not."

A shaky exhalation of relief. Had he been that worried? "I'm sorry for prying. I was just..."

"It is fine."

"Do you...want me to go?"

"No." The mood had shifted, true, but it hadn't been lost. The evidence of Lazard's arousal was still pressing into the seat of Sephiroth's leather pants. "Stay. Continue."

Happily, eagerly, the director's mouth went to his ear and gently nibbled it. Hands returned to their exploration of chest and stomach; one descended gradually lower as the other around his waist held Sephiroth close to the other body. The general made a soft "Mmm" noise as he was cupped and teased through the crotch of his leather pants, the palm moving in firm circles against the sensitive place. Not until he was fully hard and twitching did Lazard unzip the tightening pants and free him, and the sudden space and cool air made Sephiroth sharply inhale. The hand didn't get to its expected work of stroking, though, instead spreading its fingers to cup and play with the testicles.

Sephiroth held his breath for a moment, determining that his voice would be steady. "Perhaps we should move this to the bedroom."

It was 1sts who could move faster than the eye could discern, not executives, but this time Sephiroth was the one who didn't remember the walk to the bed. Next thing he knew, he was laying on it, lifting his hips so his pants could be stripped off. Lazard undressed as quickly as he could, eyes glued in rapture to the body below him, and climbed on top of him, dipping his head for a long, heated kiss. Before it was finished, Lazard's slick fingers were inside and shooting jolts of pleasure all through the trembling body.

Sephiroth enjoyed this as always, but after a few minutes realized that Lazard was planning to get him off by this alone. And it was working. The general reached down and, with only a little fumbling, grasped the director's wrist and pulled with a shudder, immediately missing the pressure on his prostate.

"Seph?"

"Not fingers. Do it, hard."

Predictably, no convincing was needed. Lazard pushed gently into the heat and dark, groaning at the way his cock was nearly crushed by the slim body's tightness. Relief and pleasure and vulnerability had cast a faint glow over Sephiroth's angelic face, and Lazard was so turned on that he wanted to consume him completely, possess and own him, never let another person touch or look at him. He settled for caressing the beautiful face, memorizing the way it changed in response to his first thrust.

Sephiroth's hands found Lazard's hips and pulled them closer. "You won't hurt me," he moaned.

"Will you tell me...if I do?"

"Of course."

A harder thrust than usual, hesitant but otherwise more typical of Genesis than the director. He watched Sephiroth's face and saw only ecstasy, so continued, encouraged by the noises of pleasure and the hands gripping him and how amazing this felt...there was only one thing about this that bothered him, and he forgot it when the god-like sight of Sephiroth climaxing wiped all thought and memory from his mind. Moments later he hit his own peak, and afterward tiredly slumped down to the mattress and brushed his mouth over Sephiroth's cheek and lips.

Silver eyes, gray in the dim light, looked at him questioningly. "Are you convinced?"

"Yes..." For the moment, at least. "I just wish it lasted longer."

"Do it again, then. Slowly this time."

Lazard would have said that he wasn't eighteen anymore, he couldn't recover that quickly. But a silken hand slipped between his legs, and the flesh it touched swelled instantly. Now if only something could restore energy to his boneless limbs...

Sephiroth smiled, and without delay, Lazard eagerly climbed on top of him again.

azazaza

Zack awoke in the sleep lab bleary-eyed and seemingly unrested. Hollander brought him a stimulant potion and the boy drank it eagerly, but the medicine required some time before it kicked in and had noticeable effects, and Angeal could tell his sad student didn't want to spend another moment in this room. It was a sign of how listless Zack was that he didn't protest being lifted into strong arms, only closed his eyes and rested against a familiar broad chest, while clutching the Moogle plushie that Genesis had left with his good-bye note.

Zack pouted and squirmed weakly as he was lowered onto his own bed. "I wanna get up."

"When the stimulant kicks in. It won't be long."

Zack looked away, pretending to be fascinated by the stuffed toy in his hands. "I know it happened again. I remember."

Oh no, oh Gaia... "What do you remember?"

"The...guy, thing, whatever, was there, and he was..." A hard look briefly came into Zack's eyes, a defiance of his own youth and embarrassment. "...in me, and it felt...but then he was gone. It was dark and I was alone, and scared. But then that went away, and it all faded. Like a dream, but it wasn't."

"I know it wasn't. Zack...this isn't easy to say, and it won't be easy for you to hear, and you have every right to be upset about it..." The boy was looking frightened, so Angeal hurried on. "The doctors managed to stop the assault before it was completed by giving you a stronger stimulant. It worked, but you became very distraught, and the doctors thought that might have been partly because we...interrupted before you were made to ejaculate."

Unsurprisingly, Zack averted his eyes. "Oh."

"Dr. McCall believed you should be helped, that it would calm you. I made the decision that you would prefer me to do it over someone you don't know very well. Zack...I apologize for touching you like that without your permission."

"I-It's okay. Really." Zack's stomach was doing flip-flops and handstands and aerial somersaults, at least it felt that way. He couldn't yet bear to meet Angeal's eyes, but looked in the direction of his face and smiled. "You just wanted to help me, right? Thank you."

A large, soothing hand cupped Zack's cheek, and fingers lightly stroked his skin and the soft hair that hung down beside it. Zack closed his eyes and turned into the touch with a soft sigh. It felt so nice, so loving, it almost made him forget that he didn't want to be tired, didn't want to be soothed into relaxing. Angeal was close by, so everything was okay, Angeal loved him, loved him enough even to...Zack hurriedly opened his eyes and banished that thought, lest he begin to imagine or remember what it had felt like. He couldn't let himself blush, not now.

"Puppy, you said you remember the incident. What were you feeling during it? What were you going to say a few moments ago?"

"I don't know..."

"It's important, Zack. Please." Angeal paused a few moments, pitying the embarrassed boy. "I assume it was...pleasant. There's nothing wrong with that."

Zack breathed in, anxious enough to have trouble doing even that. He nodded, then weakly turned onto his side to face away from Angeal, taking the hand from his face and clutching it in his own. As hoped for, the 1st understood - this was easier for Zack to speak of while not having to look at anyone. He entwined his fingers with the boy's and used his free hand to comb through Zack's dark spikes.

"I'm not...messed up for liking it?"

Angeal had a hard time respecting Zack's need for distance; that guilty little voice made him want to pick the kid up and hold him forever. "Of course not, Puppy. You can't help the way your body is made to feel. It's normal."

"It's...not just that." Zack turned his head into the pillow. "I feel sad when it leaves, and lonely. I know you think it's hurting me. And it does scare me a little, 'cause I don't know what it is, but...I don't think I want it gone."

"Oh, Puppy." Angeal's fingers slid into his fine hair and gently massaged his scalp.

"I'm sick, right?" Zack said in a trembling voice; Angeal could hear the tears in it. "You're all trying to help me, and I - "

"You are not sick," Angeal said firmly, pained that the boy could think such a thing. "There is nothing wrong with you."

Zack sniffled quietly. The commander edged closer to him until their bodies were touching, and squeezed his hand.

"Zack, this thing, whatever it is, is fulfilling a need for you, a very normal one."

"You say 'normal' a lot," the teenager whispered.

"Puppy, if there's a reason you feel you can't be with anyone like you are with this thing...if I've discouraged you somehow, or someone hurt you - "

"No, and no."

"Then what is it? Please tell me."

"I..." Zack clutched Angeal's hand to his chest and wrapped his arms around it; the commander could feel the boy's heartbeat through the fabric of his pajamas. "I've tried. But whenever someone likes me, I can't feel anything back. I can't like them back, and I can't do it with someone I don't love."

"I know," Angeal murmured. "It's all right. There's plenty of time for that."

"But it's not normal. None of my friends are like this."

"Puppy, everyone's different. Maybe you're not ready to be with anyone, but at your age you naturally desire physical intimacy."

"Do you think I'm imagining this invisible guy because I need him or something?"

"No," Angeal sighed. "I don't think a figment of your imagination could do the things this has done. I believe this is a real, separate being of some sort. And Zack, I completely understand that you enjoy...being with it, but we still have to find out what it is and get rid of it. I'm sorry, but it's taking advantage of you and that's not okay. And the way it's sapping your energy...it's not healthy. It's not love."

"I don't expect love."

"What?"

"I can't love," Zack said, his body beginning to shake with faint sobs. "No one should love me. I just hurt everyone, like Kunsel and Declan and Genesis and Michaelson..."

The boy rattled off names, some of which Angeal didn't even recognize. But he was much more concerned at the moment with the incomprehensible self-deprecation spilling from his Puppy's lips. Zack was perfect, more worthy of love than anyone he'd ever known. Almost angry to hear such things, Angeal whispered "Come here, Puppy" and turned his student around before lifting him into his lap and guiding the spiky head to his shoulder. Zack only had it in him to squirm for a moment before he hugged and clung tightly in relief, and Angeal felt a little wetness on his shirt in the place Zack's eyes were pressed to.

"You can love, Puppy. You have the biggest heart of anyone I know. Don't talk so badly about yourself."

"But everyone's right. I'm supposed to date, to want that, but..." The boy's face grew warmer, he could feel it against his chest. "I only want a ghost...and you."

The sweet and innocently-made statement made Angeal smile sadly. Of course the troubled, traumatized boy wanted his protector close by, the one person he could trust to love him purely and not want him the way everyone else did. Determined to keep his guilt and pain hidden, Angeal chastely kissed the top of his head and hugged him tightly. Gen, this is why I can't tell him.

"I love you too, Puppy." You'll never know how much.

The stimulant potion was beginning to wake life into Zack's limbs. He was able to sit back and let his face be visible again; Angeal tilted it up to look at him, and Zack cast his eyes downward. He offered a smile - an uneasy one, but still beautiful.

"Angeal?"

"Hmm?"

"I understand we have to make it go away. But until then...please, can you not wake me up till it's...done?"

Angeal frowned. From Zack's timid tone, it was clear he knew how difficult fulfilling such a request would be. It went against every one of his mentor's protective instincts to stand by and let an unknown (unseen) person intimately handle his naive, trusting student. Zack didn't remember his meltdown into sobbing after the last incident, and so couldn't know that Angeal couldn't bear to see him like that again. He only knew that Angeal hated to deny him anything.

"All right," the 1st sighed. "If that's what you want, I won't interrupt again, and I won't let anyone else. But Puppy, believe me, you'll find someone you...want to be with. Keep your heart open."

"Thank you, Angeal." Zack sat up straight on his own and shook off his embarrassment at the subject they spoke of to stretch his limbs and smile. "Hey, I can move."

"Don't overdo it. I have something I need to do, will you - " Angeal paused when Zack suddenly looked stricken and grabbed his just-released hand.

"Can I go with you? Please?" Zack beamed with relief at the nod he was answered with, carefully stood up and almost-bounced toward the bathroom. "Give me two minutes!"

"Take your time." The ache in his heart eased to see Zack up and cheerier. Not completely, but then, Angeal was perfectly willing to hurt, if it meant he could keep yet another burden from Zack's shoulders.

azazaza

In a spartan but not uncomfortable cell in the quiet bowels of the ShinRa Compound, a man in his early sixties sat on the stone floor in a meditative pose. Though ShinRa prisoners were routinely given bright orange garments, this one had been allowed to keep his own clothes, dark trousers beneath a tunic-length robe patterned with strange characters and symbols. He occasionally traced similar ones on the wall behind him, each time feeling the presence of his homeland's gods and guardian spirits. Even in the enemy's sanctuary, he was not alone.

The serene, kind-faced man had been made to hand over his walking stick/staff and his pouches of herbs to the guards who, with unexpected courtesy and kindness, promised to take good care of these things for him. Whether disarmed by the captive's friendliness, afraid of his power or just respectful of it, the guards had been treating this particular prisoner well. They had even granted his request to have one innocuous belonging returned to him, a small leather bag full of bird bones and small tiles carved with runes.

The kenjin poured these divination tools into one weathered hand and concentrated on what he wished to ask of the spirits. At the moment, far more than his own safety or fate, he was curious about a presence - not quite human and not quite ghost - that he was sensing somewhere on these vast grounds. These strange people, these men who heedlessly injected themselves with Lifestream without properly honoring the dead who comprised it, were not believers in the unseen. A presence this strong should not be able to cling to any of them.

At just the moment his soul indicated, the kenjin shook his cupped hand three times and spilled its contents onto the floor in front of his crossed legs. They landed in a configuration that would have looked haphazard to any layman, and the wise old petitioner passed his fingertips over each tile and bone as he considered the answer they were giving him. It draws nearer...

Footsteps were approaching down the starkly-lit corridor, audible only because their owners wore sturdy, thick-soled boots. A short, patient wait brought them into view, two men who came to the cell door as previous questioners had, with a ring of keys and curious expressions. The taller, bigger and elder, he recognized as Angeal Hewley, one of SOLDIER's infamous Trinity, with the same seriousness he wore in photos and artists' drawings. Far more interesting to the prisoner, however, was the beautiful teenaged boy at his side, with an oddly tired posture and striking pale blue eyes and the unmistakable aura of something supernatural weighing upon him.

"Ah," the kenjin murmured with a serene smile, to their confusion. "So you are the one being haunted, child."

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 27 - Twin Halves Of A Perfect Heart

 

The kenjin warmly thanked the guard for bringing the tray of peppermint tea, and Angeal for requesting it. Obviously the 1st had incentive to be kind - he wanted to know what had been meant by his recent comment to the boy - but the kenjin sensed a good heart in Commander Hewley, a gentleness that the boy - Zack, he had nervously introduced himself - enhanced and brought out in him.

The boy (who had not yet touched his own tea) was giving off waves of apprehensive energy, eased only by the shield-like flow of love and protection being directed at him by the commander. (The kenjin thought even an average person with untrained senses could probably see the attachment these two had for each other.) Zack looked across the table at him, before shyly letting his eyes drop down to stare at his own lap. The young one was afraid of what he might be told, afraid of it saddening his teacher, a little afraid automatically of older men he didn't know. The kenjin sadly supposed that such an attractive child may have good reason for that last.

"You have nothing to fear from me," the wise man said gently.

Angeal broke in, stroking Zack's hand beneath the table. "You mentioned...a haunting."

"Am I wrong?"

Angeal's eyes flashed with frustration. "You've seen this before?"

"Yes. It's very rare, even in Wutai. Oh...you don't know what it is, do you?"

"You will explain. Now."

"No need to demand, young man. The boy has what we call a 'shoorei'. The word is a contraction of 'shoorai no', 'of the future', and 'rei', which is 'spirit' or 'ghost'. Wutainese is a language of contractions," the kenjin explained, absently tracing Wutainese characters on the table. Zack followed the fingers with his eyes, finding the man's penetrating (though kind) stare too much to take.

"A 'future ghost'?" Angeal was asking from his right. "Elaborate."

"It makes its presence known by touching, yes? Mainly through acts of sex?"

Zack noticeably slid a little further into his chair.

"No need to be embarrassed. It's what they do."

"Why?" Angeal asked, more harshly than he'd meant to. "Why does it do this? Where did it come from?"

The kenjin didn't take offense at the anger, knowing that it came from a wish to protect Zack.

"The spirit acts according to its nature, as we all do. As for its point of origin..." He looked at Zack with a soft smile. "It came from him, of course."

azazaza

In the elaborately decorated audience room, Lord Godo put down his cup of tea to examine the photograph Genesis had given him. Genesis, meanwhile, took this time to look more closely at the walls and furniture around him, thinking a duplicate of this chamber would be perfect for the next time he redecorated his bedroom. His blue eyes scanned for minute details of color and texture, locking them into memory nearly as well as a camera would. Traveling had tired him a bit, even the short trip from Midgar to Wutai in ShinRa's fastest air transport, but having pretty things to look at kept him awake.

That reminds me, have to call Yaoi Town and see if Taro got that shipment in yet.

Godo handed back the picture with a shake of his head. "I'm sorry, I know many Kenjin by reputation, but very few by sight. I will make inquiries, though."

"Thank you. The man seems harmless and we would like to return him as soon as possible." Genesis smiled sweetly. "How nice that we're getting along so well. It's the best thing for both our peoples, ne?"

"Yes, indeed," Godo said quickly. "I would welcome a better relationship with ShinRa, and I'm sure my people would as well."

"Most of them, you mean."

"Yes, well..." Godo looked embarrassed.

"We should focus first and foremost on dealing with the Koibito," Genesis said, placing a friendly hand on top of Godo's. "They are quite as much a threat to you as they are to us, correct?"

"Indeed, yes. They claim to be protectors of our land, at least that used to be their claim, but in truth they are a menace. They raid my people's villages, kill anyone who dares oppose them, and their battle-frenzy, I'm told, is quite lethal and terrifying."

"And they have made threats against you for having signed a treaty with us."

"Yes." Godo looked down at his silk-covered lap. "It is sad. The Koibitonin were once greatly admired for their devotion to Wutai and to each other. But they are the past, I must think of the future for my people."

"ShinRa can help you build that future," Genesis said in a coaxing voice, hiding the regret he felt for gently bullying a nation he admired. "A future of peace and prosperity. First, we will help you dispose of this band of rebels. Think of it, what better way to bring us together than to join hands and vanquish a threat to us both?"

Godo looked into Genesis's sky-colored eyes and felt moved by his sincerity and lovely voice. "Wutai would welcome such a venture. My people will surely be eager to work with you, if it means no longer living in fear of the Koibito. Though I'm afraid my army cannot nearly match the skill of ShinRa."

"Surely we can remedy that, hmm?"

The voice was seductive. Without considering how it might look, Lord Godo grabbed an embroidered pillow from the couch they sat on and put it on his lap. Genesis's fingers, still on the other's hand, crept up inside his sleeve and slowly played over the skin of his arm.

"The best training grounds we have are north of here, at the village of Seidou," Godo blurted out. "If you could spare a few SOLDIERs to train my men, we would be grateful."

"I'm sure we could do that. I'll speak to the president."

"Thank you, Commander. We can discuss this more tomorrow, as I'm sure you'd like to rest after your journey." Godo gestured to a servant who stood in wait. "Ikuna will show you to your quarters."

"Thank you, Lord Godo. I look forward to our chat tomorrow," Genesis said smoothly, making a graceful bow. "And if you should need me before then, I'm a very light sleeper."

Normally such an off-hand comment would, in this situation, be a veiled warning against assassination attempts, but from the glint in Genesis's eyes, Godo got the feeling it was meant more as an invitation. He pressed the pillow against his crotch in silent reprimand for wanting to accept. Really wanting to.

"May the gods grant you pleasant dreams," he stammered.

"The Goddess always does," Genesis idly called over his shoulder.

As Godo watched him exit, his hands gripped the edges of the pillow, tighter and tighter, until his fingers began to cramp and he had to let go. From being slightly flushed and flustered by the SOLDIER's flirting, the man's face was now coldly pale with dread, and he felt chilled all over. To make peace with ShinRa...to forge a real, lasting end to the hostilities that had cost his people so much. It was a dream he'd long hoped for. And one he was about to betray.

For her, Godo reminded himself, thinking of his daughter, her patriotism, her fighting spirit. As long as they threaten to harm Yuffie, what else can I do?

Godo took out a tablet of paper and pen and wrote an account of all that had passed between himself and Commander Rhapsodos. His secret courier would have it delivered within hours.

azazaza

The kenjin's simple, direct statement shocked them both, but Zack most of all. His eyes widened into pale-blue and white circles, he shrank back from the words as though in terror, and his lips parted but expelled nothing except shallow, panicked breaths.

"Zack, it's okay. Puppy, breathe, that's an order." Angeal hesitated before touching him, worried he might embarrass his student in front of a stranger, but he couldn't hold back, ultimately.

And apparently he made the right choice. The arm he curled around the boy seemed to wake him up, and Zack all but threw himself at Angeal's chest, clinging to his uniform shirt and hiding his face. Angeal wrapped both arms tightly around him, which eased Zack's trembling a bit but didn't stop it. The 1st looked at the calm prisoner, who was observing Zack with sympathy after saying something so upsetting. For some reason, that made Angeal angrier.

"What the hell do you mean, it came from him? He's being assaulted by this thing and you claim it's his fault?!"

To his credit, the kenjin retained his relaxed expression, though he was intimidated by this large man who reminded him of a bear protecting its cub. "I'm not blaming Zack, if you'll permit me to use his name. The creation of a shoorei is an entirely unconscious and unintentional act. I'm sorry if I led you to believe otherwise. But at the risk of angering you further, Commander Hewley...does your student describe its actions as assault, or do you?"

Angeal's jaw tightened at that, but his silence was enough of an answer. The kenjin reached a hand out toward Zack, freezing when Angeal pulled him back with flaring-green, homicidal eyes.

"Do not touch him," he hissed.

"I'm sorry. But if you will permit me, I can calm him. It will only take a moment. I'm concerned the boy might make himself sick."

Distracted by anger on his student's behalf, Angeal hadn't realized till now that Zack's whole body was spasming. He seemed to be having trouble breathing, if the choked gasps were any indication. Angeal hurriedly massaged the pressure points within reach, spoke to him in soothing whispers, but none of it was getting through.

"All right," he said finally, desperately.

The kenjin laid a gentle hand on Zack's smooth hair, moving as slowly as he could, and spoke a few words that neither SOLDIER understood. Instantly, Zack released a full breath, and his body slumped into a relaxed pose and trembled no more. The kenjin lightly, briefly patted the bowed head and retracted his hand.

"Thank you," Angeal said gruffly, still displeased by the thought of letting a stranger touch Zack, however positive the outcome. "How would I go about getting rid of this shoorei?"

The kenjin took note of Zack's stiffening at this. "Your question confirms my suspicions. You do not understand the nature and purpose of the manifestation."

"What purpose is there, beyond attacking him?"

"The shoorei is not attacking. It is fulfilling the need of its creator, acting in place of what has not yet come to him. It is, you might say, the answer to a wish one does not realize he has made."

"Speak clearly," Angeal ordered.

"Only with the boy's permission."

Zack looked up, for a second looking surprised that he was being addressed. He didn't like that this wise man understood things about the 'attacker' that he himself had been mostly too embarrassed to say, and he didn't think he'd like hearing more. He especially hated how painful this was for Angeal. But ultimately, Zack wanted to understand. He nodded.

"I will address as much of this as possible to you, Commander, to spare Zack as much discomfort as possible. Your student is not sexually active and never has been, correct?"

"Correct," Angeal answered through clenched teeth.

"Few or no relationships, right?"

"True."

This time, the kenjin addressed Zack directly. "Is it because no one feels right for you? No matter how you try, you cannot make yourself care for any who show interest? Something in you cries out in alarm when anyone approaches, an innate wrongness to it keeps a necessary distance between you and them?"

Rather than cringing back, Zack was now leaning forward, hands on the table, wearing an expression both shattered and hopeful at someone finally understanding. "How did you know?"

"Those who experience the phenomenon of shoorei are largely the same. The heart feels the presence of a soul mate who has not yet arrived, and the longing for the other half creates a hole that no other person can fill. From what we know, the shoorei is partly the wish-fulfillment of its creator, and partly that of the soul mate. Before the human element realizes what it requires, the souls know, and come together in union. You were right, young one, in believing that this spirit means you no harm. It is the future, the ghost of the one you are meant for, longing for you as you long for it, trying to comfort you as your destined love will eventually do."

Zack looked down, not smiling but clearly put at ease by this revelation. He was afraid to look at Angeal, to be happy about something that so worried his mentor and idol. Angeal must have sensed this, because he placed a hand on the boy's back and gently rubbed it.

"When will it stop?" Angeal couldn't help but sound strained. The thought that Zack had a soul mate out there, a perfect match for him, whose mere shadow could comfort and please him even in sleep, was slowly gnawing his heart into pieces.

"It will come to an end when Zack meets his destined one, and the two accept the love they were meant for. I'm afraid there's no way to tell when this might happen," the kenjin said. "It could be tomorrow or ten years from now."

"Ten years?!" Now Zack was upset. "But...I can't keep training when I'm always tired like this! I'll never become a hero! I'll never..."

Zack had stood while expressing his dismay; now he sank back down dejectedly, tears beginning in his eyes. The commander caught him, eased him into the chair, brought the boy to rest on his shoulder. Zack clung to him in his unhappiness, and the elder forgot all else to soothe him with chaste touches and whispers.

Oh, the kenjin thought, with equal pity and mirth. They really don't realize. Either that, or they're fighting it.

"Puppy, it's okay. It's all right. The stimulant potions are safe for long-term use...we'll have to train slowly, you'll still need a lot of rest, but I promise, I'll make this work, I'll help you become a hero, no matter what it takes..."

You are a selfless man, Commander Hewley. You don't want the boy to be a hero, you want to hide him in your arms and keep him from every danger the world offers. And you, little one, you want to be just like your mentor, to make him proud...do you not realize you are his greatest joy, no matter what you do?

Even the gods could not move mountains as stubborn as these.

"You should give up on me, I'll just be a burden to you - "

"You could never be that, Zack. I will always want you with me, and you could never be a trouble to me, even if you couldn't move at all. I'd carry you, if necessary, believe me, and I'd be happy to. I care about you, Zack not your abilities."

Zack was audibly weeping into the elder's uniform shirt, arms slung weakly over his shoulders. Angeal brought the boy's head closer to his shoulder, pet the black spikes, then looked at the prisoners with a subdued but desperate plea.

"Is there nothing you can do for him?"

"Well, I can offer some advice that may help. Zack..." The teenager quieted a little to listen. "Some of your fatigue comes from struggling against the shoorei, whether consciously or not. Accept it for the promise of love it is. Embrace it. Do not avoid sleep and it for the sake of not worrying those around you, nor should you pine for the shoorei when it departs. In time, with acceptance, it should become part of your routine and cease draining your energy. Have you yet become conscious of the experience as it happens?"

"..yes..."

"If you require more sleep or gentleness, communicate this to the shoorei. It will not do anything you don't want."

"What can I do?" Angeal asked quietly.

Hmm, you can have sex with your student, which is what you both want. "You can accept this part of Zack's life and, hard as it may be, show no disapproval toward it. I know you feel rage at this spirit for seemingly taking advantage of him, but try to accept it as you would a suitor who loves Zack deeply." That is to say, for the boy's happiness only, and with a grudge.

"Of...of course. As long as it's not hurting him...and if Zack wants it, of course I will."

From his protective embrace, Zack whispered "Thank you." Angeal had the feeling that what the boy was really saying was "I'm sorry".

"If possible," the kenjin went on, "I would also suggest you take Zack to Wutai. I have never seen this phenomenon among gaikokujin - " The kenjin hadn't meant to use the word for 'foreigners' here, but neither SOLDIER seemed offended. " - and this leads me to believe that Zack's soul mate is likely to be found there. I know Wutai can be dangerous for men of ShinRa, but your reputation for diplomacy may be of help, Commander Hewley. And if permitted by my gracious captors, I would be glad to go with you. My kind are afforded respect and protection by our profession."

Angeal nodded. "If such a thing can be arranged, I would be grateful."

He stood, gently drawing Zack up with him. The boy edged back a bit and lifted his face to look down at the man who remained seated. Now that all was revealed, the eyes that gazed at him no longer felt accusatory (and never had been, in truth), only kind, paternal in a way that made Zack feel warm, not small and helpless.

"Thank you," he said sincerely.

The kenjin smiled and briefly bowed his head. "I am glad I could ease your fear, Zack."

"I thank you as well," Angeal said, almost succeeding at keeping the stiffness from his voice. "I may return to talk to you again. Until that time, if there is anything that would make your accommodations more comfortable, please, name it."

"I am being treated quite well. But thank you, Commander."

Nonetheless, when they passed the guard station on their way out, Angeal gave orders that the kenjin was to be moved to a cell with a window, given back any possessions that were not dangerous, as well as any harmless thing he might ask for, and fed not standard prisoner fare but meals from the SOLDIER kitchen. After saying "Yes, sir" and watching the 1st and 2nd exit, one guard said to the other "I know Commander Hewley is kind, but is it usual for him to go so far?"

"The kenjin probably has skill at healing, and I heard Zack's been sick lately. If the old man helped his Puppy, I'm only surprised Commander Hewley didn't bust him out."

Zack had taken Angeal's hand at some point, wanting to comfort him and still uncertain about doing more than that in public. As they left the prison area for the brighter, shinier upper levels of the building, the boy hesitantly spoke up.

"Angeal, I'm sorry. I know this is...weird for you."

"I just want you happy, Pup."

"I want you to be happy too!"

"Seeing you happy is necessary for my own happiness," Angeal said truthfully.

"You should not be the center of a grown man's life." Kaplan's words had stung then, and they stung now, awoke in Zack a remorse that Angeal's attention couldn't ease, only make worse.

"If Genesis manages to get us a foothold in Wutai, a safe one, I believe we will go," Angeal was saying. "As the kenjin said, being there may be helpful to you, and I'm sure you'd like to be away from here until talk of the trial dies down."

"You're not worried about the Koibito?"

Angeal's steps halted for just a moment, then he went on and squeezed the hand he held tightly. "I will not let anything happen to you."

Angeal... "Genesis is in Wutai now, right?"

"Yes."

Zack weakly attempted a joke. "Wouldn't it be scary if it turned out to be him?"

"Yes, it would," Angeal softly laughed. Because I'd have to kill him.

azazaza

In the heart of a well-hidden encampment in the woods of northern Wutai, a handsome, solidly built young man sat awake in his large, luxurious tent. He was tall, remarkably so for a Wutaian, which made him all the more impressive to those he met. Like all his tribe, he was sparsely dressed (though more finely than the others), and the faint firelight that shone in from outside reflected on his muscled chest, on his sleek black hair that fell past his shoulders, in his determined dark eyes. The orange glow glimmered on something nearby and caught his attention, and when he picked up the framed photograph a shudder of grief came with the touch of it. As it always would, it seemed.

From behind the glass, his own younger, smiling face looked out, a self he could hardly recall now. Beside him, frozen in time and half-clutched in his lap, was a boy a few years his junior, with longish dark hair and eyes that shyly looked away from the intrusive camera.

"Don't worry," the young man whispered to the picture. "I'll make them pay. All of them."

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 28 - For This Could Never Have Been

 

"Precisely what we've been hoping for," President Shinra said, almost giggling at his triumph. "Godo is too weak and afraid not to accept our help. We will establish our presence in Wutai, destroy those blasted Koibito, and what the war could not accomplish in full, we will do with subtlety. We will make Wutai need us and want us there, until Godo is reduced to a mere puppet king."

Shinra didn't seem to realize that he was the only one in the conference room who was delighted by this idea. The vice president once would have relished the thought of his future empire spreading; now conflict only meant to him further danger to the Turks and the one he loved. Tseng and Sephiroth and Commander Halger had enough experience with Wutai to give the nation more credit than their boss did. Lazard feared Sephiroth being deployed, perhaps side-by-side with Genesis. Dr. Hollander, asked to be present here by Angeal, worried for his son. And Angeal - the part of him that wasn't completely focused on Zack - knew he would likely be used to destroy the spirit of a proud people and quietly resented it.

"Rhapsodos did it, he can charm anything," Shinra went on almost gleefully.

Beside Lazard, Sephiroth stiffened at the mention of Genesis's name. The director inconspicuously reached under the table and caressed the general's leg with his open palm.

"Now we have a chance to further expose Wutai to our superior ways. Tseng, brief the P.R. department and tell them I want a proposal by the end of the week."

"Yes, sir."

"Before this is over, they will ask us to make Wutai a principality of ShinRa. Stubborn pride won't last long in the face of our superior technology and medicine," the president went on quietly, almost to himself. "Wutai sits on a veritable trove of mako, and the imbeciles have no idea how to get at it."

They respect the land too much to thoughtlessly rape it, Tseng thought. But he was a Turk, and Turks were loyalty, above all else. So he said nothing.

To the relief of all present, Commander Halger, head of the 3rd Class, broke in. "Mr. President, have you decided how many SOLDIERs to send to Wutai, and of what Class?"

"Their numbers could be supplemented by the army," Lazard suggested.

"No, it must be SOLDIERs. A small force, but elite, capable of handling any rebellion that might arise." The president's beady eyes looked around at those seated at the table. "Even 3rds would be intimidating to Wutai soldiers. It will be a mix of 2nds and 3rds, under the direction of one 1st. Halger, Angeal, Sephiroth, Lazard, I will leave the details to you."

"Request permission to lead in this mission, sir."

All eyes went to Angeal, most of them wide and surprised. Sephiroth's gaze was, on the surface, one of neutral interest, but he was privately, like the others, shocked that his friend would volunteer. Angeal's priority was always his student. He surely didn't intend to leave the boy behind...but to take him into enemy territory in a weakened state?

Sephiroth's eyes flickered to President Shinra, his most innocent-looking stare that was nonetheless intimidating, penetrating, cutting through his shields like lasers. It was at times like these that Shinra remembered he did not really own Sephiroth, any more than one owns a caged dragon that cannot be tamed. It was a fine line to walk, both asserting his authority over the angel-faced demon and keeping his best weapon happy enough to stay with them. The impression Shinra was getting was that it would be in his best interest to hear Hewley out.

"Certainly you would be an ideal choice, Angeal," Shinra said amiably. "But I'm surprised that you'd be willing to be separated from Fair at a time like this."

"I don't intend to be. Zack will come with me."

"I was under the impression that the boy is unwell. Or has that been resolved?"

Hesitantly, as emotionlessly as possible, Angeal related to them all that happened with Zack since he had last given them an update. All having known at least something about Zack's nocturnal episodes, the SOLDIERs and executives nodded, displaying varying degrees of concern and pity. Then Angeal explained the shoorei phenomenon that the kenjin had revealed, and concern gave way to frank shock. Only Sephiroth seemed to accept the information without trouble, and Tseng.

"I should have thought of that earlier," the Turk said flatly. "But the occurrence is rare even in Wutai. Ah, I see...you wish to take Zack to Wutai because his soul mate is likely there."

"How romantic," Lazard murmured, secretly hoping it might be Genesis and scolding himself for that.

Rufus scoffed at that, quietly. Being in love himself had not made him any more tolerant of the blindness and idiocy such strong feeling reduced men to. Besides, the vice president saw more of what was happening around him than anyone realized. Lazard had become dreamy-eyed because he was forever pining for Sepiroth...well, no one could blame him for that. But Hewley heading a quest to find Zack Fair's soul mate, that was hilarious. Anyone with a brain could see he was head-over-heels for the kid himself.

"Certainly we want Zack to be well and happy, whatever that requires," the president said, his voice like bitter honey.

You want him complacent so you can own him and keep him under your thumb, Sephiroth thought coldly. There were days when he wondered if Genesis's running joke - that the four of them should go AWOL together - might have some merit.

"But would the boy be safe? He's in no condition to defend himself."

"Zack requires lighter training now but with the help of Dr. Hollander's stimulant potions, he would be capable of participating in this mission. Zack is a skilled fighter and has a gift for dealing with people. He would be an ideal teacher for the Wutaian army we are to train."

To the surprise of most of those present, Sephiroth smiled faintly. "Fair's mere presence may win them all over to our side."

"It would be better for the kid to keep busy rather than be stuck here with nothing but classes," Halger agreed. "And I bet Zack would like to get away for a while, since rumors have been flying about him..."

"But would he be safe?" Lazard asked again. He was fond of Zack...and he knew from report and rumor what the Koibito did to pretty young men.

"I will be with him at all times," Angeal said, and clearly meant it. "And the 2nds best suited to this mission are fond of Zack as well. He'll be watched over carefully."

"Sir, I believe Angeal is correct," Sephiroth said softly. His sadness at losing both Angeal and Zack at once must have been sensed by the director, because Lazard took and squeezed his hand. "The training grounds will be protected from attack under a banner of truce, and the knowledge of its location restricted. If the Koibito should attack...such things can be prepared for, as long as the presence of SOLDIER is strong enough. Furthermore, Fair will be with Angeal. I would trust any of my men to his protection."

Angeal gave Sephiroth a long look of gratitude and affection. Rufus was about to roll his eyes when he noticed Lazard edge closer to the general, and he wondered with annoyance if those two were gonna start playing footsie or making out next. When's this stupid meeting gonna be over, I need to see Reno...

"Godo has also offered hostages for the duration of our presence there," Tseng spoke up.

"All right," the president conceded. "You may go, Angeal. I will keep Genesis here on stand-by, in case you should need back-up. Sephiroth will remain here unless a serious emergency arises."

The general tried not to look too disappointed, or too annoyed that Lazard was obviously relieved. It was with less than his usual razor-sharp focus that Lazard observed the rest of the meeting, speaking when necessary and absorbing every word being said but feeling rather distant from what was happening around him. He had always respected Angeal's willingness to love someone openly and completely, though platonically, along with appreciating that Zack was so protected; he liked the boy, after all. Angeal must understand his own feelings...and I never have. And yet people compare his heart to mine.

"Sephiroth?"

The general looked up, startled that he had been startled, to find the room nearly empty, the meeting broken up. Only Lazard remained, still at his side, fingers wrapped around Sephiroth's cool hand, and looking concerned. That expression always bothered the general.

"Sephiroth, are you all right?"

I am being distracted by them both. This will negatively impact my work, I should break it off with both of - The thought made him feel what Genesis had called nausea.

"Seph?" A hand slid into his silver hair and combed through the impossible-to-tangle silk of it. "Do you need..." Not Hojo, please don't need Hojo. "Um, if you're worried about Genesis, he'll be back soon. He's okay."

Sephiroth turned his head very slowly, eyes landing on Lazard and glowing with a youthful confusion about...what? He was gazing directly at Lazard, at last, as hoped for for so long, but Lazard hadn't wanted it to be this way. It was terrifying to see him look so frozen and uncertain, not because of who he was but because Lazard loved him so much.

"It's going to be okay."

Angeal functions well, loving one person above all others. Is that the answer? To give one's heart away whole, not in fragments?

"Seph, it's going to be okay."

You won't think so, if I don't choose you. Why do you look at me like that, why do you touch me? Don't you know that I am cruel? I would leave your heart in pieces if it meant fixing my own.

"It's going to be okay, I promise."

Those words again. Patronizing, meant for something smaller and weaker than their speaker. Few had dared to ever say them to Sephiroth...only Angeal and Genesis since his early childhood, and only in those perplexing moments when Sephiroth's calm wavered, and it felt like the world was threatening to break. Like it felt now, actually, and he could not pinpoint the source.

"It's going to be okay." Again, like an echo.

Lazard was nearly resigned to having to call Angeal in here, as someone who'd known the general longer, when Sephiroth unexpectedly (more than unexpectedly) turned and put his face against the soft purple material covering Lazard's shoulder. His arms went timidly around the director's waist, bending down from his chair and making himself seem small in a way Sephiroth usually avoided. Lazard secretly had found (and made himself copies of) photos of Sephiroth from as early as age three, but had never seen him look as young as he did right now.

Lazard wrapped his arms tightly around the SOLDIER, the first SOLDIER, whose perfection had never cracked to reveal any kind of frailty, and put his mouth and nose into gleaming silver hair. He was not as big as the bulky 1st Classes he worked with, but Lazard resolved that he could hide Sephiroth for as long as necessary, if that's what Sephiroth needed. The director was so touched and worried that nothing remotely sexual entered his mind, no thought of this warming body except a prayer to heal the soul it carried.

In an already-strange circumstance, only tears would have been able to surprise Lazard further. There were none. But had there been, Lazard would probably not have realized that they were for him.

azazaza

Thank Gaia for stimulant potions. And thank Hollander. But I already thanked Hollander...gotta remember not to try hugging him again, I think I freaked him out. So, yeah, thank Gaia.

A very light bounce was all Zack would risk as he moved through the corridors toward the 2nd Class apartments. He would be meeting up with Angeal in a little while for some swordwork, and was determined to save his energy. Gaia, how he'd missed the thrill of swinging his Junior Buster and hearing the crash of its blade against Angeal's famous sword. The lack of movement recently forced upon him had been paining Zack like a full-body cramp, like someone had tied all his limbs together and let the blood and energy drain out of them.

This was more than a second wind, it was a rebirth. Between the medicine and the relief he was feeling, Zack couldn't keep from smiling. Embarrassment about this whole shoorei thing (not to mention that the whole med lab staff had seen him having sex) remained in the pit of his stomach, sometimes rising like a low fever, but the kenjin's advice was actually working. Last night, instead of lying awake berating himself (pervert, whore, you're hurting Angeal) and dreading and wanting the spirit visitor in equal parts, Zack had simply gotten into bed and let himself calmly drop off. Sure enough, he'd woken tired and wet with his own semen, but also feeling satisfied. And the potion, now part of his daily routine, worked far better than ever before.

No cartwheels, Zack. Don't attract attention.

He had chosen the time to do this carefully, selecting a late morning hour in which most of his friends were in classes. The other 2nds were busy with weapons practice, strength training, or - as in the case of the one Zack wanted to see - free time that was used for study or for fun. Being eighteen, Lieutenant Hunter had only a few classes, the ones he chose to take, and good thing, because Zack really didn't want to have this conversation anywhere public.

A shiver of apprehension and guilt passed through the sixteen-year-old when he reached the right door. He shrugged it off and knocked, and moments later the door opened to reveal first a look of shock, then a huge smile.

"Zack! Come in, come in, my roommate's not here so...not that I meant, uh..." Declan closed the door behind them and looked at Zack with relief, longing, and nothing Zack felt remotely threatened by. "Sorry, I'm just so glad to see you. Thank Gaia, you're okay. You are, aren't you? You look better."

"Yeah, I'm okay. What about you? I worried you."

"It's okay, really. My feelings, my fault."

A little flustered but overjoyed to have the object of his affection nearby, Declan offered a list of snacks and beverages, which Zack politely declined, and a seat on the couch, which he accepted, wordlessly asking the elder to sit beside him. Declan did so, knowing he must look like a lovesick girl, unable to decide which was stronger - his attraction to Zack or the simple joy of looking at him. Zack was clearly aware of this struggle, and smiled kindly at him.

"I heard what you and Kunsel did for me, getting Kabe to tell the truth. Thank you. If there's ever anything I can...well..."

Zack looked at the carpet, feeling his old remorse for not being able to return a good person's feelings, his old thoughts of something being wrong with him. In the complex world of people and the emotions they evoke in each other, why couldn't any of it be simple? Or if not simple, how about just not cruel? Why did there have to be men like Jonah Keller, who just grabbed what they wanted, and then men like Declan, who deserved happiness and didn't dare even ask for it?

"I swear to Gaia, it's not you," Zack heard himself say.

Declan had heard that line before, but this time believed it was meant sincerely. "Please don't say there's something wrong with you. You're...you're perfect. Not liking me back doesn't change that."

"Shit." Zack swiped at his eyes. "It's not fair. Why does fate get to decide this stuff? I'd rather it be you than someone I haven't even met yet. I'm not perfect, believe me, if you knew how messed up I am, you wouldn't want to be near me."

"Is this about the trial, or that mission in Midgar?" Declan squeezed his own thighs to keep his hands back, afraid Zack might recoil from his touch. "Zack, you've been through a hell lately that I'll never understand, but I know it must be normal to feel messed up. That doesn't mean you are. And I want to be near you no matter what's happened...as long as it's okay with you."

"It's not that." Zack forced himself to turn a little, to look into Declan's face and the amethyst eyes that stung him with their adoration. "You asked me if there was...someone else. And there is, I just didn't realize it. I didn't want...it just happened..."

Spending time with Angeal should have taught Zack to be more careful about using those words. Apparently Declan thought similarly - that Zack was in constant danger of being assaulted - because his face scowled with righteous anger and he dared to touch at last, gently taking hold of the younger's upper arms.

"What? Did someone hurt you?"

"No, sorry, I didn't mean...damn it." Apologetic, Zack touched Declan's wrists and held them where they were, rather than nudging him off. "Why does everyone think...never mind. Look...you were really brave to tell me how you feel."

However embarrassed, Declan couldn't move or look away, couldn't give up this sight and this contact. Now Zack took his hands and held them. Platonically, nothing sexual about it, but a voice in Declan's head screeched like one of those fan-club girls. (Wild horses couldn't drag out of him the secret that he was actually a member of Zack's fan club.)

"You trusted me. I trust you too, and I owe you the truth about why I can't be with you. Will you keep it a secret?"

"Of course, I swear." Then, before he could shut his mouth... "Is it Commander Hewley?"

Zack looked like he'd just been stabbed, and Declan cursed himself, clutching the boy's softer hands, even pressing them to his face as he babbled an explanation.

"No! No, I didn't mean - I know Rudner lied and the commander would never do anything wrong, I swear, please don't hate me, I meant because he's so protective of you and you've been through so much, maybe he didn't want you dating yet..." Lt. Hunter closed his eyes against oncoming, unmanly tears and bowed his head, perfectly aware of how desperate he sounded. "I love you. You don't need to love me back, just please don't hate - "

"I don't hate you." The sweet voice was like absolution from Gaia herself, the fingers that awkwardly brushed at his tears felt like heaven. Declan wanted to take them into his mouth...he wanted to use his mouth on every inch of this forgiving angel...

But instead he opened his eyes, breathed out in gratitude, and said "I'm sorry."

"It's okay." Zack always seemed older when he was comforting someone. "A lot of people think Angeal and I are more than platonic. We're not, though. It's not him, it's..."

One hand of each SOLDIER remained clasped in the other as Zack began to speak, surprised by how nice it felt - a real-skin touch of someone who loved and wanted him. That and Declan's open, honest eyes helped him as he told what seemed like an old faerie tale, the merciless and violent kind that people watered down before passing on to children. It was more than he had revealed to any friend, to anyone but Angeal. Jonah Keller, the Calora mission, the nighttime 'assaults', the investigation into Angeal, the legend of the shoorei, the wisdom of the kenjin. As he spoke, Declan's face displayed the whole spectrum of human emotion, shifting between fear, curiosity, shock, anger, worry, sympathy, hurt, love, longing. Even a hint of lust, which Zack didn't mind, because thinking of the shoorei's visits made him feel tingly too.

"Are you okay?" the elder asked when he finished.

"Yeah, it's just..."

"Fuckin' bizarre?"

Zack smiled sadly. "But you believe me."

"Yes. So...there is someone else."

"Apparently."

"In Wutai."

"The kenjin thinks so. That's why I have to go."

"I'll go with you."

"What?"

Declan nodded enthusiastically. "My missions record is great. They need good 2nds with leadership skills, right? I've got that. I even got a letter of merit in my file for helping train cadets. If I ask Commander Hewley, will you put in a good word for me?"

"Declan." Zack looked torn. "Considering the reason I have to go to Wutai, wouldn't it be better for you to stay here? It's bad enough I can't give you what you want...I can't let you stand by and watch me end up with someone else."

"Won't be easy for me either," Declan said with a weak laugh. "But please, at least let me make sure whoever it is is a good guy. I'm perfect for this mission, and I can help protect you while you're recovering. Commander Hewley will see that, he's gotta pick me - "

"He already did," Zack said softly. "But I wish you'd let me change his mind. I'm hurting you enough already."

"I can go? YES! And hey, none of that. Look at it this way - if you feel bad for me, you can show it by letting me come with you and at least be your friend," Declan offered.

"I'm not your friend out of pity."

"But you're my friend. So, as a friend, let me come along on your adventure with you. Someone'll need to report on how you're doing to Kunsel and the others, anyway."

Zack sighed. "Okay. If it's what you really want."

"It is. And I'm curious about those Koibito we've started to hear about. They should make interesting opponents."

"They're dangerous. You've got to be careful."

"For you, anything."

"Don't do everything for me. I would rather be able to do something for you. Do you want - " Zack suddenly clammed up and seemed shocked that he'd spoken at all.

"Zack?"

"Nothing. Shit, that was stupid." Thank Gaia I stopped in time. Just 'cause remembering being with...it...makes me feel strange doesn't mean I can use a friend just to make that feeling last.

"What? Tell me." Declan might have guessed what Zack had nearly blurted, judging by his boldness in lifting a hand to cup his warm cheek. "Please."

"I was...gonna offer you a kiss, but that's - "

"You would? You would, really? I...it wouldn't hurt you?"

"I'd be hurting you."

Declan leaned closer, just a little. "I know I can't have all of you. I've already accepted the pain of that...and I'd rather have that and the love I feel than not hurt but not have the happiness you give me either. Look, I suck with words. What I mean is..."

"Your heart's already broken?" Zack wanted to look away and maybe cry, but the purple eyes held him with the happiness Declan had spoken of, had not lied about.

"I mean I can't be hurt anymore. And someday it'll heal, and if you find the one who's perfect for you, I'll be happy for you, Zack, just...just for right now..."

His hands were careful to invite, to coax, no more than that, because even though it was Zack who had offered, he looked very uncertain as he was drawn closer. As lips met his, the kiss of someone who could be not only felt but seen. Nonetheless, sense memory of pleasure awoke in Zack, the result of nights passed in ecstasy, and without realizing it he moaned, groped for shoulders that felt too narrow, opened for a mouth that was more eagerness than loving instruction.

One or both should have foreseen it - they were teenagers, factories in hormone-production overdrive. Strong feelings or none at all briefly gave way to lust in one of them and longing for closeness in the other. Eyes shut, dizzy, Zack forgot where he was...asleep, he had to be, because someone was touching, not to take from him but to give. It felt a little different than usual, but things had changed, they were bound to, right?

With an aroused whimper that could have turned on a mannequin, Zack fell back onto the cushions and pulled his lover on top of him by his sweater...that was odd, usually the shoorei was nude, all sleek skin and fluid like water. It was clumsier tonight, but still so good, sucking at the sensitive spots on his neck, pushing his shirt up to massage the ripples of his hard stomach. The shoorei felt more solid than ever before, no complaints there, not even that the hand reaching down to cup him seemed too small. None of that mattered, it was enough in this worked-up state to be being satisfied, wanted, needed, and there was a wonderful new freedom to admit that Zack wanted it too, wanted -

Angeal Angeal take me Angeal...wait...Angeal?

What followed was like waking from a nightmare into a nightmare into a reality that was just as bad. To his credit, Declan pulled away the moment Zack yelped and began to scramble backward. The color of his horrified blue eyes seemed to distort and stretch and continually collapse in on itself as the boy pieced together what had happened. He'd been trying to comfort Declan...then somehow switched into the autopilot of nighttime and thought the shoorei had come...then in the midst of passion his mind had called for Angeal, as he always did in fear, but he hadn't been afraid.

I must have been, why else... "Oh gods, I'm sorry, Declan, I didn't realize, I thought I was..."

"It's okay," the blond nearly stammered, dark pants concealing an erection and guilty concern masking disappointment. "I'm fine. Wh-What about you, did I hurt you? You look hurt."

"No, no, I just...I forgot where I was."

"And who you were with."

Angeal. Why did I call for Angeal, why then?

"Zack...I understand. We can just forget it, okay? And I'm still coming with you."

Zack could only display strength so long when he was feeling anything but. He covered tear-blurred eyes with his hands, and interrupted his quiet weeping only to gasp when he was hugged.

"It's okay. It's just...well, it's proof we weren't meant to be, and you've given me a memory to tide me over till I meet the one I'm right for. It's okay...let me hold you till you feel a little better."

Zack allowed it, hugged back, knowing that in this mood at least he wouldn't get swept away again. And the closeness was calming - oddly enough, after what had almost happened. Meanwhile, Zack's lips silently formed "I'm sorry" again and again, though he had no idea who he was speaking to, and about what.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 29 - This Fruit Of My Heart

 

Their departure for Wutai was coming up quickly. Zack had missed being in motion, and now he got his wish; preparations for the four-month (length tentative) mission kept he and Angeal busy the next few days. In addition to Angeal delegating his executive responsibilities and Zack collecting the homework he would miss while away from classes, Angeal had to begin the light training program they would be using while away. Zack began extracurricular studies of Wutai's culture and language. And both had to pack, of course.

Folding things and stuffing them into suitcases and boxes was not that long a chore, but it was tedious for a distracted teenager. Angeal tried to lighten things up with music and pizza, and had even offered to do the rest of Zack's packing for him so he could have more time with Kunsel and Varley and the other friends he would miss. But maturely, Zack declined, though he seemed to like the frequent breaks Angeal called.

It was during one of these that Zack felt an urge to confess about Declan, but instead said "Angeal? We're taking one of the slower air transports, right?"

"Yes, that's standard procedure with a lot of men and a lot of luggage."

"Will it be during the day?"

"Several hours overnight. Why...oh. You're concerned it might happen during the flight."

"Kinda. I doubt the other SOLDIERs will wanna see that."

Many of them would. "It is a concern. I could have Dr. Oren put you under sedation, that seemed to work briefly before. Since he'll be on the same transport as us, he can monitor you. And," Angeal smiled, "this way you won't be driven mad by boredom."

"That's right, the doc'll be there. Um...was he the one who woke me up, during...?"

"That was Dr. McCall."

"Good. I'd rather not end up half-done like that in public." Zack mentally slapped himself. Since when did he joke about sex with Angeal?

"About that, Zack...about what I did - "

"I told you, it's okay, you just helped me."

"That was my intention, yes, but my actions were inexcusable." Angeal looked at him seriously, almost distantly. "I can only promise you that such an occurrence will not be repeated."

I'll cut off my arm before I reach for you like that again and pretend none of it's for me.

"I trust you, Angeal." 'Trust' stuck in his throat, like he wanted to use another word.

azazaza

Sephiroth was being childish, and he knew it, he couldn't fail to recognize such a rare and unpleasant behavior in himself. As general, he should be at the transport pad, lending strength to the departing SOLDIERs with his strong presence. He should be saying another goodbye to Angeal and Zack, acknowledge the simple truth that he was going to miss them. Instead he was once more pacing about his office, Lazard filling up one side of his mind and Genesis the other. People were said to have an angel and a devil on either shoulder...what was appropriate for a demon? All of these words had been applied to Sephiroth before; none of them quite fit the two lovers he was between.

Sephiroth had been learning how to be human for years, observing and experimenting with what most people seemed to know instinctively. And learning was a kind of taking. He had used fellow SOLDIERs (albeit very willing ones) to figure out sex, used the bodies of enemies to perfect killing, made Genesis and Angeal's happy human duo a trio without thinking how it might impact them. They loved him, no doubt, but if not for him...maybe they would've stayed together.

Sephiroth scowled at his reflection in Masamune, hung with deserved reverence in its place on the wall. Pitying myself now? Lazard's influence, no doubt. But it wasn't Lazard he was angry at. It was the thought that Genesis had once been happy in monogamy, that Lazard would surely be so, that that was the human ideal...it was himself, for having taken both their hearts and still holding his own. All Sephiroth's life, he had been excused incorrect behavior when he hadn't known any better.

But he knew now. Both Genesis and Lazard loved him. Both wanted him. And the human thing to do would be to pick just one.

Just one. To be human. To finally make one of them happy. And the other... Poring over their files, making lists of character traits, trying to assess who was likely to take it hardest...cold, hard facts weren't helping at all. The logic he'd worn like a shield since childhood was failing when he needed it most.

Loud, ungentle footsteps broke his gloomy reverie. Who on Gaia would enter and rush through the outer office without permission? Lazard was too proper, Genesis not home yet...ah. Heedless of the proper channels required to reach this room, Zack Fair opened the door and poked his head in, looking like he'd run non-stop all the way from the departure site.

"Zack? Shouldn't you be with your group?"

"I know, I know, I was in my seat and Dr. Oren had that huge needle out already, but I realized I could ask you now, before I leave, and maybe not die of embarrassment, although you might kill me. Just don't tie me up, 'kay? Angeal thinks I just forgot something."

Thinking that 'huge needle' was probably just what Zack needed, Sephiroth gestured him in anyway. "I am not going to kill you. What do you wish to ask?"

For a second he thought the boy might clam up in his presence as so many did, but Zack really was desperate, and had not feared him for years. "What do you do if you think you love someone?"

"Excuse me?"

"Well, if you never thought about it before 'cause you're an idiot - me, not you - and then one day it kinda hits you like a full-grown chocobo and you know he'd never feel the same way and you need a way of living with it that won't mess anything up or make it feel like you're lying every day. And on top of that you're supposed to be fated to be with someone else like in those manga that Genesis says aren't smutty enough, and love doesn't work the way you want to, does it? Two people who know each other already aren't gonna suddenly wake up and be in love, even if one already has..." Pausing to breathe, Zack giggled hysterically, and continued to look shattered. "What am I talking about? You've never had anyone not feel the same way."

The general carefully took hold of Zack's shoulders and eased him down into a chair. "Zack, I'm not sure I'm the right - "

"You are, really! I mean...uh..."

"Zack?"

The boy whispered what sounded like "Angeal's gonna kill me."

"Angeal is not going to kill you, nor will I. Please try to speak clearly."

"I meant...you love two people, right, and they haven't even killed each other, so they must be happy the way the things are. I like the way things are too and I know he wouldn't hate me if he knew, but he would feel horrible and I don't want that. And it's so sudden, he'd say I'm just confused or scared of everything but him but it's not sudden, not really, 'cause everything makes sense now, except that I like the shoorei thing too, but I wouldn't have given it up before and I would now, if I could be with him instead. I can't tell him but I'll fall apart holding this in forever, please tell me what to do."

Sephiroth blinked at him in shock and alarm. "Zack, would you like me to get Angeal?"

"NOOO!" Clearly he had said the wrong thing. Luckily, Sephiroth had gotten used to Zack enough that he immediately recognized the difference between a glomp and an attack. "Please don't, please."

Now the general was really worried. Zack knew that there were some people one just did not hug, and yet there he was, clinging to his most superior officer like a squid and burying his face in a famous leather coat. Sephiroth stood with arms splayed for a few frozen moments, thinking that this was beyond him, he should call Medical, he should definitely call Angeal...but even he was vulnerable to the Puppy's sadness, even if he didn't understand it. Not knowing what else to do, he folded his arms around Zack and robotically patted his back.

"I'm really sorry, Sephiroth." No tears by the sound of it, but too much inhalation, not enough exhalation. He jabbed the most convenient pressure point, and Zack sank further into him like a man totally given over to despair.

"It is all right. But I'm still not certain what you are asking, and why me."

"'Cause you're so good at making people happy, and I trust you. You'd still love Genesis and Lazard even if they didn't love you - "

What? Would I? What does that matter?

" - and that means you really love them, selflessly, and I wanna be like that too. I just need to know how to do that, if I should tell him, if I should keep it a secret - "

"Tell who?" There was only one person Zack spoke of so much, with so much reverence. "Angeal?"

"Yeah." Even the general's ear barely caught the tiny voice.

"Are you telling me you love Angeal, Zack?"

"I'm so stupid. He was there all this time, and even when I didn't feel anything for anyone, I wanted him there, I didn't need anyone else. I know he doesn't feel the same, he'll hand me over to whoever the shoorei really is but I don't care about fate, I don't want it anymore. I'd rather never be touched again if it can't be him."

Lazard had been right about Sephiroth's empathy, his capacity to hurt on behalf of those he was fond of. Zack's pain was towering over his own problems of the heart, crushing him with its weight and his inability to dispose of it. The boy was really crying now, bringing out instincts the legend hadn't known he possessed. Sephiroth hugged the smaller body protectively as he'd seen Angeal and Genesis do, let Zack shake him with muffled sobs, pet the messy hair that felt pleasant to his fingers.

A memory burst out of the distressed chaos inside Sephiroth, a long-forgotten recollection of being very small, too young to walk, and crying in hysterics. The grown-ups in white didn't know what to do, the strange baby had never cried before. A flurry of movement, halted by Hojo's shrill voice, but then someone was picking him up, the man who carried soft toys instead of needles. Big arms, not clinical and restraining and not lab-coat white, but soft material and gentleness, and humming that became a kind voice, its quiet rising above the bad man's complaints.

"It's all right, Sephiroth, it will be okay."

Movement, not to a table under bright lights or to the hated bath, not to anywhere, just back and forth, swaying in a rhythm that hypnotized the baby into quiet. The man's warmth slowly spread to the pale infant's cool body, the man's heartbeat a lullaby in a world of whirring machines and dead silence. Sephiroth's chest seized up in pain at the assault of this memory, this proof he had once welcomed the comfort of being held, the words that Lazard and Genesis had echoed as though they'd sensed the ghost of that distressed child Sephiroth had forgotten.

The baby's wailing faded, but the terrible sound of sobbing remained. Without thinking on what he did, Sephiroth easily lifted Zack up into his arms and sat down on the conveniently-clear front of his desk. Zack's only reaction to this was a questioning shift, but the arms and chest and lap supporting him must have felt safe, because he hugged Sephiroth around the neck and continued to gasp noises of hopelessness. Still not really thinking, Sephiroth rocked him gently, and it seemed to soothe Zack as it had once soothed him.

"It will be okay, Zack." A gentle pat of his raven hair. "I wish I could tell you how...but you've misunderstood me. If I am truly making Lazard and Genesis happy, it is through no conscious effort of my own. And I would not call what I feel for them selfless. They give far more than I can."

A sniffle. "You really believe that, don't you? Just 'cause there's one of you and two of them?"

Sephiroth wasn't sure how to respond to that. The way Zack hugged him had changed slightly; the boy even dared to tug his head further down, so it rested against his own. This made Sephiroth recall something Angeal had said to him once, that Zack was always trying to make other people feel better regardless of his own well-being. Zack also wiggled a little, maybe starting to realize he was being cradled like a child, but Sephiroth didn't feel ready to let go.

"You're happy with them, and them with you, right?" the boy went on. "You're lucky...a lot of people...don't..."

This time, when the sobbing started up, the general at least felt a bit more prepared. "Angeal loves you very much. More than anything, I feel quite certain."

"But not the way I...gods, I can't tell him. He'll think he corrupted me or something, he'll give me away to someone else - "

"No, no he wouldn't."

"What do I do?" Zack wept. "How do I make it stop hurting?"

Gaia, this gift of love is a cruel one. "If it pains you to be near Angeal, I could re-assign you, just temporarily, to Genesis or Hathaway."

"I can't be away from him, I need to at least be with him..."

Zack's hair smelled sweetly floral, Sephiroth noticed. It was quite nice to experience; no wonder Genesis and Lazard were so fixated on his own hair. "You couldn't bring yourself to sublimate these feelings into casual sex with colleagues, I suppose."

"Don't want anyone else."

If Genesis were here, he would know what to say. "If you are sure you cannot tell Angeal what you feel, Puppy," he said, using the nickname as he did every now and then, "then perhaps time will make this ache easier to bear. Perhaps you will meet someone else, though the idea of that is distasteful to you now."

Zack let out a long, slow sigh. He had calmed, at least, even if he wasn't comforted. Now Sephiroth set him down on his feet and cupped the wet face in his hands, gently wiping away tears with his thumbs. When Sephiroth had finished this he drew the boy into another hug, and it was much easier and more natural this time to do this human thing. Sephiroth, the icy legend, was somehow cuddling to his chest a boy he'd known only a few years, and even enjoying it, only wishing he could do more for this child of whom they'd all grown so fond.

They heard nothing, distracted as they were, until the door to this room roughly opened and Angeal was standing there, in panic asking if Sephiroth had seen... His voice died at the same time that worry faded from his face and left a steely, dull blank. Rather than leap apart at the noise of his entering, Zack had instinctively cowered closer to the nearest safe body, and Sephiroth's arms, in a similar impulse, hugged Zack more tightly. When they saw who had interrupted, the two eased themselves apart and looked at Angeal with what the commander, in a moment of anything but logic, saw as guilt.

"Zack," he said in a dry voice, "we've been waiting."

"Sorry, I'm really sorry, Angeal, I just, uh - "

"Why are your eyes wet?"

A rare flash of genius that came from his instincts, not his mind, made Sephiroth answer for him. "Fair needed to vent a little stress before departing and didn't want to worry you, Angeal, so he came to speak to me. I believe he's all right now."

"Zack?"

"I'm fine. Sorry, sir."

"It's all right, Puppy. Head back, I'll follow you."

With a soft "Bye, Sephiroth", Zack went as quickly as he could, sensing Angeal really wanted him out of that room, though he couldn't imagine why. Crap, I was gone too long, he must've been worried...but he wouldn't get mad at Sephiroth for that...

"Did you touch him?" Angeal's expression had gone from gentle to battle-ready once Zack was out of sight. Sephiroth cocked his head at the bizarre image - Angeal angry, at him?

"Your student is stressed from recent events. Worried about Genesis, worried for the SOLDIERs, worried for you. Isn't it appropriate to hug someone you care for when he is crying?"

"Only hugged? That's all?"

If anyone else had spoken to him in that tone, Sephiroth would have begun his descent into the colder part of his personality, where there was little progress toward humanity and anyone could be a threat, anyone could suddenly turn on him with sword or needles or restraining hands. But this was Angeal. He had earned enough trust to glare and stand in that want-to-attack posture. More than anything, more even than his curiosity, Sephiroth felt unwell to be treated like an enemy.

"Angeal, what is it you think I've done?"

"...nothing." The anger on his face broke apart, and Angeal rubbed at his forehead. "I'm sorry, Seph, I'm truly sorry. I would never think that of you. I just...warning bells go off in my head when I see him so close to another body."

Sephiroth thought for a moment. "I believe I understand."

"I'm not jealous," Angeal said suddenly.

"I did not say you were."

"I just - "

"You don't want anyone but yourself to touch the boy. Yes, I understand."

Angeal's muscles visibly tensed. "It's not - "

"You can trust yourself, after all, not to harm Zack, but recent and past incidents have made you wary of other people's intentions toward him. Am I correct?"

"...yes, of course." Angeal exhaled. "But I trust you. Totally."

"Thank you. For the record, Angeal..." Here the ethereal face took on the darkness of a fallen angel. "I find those who prey on the weak and unwilling to be worthy of death without mercy."

"Seph, are you sure you - "

The shadow lifted, the angel still exuded the pure light of an unstained heaven, and Sephiroth laughed dryly. "Yes, I am sure. Employees who stared too much were always fired. Before I could fight, I was able to fight back. And surely you remember what happened to the Koibito who tried."

He did, it was difficult to forget so jarring an image as a pile of severed arms. "And Hojo?" It was the one person he'd feared to ask about.

"He is still alive, is he not?"

Angeal was approaching; his friends always did the same thing after this conversation. At least Angeal was hugging him like an equal, not trying to cradle him like Lazard had...though it had felt oddly safe. The silver-haired baby soothed by Gast's rocking flashed in his memory again. Maybe it was not so odd.

"I'm really sorry about before."

"It is forgotten. Go, Angeal. Be safe, and keep our young mascot so."

"I'll see Genesis for a few moments before he returns. Is there anything you want me to tell him?"

A thoughtful silence, tenser than quiet usually was with Sephiroth. "What would you tell him, if you were me?"

"Nothing. He already knows."

Through the sharp pulsing in his chest, Sephiroth smiled faintly. "Tell him I have tickets for Loveless."

azazaza

"Puppy!" Genesis was normally quite conscious of his dignity and proud of his regal bearing, but then Zack had a strong effect on most people. "You look half-dead, did I miss an orgy?"

"He was sedated for the flight, Gen." Still embarrassed for his accusation of Sephiroth, Angeal forced himself not to intervene as Genesis lifted Zack up and hugged him like a cherished doll. "Be careful."

"I missed you too, Genesis," a voice muffled by leather laughed.

Genesis kissed the boy's cheek and happily nuzzled his soft hair, unconcerned that there were SOLDIERs and pilots all around. His reputation as a physically affectionate sensualist was well known. Even when he broke the hug he merely held Zack to rest against his shoulder and yanked Angeal closer by his collar to give him a closed-mouth but loving kiss. Someone nearby catcalled, Angeal playfully smacked his old friend's head, and a tiny piece of Zack's heart died.

"Save it for Sephiroth, Gen."

"Oh, General Sexy will be getting a major workout the second I get back. But...I wish I could see you two a little longer."

Angeal squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sure you'll visit to check on our progress."

"Your progress, yes," the elder said with a mischievous smile. "The residence they have ready for you is quite cozy. I left some manga there that you might find helpful." You know, 'Geal, pretty young things with hot bodies and big eyes, though you could have the real thing, you dunce.

"Give me my student back, Gen."

"I'm not luggage, ya know."

azazaza

Angeal had expected (and been perfectly fine with) the simplest and crudest barracks possible, its only function to shelter the thirty SOLDIERs who would, for security reasons, be lodged separately from the Wutaian army. He had underestimated Godo's eagerness to please his new allies. Very quickly, a large and long-unused stone temple had been renovated into fifteen plain but comfortable apartments. Looking at the slightly eerie old building, Zack turned to a new friend who had traveled with them and asked "Is this okay? Won't the gods be angry?"

The kenjin, leaning on his staff and breathing in the air of his homeland, smiled. "Not as long as you don't urinate on the shrines."

Zack couldn't think of an answer to that. A member of the army who had been welcoming Angeal respectfully greeted the kenjin and offered to show him to the private hut they had constructed for him. Alone with Zack for a moment, taking a break from directing the SOLDIERs as they moved themselves in, Angeal gathered the boy to his side and gave him a light squeeze. Zack's apparent stress before they'd left ShinRa had made Angeal decide not to restrict touching between them in any way while here, no matter what people might think of how they comforted each other. The commander had already had to explain to a few well-meaning natives that Zack was his student, not his lover.

A part of him wanted to let them all continue with their original assumption. No one had set off Angeal's alarm bells yet, but he still didn't like the number of appreciative looks Zack was getting. During the long flight, the kenjin - who seemed to have cheerfully adopted the teacher and student - warned Angeal that Zack's age would not be a deterrent here. In Wutai it was very common to see considerable age differences between partners.

"If you're so worried," the old man had chuckled, "why not let people think you are lovers, as they will anyway?"

"That would defeat the purpose of bringing Zack here, wouldn't it? We're supposed to find the one he's meant to be with, the one who gave rise to the shoorei."

"Hmm, yes."

"How will we know who it is?"

"Zack will know."

"What, on sight?"

"It's different for everyone," the kenjin had said vaguely. "But Zack will know, and once he accepts the person for what he is, what they are, the shoorei should disappear."

And maybe Zack will finally be happy with a real person, Angeal thought now, resting his chin on the boy's hair. "Are you all right, Zack?"

"Uh-huh. Not falling over yet, at least. So what do we do first?"

"Well, unpacking can wait...why don't you go to our quarters and get some rest?" The pout Angeal received made clear Zack's feelings about that idea. "I know you want to help, but you've got to be careful, Pup."

"C'mon, I can handle carrying stuff into the barracks."

"All right. Lieutenant Hunter?"

Declan shared a smile with Zack as he approached before saluting. "Commander, sir."

"Zack's going to give you a hand. I'm trusting you to make sure he doesn't push himself too much."

"Hey!"

Declan grinned. "Yes, sir."

"You're both being mean 'cause I'm too tired to fight back," Zack grumbled. "I don't like either of you."

Angeal merely laughed, pet the boy's hair and reluctantly pulled himself away to attend to his other duties. Zack brightened up a bit once he and Declan got to work, comforted by action as always. And keeping their hands busy helped both boys relax in each other's presence, both less bothered by their accidental make-out session than they'd expected to be. It was a cool, sunny day in this cleared area surrounded by forests and fields, and everyone seemed upbeat, many SOLDIERs stopping to ask Zack how he felt or ruffle his spikes.

"Did you know I'm in the apartment right to the left of you and the commander?" Declan asked.

"Really? Cool. Who're you rooming with?"

"Everett," Declan said, naming a 2nd of about his own age who had always been friendly to Zack. "Everyone else on the top floor are older guys. All the biggest, toughest 2nds who are about to become 1sts. Did you notice?"

"Huh?"

"And you're right in the middle of them," Declan laughed. "You don't have neighbors, Zack, you have a whole floor of bodyguards. I should thank Commander Hewley for including me."

"That Angeal..."

"It's sweet."

"You're really okay being here?"

Declan stood up from settling down the large box they'd lugged over and grinned. "Yes. We're friends, right? And during this mission we'll have more chances to hang out than in Midgar."

"If Angeal doesn't find a tower to lock me in," Zack half-joked.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 30 - Had The Chance Been With Us

 

Somehow Genesis knew the general's quarters would be unlocked, and that Sephiroth would be there waiting for him. He had intimidated a group of 2nds into taking care of his luggage (and Goddess help them later if he found a single scratch), so his graceful arms were free to reach out for Sephiroth, wrap him in a hug Genesis had been going mad without. The younger stiffened a moment, but even he had a tough time resisting the sensuality of Genesis's every move. A long kiss, some stroking of hair and a bit of light groping was permitted before Sephiroth gently pulled away, and seemed to be trying to say something with his eyes.

"Hmm, baby? What is - "

Then realization struck him - someone else was there. Lightning-quick Genesis drew his sword and spun...and there on the couch before him sat Lazard, jerking back from a blood-red blade. The SOLDIER did nothing for a few moments (except wickedly enjoy Lazard's controlled fear) then sheathed his weapon and sighed through a lazy smile.

"Baby, I told you, we would need to talk before doing something like this."

Sephiroth rolled his lovely eyes. "I need to speak to you both. Sit down, Genesis. Not with me, there."

Pouting dramatically, Genesis plopped down next to the director and whispered "Are we in trouble?"

"I don't know."

"Well, just so you're aware in advance, if possible I'll shove all the blame onto you and get off scot-free."

Sephiroth was facing away from them, looking out the wide window that offered one of the best views in Midgar. Late afternoon sun fell through it onto and past him, golden light over a black and silver shadow. It was a beautiful and mesmerizing sight, enough to shut Genesis and Lazard up, like a spell Sephiroth had cast without realizing it.

"I have, just recently, realized something."

"If you're coming out, Seph, you did that already, remember?" Genesis smirked. "Hell, you burned the closet down."

"Let him talk," Lazard murmured.

"You are both very aware that I sometimes do not realize things that are obvious to everyone else. You have both been very reassuring about this deficiency of mine, and I appreciate that."

Are we about to get laid? Genesis wondered dreamily. I call first!

"You both have more experience in intimate relationships than I do, not only in the affairs of release and convenience so common in a military setting, but also the conventional kind that are the ultimate goal of an average person's romantic life."

Only Seph could reduce love down to the dullness of a meeting about profit margins...

"I have observed that, in both your cases, your unexpectedly strong feelings for me have prevented you from pursuing other relationships or even sexual trysts...or in Genesis's case, the frequency of the latter has drastically decreased."

Did Seph just say I'm not the whore I used to be? I so am!

"I have told you both, many times, that you overestimate my emotional capabilities. I insisted to you that I cannot love; you would not accept that. I believe now that I was wrong, and you are right."

Oh, Seph...get over here, let me hold you. I'll even let Director Tight-Ass have a squeeze or two.

"However...one truth cannot be denied. There are two of you, and one of me."

Genesis was getting nervous, it showed in his continued mental joking. This is never a problem in porn.

"It is not fair that you both love me so completely and offer me your whole selves, when I cannot do the same, perhaps not even to one person, certainly not to two." Still facing away, the general looked at the floor. "You both deserve more. I had at first thought I should choose and remain with only one of you, but I cannot, at least not now. I am sorry, but I think it would be best that we..." Impossible. Sephiroth, Sephiroth, was having trouble speaking. "...just stop. Excuse me."

He was gone. Door, window, thin air, somehow. Lazard didn't have the mako to see at nearly that speed, and Genesis was too overwhelmed by all his emotions going into screaming overdrive at once. Perhaps as some evolutionary imperative, he pushed toward the front the feelings most likely to prevent shut-down - anger, indignancy, furious love and one best described as oh-hell-no-you-didn't.

"What in the fucking name of the Goddess's holy panties was that?!"

Beside him, Lazard mutely slumped forward in his seat, head and back curling toward his knees. Like a paper doll being shriveled by water which was, after all, the natural product of applying warmth to Ice.

azazaza

Much as Angeal disliked preferential treatment, he considered it a small mercy that his appointed quarters were the only ones with two bedrooms. It was a fitting punishment for the wicked part of him that wanted to watch Zack sleep, and everything else. It was much better this way, now he could check on Zack as he used to but stay away from any sights that would be too tempting...as though every sight of Zack didn't strike a pang of longing in his heart.

As night set in, Angeal thought to himself that it had been a good first day. The SOLDIERs were settling in well, the representatives of the Wutai army he had spoken to were friendly and eager to learn, and the grounds allocated to them would do well for exercises in surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation practice, etc. He had just a short while ago finished meeting with his second- and third-in-commands, Lieutenants Crowley and Akio. They had taken on much of the responsibility for the training schedule, and Akio was planning to offer classes for the SOLDIERs to learn Wutainese and the Wutaians to improve their Continental. Everyone seemed so eager...even Zack was still out, with Declan, having dinner with some of the 2nds and 3rds he didn't know well.

This is good...spending time with his friends. And he needs to meet people here, that's the point, right?

Angeal sighed heavily, the sound of a much older man. He had always known things would eventually change. Zack would grow up and out of the bouncy kid who glomped him daily, he would become a great SOLDIER and hero who would kindly tolerate his old teacher's affection but no longer need it. It was just all happening so fast, and right on the heels of such a devastating realization. Giving up one he loved was bad enough...in love was so much worse.

As long as he's happy. That's what matters most.

The sound of the main door broke into his thoughts, and Angeal quickly turned on a lamp, not wanting Zack to find him moping in the darkness. He went to the door to make sure Zack was, as ordered, not alone, and was immediately alarmed to see that Declan was with him, and had his arm around Zack's waist. They stepped into the light of the room, and Angeal wasn't sure if he should be more relieved or more worried to realize Declan was supporting Zack because he was too weak to walk on his own.

"I swear he didn't drink or take anything, Commander, he just got really tired."

"It's all right, Lieutenant, just the stimulant potion wearing off. Thank you."

"I could've walked by myself," Zack complained.

"Whatever you say, shrimp," Declan laughed as his friend was gently lifted away from him. "Do you need any help getting him to bed, Commander? Uh..."

Angeal's first reaction was a glare of warning, as though Declan had been caught just about to fondle his teenaged daughter. Fortunately for the boy's nerves, Angeal quickly made his expression neutral. "Thank you, Hunter, but I've got him. Good night."

"Bye, Declan."

"Good night, Zack, Commander."

"Overdid it a little, didn't we, Puppy?"

"I wasn't doing anything, just hanging out. We met a bunch of the army guys too, they're really nice. They can't jump as high or move as fast as us but they know some awesome ninja stuff they're gonna show us."

"That's good...come on now...are you all right?"

"Yeah...ugh, I don't think I like the stuff they drink."

"What?" Angeal took Zack by the shoulders a little rougher than he meant to. "You drank something a stranger gave you? What have I told you?!"

"Oww...to make sure I see it poured and don't take my eyes off it and I did. I thought it was water, so did Declan, but it kinda burned going down."

"That's firewater, Zack. Tomorrow you will point out to me who gave it to you."

"It was my fault...I didn't want to think." Not falling-down-drunk but clearly a bit buzzed, at least, Zack nonetheless didn't seem to be enjoying his first experience of alcohol. "I'm sorry, Angeal."

"It's all right, Puppy. C'mon, let's get your pajamas."

"Nnn, no, it's too hot..."

Gaia, why do you torture me? Zack seemed intent on stripping down to his blue boxers in the main room, and all Angeal could really do was keep him steady and not dwell on how impossibly soft and smooth the boy's skin was. The gods took no pity; once undressed, Zack leaned heavily against his clothed teacher's chest and sighed happily.

"That's better."

"I'm...I'm glad. Time for bed now."

"NO!" The volume of the wail and its suddenness made Angeal literally jump. Zack was now huddled against him, holding on for dear life, making the puppy whimpers that Angeal was powerless against.

"Zack, what's wrong? Zack, tell me, now."

"Don't want it to come, I don't want it."

"What? But...I thought you..." Angeal stammered.

"Can I stay with you? I wanna stay with you, please?"

Angeal hugged him closely, encouraged the cuddling, tried to focus on what he felt in his heart and not what he couldn't let happen in his pants. "Pup, I thought you didn't want me to see you with the shoorei."

"It won't come if I'm with you...not anymore..."

"What? How can you know that?"

"I dunno...please, Angeal? Just this once?" Before Angeal could answer, Zack slumped dejectedly. "I'm sorry, I make you worry and you shouldn't have to - "

"Pup, of course you can stay with me. Whenever you want."

"Really?" Zack squeezed him unsteadily and nuzzled a sensitive spot of chest with his sweet, flushed face. Angeal bit his lip; that was a good touch, and therefore bad. "I loooove you, Angeal!"

"I love you too, Puppy."

Obviously the combination of alcohol and exhaustion and stress was getting to Zack. From being thrilled only a second before, he now started to sniffle against the T-shirt he held to. He didn't seem to want to move, either, so Angeal hoisted him off the ground (Gaia help me, this beautiful skin) and brought him to the neater of the two bedrooms. Zack wouldn't let go still, so he had to maneuver them onto the mattress at the same time, which was difficult. And the bed was a bit smaller than what they were used to, so their bodies would have been touching even if Zack had let go.

"Angeal?" Zack lifted his face up, strangely timid, putting the 1st in mind of a tiny animal, creeping out of its home to look for predators. So beautiful...no, I will not be a predator.

"What, Puppy?"

"I didn't mean just 'cause you said yes. I meant, I really love you."

Now twist the knife counter-clockwise. "I know. I love you too."

Black spikes waved as Zack shook his head. "Not as much."

"More than anything," Angeal said fondly. He swiped at the tears on Zack's cheeks and found them growing wetter. "Puppy."

"Sephiroth said that...said I should tell you..."

"Tell me what?"

"That I love you," Zack sniffled.

"I know, Puppy, and I love - "

At that moment, somehow, in a flash that was shorter than an instant, Angeal felt a burst of something resembling omniscience. He could see the entire planet, galaxy, universe. The sun stood still, and every shadow it cast. A chocobo feather released from the wind froze in mid-air above the ground. Wings of Wutaian and continental birds both halted, but none of them fell, nothing moved. Waves didn't crash, stars failed to glimmer, the collective life story of all that is froze like a damaged vid-disc. And all because in an island nation, in a small training ground, on a bed in what used to be a temple priest's room, a tipsy and desperate sixteen-year-old boy had planted his lips on his teacher's and was licking and sucking at them with great need for them to open up.

They did open. Every part of Angeal that would have protested this was won over by the dream-like perfection of Zack's soft little mouth pushing at his. As though it weren't enough that he was beautiful and Angeal wanted him, Zack needed this, needed him, and it was practically automatic for Angeal to give Zack whatever he required to be happy. To give this was certainly no hardship; Zack's mouth was inexperienced but lovely, clean-tasting with just a trace of unnatural heat from the firewater. Damn whoever had given it to him, whether out of friendliness or a desire to lower the boy's defenses, he must have known that Zack was too young -

Too young, sixteen, underage, a student, a Puppy. His student, his Puppy. Tapping reserves of willpower he didn't know he had, Angeal gently took hold of Zack's shoulders and moved him away. The boy opened his eyes, still dripping, and his chin quivered.

"I'm sorry, Zack. You don't know what you're doing, and I shouldn't have let it get this far. This is my fault, all right?"

"You...don't want..." The pain of that unhappy voice hurt Angeal more than any battle wound he'd ever received.

"What I want doesn't matter, you're too young - "

"I'll be seventeen soon."

"Pup, I won't be like all those others. I love you for you, I don't expect anything - "

"I know, and I love you!"

Angeal closed his eyes. He had won so many battles only to find defeat here, in a dream come true that was really a nightmare, because he could not have it. He felt Zack's hand cup his cheek, and automatically brought it to his mouth to kiss.

"Puppy, I know you're scared - "

"I'm not! Not when I'm with you!"

"Exactly," Angeal said, looking at him sadly. "I'm safety for you, Zack. I always will be, probably for far longer than you really need me. If I became anything else...Zack, I can accept that you'll belong to someone else. I cannot risk losing what we have, on the chance that what you're feeling for me is any more than the platonic bond we have that's so precious to me."

Zack tried to get up, shaking with sobs, and Angeal held onto him and pulled him into a comforting embrace. If the boy had really not wanted to be touched, Angeal would have respected that. But the fists that pushed at him did so weakly, and Zack's wet face was pressed to his shirt, to the heart that was secretly his.

"Ssh, ssh, Puppy. You've been drinking, and that's on top of a lot of recent stresses and medications and exhaustions. Things will seem clearer tomorrow, and together we'll get you well and go back to the way we used to be, all right? Get some sleep." His whole body was throbbing with a dull pain now, screaming at him for making Zack cry, demanding he give in to what he wanted and Zack thought he did. "Puppy, what can I do? Tell me how to help."

"Can I...still stay here?"

"Of course you can."

"Don't let go, please."

"I won't." He's too young to know that being close makes it hurt worse, or he doesn't care, like me. Puppy, what's going on with you? You had made peace with the shoorei, and now it's scaring you so much that you've made yourself think you love me. Love isn't supposed to be born out of fear, Pup...those emotions are practically inseparable for you, huh, after all you've been through? "I've got you."

"You always used to believe me. About everything."

"Puppy, I do believe everything you tell me. But anyone in your place would be confused, and someone in my position must realize that. I would be taking advantage of you otherwise and I will not do that."

Angeal doesn't want me. The thought swept like wind through the dark of Zack's mind. Or if he does, he won't let himself. He'll love me and protect me and hand me over to whoever the shoorei is supposed to be, and dammit Angeal I know you don't want to! Even if it's only platonic love between us, you hate sharing me, I know that! So don't!

Angeal continued to talk softly, as though the words could form a shield to protect them from themselves, from each other. Zack was intoxicated, Zack was overtired, Zack was traumatized, Zack was afraid of losing him again, Zack was afraid of the relationship the shoorei represented and so was turning to the comfort of something familiar.

Yeah? Well, if I'm still so damn scared of relationships, why do I want one with you? If I'm so fucking fragile and damaged, how come I can finally admit to myself that I want to have sex with you? You, not a ghost or some freak I haven't met yet. And if I'm such a kid, how come you're the one running away?

Zack thought of saying these things to Angeal, and counting on their shock value to maybe work in his favor. After all, adoring of Angeal though he was, Zack wasn't the fourteen-year-old with stars in his eyes that he used to be. His naiveté and innocence were genuine, but he did play up his cuteness and neediness to Angeal a little, because Angeal liked that and responded to it with such warmth. And now it had backfired. Angeal had grown to love Zack as a child, and it was the child he loved now. And Zack couldn't bear to take that part of himself from Angeal, couldn't yell that he was an adult, not when Angeal held him so protectively and sadly. Even if Angeal's heart couldn't be his, Zack felt a responsibility toward it, a protectiveness of his own.

"Do you understand, Puppy?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry...everything is just so confusing..."

"We'll figure it out. I love you, Puppy." So much...if it kills me I will see you happy where you belong...

"I love you too." I'll keep being your Puppy, if that's what you need.

Zack snuggled in tightly, and Angeal gratefully held Zack close, chin resting on his head and fingers combing his messy spikes. Goddess, this had been easier before the shoorei had butted into their lives, back when Zack had been purity incarnate and not the sexual being whose image haunted Angeal's dreams. But it would be okay, they'd be okay, it was just necessary to remember that

It's not me Zack really wants.

It's not this me Angeal wants.

It's the one he's meant for.

It's the child he thinks I am.

I can't be that...so, for him...

I can be that, for him.

One a.m. came and went, and the shoorei did not appear.

azazaza

Rufus better appreciate this. He's lucky I'm not claustrophobic, Reno grumbled to himself as he crawled on knees and elbows through the sleek air ducts. At least his small size finally came in handy for something...but it would still be nice to not have to do this. Rufus had said he would tell his father, he would make them public whatever the consequences...Reno caught himself smiling at the memory of Rufus's earnest eyes. But coming forward would put Reno in more danger than Rufus, and once he realized that, the vice president stopped bringing the subject up.

Eh, I've been in tighter places, the young Turk thought cheerfully. Well, Rufus has...heh...

Besides, as a Turk, Reno knew he should appreciate any chance to practice his sneaking skills, and by now he knew this route blindfolded and could do it without making a sound. Tseng would be proud...if he didn't react to anything involving Reno and sexual liaisons with an expression like he'd been kicked in the stomach.

I shouldn't have told him about my life before ShinRa. Who would've thought Mr. Serious could act like such a parent?

As Reno slid himself serpent-like over the smooth, cool metal, feeling pleased, already anticipating Rufus's needy caresses, the faint noise of voices reached his keen hearing from somewhere ahead and below. Oh, yes, the other perk of traveling this way - he passed right next to Sephiroth's office. (No visuals, which sucked, but hell, even the guy's voice was good for a late-night masturbatory fantasy.) The little Reno had heard from this accidental spying was mostly boring mission and program stuff, and big scientific words in that sexy, sexy voice. He stopped to listen once close enough...but two voices were murmuring, familiar, but neither the general's.

"We shouldn't be in here without his permission." That was Lazard, his usual unflappable calm tinged with nervousness.

"Says the one who clearly wants to cling to his chair and sob. Maybe it holds a bit of his scent...hey, I didn't think you'd actually do it." Commander Rhapsodos, his voice was butterscotch rich and sweetly musical. As usual, he sounded amused. "Have you no dignity, my suddenly-less-worthy adversary? Well, while you're down there, what is it today?"

"Magnolia."

"Just don't hump the chair, all right? That's imported leather."

Huh? Reno thought dumbly. He had heard the widely-accepted rumors that Sephiroth and Genesis were more than friends, and the occasional whisper that Sephiroth had something going on with the executive director, but ShinRa employees' speculations and fantasies had linked the general to almost everyone attractive who had access to him. Sounds almost like there's some sort of triangle going on here. Dude, fuckin' hot. Reno tossed his ponytail out of the way and pressed his ear against the side of the duct in order to hear better.

azazaza

"Do you really think this is a good idea? Obviously Sephiroth wants space right now - "

"He's been ignoring and avoiding us for over a week now. Aside from the sexual frustration that's slowly breaking my brain, I can't let him go on handling this on his own. In battle, Seph's untouchable, but inside he's - "

"Raw and delicate, like a layer of skin not fully grown," Lazard murmured, stroking the head rest of the desk chair. "Like something newborn and dangerous to touch."

Genesis sighed, brushing his hair back with a flip of his hand. "This would be so much easier if you were a shallow, oblivious moron."

"But then you would never have let me get so close to him."

"True enough."

"Shouldn't we at least speak to Sephiroth separately? If we come at him together he'll feel cornered."

"Precisely. When he's like this, the only thing to do is address his concerns clearly and plainly and drill reassurance into his head until you finally get through to him," Genesis explained, idly tracing the silver filigree on the glass display case of diplomatic and battle souvenirs. "He needs to hear from us both, together, that we're fine with the way things were."

"Are you, really?"

The SOLDIER blew an impatient stream of hot air out of pursed lips. "I want him to be only mine, of course. But I won't let him endure monogamy or loneliness out of jealousy, or this ridiculous notion he's picked up that he's being unfair to us."

"In all the years you had growing up with him, were you never able to make him see how big-hearted he truly is?"

"From the day we met, Angeal and I showered Seph with as much love as he could bear to accept, slowly drawing him out of the darkness his early life had been. But we can't undo those formative years of loneliness, it seems. Though..." Genesis smiled wistfully. "Did you hear him? He all but outright admitted he loves us."

"But he thinks there's not enough of him for both of us. I would never ask him to choose. And though I know you'd be relieved if I were out of the running, I also know you'd never make him choose just one of us either." All of Lazard's intimidation and feelings of unworthiness faded against the passion burning in his eyes. "I love him. I love every bit of Sephiroth that he allows me. I could be happy with that forever, with the three of us as we have been, as long as we make him happy too. We are the same in what we feel for him, Genesis. He deserves everything...at the very least, he deserves us both."

Genesis looked at him as though from far away, his smile like that of a holy man experiencing a moment at one with the gods, a moment of perfect peace, and realization that all griefs and hurts are transitory. He felt more than a grudging respect for his competitor, more than pride for the timid man finally insisting upon himself. He appreciated Lazard, truly appreciated him for being whatever Genesis himself lacked and for Sephiroth being loved enough, at last, to open his heart, even if he was scared enough now to want it closed.

"I suppose we are much the same, Director. Will you be able to say to Seph what you've told me, even though you fear scaring him off? Will you risk losing him in order to keep him?"

"I'll risk anything, do anything. When he comes, I'll tell him."

"Thank the Goddess for mako," Genesis smirked. "No need, Director. Heard enough, Seph? If so, quit eavesdropping and get in here."

The office door opened, very slowly, and Sephiroth was standing there, shadow and silver hair obscuring his expression. Lazard gaped, started, felt his face grow warm. He resisted going straight to his love - Gaia, he heard me, what must he think? - and glared at Genesis with non-makoed but angry eyes.

"This wasn't a set-up, Director. I sensed him around the time I called you a not-moron, and figured I'd take the opportunity. I know Seph trusts me to speak honestly about my feelings, but I wasn't sure about you. Well, Seph?"

The general looked weary, uncomfortable. He could remain stone-faced to a crowd of admirers falling at his feet, but faced with two men who loved him in a way he'd never expected...and who he loved back...Run, something in Sephiroth whispered, an impulse too old and primal to be a real voice. Love is inviting loss, love is the risk of feeling and feeling hurts, what kind of warrior exposes his heart to be shot at? He felt stripped bare by Lazard's desperate adoration, Genesis's affectionate understanding. Sephiroth had had a reasonable, even kind, excuse to retreat to the safety of coldness again, and with fire, with warmth and need, these feelinghumannotlikeme beings had torn that wall down.

Sephiroth wasn't sure if he had it in him to build another one. As Lazard approached more boldly than usual, and his feet refused to back away, Sephiroth wasn't sure he wanted to.

"Sephiroth." Lazard almost lost his nerve when mercury eyes looked at him, directly into him. "I meant everything I said. Everything I've ever said to you...except the idiotic things I babble when I'm trying to be what I think you want instead of what I really am."

To his surprise, the general faintly smiled at that.

"I'm not eloquent like Genesis...but the two of you have known each other so long, and have an understanding that you and I don't yet...I hope we will eventually." Lazard, without breaking eye contact, found one of Sephiroth's hands, tugged the black glove off and cradled the cool limp fingers. "So I think it's me you need to hear this from."

The exquisite hand jerked, involuntarily it seemed, as though trying to pull away and resist that impulse at the same time. Lazard held on to it, not to be dominant this time, just wanting to be equal.

"That day I first dared to kiss you, I had thought you might kill me for it. I couldn't believe it when you accepted me, because you're...and I'm just...and all this time you were thinking you're not enough for us. I made the same mistake as everyone, Seph, I put you on a pedestal so far away from me that I couldn't see what was wrong."

A shift of the hand he held, a gentle curving of the fingers to hesitantly cover his own. Lazard allowed himself a brief glance down, noticing the fingernails catch the room's light like thin sheets of crystal. Different. Not inhuman, only different. Lazard gently stroked one of the neatly-short nails with his thumb, and Sephiroth blinked in surprise.

"However much you want to reveal to me about your past and however much you want to keep from me, that's fine. I know that your early life probably didn't make it easy for you to trust anyone who wants to be close to you. But that doesn't make you flawed or wrong or inhuman. Look around you. This whole company is a mix of so-called unconventional relationships. If you're looking for 'normal', Seph, it doesn't exist. But...but 'happy' does. Have you been happy with me, with us?"

Genesis - observing with frank though slightly grudging approval - had seen Sephiroth take bullets, a few slashes, arrows and the force of explosions, all with scarcely a wince and mere annoyance at being inconvenienced. Never this stiffness. Never this look of feeling trapped. But Genesis's quiet love was palpable to Sephiroth's senses from a distance, and Lazard's from up-close.

"Happy." Sephiroth repeated the word uncertainly. Did he know 'happy'? Would he recognize it? "I think...I have been happy, yes."

"So have we, angel," Genesis called softly to him. "Why sharpen a blade that hasn't gone dull?"

"He means...why change anything, then? Why choose just one of us? Maybe you will eventually...but why now, before you're ready?"

"Regardless of conventionality, the situation cannot truly be acceptable to you both. It's unfair."

Genesis scoffed and offered an exasperated smile. "Baby, did I ever complain? Did Lazard? We're happy. Do I ever lie to you?"

"No, you don't."

Genesis had been generously giving the other two their space; now he sauntered over, brushing just past Lazard. He slid his hand behind to rest on Sephiroth's nape and brushed his lips over the sculpted face, down the cheekbone to the jaw, now and then leaving a kiss behind.

"So, no more of this giving-us-up-for-our-sake-and-your-own-apprehension. Okay? Please?"

"You are...certain?" He addressed them both but looked at Lazard.

"I've told you before, haven't I?" Wet-eyed, Lazard brought the warming white hand back to his lips. "You'll have to kill me to get rid of me."

"Ditto," Genesis agreed. "And even after death, I'd stalk you."

"If you ever really want to end it with one of us, that's one thing," Lazard said quickly. "But you don't want to now, do you?"

"...no."

"Mmm," Genesis hummed happily, and pulled Sephiroth close for a slow, sensual kiss, which Lazard found mesmerizing and arousing despite a twinge of jealousy. "There's the welcome-home I was looking for. If you'll excuse me, my bath products are waiting for me. I'll see you tonight, Seph. Be ready to be exhausted."

Genesis flicked his tongue out and erotically traced the parted pink lips, pressed one last kiss and tore himself away to slink out of the office. Left so selflessly alone, the remaining two watched Genesis go with amusement and gratitude, then their own gazes met, as shy as a new couple uncertain where to go from here.

One hand of each remained clasped together; now the other two touched, and the fingers entwined. This time, it was Sephiroth who had reached out.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 31 - Where Faint Sounds Falter

 

From his crouched position in the air duct, Reno couldn't see what was going on in Sephiroth's office. But he could hear every word and rustle of movement, and his impressive imagination easily filled in the blanks. Fuck, it really is a triangle. Threesome would be hotter, but still...

It had been quiet for a few moments before Reno remembered his destination and began to inch along the smooth passage again. As he reached the next turn, his Turk senses alerted him to the presence of someone close by - and good thing he realized who it was, because this was not an ideal environment in which to prepare for a fight. Grinning, Reno whipped his lithe body around the bend and found his face close to that of Rufus, who laughed knowingly, grabbed the redhead's hair and pulled him into a hungry kiss.

"Listening too, weren't you?" the vice president asked coyly, in nothing like his usual guarded manner. "Bad, bad boy."

"What's your excuse, then?" Despite the cramped space, Reno got as close to cuddling with Rufus as he could, laying each on their left side with bodies close and foreheads touching. "Seriously, what are you doing in here? I come to you, remember?"

"And on me, and with me," Rufus teased, hands moving possessively over the younger boy. "And in me, that one time...though that doesn't really seem to suit us, does it?"

"I've always preferred bottom, but then maybe it's an acquired taste."

When Reno made references to his not-so-pleasant past (the child of indifferent parents, sold into prostitution, saved only by running away and finding that the Turks were perfect for his natural skills), his motivation was to brush it off as unimportant. He wanted to believe that that dull-eyed babywhore was dead and gone and couldn't hurt him anymore, and he wanted those few around him who knew to believe this too. It was a defiance of old trauma and an insistence that it meant nothing, sometimes genuine, sometimes not. One reason so few people knew about Reno's old life was that he then had to deal with their reactions. Tseng tried to play down and conceal his parental worry, usually without success.

Far better was Rufus's response to any mention of this past. He became gently possessive (more than usual), and his hands moved with an urgent need to comfort, to make good feelings to push away anything sad. Now he tugged Reno further, until his face was about level with the young Turk's waist, and pulled the blue pants down to the knees with as much patience as he could muster. Reno hummed with appreciation when hands gripped the back of his legs and a forceful mouth took him in. Deeply, as though in defiance of Rufus's proper, well-bred appearance. His swirling tongue hardly paused to slick two fingers before slipping them inside Reno and making their motions match the redhead's unusually patient thrusts.

"Ah, fuck," Reno moaned, fisting the fabric of Reno's jacket and wrinkling it in the process. "Don'tcha wanna wait...till we...bed..."

"Soon," the muffled voice answered hurriedly, "want to taste you first...undo you...come for me. No, let me hear."

Reno had been biting down hard on the heel of one hand, unintentionally inciting pain that mixed with the pleasure. He thrashed in a sort of mini-panic when his wrist was grabbed and yanked away, knowing he needed to keep quiet and that he wouldn't be able to.

"Nnn, no, sound travels...anyone could hear - "

"Good, let them hear, all of them, let them know you're mine." Rufus's fingers had reached the bruising speed and force that his lover enjoyed most, and his words would have sounded just as rough had his voice not come out so tender and coaxing. "You're mine, right? Say it."

"Yours, fuck, all yours..." Lips and tongue focused on the swollen cock's head now, leaving the shaft to be worked by Rufus's free hand. It was so good that Reno would have agreed to anything - that Tseng was the life of any party, that Rude was a better pilot - but it was true, he wanted to be one man's only. "Shit, the prez might...Rufus..."

"I don't care if he finds out, I don't care if he hears." Rufus was getting worked up; arousal sometimes brought out rebellion against his father and upbringing and everything that threatened the joining of these two bodies. "Let him hear, let him see, I won't give you up - "

"I'm yours, only yours, always," Reno groaned softly, sliding his hands into Rufus's red-blond hair and against his scalp in a light massage.

The elder boy calmed a little at this and concentrated on sucking hard, accustomed to getting what he wanted and drinking down every drop when it came. While Reno caught his breath and waited for the dizziness to ebb, Rufus rested his cheek on a smooth thigh and continued to tongue the organ that was now flaccid. His fingers were still inside Reno, preparing him for what the vice-president really wanted. Reno thrust backward to meet this pressure, lazily tilted his head, and spoke.

"Okay, you fuckin' tease, we really don't have room for that here. You wanna fuck me, take me somewhere soft."

"I can take you somewhere comfortable," Rufus smirked, moving toward the way out and pulling Reno with him. "I can't promise anything will be soft."

azazaza

He was hovering over the bed, propped up by hands against the mattress, effectively trapping his prey between body, arms and a tangle of silk sheets. He loomed over the boy, unapologetic, with a hint of playful force, then settled on his legs, trapping him with strong thighs. His hands were now free to take hold of the teenager's wrists and restrain them on the pillow above his head. Angeal would never allow this semblance of force, even if he miraculously became tolerant of anyone else touching his Puppy in any way.

Happily, Angeal wasn't here to stop him, and Zack, though clearly nervous and uncertain, was not unwilling. He offered the man above him a small smile, exhaled an aroused breath into the palm that cupped his face and caressed the soft fair skin. Deep, possessive kisses eased Zack's hesitation into want, and he embraced the body that descended onto his and wrapped his bare legs around it.

"Good," the one above spoke at last, voice low and soothing. "Open for me...and don't turn away. Keep those beautiful eyes on me."

Their clear-water blue was even more mesmerizing with the heat of lust smoldering behind them. The other watched them flicker and blink, and the sweet pink lips part, as he put his hand between the boy's legs. The rhythm was demanding, not gentle, and a hush of reassurance was needed to soothe the frightened pout that appeared for a moment. The hands that stroked Zack and began to probe him were as skilled as they were eager, though, and quickly the boy was rocking into the touches and emitting groans that made the erection on his thigh further harden.

Perfect, perfect...except that Zack's eyes were starting to close. The pretty face was relaxing as though into sleep, and though the other was pleased to see him at peace, he was not about to let dreams steal away his young lover.

"No, baby, no." The other positioned himself and carefully nudged just the head of his oiled cock inside, and the innocent eyes opened to widen at him. "Stay with me, look at me. Let me make you feel good. Breathe for me, relax, let me in."

The boy obeyed, his muscles loosened to become compliant and limp, but now he was biting a trembling lower lip. A smiling mouth kissed him, long and slow, until Zack's desire was re-kindled and he kissed back. The other pressed damp lips to his forehead before sitting back and gently pushing further inside.

"I would never hurt you. You know that, right? I will never hurt you."

"Yes, but...oh Gaia, Gaia - "

"See?" A hand slid beneath the boy's nape and lifted him to nuzzle his face and neck. "This is what we need, let me give you what you need. I love you, let me love you. Fuck, you feel so good, baby, so tight. Mmm, you like that?"

"Yes...but..." A well-aimed, harder thrust, and Zack moaned, but whimpers quickly followed. "I want...ah...want..."

"Mmm, I'll give you anything you want, anything," the other whispered, pausing to run his tongue over an ear. "Tell me."

"I want Angeal, just Angeal..."

"I know, baby, but Angeal's not here right now, so let me - "

"Nnn, no, no - " Zack was clinging and moving with the thrusts despite his words of refusal. "Nnn, no, Angeal Angeal..."

The other was sympathetic, but too far gone to stop now, and he suspected the same was true of the boy, considering that he was still pulling his partner closer even while protesting. The bigger man held the flexible boy and whispered apologies and reassurances, enough to assuage his conscience so that he could enjoy this tight body he had always wanted. He would never take it unwilling, never hurt one he loved, but Zack's "No"s were only aroused noises now, and he was hugging, clinging with such need.

"Angeal, Angeal..." Pretending he was with his teacher was obviously helping Zack to enjoy this, but the elder SOLDIER couldn't resist insisting upon himself, now or at almost any other time.

"No, baby, look at me, say my name."

"Nnn...ah..."

A hard, satisfying thrust, then another, and another. "Say it, just once."

"G-Genesis..."

"Mmm, Puppy, yes, that's it - "

Genesis opened his eyes suddenly, wide awake and feeling none of the grogginess that usually followed his most vivid dreams. Thinking of the images he'd only just left, the 1st smiled dazedly at the bedroom ceiling. He had enjoyed himself very much, as he always did his erotic dreams, and the twinge of guilt he felt was easily banished by the logic that it was, after all, pure fantasy and that playing with Dream-Zack was very different from trying to play with the real one. No harm done and a good time had, though Genesis was mildly annoyed that he was still erect and hadn't had time to get off.

Well, how could I, with Puppy calling for Angeal? A bit insulting, yes, but I suppose it was wishful thinking on my part. Mmm, how nice it would be if Puppy returned Angeal's feelings. I'd even stop flirting with him if I could see that. Well, I'd try, at least.

It was dark already; Genesis's cat-nap had gone on longer than expected. He supposed he could try to sleep a little more, maybe have a harmless Angeal-dream or draft in one of his other regular dream-partners. But it was night, and he had made a promise to exhaust a certain gorgeous general...maybe it was just as well that he was hard and ready. Genesis sat up, preparing to stretch, and jolted in shock to see Sephiroth standing across the room, motionlessly facing away from him and staring out the window.

"What the - ! Seph, I'm up to my balls in mako over here, how the hell do you do that?!"

Sephiroth turned his head to give him a faintly perturbed but otherwise blank look. There would be no answer, the general didn't know how he slipped under mako-enhanced personal radar, any more than Genesis did. He was just different, and he looked so fragile and alone under the cold white light of the moon outside. Beautiful, ethereal, worthy of worship. But alone, and Genesis couldn't have that. He opted for a smile more reassuring than seductive, and opened his arms.

"Well, now that I've got you, don't think you'll be leaving any time soon. Come here."

Sephiroth did approach, but automatically and shuffling, without thought, as though this were an order from Hojo or the president. Genesis got up and went to him; however hot it was to have his lover obey him without question, it was disturbing when Sephiroth looked so distracted. Or Goddess forbid, uninterested.

"I just meant I hope you'll stay the night." Genesis brushed silver hair away from the porcelain face so his hands could cup it. "You will, right?"

Sephiroth's hands settled on Genesis's waist, where they were very welcome. Humming happily, Genesis pulled him closer for a kiss.

"You scared me. For a moment I thought you were gonna come up with another silly reason to break up."

"I apologize for having distressed you. If you and Lazard are truly happy with this - "

"Happy with you," the elder corrected. "A man would have to be insane not to be. I'm sure you feel the same about me. A lot of pervy executives and fanboys would give anything to have my absolute devotion, you know."

Sephiroth smirked a soft laugh. "But you give it only to me?"

"Whole-heartedly, without needing anything from you in return. Of course, if you choose to not resist me and let me do all the naughty things I want to you, that would be greatly appreciated, as a token of your friendship and - "

"Love?" Sephiroth finished, his voice making the word hover between a question and a declaration. He moved closer to Genesis, drawn to him inexorably but needing to dodge the intense emotion in his blue eyes. "I do love you. If I am able, as you say...then I do. I feel...I feel."

Pressure, warm, safe pressure surrounded him; for a fairly slight man, Genesis could summon a strength that surprised even those closest to him. Similarly, for one so gifted with words, it was remarkable how well Genesis understood the power of silence. It filled the room, its presence exerting a pressure all its own, and the heavy air in the bedroom was like an unseen hand pushing Sephiroth further into the arms that squeezed him.

It was a lover's embrace, no question, but Genesis his long-time friend was there as well, running his fingers through the silver hair he had never been able to resist touching. And there was, too, a feeling of being comforted and cradled - like Lazard did, like he continued to stubbornly do regardless of how much Sephiroth insisted that he was above the need for such human behavior.

It seemed he would have to deal with this kind of hug, as there was apparently no end to them coming any time soon. Sephiroth remained where he was, believing he was trying to desensitize himself, when in truth, he was simply content.

azazaza

Angeal watched Zack very carefully those first few days in Wutai, even more than usual. He had been planning to do so anyway, to ensure that his stressed student was acclimating to this new and strange environment. But Zack's unexpected and gut-wrenching confession that first night had the commander on high alert. He was walking a fine line between wanting to give the boy his space and needing to make sure Zack wasn't too badly hurt by Angeal's refusal of him.

I didn't refuse him, I'm protecting him. He's confused, how could he not be after all he's been through? And Zack agreed with me...eventually, at least. If the kenjin is right, then Zack's chance for real happiness is here, not with me. I get to have him close, to protect him, that's enough.

This reasoning would have been more effective had Angeal not heard Genesis in his head, taunting him for the liar he was. True, Angeal wanted every bit of Zack he could get...but nothing less than all of him would ever be truly satisfying. Another thing to feel guilty about.

To make matters worse, Zack - who he could usually read so well - was distant, smiling weakly to hide an emotion that Angeal couldn't quite decipher, but he knew it wasn't pleasant. A small, shameful part of the commander imagined his Puppy might really be heartbroken, might really feel the way he claimed to.

Genesis, why would your Goddess make Zack love me and yet tie his soul to someone else's? No. I can't believe Gaia is as unfair to him as so many humans have been. Zack is embarrassed, that's all. He's balking at the change this shoorei represents and turning to me for comfort. That's all. Angeal didn't wonder why he himself had been weighted with a love that could never be. He had asked this in his heart a thousand times already. The only answer he received was the love he had for Zack and from him which, though platonic, was more than a lot of people got.

Zack was quiet during breakfast, and so was Angeal, not even attempting the light conversation that had lately turned awkward. The commander smiled affectionately every time Zack's eyes snuck up to meet his...and after a few minutes, the boy stopped looking up. Angeal felt a brief urge to impale himself on the Buster Sword, and wondered when exactly he had lost the ability to keep his emotions locked away deep enough to avoid this kind of pain. The worst and loudest fights he'd ever had with Genesis weren't as bad as the flinch Zack made when he finally began to speak.

"You and Lieutenant Hunter will be under Lieutenant Akio's direction today." Knowing Hunter was careful and watchful with Zack, Angeal had been assigning them to work together as much as possible. As they were both gifted swordsman, they had mostly been training the army in the use of blades. "He and Lieutenants Klein and Lowry have been telling me how well you're doing. Akio says you have a gift for teaching."

Zack was quietly stirring his cereal, now and then taking a bite; he wasn't allowed out until he ate. "He's nice. He says I'll probably be able to speak Wutainese before we leave, too."

"It's a lovely language, very poetic. Seph and Genesis have stayed fluent, but I've gotten rusty...I suppose this mission is a good opportunity. Did you sleep all right?"

"Yeah. You?"

"Yes. Zack, I meant what I told you that first night. You can sleep with me whenever you want. I mean - "

"I know what you meant." Zack made a bitter, not-laugh noise that Angeal would have addressed had the boy not continued speaking. "Thanks but I'm okay."

"The offer remains open, if you decide you don't want to be alone."

"Not alone."

"What was that, Pup?"

"Not alone." Zack slumped in his chair and continued to play disinterestedly with his food. "It came last night." And so did I, the boy briefly wanted to hiss, and was shocked at his own cruelty.

"...oh. That's the first time since we've been here, isn't it?"

"Yeah."

"Are you all right?"

"I've told you, it doesn't hurt me." Zack forced down a big bite of his hot cereal. It was sweetened with honey, exactly the way he liked it, the way Angeal always made it for him, and it was making his stomach feel like one of Sephiroth's complicated knots. "So it's a good thing I've been sleeping in my own bed."

"All right. But you are still welcome in mine."

Damn it, Angeal, how can you say that, like I'm fourteen again and not loving you so much it's breaking me? The humiliation and loneliness-turned-anger of the past few days boiled in Zack, would have erupted into shouting if Angeal didn't look so caring and wistful. He wanted Angeal to be happy...he wanted to make Angeal happy, the way his younger self had.

"I'm not a baby," he said with a pout.

"Genesis was still crawling into my bed after nightmares when he was twenty."

It was intended to make Zack smile, so he did, faintly, hiding a sting of jealousy. "What did you do when you had nightmares?"

"I didn't. I can't remember even one, actually. Or any other dream, for years now. It's not a side effect of mako, so I suppose it's just the way I am."

"Maybe the kenjin can get you a shoorei," Zack said without thinking. "They're fun once you get used to them."

To his surprise, Angeal's face seemed to darken. "You haven't always looked like you were having fun. I've seen you scream and cry - "

"Well, I'm fine with it now." Zack made his voice light, but there was an uncharacteristic glint of defiance in his eyes. "I guess the kenjin was right about me needing to accept it."

I don't want you to accept it! Angeal screamed internally, then wondered in shock where the sudden fury had come from. Compared to me lately, Sephiroth is an emotional genius.

"That's sad that you don't remember your dreams," Zack was saying. "But if you ever do, and it's a bad one, you can crawl into my bed, 'kay?"

Angeal smiled. "Thank you, Puppy. And as I said, you're always welcome to sleep with me - "

The rest of that sentence froze and blew away like snow in the wind. He had said or done something wrong. Zack's shoulders were moving forward and down into a tense posture, he pushed his spoon loudly into the half-full bowl and gripped his knees under the table. Spiky black bangs fell to cover what was surely a glare, but the blue of Zack's eyes made itself seen anyway, glowing outward like light.

"Puppy?"

"Why are you doing this? Why do you have to keep saying that?"

"Zack? I'm sorry if I upset you - "

"I wish you would upset me! I wish..." I wish you would do something that I could be angry at without hating myself!

"Zack - "

"I spill my heart out to you, you hand it back to me like it's nothing, and now you won't shut up about it being fine for me to sleep in your bed. How can...don't you..." In the midst of harsh words and tears he was trying like hell to hold back, in the back of his mind a stupidly-cheerful voice said, Well, you did say you needed to behave childishly. "You think I'd be able to just lay there like I never...like I don't..."

"Puppy..."

"Sorry." Zack swiped at his eyes, annoyed with himself for putting worry on his teacher's face. "I know you were just being nice, I just..."

"Just what? Puppy?"

Zack pressed his lips together and shook his head. The fear he would not speak was choking him, poisoning him, but he would not let it sting Angeal too. His hand was grasped; trying to pull it back only led to Angeal getting up and coming to stand over him. Zack tried to dodge the other hand's caress and instead bowed his head to let fingers comb through his hair.

"Zack, tell me."

"It's nothing."

"I know that's not true, and neither of us are leaving this apartment until you tell me what's really wrong."

Zack stood up, away from the hands, and they didn't follow him. If one thing about Angeal was eternal and predictable, it was that he would never touch Zack after being shown the boy didn't want it. He did, however, move past Zack to block the door he was heading to.

"Can't we do this later, we both have duties - "

"They can wait. Puppy, talk to me. Can you at least look at me?"

No, no I can't, because I'm hurting and making you hurt and it's too much. Zack squeezed his eyes shut, and escaped tears fell on his long eyelashes. "Angeal, please."

"Zack, I'm worried about you. Please let me help. I would do anything," Angeal said desperately.

You can't, you can't make yourself feel what I do. Zack was still shaking his head, like someone on the verge of a breakdown.

"Puppy...I love you. You know that, right?"

He had hit the target without meaning to; Zack exhaled like a deflating balloon, and his head went still. "I know, but now you..."

"Now I what?"

"You...you pity me too, and I can't tell them apart anymore."

Angeal couldn't keep away after a miserable statement like that. Zack sensed his arms approaching and acted in an inexplicable panic, moving quickly away. Half-opening his eyes did little good, they were so blurry with tears, so it was mostly by his enhanced senses that he got to his bedroom and collapsed on the bed. Had Zack not known this drained feeling was purely emotional, he might've worried that the stimulant potion he'd just taken was wearing off already. He curled up fetally, facing away from the door, and though he didn't sob or wail, his eyes continued to water steadily and soak the pillow beneath him.

Thank Gaia, Angeal waited a few minutes before coming in, so that the hysteria in his student had dulled to a very young and confused sadness. Zack felt him sit on the bed...he knew this old routine by heart, next a hand would descend to pet his hair. But wait, no, Angeal's whole body was moving, laying down behind Zack's with some courteous space between them, and close enough so that they could feel each other's heat. Zack stiffened but then relaxed, trusting Angeal to be where he was, and this was a greater reassurance than anything Zack could have said. He reached over the boy to brush awkwardly at his tears, and Zack grabbed the careful hand and clutched it to his chest.

"Puppy...your heart is not nothing. Far from it. If I made you think that for a moment, I'm so sorry."

"Not your fault."

"I've been handling this badly, and that is my fault," Angeal murmured. "What can I do to fix it?"

"I don't know. You could be less nice about everything."

"To you? I don't think I could. But Puppy, everything I do for you, and everything I don't, comes from love. Not pity. It hurts me to see you sad, yes, but that's not the same thing."

Zack was silent for a minute, then... "I've messed things up between us, haven't I? We've been practically avoiding each other, and I can tell you're uncomfortable." You've hardly been touching me, please, Gaia, please, however you feel, don't stop touching me.

Angeal shifting behind him made Zack's desperate thoughts pause. The commander, not taking his hand back, edged closer to the boy until their legs were touching, his chest was against Zack's back and he could rest his chin on spiky hair. Angeal was too distracted to worry about getting aroused, but just to be safe he kept his hips drawn back. His broad arms wrapped around the teenager's midsection, surrounding him with warmth that made Zack's chest heave in a voiceless sob.

"I'm not uncomfortable with you, Pup. I've just been torn between wanting to be close to you and fearing that doing this sort of thing might make you feel worse."

A word echoed in Zack's brain, a concept he remembered from a book of Gaia's past and present religions. Karma. The theory that what one inflicts, one must also endure. He understood now the hurt he had seen in so many eyes, the pain of want and rejection that he had always regretted but never truly known until now. Am I being punished for Declan and the others?

"Please don't stop," Zack whispered. "I'll feel worse if you do."

"Okay." Angeal sounded relieved, thank Gaia. "Okay."

Zack turned himself over, grabbed Angeal around the shoulders and lay his forehead on the sweater-muffled heartbeat in his chest. The arms around him adjusted, it seemed, without reluctance, and the familiar pressure of fingers in his hair and a large hand rubbing his back felt like a Cure2 after days of being alone. Safe, healing, mending, good. Too good, after a few minutes of this closeness. Fuck.

"I think I should...get up," Zack said unsteadily.

"Okay, if you want - "

"I don't want to."

"Would you rather I go?"

"You should...you'd want to if you knew...why," Zack said vaguely, wishing he could kick himself for sounding like such an idiot. For being an idiot to ruin this happy time with Angeal.

"I know why, Puppy," the 1st said gently. He could feel Zack beginning to unconsciously shift with need, and secretly he was having the some problem in his own pants. "Don't be embarrassed. I'm flattered."

"Why aren't you jumping away from me?"

"Because I love you. Nothing about you could ever offend me. Even though I can't return your feelings - "

"Can't? Not 'don't'?" Arousal always made Zack bolder; there was something about the heat of lust that melted some of his shyness away. "Which is it? You never told me."

"It doesn't matter." Like hell, Zack was about to reply, but just then Angeal placed a long, warm kiss on the top of his head, and an electric pulse seemed to shoot from that spot down to Zack's groin.

"Unh!" he inhaled sharply, and gripped Angeal's shoulders even as he choked out "You should go, I...I..."

"Not unless you really want me to." The 1st's brain and conscience were screaming at him - abuse, harassment, unfair, mixed signals, you're hurting him you're confusing him and you're not helping yourself. It was a louder, more frantic version of his inner monologue every time he touched Zack more than casually, but right now, it was strangely muffled. "Do you want me to stay?"

"You d-don't want to see this..."

I do...I just don't want to want to. Angeal stroked one side of the angelic face, letting his palm caress the cheek and just briefly brush the edge of his mouth. Zack's hands went to his own stomach and gripped the uniform shirt to keep it from reaching lower; Angeal caught a quick glimpse of flat white skin. Neither knew what they were doing, or what the other was thinking. Angeal's usual logic and obsessive need to do nothing that might be bad for Zack was oddly silent, and Zack was a teenager currently in no condition to make reasonable decisions.

"Angeal?" Zack, though pink with embarrassment, was looking at him questioningly.

"Tell me what I can do to make you feel better, Pup. I'll do anything within my power."

"But what about you?" A tear trickled down the boy's face, and for once Angeal didn't wipe it away. It occurred to him that as the earth needs rain, sometimes the soul needs to weep freely. "If I ever thought you were doing something for me that you really didn't want to, that would hurt me. I'm serious."

"Zack, there is a difference between 'don't want to' and 'shouldn't'," Angeal said haltingly. "I cannot be more than your teacher, however much I love you. But if there's...something I can give, just once, something that would make you feel better..."

"Angeal, I don't get - are you trying to say - "

"That I love you. That's all you need to know," Angeal said in his decisive teacher voice. Over the screamed warnings his conscience was hurling at him, Angeal swallowed and went on. "Now, would you like me to stay with you?"

"But...I need to..."

"I know. Is there something you'd like me to do?"

Pale blue eyes widened at him. Shit.

"Zack, I'm sorry...if this is a...tease, or upsetting...I..." Zack's eyes remained wide, both at what he was hearing and how flustered Angeal sounded. "Puppy, maybe I'm thinking too much about now and not how you will feel afterward, if that's the case, then I'm - "

"You're offering to..."

Gaia, what am I doing? Angeal placed a quick kiss on his forehead and prepared to get up. "I'm sorry, Pup, I don't know what I - "

Zack grabbed his wrists with a strength Angeal sometimes forgot he had. "Answer me. You don't feel the same for me, or you can't?"

"Puppy, it doesn't matter."

"Either you're scared of what you feel for me or you're pitying me for what you don't! Don't pity me!"

Angeal wrapped his arms tightly around the boy and pulled him as close as he could, annihilating the buffer of space between them without thinking that it could be wrong or damaging or irreparable to them both. Maybe his mind was sick of this argument, or his instinct to comfort Zack had been skewed by his desire, or the rightness of touching him finally subdued his belief that Zack was innocent and he was corrupt and there was no in-between, no way to bridge that gulf.

So Angeal couldn't explain what he had done, or what he did next. He wouldn't have liked to admit that it served to stop Zack's questions, though that was surely part of it. Zack gasped and shivered as he was drawn into the warm, Angeal-scented cocoon of his mentor's body, unusually sensitive in his aroused state, and the way he hugged back and nuzzled Angeal's shoulder was as clear an answer as was needed, though it was heard differently by each of them.

Do what you think I want...I want anything I can have.

He wants this enough to trust me, and trust that this won't destroy us. I couldn't let you go, Puppy. Not even if you wanted me to.

Hands were too personal, not vague enough for this unnamable, dream-like connection. And all of them were occupied in their usual places, clinging to Angeal's shoulders, rubbing Zack's back down to his hip, petting his hair in a way that would have been close to parental in another situation. Carefully, so gently, Angeal started to nudge his leg between Zack's, beginning innocently enough at the ankles, as though they were merely comrades sharing warmth. Then the knee; even that was innocuous enough for a teenager who lived for touch and a man who lived for the teenager.

But the point of no return followed. The leering faces of every monster who had eyed or reached for his Puppy flashed in an unhelpful instant through Angeal's mind. Zack continued to snuggle and even shifted his lower body closer, as though reassuring him that this was okay.

It's not okay, not okay...

Angeal lifted his bent leg and put his thick, muscled thigh directly against Zack's groin. Zack cried out and thrust forward in reaction, which stimulated him further and prompted more needy moans. Gritting his teeth at the sight and feel of his beautiful Puppy being brought to the edge of what he could stand, Angeal let his hands keep petting but otherwise froze. Zack had to make the choice whether or not to go further. And he made it...Gaia, did he make it.

The sixteen-year-old clenched his own legs together to keep the thigh from escaping, then slid his hips forward over it. A motion so sinfully seductive it should be illegal -

Technically, Angeal, doing this with him is illegal.

- and it gave Zack the friction he craved. The boy pulled back and repeated, not fast enough to really be rutting, trying to take his time and softly whining with pleasure and frustration. It was all Angeal could do not to moan himself, and when Zack made louder cries he gently hushed him, conscious that their apartment was surrounded by others on all sides. As with the experience in the sleep lab, this was for Zack's sake, not at all for Angeal's...but the commander knew that was a lie. He kept his leg still as Zack rode it, slack-jawed at the transformation of his child student into this sexual nymph, but Angeal enjoyed every second of it. And when Zack orgasmed with one last, hard thrust and a noise like a death-rattle, Angeal grunted lowly and, with no direct contact and little sign of it, came at once into his own pants.

The commander recovered his strength quickly, hugging Zack tightly before murmuring "Are you okay?"

No answer. Zack began to edge back, not breaking the hug but reluctantly detaching as he knew he'd have to. He didn't look up, but his fingers found a handful of Angeal's inky black hair and twirled the smooth tresses fondly. Angeal felt the skin beneath his eyes for evidence of crying. No tears, but an urge to put those fingers into Zack's mouth, make him get them wet and ready so he could open Zack up -

Thank Gaia I just came...

Unexpectedly, Zack quickly kissed the sword-worn hand before it left his face and went back to petting. The boy didn't make eye contact, but allowed his lovely features to be seen. He was lightly flushed, eyes dazed, and to enhanced senses the dampness in his pants smelled faintly sweet. Something primal in Angeal reacted to it, wanted to complete this, to turn him over and bury his softened length deep inside until it was hard again and ready to spray his claim. No, no, no.

"Puppy..."

While Angeal had been fantasizing/fretting, Zack was gathering his strength. He committed what had just happened to memory, the feel and sound and joy of it, so he would always have it to look back on in loneliness or sadness. If Angeal wanted the child in him, Zack would do his best to display that, but in reality, he was strong. Strong enough, he hoped, to move on from this moment and become a SOLDIER and a hero that would make Angeal proud. Zack looked up at his mentor now, and smiled as he pushed himself up.

"I know, Angeal. Thank you."

"Are you - "

"I'm great. Look, we just won't ever talk about this again, 'kay? It was good, it didn't ruin anything, and it's the past now. Now come on, let's clean up and get out there while I still have my energy!"

Angeal stared for a few moments, as though unsure of his student's sincerity, then stood up and smiled affectionately. "Who am I to say no to a hero-in-training? All right, let's get to work before Lieutenant Crowley comes looking for us."

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 32 - A Broken Blossom

 

Two months passed, though it seemed like longer to the deployed SOLDIERs. Their home of Midgar was in a climate zone characterized by extremely mild weather, with only a minor temperature difference between warm days and cool days, occasional rain and low humidity, altogether a quite comfortable - if monotonous - way of life.

Wutai, as though reflecting the stereotype of its inhabitants, had a less predictable, more extreme climate. The mission had taken them there toward the end of the winter season, and spring was coming on with unusual speed. Even the army natives cheerfully spoke of how early the cold nights and chilly breezes were becoming less so, and chatted excitedly about the local fruits and plants that were beginning to appear in the nearby woods, and brought Angeal saplings and seedlings for the garden he had started.

Wutai's army was taking well to the fighting style of SOLDIER. There had at the start been some distrust, and distaste for foreigners. But Angeal's reputation for fairness and honor had preceded him even to this distant land, and the others selected for the mission had been similarly well-chosen. Treated well, respected, offered friendship and the skills to fight their enemies, the Wutaian warriors were soon won over - to these specific visitors, if not ShinRa as a whole. Their acceptance of the SOLDIERs led the neighboring villagers of Seidou to welcome them as well, and soon the 2nds and 3rds, when visiting the village, were greeted with waves and curious questions, no longer fleeing and silence.

Training with swords and other weapons began early and went till dark, every day except Mondays, which were sacred to Leviathan, the patron god of Wutai. In their free time, the SOLDIERs and soldiers played sports, went in groups to visit local places of interest, and generally behaved like all young men of their ages. It may have helped, initially, that the Wutaians were cut off from contacting their fellow countrymen in this secret location, but as time went on, it seemed that the friendships being formed, though with some hesitation, were real.

Angeal observed the progress - both military and social - with great pride in his subordinates. Even the eighteen-year-olds among them were behaving maturely and eagerly helping to instruct their new allies. The international teamwork the commander witnessed every day strengthened his heart against the more difficult sights he had to witness...like the day, shortly after their arrival, when a swarm of ShinRa techs arrived and converted a nearby mako geyser into a power source, which they used to outfit the encampment and adjacent village with electricity. A gift from ShinRa, all done with Godo's timid blessing, of course.

Most of the SOLDIERs had been thrilled to see water heaters, TVs and VR headsets installed for their use. The Wutaians, many of whom had never been exposed to such things, were impressed and fascinated. And the villagers of Seidou could immediately be heard singing ShinRa's praises, when they had before spoken of the company only in frowning whispers, like the name of an evil god. Angeal's heart sank at the thought of the unspoiled beauty of Wutai someday looking like Midgar, but who was he to deny these people things that would better their lives? Technology wasn't only games and comforts; it was tools for training. It was the well-equipped clinic run by Dr. Oren, which served civilians as well as fighters. Things were never inherently good or bad; such judgments could be pronounced only upon their use. The user being ShinRa, however...Angeal thought his concern was fairly legitimate.

With the mission otherwise going on successfully, Angeal's only other constant worry was Zack, and mainly because worrying about his Puppy was just second nature. Zack, despite being the youngest person on the training grounds, was one of the best teachers, so sweet and cheerful that even men who would normally be too proud to be taught by a boy listened earnestly to him. Zack's mere presence could make a boring, repetitive sword drill into a game, and because Wutai held teachers in high regard, Angeal was forever fielding compliments about his remarkable student. He gruffly dismissed these, saying that Zack's accomplishments were his own, but secretly, he was flattered. And relieved when the Wutaians stopped casually inquiring if Zack was his lover.

The true purpose of their presence here never left Angeal's mind. He tried to keep himself prepared to see Zack in someone else's arms, prepared to smile and be happy for him. Certainly there was no shortage of people interested. But Zack merely befriended those willing to settle for a platonic relationship and kindly turned away the others, and laughed off the attention he was shown with an apprehension only his teacher noticed. It seemed to Angeal that Zack was meeting as many people as he could out of obligation and little else.

The shoorei continued to come, Zack reported when he was asked, at least four times a week, and stimulant potions went on being used to counteract the tiredness its visits caused. Angeal worried that Zack might be satisfied with this empty sort of relationship and not seek more, but bringing the subject up always put a pained expression on the boy's face. The commander therefore felt he could do nothing but keep being available and supportive and loving. And when he checked on Zack at night, he purposely did so only before one a.m. and after two.

A sunny day like so many others, with every breeze carrying a breath of clean, green-scented air. Angeal drank it in as he patrolled the camp, thinking about so many things at once that his thinly-spread mind felt a sort of intensely focused calm. The scenery was beautiful and tranquil, unspoiled forests and mountains and clear streams - it was a constant comfort to Angeal's troubled mind to be surrounded by such wonder. His spare moments had often been spent exploring with his camera in hand, and he had sent so much film to Midgar to be developed that Genesis was threatening to wallpaper both their apartments with the resulting photos. And gently teasing him about how many included Zack. Zack grinning with his friends, Zack demonstrating his sword-spin, Zack balancing on a log over a babbling brook, Zack beneath the native cherry trees like an angel in a heaven of white petals. Zack up close, Zack from a distance.

"Stalker," Genesis had sung over the phone a few days earlier.

"Shut up. How's Seph?"

"Remarkably tight, all things considered."

"Ugh, Gen!"

Laughter like the ringing of small bells. "He's the same darling robot as always. Yesterday he correctly identified sarcasm on the first t
try, so I rewarded him with...well, never mind. How's Puppy?"

That was the million-Gil question, the one Angeal didn't think he could answer with any certainty. How are you, Puppy?

azazaza

I don't know how to feel.

The sunny warmth of afternoon was slowly giving way to the cool of oncoming twilight. On good days, when work ended a little early and progress had been made, Zack liked to sneak away to this spot and steal a little alone-time. Not that he was ever allowed to really be alone; one of the older 2nds, on Angeal's orders no doubt, always followed and guarded him. But they kept quiet and out of sight, and the faint twinge their presence caused Zack's mako didn't bother him. The peace of this place was enough to mask it.

He and Angeal had found it one of their first days in Wutai, a grove of beautiful cherry trees located a short walk into the eastern portion of the woods. The entire Seidou area was lovely, but this bit of it was heaven on Gaia- thick lush grass, tiny wildflowers in the foliage all around, and the trees. Teacher and student had fallen in love with this indigenous species at first sight, towers of smooth bark, graceful branches and delicate white petals, like something from another world. Lying beneath them, after hours of physical exertion on a blue-sky day, with Angeal close by and the promise of a pleasurable release when night came...it was easy to forget the planet's problems, and his own. For a little while.

Most of Zack's conflicted thoughts at these times and in this place involved Angeal. He could lie and claim this was merely due to his teacher's love of the natural world, but anytime, anyplace, Angeal occupied his thoughts. Once Zack had realized he was in love with his mentor, the devastation and hopelessness of it had led Zack to try to repress it...that seemed to be the best, only, way to deal with it. It was embarrassing to remember his meltdown in Sephiroth's office...but that would be nothing compared to what it would be like if he let himself feel everything that was in his heart. He would have to act on it. And things were already a bit tenser than before between them.

I can't push this. Angeal feels so bad for me, he doesn't believe me anyway, and on top of that the shoorei thing freaks him. The thought, just the idea, of me having sex freaks him. Obviously he's never considered having a relationship with me. What happened...was just physical. Just pity.

Zack, in his desperation to reassure his teacher, had told Angeal they should forget that frantic, incredible encounter, and it seemed, sadly, that Angeal had done just that, or was pretending to have. The commander was the same loving, protective presence Zack had always known him to be, true. It had even become endearing to the boy, the way Angeal pretended to give him space and responsibility but couldn't resist hovering, even if it had to be at a distance or through other people. Zack wondered, absently, who it was today.

But not for long. Thoughts of Angeal haunted him even more strongly than his nighttime visitor. It wasn't that their relationship as it currently stood wasn't wonderful, it always had been...it was just that Zack had grown up, even more in the past few months than in all the almost three years they had been together. And Angeal's method of getting them back to normal seemed to be treating Zack like the fourteen-year-old he no longer was.

True to his word, the commander tolerated the shoorei, and he did his best to respect Zack as a SOLDIER, during training. But the time they spent together outside of work had regressed into their patterns of long ago. Angeal checked on him multiple times every night and came running to him in a panic at every sudden noise. Even in the security of the grounds, Zack was never without an older SOLDIER keeping an eye on him. The way Angeal touched him was somehow different, less playful and more indulgent, the way a grown-up handles a child. Angeal had been helping Zack learn Wutainese, and his voice and hands were gentle and parental and not as equals as he offered new vocabulary and praised Zack's correct use of it.

A chilly morning, a walk to this clearing, staring ahead at Angeal with a pounding heart. He jumped when his teacher reached for and took his hand, soothing its trembling with a few strokes before placing its palm against the pale brown bark. "Sakura," Angeal murmured as he warmed Zack's fingers with his own. "Sakura no ki."

"Sakura no ki..." The petal-covered arms of the tree overhead swayed as though in response.

"Ah, you're getting good!"

Zack leaped up like a cat sprayed with water, and had just enough time to curse himself for not having his sword before he recognized the voice and the old man holding a staff and gazing benevolently at the trees.

"K-Kenjin?" This time Zack let out a short scream; a hand grabbed his shoulder without warning and jerked him back.

"It's okay! Damn, kid, I'm sorry." It was Lieutenant Colliere, a 2nd around Angeal's age with gray eyes and shaggy white hair. He was unambitious but experienced, close to being promoted to 1st anyway, and so frequently assigned to look after Zack. "I heard you leap up. Why are you wandering here, old man?"

"It's okay, sir, really. He's a friend of mine."

"All right, if you say so. I'll be nearby."

"I know." Zack rolled his eyes as Colliere headed back the way he'd come, and the kenjin laughed.

"Try to think of it as being loved, not hovered over, son. The commander only keeps such close watch because he cares."

"Yeah...I know."

"Have I disturbed you?"

"No, really. I'm actually glad you're here." Zack plopped back onto the grass; the kenjin sat too, with a surprising grace. "I was hoping I could talk to you about this shoorei thing."

"No luck finding the other source yet, hmm?"

"I don't suppose you have any hints for me," Zack said glumly.

"Alas, I don't know who it is. Only you will."

"And when this guy and I get together, I'll know because the shoorei will stop coming?"

"That is how it works. Zack..." The shaman looked at him with a gaze that seemed to pierce right through to Zack's heart. Old-soul eyes, they were described in Wutai, Angeal had told him.

"The worshipers of Leviathan believe that after we die and return to the Lifestream, we emerge from it again afterward, as tiny sparks, and are reborn as infants, as new people. To them, life is circular, like the seasons. Like the movement of the heavens," Angeal said serenely, gesturing to the star-dotted cloth of sky overhead. "Some even recognize their deceased loved ones in new friends, or even animals."

"Do you believe it?"

"I like the idea. And I wouldn't be surprised," Angeal chuckled, "if your last life was spent with furry ears and a tail."

"Zack?"

"Huh? Oh, sorry."

"I was just saying it seems to me that you are no longer happy to have your shoorei. Am I misunderstanding?"

"No, it's just...uh..." Zack looked down at the ground and swept his fingers through a clump of grass, instinctively careful not to rip any of the blades. "Well, I tried something last night. Just to test it, not for any reason."

"Really? It's all right, Zack, you have my confidence. Speak without fear."

"Well..." Gaia, this is like discussing sex with my grandfather, except this guy isn't gonna blab everything I say to my parents. I hope not, at least. "I, um, I tried telling it 'no'. When it came, I was aware of everything, and I told him I didn't want to."

Zack's face, which felt hot all over, was purposely pointed downward out of embarrassment. He didn't see the shadow of alarm that passed over the kenjin's expression before it forced itself to return to its usual tranquility.

"And what happened, Zack?"

"Um." Now the boy was tracing patterns in the grass; the blades made brushing noises with each sweep. "It kinda...didn't listen."

"What?" The kenjin put more sharpness into the word than intended, and had to compensate with a soothing smile when Zack flinched. "Please explain," he added calmly.

"It's not a big deal or anything." Giving hurried reassurances was something Zack was used to - life with his protective teacher had practically made him a master at it. "It was fine after that, it felt good like always. I just wondered if that was normal."

The boy was not a particularly good liar, the kenjin observed, despite his guileless face and sweet smile. He was not traumatized by what he confessed, did not require physical or psychic healing, but clearly he was troubled. More than he was willing to let on. The kenjin was disturbed too, and silently determined not to show it.

"Just to clarify, son, you are saying the shoorei forced you."

"No! Well, kinda, I mean, it wouldn't stop, but it was really gentle. It didn't hurt or anything. And after the first few minutes I wanted it too, so it was fine. It's just that you said it would listen to me, so..."

"It is supposed to listen to you." The kenjin's gnarled, careworn face, reminiscent of the creased faces one could see in tree trunks, wrinkled further in thought. "Zack, it is important that you answer this honestly. Did you genuinely mean it when you told the shoorei you didn't want it?"

"Please don't tell Angeal." The pleading whisper gave the wise man his answer.

"I see. Zack, I will be honest with you, since you are determined to shoulder the burden of this without the commander's aid. I have not encountered a situation like this before, in all my experiences of studying shoorei."

Zack's shoulders slumped. One of them was patted by a rough hand, and the boy gave a wan smile. "Is there anyone who knows everything about them? Like, an expert?"

The kenjin made a thoughtful 'hmm' sound. "The only 'expert' I know of would be a kenjin called Setanta, and he is unreachable."

"...that name sounds familiar..."

"He's something of a legend here. Or just a madman, depending on who you ask," the kenjin laughed softly. "I'm of the opinion that he was a bit mad, but he was a deep thinker, and - I confess - an inspiration to me. Before you were born, he wrote a comprehensive history of Wutai, and his fame began with its success."

"That's it," Zack exclaimed, briefly forgetting his own problems. "My father had a copy of it, I remember seeing it."

"A fine book. And he was a renowned healer, who often left his tribe to travel and teach. Setanta began to lose popular favor in his late middle age, when he began to preach the need to make friends with ShinRa." Zack winced sympathetically, and the kenjin nodded with a sigh. "Such men pay a steep price, when they advise peace to a warlike species. One might as well aspire to bring the Lifestream's perfection to our imperfect world."

"Did he...die?"

"No one knows. Years ago, when a certain tribe was engaged in fierce conflict with ShinRa, he went to them, begged them to renounce bloodshed and seek a diplomatic resolution. Fool. Setanta has not been seen or heard from since. He is likely dead, for this tribe is vicious beyond the comprehension of men like you and I."

Zack was unabashedly gaping. "Do you mean...the Koibito?"

"So it is said."

"That's why you came with us. To find out what happened to Setanta."

"I confess, he is one reason. But also..." The kenjin fondly swept his open hand over Zack's soft spikes. "When I soothed your mind in that prison the day we met, you effectively became my patient, Zack. I would like to help see you through this difficulty of yours."

Zack smiled, and let the descending hand grasp his own before it returned to the other's lap. "Thank you."

"I only wish I had more answers for you. Your shoorei should not behave as you said it did."

"Can you guess why it did, even?"

The kenjin was silent for a minute, looking thoughtfully into empty space. A breeze whipped through the isolated grove, and he nodded absently as though someone had whispered something. A shower of white petals drifted slowly down upon them, and one got caught in the old man's gray beard. Zack bit his lip to avoid laughing. At last...

"As I explained, the shoorei does not come only from you. It may be that your soul mate is dealing with an intense anger or loss, something negative like that, and the residual energy of his emotion is affecting the shoorei. Your Dr. Oren has helped you in this before...perhaps he could block the visitations with medicine, at least for a while."

"Maybe...but I don't think I could do that. I mean, this guy is my soul mate, right?" Zack squirmed a little, hesitating as he groped for the right words. "I wouldn't feel right just blocking him if he's dealing with something bad. I can handle it. Besides...if I went to Dr. Oren about this, Angeal would find out, and he'd freak."

A grandfatherly smile. "You are a caring student to think so much of your teacher's welfare."

"Angeal's..." Affection and pain lit up the boy's blue eyes together, like lightning reflecting on drops of clear water. "I can't imagine life without Angeal. I mean, yeah, he's taught me everything, he's protected me, he's saved me from death and worse, but it's more. He..."

"He loves you with his entire heart."

"Yeah." A fragile petal had landed on Zack's palm; he caressed it with his thumb. "He's not like anyone else. He doesn't want anything from me, even though I'd give him anything. I feel more than safe with him, I feel..."

"I am a perceptive man, Zack. I know." The kenjin brushed a few spikes of hair out of the boy's face and smoothed them back. "I cannot imagine how conflicted you must feel."

"Please don't say anything to Angeal. He knows, but he doesn't believe me. It's like..."

"Like what?" the kenjin prodded softly.

"Like he has this fixed perception of me in his head, like I'm still the kid I was when we met. And he won't change that. Even if there's a chance he's attracted to me, he won't let himself feel it." Zack rubbed at his eyes but kept going; the few tears and the confessing of his pains was breaking up the heaviness weighing on his chest. "I mean, I'm not Genesis or anything, I doubt I'd be enough for Angeal, I know I'm not worthy, but the way he sees me...I have no chance even to try."

"Oh, Zack."

"I'm lucky, you know? I get to be closer to Angeal than almost anyone. That should be enough, I mean it is. It's just..." A faint ache had begun behind Zack's eyes and was spreading. "I don't know what to do."

"Is there anything I can do to help you?"

"Can you break the bond?" The request flew out of Zack's mouth, like he'd been eagerly awaiting his chance to say it. "Can you make the shoorei, you know, not my soul mate anymore?"

The kenjin sat back, surprised. "You would really want that, son?" he asked gently. "Knowing that you cannot be with your teacher, you would give up the one whom fate has deemed your best match?"

"I don't know what I want." Zack bit his lower lip to hold in the sobs he felt creeping up. He covered his eyes with one open hand for a few minutes, and the kenjin waited quietly for him to be ready to continue. "I'm okay, though."

"Zack..."

"I'm a SOLDIER, I'm okay."

"You don't have to prove your strength to me, Zack. I see it clearly. But even if you were certain of your feelings, I do not have the power to change someone's soul mate."

"Oh."

"Zack, I think perhaps you're misunderstanding. The bond between you and your soul mate is a choice offered to you, not a chain locking you to him. You can refuse him when you find him, live and be happy with someone else. It's up to you."

"...really? If I did that, would the shoorei still leave?"

"I'm afraid I don't know," the kenjin admitted. "I don't know of any case in which the soul mate is not accepted. But I do know that who you find happiness with is up to you."

Zack considered this with an earnest expression, which then relaxed into one of thought. He looked older than his years for a moment, when usually he seemed - if anything - younger. "I could be happy with Angeal. Even as just his student and friend, I think."

"Rather than that, maybe you should talk to Angeal again."

Zack shook his head. "He's given me more than I ever had a right to expect."

"I don't like this, Zack. Commander Hewley would want to know the things you've told me."

"But you won't tell him. How I find happiness is up to me, right?"

The kenjin smiled sadly. "Indeed, yes."

A gust of wind blasted the grove, making the branches overhead shake wildly. A shower of petals fell like soft white rain all around them, and Zack smiled up into them with closed eyes. The expression was perhaps not genuinely happy, the kenjin observed. But it was strong.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 33 - Held Fast In His Hands

 

The day had been waning outside when Lazard and Sephiroth made their way, caressing and kissing, into the former's bedroom. It was hours into full darkness now and Lazard had not switched on the bedside lamp, but even his mako-less eyes could see well enough. The moon was nearly full and positioned just right far above to shine through the windows, as though it were especially for them. But more than that, Sephiroth himself seemed to glow gently as he lay asleep beside the director, completely at peace - a contrast to the beginning of their relationship, when he had not been relaxed enough to drift off in this unfamiliar bed.

The general's silver hair was famous, and Lazard had been obsessed with it long enough to realize that it seemed to absorb light and reflect it later. And the skin half-covered by a sheet was finer than the most expensive marble, more flawless than flawlessness, a pure white that shone when illuminated as though light itself were rejoicing to fall upon such unmatched beauty. But as Lazard carefully ran his open hand over a porcelain cheek, he felt himself believe that this glow came at least partly from contentment as well. If one's happiness could be measured so for everyone, Lazard knew he'd be a blinding sunbeam, as long as he had Sephiroth with him.

"I love you. I'll always love you," he whispered. "I know that when you do choose, it probably won't be me. But my feelings for you will never change."

Sephiroth's eyes opened, with deliberate slowness so he wouldn't startle the director, but Lazard jumped a little anyway. "Why do you believe that?"

Lazard inhaled a breath to calm himself. "How long have you been awake?"

"Only a moment." Yet Sephiroth looked fully alert. He must have anticipated the next question. "I was trained to wake quickly whenever someone touches me as you just did."

Yes, you would need to be. Lazard realized only now that Sephiroth had always become conscious either right or shortly after all the times he had dared to let his hands explore the sleeping body. Some of these times, the general must have pretended to still be asleep...Lazard mentally cringed to think of all the cheesy things he had said on such occasions.

"Well? Why would you believe such a thing?" Sephiroth asked again.

Don't blush, and don't stammer. "B-Because it's true." Damn. "Whatever happens, I will always love you."

"I meant, why do you think that I would choose Genesis over you, if such a choice needed to be made?" Sephiroth shifted to lay as Lazard was doing, with his head resting in his hand and supported by a bent arm.

"Well, to be honest...you seem more compatible with Genesis than with me. You've known him longer...he understands you better...he's a SOLDIER like you, enhanced like you, famous like you. And so confident."

"You believe that is the kind of mate I should want?"

"Well, not should. Just would."

Sephiroth studied the other's expression carefully, analytically as ever but no longer without sympathy and care. Lazard looked like he was feeling a sudden and unwilling depression in reaction to his realization. What was the adjective for this look? Glum, that was it. He didn't like to see Lazard experiencing something negative, though he wasn't certain he had the skills to help.

"It is my understanding that people don't always look for similarity when choosing a companion. And even if they did, there are commonalities between you and I as well, aren't there? We are both quieter than Genesis, more serious. And capable of handling paperwork."

He must have gotten it right; Lazard smiled. "That's true. But he has known you longer."

"I don't automatically favor those with whom I've been acquainted the longest," Sephiroth said thoughtfully, thinking of Hojo. (By the brief frown, he guessed Lazard had the same thought.) "And I don't always like the extent to which Genesis knows me. He has seen me in uncomfortable situations that I would rather forget. I don't have that difficulty with you. Also, I think you understand me well enough. You told me that my understanding of human behavior is better than I believed, once. Perhaps we are not able to accurately judge what we understand."

Lazard continued to smile, and the happiness of it reached into his eyes and made them seem to glow. Sephiroth had never been able to find a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, but he was pleased to see it.

"I think you're right. What you just said has made me feel better, and you weren't sure if you could do that, were you?"

"Correct. You see, you do know me."

Lazard's smile changed to one of teasing. "What about Genesis being famous too? He gets what that's like for you, though not to such an extent..."

"Our experiences of notoriety are quite different. Genesis enjoys fame. He has always wanted it, since before I knew him."

"And you never did."

"No." Sephiroth looked at the mattress below them, running his fingers along the hem of the satin sheet draped over him. "I suppose it was inevitable that my abilities and the company's insistence on showcasing my accomplishments would draw attention. But I would rather have lived my life without so many people watching. I have always felt a certain distance between myself and those I encounter. This metaphorical pedestal I have been placed upon only exacerbates that feeling."

Lazard kept his face solemn as he listened, though he was ecstatic that Sephiroth was being so open with him. "I had a hunch that you hated the pedestal."

"Indeed. Although it is useful at times, when I need to be left alone for work, or in keeping overzealous fans away."

"It didn't work on me," Lazard laughed softly.

Sephiroth smirked. "Good. Though I would not call you overzealous. Do you still see me as they do, on the pedestal?"

"I used to. I'm still in awe of you," Lazard confessed, letting his fingers play over the general's unoccupied arm. "I saw you as a god, not a human, before I knew you. But if you were high up and away from me, I wouldn't be able to touch you. And I would worship you for your image and the you that my imagination conjured, not love the real you as I do."

"So I am not on a pedestal to you, more like a foot stool?"

Lazard laughed again. "I guess so. Is that better?"

"Much."

"But I guess I do have to give Genesis another point. He loved you before the fame, before every other person on the planet wanted you."

This time, the reassurance came to the general's mind without searching, as though the ability to give it had always been there. "But you dared to pursue me when you were only one of many. You had to have courage to believe I would accept you."

"Why did you?"

"Many reasons. You are attractive, desirable to me, intelligent, similar to me in many of your tastes, likes and traits. Also, you look at me in a way very few people have."

Lazard fought off the dizziness induced by Sephiroth complimenting him and asked "I do?"

"Most people seem to be staring only at my surface. When you stare, I have the feeling that you are trying to look inside me. To see not only my appearance but my feelings. I have never minded your staring," Sephiroth admitted. "Perhaps that was an intimation of what I would come to feel for you."

"Which is..." Lazard had only been speaking playfully, expecting nothing, but...

"I believe it is love."

Sephiroth met Lazard's eyes and looked deeply into them, remembering the bravery he had shown in his own declaration of love and determined to be as fearless, as worthy. Lazard's hazel-brown eyes filled, not with tears but with light and feeling. Before one of the tangle of emotions in them could be identified, he had curled an arm around Sephiroth, was moving closer, was kissing with power behind his usual gentleness.

"I would never have demanded or required it of you," the director murmured into his mouth, chin, cheek, neck. "I would have loved you forever and never asked anything back, but..."

"I require it," Sephiroth said stubbornly, his breathing becoming audible as arousal flooded into him from Lazard's fingers. "Something in me awoke and needed to say it."

"That's your heart, Seph." The director's voice had a bit of laughter in it, making him sound slightly hysterical. "And it's like that for all of us. We all forget we have one, sometimes...but I'll make sure you always remember, as long as you'll let me."

Sephiroth pulled Lazard on top of him and lay flat, embracing to put their bodies as close as possible, their chests touching and the beating in each synchronizing to the other. "Do it slow this time."

"Seph," Lazard moaned with need. Legs lifted to wrap around him; he caressed them, and the smooth, sculpted cheeks they led down to.

"Do it gently like you used to, and look at me. Look at me and show me yourself..."

Lazard's fingers slipped inside, prompting a sigh before they even reached the prostate. Sephiroth was still wet here with his seed from earlier that night, and that excited Lazard even more because, once upon a time in a land of pedestals, Sephiroth would not have been able to sleep until he was clean. The evidence of his claim made Lazard hard with a kind of wonderful pain...the usual next step was to enter and take this body quickly and roughly as though to punish and please it all at once. The significance of Sephiroth wanting only the pleasure was not something Lazard fully understood, but he knew it was significant.

He had learned by now the extent of Sephiroth's flexibility. It was therefore easier than it probably looked to penetrate him while their faces were only inches apart. He fed his swollen cock into the indescribable, pulsing darkness, while watching a similar quivering and contracting in the planet-green of Sephiroth's eyes. Even as he kissed the parted, silently moving lips, Lazard stared into his lover's aroused and vulnerable gaze, seeing deeply and knowing that he himself was baring just as much, at least. However hungrily their tongues battled, Lazard slid further in slowly, as it had been his instinct to do before Sephiroth had demanded hard and fast.

It was easy for him to dominate and easy to submit. It was doing this as himself and not just a role that he had trouble with...

When he was at last fully sheathed, he first cupped Sephiroth's ass in his hands and massaged, enough to make him loosen and tighten a few times - a little preview of what's ahead for both of them. Then Lazard held him steady by one raised leg and explored Sephiroth's face with his free fingers, tracing the lines of bone and muscle he had memorized. "Slowly," the lips whispered into his palm, and the first thrust lasted long enough to watch the way Sephiroth's eyelids fluttered, and the way he arched back to be emptied and forward to be filled. Sephiroth observed that Lazard's contorting face was like that of a man in trance communing with the divine. Touching the gods with his skilled hands, not worshiping from afar.

He felt vulnerable with such a long stare breaking through his green eyes, more than any sexual position or desperate battle had ever made Sephiroth feel. Lazard was penetrating not only his body but his soul as well, slowly, and Sephiroth thought there was definitely something about this speed that he liked and wanted to keep experiencing. Just because he had gotten used to rapid, rougher sex with Genesis didn't mean it had to be the same with Lazard, after all.

"I meant...what I said...about your heart," Lazard gasped as he continued thrusting in the same prolonged rhythm. "Only a big heart...could love us both...love so much that it makes you afraid to feel at all..."

"I feel, I feel," Sephiroth groaned, gripping the shoulders above him. "Make me feel more, make me..."

"Yesss..."

White heat spurted onto their joined bodies, another source of light beneath the stars and the waxing moon. As he had the previous night with Genesis, Sephiroth allowed himself to be held protectively, finding strength in these arms as he had the others. Genesis had said there was more strength in giving than taking, and Sephiroth knew his lovers were happy to be able to embrace him like this. At such times, Genesis and Lazard, too, were showing how strong they were. They had to be, logically, to be giving Sephiroth so much.

The general closed his eyes against Lazard's neck and slipped into a dream of arms and hands, too many and too fast to count. He had had something like it a few times in the early years of his fame, when he was getting used to staring and admirers and crowds. But then the arms had grabbed, pulled and torn at him, whereas now they warmed him and soothed him and lifted him up. The more there were, the more loved Sephiroth felt, and when he woke the next morning he wondered if his subconscious had been trying to tell him something about being with both Genesis and Lazard. Something his heart had known all along.

azazaza

In the middle of what looked like a snow-covered wasteland, the old inn was cheerful and warm inside, with crackling fires and creaky, comfortable furniture. Fifteen-year-old Zack, having grown up in the warm climate of Gongaga, was delighted with the abundance of snow, having experienced only flurries of it in Midgar. Angeal wouldn't let him go outside much, he was parental like that, but luckily, there was interesting stuff to look at inside too. There would be, at least, had Angeal not confined Zack to their room without explanation while he went to talk to an informant in the courtyard.

Zack was restless. Being stuck in here with Angeal was one thing - he could keep trying to beat him at chess or nag him for stories about the Trinity Angeal was part of. But alone? No fun at all. Zack didn't see why he wasn't allowed to hang out in the inn's public rooms. The owner, a jolly man called Johanne, had greeted the SOLDIERs amiably when they checked in and told Zack he should check out the game room, smiling at the boy's excitement. Angeal hadn't really let them talk to anyone else, which seemed odd, because he was always polite, and the other guests - all men - were interested in talking to them. Why else would they stare so much?

"Angeal," Zack whined to the quiet room, "heroes do not hide like this, they go out and mingle. How else would they find new quests, and allies?"

Still, Zack obediently stayed put...as long as he could, at least. His teacher hadn't said specifically when he'd be back, but grown-ups tended to do things slowly. Surely it would be okay for Zack to sneak out for just a few minutes. Just to see if the game room was worth dragging Angeal to later. Angeal wouldn't be disappointed if he never knew, after all.

Though Zack felt a little guilty as he slipped out into the hallway, his need for distraction pushed him onward. He headed in what he was pretty sure was the right direction, and nearly ran into Johanne himself, who lowered the tray he held over his shoulder to frown.

"Zack, right? Commander Hewley told me you might make a break for it. I'm supposed to shoo you right back into the room."

"Aw, c'mon," the boy pleaded with a cute pout. "He'll never know, I just wanna look at the games real quick. If he comes back early, you can stall him, or pretend you didn't see me."

"Kid, you shouldn't wander alone."

"I won't get lost."

Johanne looked very uncomfortable. "You don't understand. Most of my regulars are miners, mako drillers, that sort of thing. They come here to relax and, uh, find companionship, you know?"

Zack was confused, but didn't want to let that show. "I won't bother them or anything, honest!"

He bounced off before the concerned innkeeper could do anything. The game room was easy to find, and the sight of his current favorite arcade game, Demon Destroyer, proved to be more than he could resist. Just one quick round, Zack told himself, and dropped a coin into the slot. There was no one else around to distract him, and Zack was racking up an impressively high score when his mako-enhanced senses faintly twinged. Someone was behind him...oh, it was that ratty-haired guy who'd smiled at him when he and Angeal had passed through the entrance room, still smiling.

"Hi," Zack said cheerfully, before turning back to the game. "I'll be done in just a minute if you wanna use this."

"Oh, no, please. It's more fun for me to watch you." As he spoke, another man of similar age (thirties or forties) came and stood by him.

"Okay." Zack was flattered to think he was doing so well that his skill had earned him an audience. Maybe they were watching to improve their own skills. Zack made sure to show off his most spectacular demon-destroying moves, just in case.

He glanced back again while the screen was loading...wow, five of them now! They were all coming closer, too; Zack stepped back so they could have a better view of the screen. To his surprise, they seemed more interested in looking at and talking to him.

"You're pretty good."

"Thanks! This is my favorite."

"Is that a SOLDIER uniform? Aren't you a little young to be a SOLDIER?"

"I'm fifteen. They let me join early." Impressed murmurs followed that, and Zack couldn't help but grin.

"Where's that man you're traveling with?"

"Oh, um, busy."

"Too busy for you? It must be something important."

"SOLDIER business," Zack said importantly. "Agh, I'm almost dead, if you guys wanna try. Who wants to go first?"

The first man had a strange glint in his eyes, one Zack couldn't decipher. "You know, we were just discussing that before we came in. Who should go first."

"If you'd rather, some of the other games have two-player mode."

One of the men laughed, not taking his eyes off Zack. "We only have eyes for one toy."

"Oh, but we've forgotten we have games in my room too," another said. "Would you like to come play with us...?"

"It's Zack. No, thanks, I should get back before I get into trouble."

"We wouldn't let that happen," the first man said softly, and reached out to run his fingers through the boy's spiky hair. "C'mon, don't make us insist."

Zack pouted and was about to explain that he didn't like people touching his hair, no matter how interesting they thought it was. Just then, the small crowd that had been moving slowly closer dispersed, due to a tall, broad body pushing through it.

"Zack!" Angeal sounded mad, but his eyes glowed as he looked at the men, not his student. "You all have three seconds to get out of my sight forever, or I'll dismember you and leave your carcasses for the wolves!"

"Angeal!" No surprise that the strangers scrambled practically over each other to run out, but Zack was shocked that his calm, friendly teacher would say such a thing. "What's wrong with you? They were just watching me play - "

"That is not what they were doing." Eyes still green, but with concern and frustration now, Angeal held Zack firmly by his shoulders. "I told you to stay in the room! If Johanne hadn't come and found me - "

"You didn't even tell me why I couldn't go exploring." Zack didn't normally talk back to the mentor he adored, but Angeal's confusing anger must have drawn out his own. "You should tell me things, I'm not a baby - "

"If you don't follow orders, then I certainly cannot treat you like a SOLDIER! Gaia, Zack, don't you know what would have happened if I hadn't gotten here when I did?" Zack looked at him in bewilderment; the innocence of it hurt Angeal's heart. "You don't. Just...Zack, it's my job to keep you safe as well as train you. You need to follow my orders, all of them, no excuses. Promise me, Puppy."

Zack had been embarrassed by that nickname at first, but it was quickly growing on him. He still didn't get why Angeal was so upset, but felt bad to have caused it. The boy hung his head and whispered "Yes, sir. I'm sorry."

"It's all right, as long as you don't do it again." Zack blinked in surprise; Angeal must have really been worried to be walking like this, holding him clasped to his side like a SOLDIER doll clutching a SOLDIER action figure. "You're not leaving my sight for the rest of this mission, understood?"

"Uh-huh...Angeal, if those guys weren't watching me play, what were they doing?"

The commander didn't say anything at first, and his expression indicated an inner conflict. "I'll explain some other time, Pup. Now, if you promise me again not to sneak off anymore, I might be persuaded to order some ice cream with our dinner."

Zack woke with the expression he'd last worn in the dream, a smile which quickly became a look of puzzlement, then realization...then embarrassment. It had all been so vivid, like it was real, like it was really happening again, and looking back on his own ignorance made the boy cringe. That was less than three years ago, and he was practically grown up now, how had he been so oblivious then?

No one acted like that in Gongaga... Everyone there had known and loved Zack from infancy, and he was never allowed to be with strangers unsupervised. Had there just been no opportunity for anyone to stare, or worse? Another memory made Zack groan out loud - months after the incident at Johanne's, Kunsel pulling him aside and flatly asking

"Do you like me, Zack?"

"No, I hate you. What kind of question is that? You're my best friend!"

"I know, same here. I meant, do you like me? As more than a friend." Kunsel laughed kindly, even though Zack hadn't spoken.
"Okay, your expression's enough. Don't worry about it. I just wondered."

"Why? Do you..." Zack's eyes went wide.

"Duh. You haven't noticed me staring? Well, I guess that makes sense, a lot of people stare at you." Kunsel knocked his fist lightly against the younger boy's shoulder. "Aw, don't pout. It's okay."

"I'm...sorry."

"It's cool. Still best friends?"

"Yeah!" Zack said with his usual enthusiasm. "Um, but what you said about people staring...do they all stare 'cause they like me?"

Kunsel shook his head and smiled a smile Zack sometimes got annoyed at, one that reminded him Kunsel was older and more experienced at everything. "You're so cute. But I guess you need to know, not that you'll remember, Mr. Scatterbrained. Listen carefully, okay?"

"Uh...okay."

"When people stare at you, in your case, it means they either like you like I do, or they just want to...you know." Kunsel suddenly laughed, so loud that Zack hit him and gestured meaningfully to the other people in the hallway whose attention they were drawing. "Well, no, I guess you don't know. Okay, the starers either like you or wanna have sex with you. Do you know what sex is?"

"Shut up," Zack growled at him, choosing anger over the less preferable unease that Kunsel's answer had planted in him.

In the dark bedroom that he still wasn't used to, Zack leaned forward and rested his arms on his blanket-covered legs, moodily flicking the quilt with his fingers. No wonder everyone I know treats me like a kid. Gaia, I was such a baby! How did I not realize? At least there was a faint warmth in the memory, Kunsel's good-natured acceptance and kindness. He'd had to reassure Zack many more times afterward that he was fine just being friends, and gradually Kunsel had become Zack's protector in matters of the heart as he was in all else, or at least tried to be. He would say things like "Stay away from that one, he's a major player...that one's into kink, don't ask how I know...he's nice, but not good enough for you." And Kunsel had been the first person to straight-out ask Zack, not tease him, about his closeness to Commander Hewley.

Angeal...dammit. In the quiet of the night, in the sense-memory this bed evoked, all it took was a thought of Angeal's hands, of his perfectly chiseled face. Zack felt first the swelling that moved the fabric of his black shorts, then the heat that swept up from it to his head. Longing made him feverish, like in bad pop songs or the comics Genesis sometimes slipped under his door. Angeal... It twitched, cried for attention and promised pleasure. Oddly (or maybe not), Zack had not very often masturbated before he'd realized his feelings for his mentor. I guess I needed a face to imagine...

The teenager lay back, stretching a little and wiggling till he was comfortable, and closed his eyes. He wanted to draw this out, enjoy it and be exhausted enough to go back to sleep. He began with the hem of his Midgar Mutants T-shirt, toying with it before pushing it up. Then a hand on his stomach...Zack was pleased to feel the muscle there, maybe someday he'd look like Angeal without his shirt. A shiver at that, fingers acting with some urgency now to circle his nipples and push at them when they hardened. An inspired (though kinda embarrassing) thought led Zack to lick the thumb and index fingers of each hand and close them over his nipples, so that they felt like damp lips sucking. Like Angeal...oh, that was doing it. His hips jerked unconsciously, and a needy moan escaped his mouth.

Something changed, and at first Zack didn't know what. He stopped and glanced quickly around at the four walls and everything between them. The light was the same, no noise, nothing out of place. His eyes landed on the alarm clock. One a.m. That was it, the air had gotten heavier, and that meant -

But I'm not asleep. It can't come if I'm not -

A real mouth (invisible but unmistakable) closed gently and without warning over his left nipple, effectively freezing Zack's train of thought.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 34 - One Splendid Spirit

 

"What - mmph!" Zack's question or protest or whatever it was going to be was interrupted by a thumb pushing into his mouth and circling his tongue, then gums, then moving in and out of his lips. A clear indication of what was going to happen. Zack pulled his hand free, looked where the thing was (he assumed) and panted "How can you be here?"

No words; by now Zack didn't expect it to speak. It was hard to look questioningly at something he couldn't see, but Zack tried. The indent of kneeling legs between his own moved a little, and the unmistakable pressure of a large hand cupped Zack's cheek, moving minutely to caress the pale skin there. It felt good, undeniably, and the boy turned into the touch as he began to speak. He had come to understand the shoorei a little, not quite telepathy but an ability to sense what it was trying to say from its actions.

"Are you saying sorry for last time?" Another hand came to Zack's face and stroked his other cheek affectionately, then dropped away. "Yes, but something else? Um..." The retracted hand returned, sliding fingers deep into his messy spikes. "Yeah, I know you like my hair. Ow!" What felt like a finger poked Zack purposefully and firmly on the top of his head, several times. "My head? What about my...use my head?" Lips placed a gentle kiss on the boy's forehead, and his forgotten erection twitched again, demanding attention.

"You want me to think? Okay, but logic and I aren't great pals..." Zack rested his head in the shoorei's hand the way a thinker might lean into his own. "Um, you're stronger than you were before? Yeah? Now, why...hmm, because I'm closer to you? Because I'm in Wutai?" Another chaste kiss, the affirmative gesture. "So I'm getting closer to you..."

It must have heard the uncertainty in his voice. Zack was lifted up and brought to the shoorei's unseen chest in a protective embrace, similar to Angeal's bear-hugs but also quite different. "Fine, I forgive you for last time. I was giving off mixed signals, I know. But for the future, no means no, okay?"

It was kissing his hair, there was no meaning in that as far as Zack knew. Or in lifting his shirt up and off, or palming and squeezing his buttocks. Except the obvious meaning.

"Wait. I do like you," Zack whispered, "but you should know that I'm in love with Angeal. You know, my teacher? Uh, that doesn't sound good, but he's awesome. Not that you aren't, it's just..."

One hand massaged the teenager's naked back, the other his nape. It felt so good, so loving...Zack buried his face in what felt like a warm neck and sniffled. The shoorei pet his hair in response...just like Angeal would have...

"Last time, when you didn't stop when I asked," Zack mumbled into warm skin, "I was surprised that a soul mate could be anything but absolutely perfect. But Gaia, I can be a serious jerk too, and not just to you, to everyone who cares about me."

The chin that rested on his head moved from side to side over his head - the shoorei was indicating "No".

"I can, I am. I...I know you like being with me, and I like it too. But I can't keep doing it. It's unfair to us both, you know, now that I've realized what I feel for Angeal." A single finger briefly brushed, feather-light, over his clothed erection. "I know. I do want this physically, but my heart doesn't. I know you're supposed to be my soul mate, but...the kenjin said it was up to me. So I...I'm sorry, but I..."

An invisible hand snaked down the back of his shorts, and a finger slipped between his cheeks, not deep enough to actually go inside. It was the shoorei's usual way of asking permission to enter him; since Zack had become conscious of the visits while they happened, the ghost had never taken him without at least a gasp of consent (except for last time). Though he could not put out of mind the memory of how much pleasure this spirit had given him, he shook his head.

"I'm sorry. I can't - whoa! Hey!"

Even when startled, Zack continued to instinctively keep his voice quiet enough to not wake Angeal, but it was tough this time. With its usual and enviable speed and agility, the shoorei had shifted Zack to lay on his back, snatched his underwear off and, with two fingers, was pinching a very sensitive organ near its tip. It didn't exactly hurt, but the feeling of pressure it evoked made Zack understand instantly what this hold was intended for. To keep him from ejaculating.

"Hey, I said - !" The boy was cut off by a slow but forceful kiss. "Let go!"

The shoorei's chin settled on top of his head again just long enough to move from side to side. As it made this gesture of "No", fingers traveled spider-like up Zack's inner thigh to touch him on the inside again, longer this time. Zack got the message, and scowled darkly at the air above him.

"Are you kidding? No!" Despite his bravado, Zack was drawing a blank as to how he would get out of this. He would not call for Angeal, even if he thought for a moment there was anything Angeal could do but be forced to watch this embarrassing blackmail. The boy knew he was not strong enough to throw the shoorei off if it was determined to keep him down, and it clearly was. "Let go!"

The finger obediently retracted, but the other hand kept its hold on his penis. Zack was afraid that even an attempt at fighting would shift the grip into a painful squeeze; he liked this particular piece of his anatomy very much and would prefer not to damage it if possible. So Zack was again forced by this thing to use his head, and it was understandably hard for him to think clearly, especially when the shoorei raised the stakes by cupping both his balls with his free hand and massaging them in turn with a gentle thumb.

"Nnn...this is as bad as last time, worse, and this time I won't forgive you," Zack threatened. The kiss on his forehead that answered him only angered the boy more. "I really won't! If you care about me at all, if you ever did, you'll stop now!"

Fuck, now the thing was lightly bouncing his testicles, as though Zack were some kind of toy rather than a flushed and protesting human being. Zack couldn't think of what else to say, but no matter. Warm breath fell upon his darkening and stiff member, and the shoorei's tongue gave the head a deliberately long lick, wiping up the few drops of pre-come that had gathered there like dew. Then it got busy rubbing its wet roughness-yet-softness against the slit, putting continual, intermittent pressure on the sensitive spot. Zack grimaced and, at the same time, thrust upward, and was seemingly rewarded for this with a few moments of sucking the head before the tongue went back to its previous torture.

"I hate you. You don't care about me, you're like all the others, and Angeal would never do this." Though Zack's thoughts were scattered, the venom in his words was unmistakable. He swung his fists when the shoorei gave him another patronizing kiss, but it was no good - they were easily dodged, or went right through the thing as his hands sometimes did. "Fuck off! Just - oh Gaia - "

His shaft was fisted and being stroked, quickly, a speed meant not for gentleness but for reaching orgasm as fast as possible. It felt good, it was as stimulating as ever, but the pinching fingers were an effective and maddening roadblock keeping Zack from his much-needed goal. It was already no longer a matter of wanting to come so much as needing to, and it was only going to get worse.

"Nnn...please..." He would not consent, he wouldn't.

Lips reverently closed over one of his balls, sucking and massaging it and then doing the same to the other. It was unfair, he was more sensitive than usual thanks to this prolonged teasing and holding off, and by the time the unseen mouth turned its attention back to the pitifully weeping cock, Zack had to bite his lower lip to stop himself crying out yes yes, anything, just let me!

As it turned out, the boy held out against the sucking and laving, though his hips had begun to rock slightly and his head was moving desperately as though he were having a very bad dream - or a very good one. Zack felt the shoorei move and then a face nuzzling his cheek and hair. Not as an apology, but affectionate, insistently loving, a plea for understanding. There followed the sensation of another erection being rubbed against his own, and even mako couldn't explain how strongly Zack felt this. The swollen thickness of it, the smoothness of taut skin, the slight hollow of the slit touching his own - it was all more than he could take, and the shoorei's cock was held tightly against his own and it erupted a flood of slick wet heat all over them both.

Tears escaped Zack's eyes and quickly dampened the pillow beneath him. He turned his head to one side, wishing he could bury his face out of sight, and in a dry, croaking voice gasped "Fine, do it."

The boy didn't protest this time when his mouth and forehead were kissed, resigned to the shoorei's desire to express its gratitude. He cried out with relief when he was finally released, and again when a mouth took him in and sucked with exaggerated gentleness. Zack was close and didn't take long, and as he came down his softening length was caressed as though in apology. He was allowed to catch his breath, then his long legs were heaved up and wrapped around a torso he could feel but not see.

"Just do it, okay?"

When relaxed, Zack didn't need as much preparation as the first few times, but he had remained tight (perhaps an effect of mako), and he was still tense with a distant and vague anger. Luckily, the shoorei always stretched him more than was necessary, and after four careful fingers he was able to slide easily into the pliant and arching body. Zack had a few clear moments to hate and resent this before the pleasure and feeling of connection swept his reason away, and he was spreading his thighs in welcome and allowing his neck to be ravished by a hungry mouth. It held him afterward, as close as it could without crushing the boy, and stroked him all over as if it couldn't get enough.

"Damn you," Zack whispered as it rocked him to sleep.

The shoorei placed a fingertip on his back and traced a heart there; its message was clear even if Zack wouldn't believe it - Love you.

azazaza

In the early hours of morning, Angeal had made himself comfortable on a wide patch of grass near the renovated temple and busied himself sorting and listing the contents of a box of materia. He felt the army had become comfortable enough with them to introduce this valuable source of magic. It would have to be done delicately, though, since Wutaians tended to oppose materia on moral grounds, believing that to use distilled fragments of Lifestream for personal gain was an insult to the dead who comprise it. Angeal had decided to begin with the most positive and beneficial kinds, hoping that these would persuade the soldiers that great, selfless good could be accomplished with materia, enough to justify its use.

Restore and Heal were the obvious first choices, though it would be necessary to use harmful magic in order to properly demonstrate spells like Cure, Esuna, and Poisona. Well, that couldn't be helped. Life was undoubtedly positive, but obviously problematic to demonstrate. Ice, Fire and other types used solely to inflict damage were best saved for another time...and what about Time? It was handy, very much so, but might be viewed by the Wutaians as being dishonorably manipulative to one's opponent. In this land it was considered proper to honor one's enemy, a sentiment which President Shinra had declared absurd.

Maybe I should have been born Wutaian. But then I might have fought Gen and Seph instead of loved them, and I would never have had Zack...

"Ah, is that materia? I've never seen so much up close."

Angeal bowed his head to the kenjin in greeting. "Good morning. Please sit if you like."

The kenjin accepted his offer and peered thoughtfully at the collection of softly glowing orbs. "Is it usual for materia to have that perfectly spherical shape?"

"If it's harvested and sold by professionals, yes. Having a standard shape and size allows the materia to fit in any weapon or piece of armor."

"Ah. Were any of these produced by fusion? I have always wanted to learn more about fusion."

"Some of the stronger ones, I'm sure," Angeal said. "As for the process of fusion, that would be best explained by an expert. To oversimplify, machinery is used to put a materia sample under pressure and shake it rapidly enough for its matter to destabilize and vibrate at a certain frequency. Just before the materia shatters, it's merged with another sample that's been subjected to the same procedure. If successful, fusion combines the two materia into one superior orb."

"Fascinating. And where is Zack this morning?"

The change in subject came so unexpectedly and casually that Angeal's pen slipped and made a messy scribble on the paper. "Zack is tired and feeling under the weather, I don't think he slept well. So I ordered him to take the day off and rest." Angeal figured he need not say that he had offered to stay with Zack and been assured it was unnecessary, then announced he would summon Dr. Oren and been begged not to.

Trouble with the shoorei again, the kenjin thought sadly. "Zack must greatly appreciate the care you take with him."

Angeal smiled wistfully. "I think he tolerates it, more like, out of kindness and fondness for me. Zack thinks he's an adult, but as you've surely observed - "

"He has a very young heart and an innocent soul, indeed yes. But a man may have both of these things and be fully grown in body and mind."

"If you mean to say I baby him needlessly, you need not," Angeal said quietly, looking away from the wise one's perceptive eyes. "I know I do."

"Not needlessly, my friend. You strike me as the sort who does nothing unless it is to fulfill some purpose."

"My purpose, then, my needs. Not Zack's. There have been times when his innocence has led him into danger and I saved him, but had I not spent these years hovering over him, perhaps he'd be less vulnerable. Less of a target."

The kenjin placed a thin hand on Angeal's muscle-thick shoulder and squeezed it with surprising strength. Angeal looked up into the sympathetic, timeless gaze and was reminded for a moment of Sephiroth, whose eyes had always been both young and without age.

"My friend, I've seen a bed of Wutainese blue roses growing in your lovely garden. When the nights are cold and the blossoms are new, you put a glass case over them to shield them from the chill, correct? You do this because without this protection, the flowers would wither. It is no different with your beloved student. Another teacher in your position might have made Zack tougher and less trusting, and harmed his bright and precious soul in so doing."

"That's why I chose Zack," Angeal murmured, smiling inward at the memories of that fateful choice, the child's awe and fearlessness. "I couldn't bear the thought of him being changed."

"It is always the same with young ones," the kenjin laughed softly, "no matter one's relationship to them. We guard them and influence them, then step back and allow them to be who they are. It is bittersweet, but in the end what they require most is the acceptance of those they love."

Angeal slowly ran a gloved hand over his forehead and down his straight black hair. The kenjin's words pained him, made him recall every tear Zack had shed after his declaration of love had been dismissed as a scared child's confusion.

"You have done well with Zack," the old man reassured him. "He adores you. I daresay if you asked, he would give up being a SOLDIER and allow you to overprotect him to your heart's desire."

"I would never ask that of him! I could never."

"He would be safe. You wouldn't have to worry."

"I'd rather worry than see him unhappy," Angeal insisted. "Besides, Zack was born to be a SOLDIER. His talent proves that, and how much he loves it."

"Is he really that good a fighter?"

"I think when he's full-grown he could rival Sephiroth," Angeal said proudly.

"Then why, Angeal, do you need Zack to be a child? If it is not because you think him helpless or want him to be, what is the reason?"

The question, however gentle, was a calculated attack, and aimed well. Angeal pinched the bridge of his nose and lowered his eyes away from the kenjin's face, fearing that the hole just made in his mental shields would let the truth slip out in his eyes or his frown. The old man sat back and regarded him with kindness and a weary expression of knowing, as if he had the answers he sought already, all of them, and yet could do no good with them, could not intervene in the lives that crossed paths with his.

"I don't know," Angeal whispered.

"You do. Ignorance did not place the pain of longing in your eyes, my friend. Only realization can do that."

"Zack has a soul mate," the SOLDIER said coolly and bluntly.

"A soul mate is like anything else. It is one path among many. It is a choice, no more. You will not upset the balance of Zack's life by offering him another one."

"I can't."

"Why?"

Angeal's mouth opened, but made no sound. He was not hesitating at this uncomfortable subject, nor shocked, nor groping for the right words. He truly did not know the answer. Every excuse he had ever stacked against his desire for Zack - age difference, his pseudo-parental role, his higher rank, Zack's naiveté, ShinRa's potential reaction, the opinions of colleagues and friends, his reputation overshadowing Zack - seemed to stagger under the kenjin's dissection and fly apart like a house of cards. All these things Angeal had used to scold himself suddenly seemed like nothing but shadows of the real concern, which was so shrouded in darkness that even Angeal himself couldn't see it, only sense parts of it and be troubled by them. The fear that changing what Zack was to him entailed the risk of changing Zack. The image of Zack's beauty and perfection tied to an older, flawed man and the worry that he could never make the boy as happy as he deserved to be. The thrill of touching Zack intimately poisoned by the belief that in doing so he would be giving up the part of Zack he had so fiercely protected. Loss, it all seemed to be about the terror of loss.

If I love Zack any more, if I admit him into my heart not as an eternal youth but as a whole person who will grow and age just like me, that would be it. I would have to accept that Zack will face danger, that one day Zack will...and if he goes before me, I would not be able to live another day. And if I believe Zack feels the same for me, I will be tying his life to mine and risking it every day. If I let Zack love he will be an adult and adults die. If I have Zack, I risk losing him, and Gaia I cannot lose him!

A flood of tears Angeal had not experienced since his father's long-ago death shocked his eyes and escaped down his face like a hard and blinding rain. Strangely, the kenjin seemed relieved to see this, though he gently patted the commander's cheek, one of the few who had ever dared to do something so potentially patronizing.

"You will never be free of this love, Angeal, nor the fear that accompanies it. All happiness is ephemeral. That doesn't mean we should not risk everything to reach for it whenever we have the chance." The commander looked at him, and found the kenjin's eyes solemn. "As for this soul mate...Zack is still exhausted by the shoorei's visits, yes?"

"...yes..."

"Because Zack is fighting the idea of a soul mate, resisting the thought of belonging to someone else. Does that tell you nothing?" The kenjin sighed. "Are all you gaikokujin this difficult?"

azazaza

Zack awoke from a nap with his mind feeling fuzzy, but the soreness was gone from his body, at least. It was late afternoon, and the boy's boredom and annoyance at missing a day of training was softened by his tiredness. (Angeal had not let him take the stimulant potion that morning.) Zack pulled himself out of bed and shuffled to the kitchen, where he laughed mirthlessly to see that Angeal had left a covered pot of soup, still warm.

Mother hen. But Zack ate some and immediately felt a little better. A lot better, actually, though still weak. He probably mixed a potion into it... As far as Angeal knew, Zack had simply not slept well, and maybe had pushed himself too much the past few days. He could not know what was really wrong.

A nauseous feeling began in Zack's stomach, and he stopped in the doorway between the tiny kitchen and the main room and clutched his stomach with one hand. Memories of the previous night rose up and seemed to follow him like shadows on the gray walls, and old accusations rang in his head, in his own angry voice. Whore, unfaithful, you let it, you liked it! Without thinking, Zack speedwalked to the couch, picked up a sweater Angeal had left there and buried his face into it, comforted by the familiar smell. Why did I bother to tell it 'No' in the first place? If I can't be with Angeal then I might as well - Zack wasn't as nonchalant as he pretended to be, he couldn't even finish that thought. The worst thing, far worse than his objections going unheard, was that he had liked it, he always liked it, and what did that say about his love for Angeal, if it felt good and even right having sex with someone else?

Why don't I just let myself have what I can? Why not just accept the shoorei and this soul mate, whoever it ends up being? Zack pressed the soft wool to his eyes, not because they were wet, just to have the fabric Angeal had worn closer. Because I love Angeal.

"Puppy?"

"Oh, Gaia," Zack mumbled aloud, taking the sweater away from his face and sheepishly putting it back where he'd found it. "Hi, Angeal."

The 1st approached him slowly, eyes barely concealing tension and face serious. He glanced at the sweater, then at Zack, and hesitated before speaking. Angeal looked torn; he could hide some of the pain his indecision was causing but not the indecision itself.

"Are you cold?"

Zack smiled sadly; his teacher's occasional obliviousness had become endearing to the boy, as his own had long ago done to Angeal. "No."

"Are you all right?"

Yeah, I was just sniffing your sweater because I'm a confused kid who's incapable of real love, was Zack's sharp thought, but affection softened this to "Yeah, just tired."

"Did you eat?"

"Uh-huh."

"And sleep?"

"Yes." Zack closed his eyes as a hand felt his forehead, then moved up to pet his hair. "Is training over for the day already?"

"Just about. They're finishing up." Lieutenant Akio had noticed his commander was distracted without Zack and had suggested Angeal go home early, and Angeal had - to the surprise of them both - agreed, without excuses or grumbling. "We have another gift-giving mission."

Zack rolled his eyes, and Angeal silently shared his distaste. Part of the diplomatic side of their presence in Wutai was spreading goodwill on ShinRa's behalf, supposedly sowing seeds for future cooperation and truthfully fostering dependence on technology and resources that only ShinRa could offer. Godo approved every one of these missions before they took place, and no doubt the gifts benefited the villages they were offered to. But Angeal didn't like it, and he hated that Zack had to take part in such dishonesty. The boy had made a lot of friends here and had developed a strong respect for the Wutaian culture and people.

"When? Where?"

"Gansaku." It was a village several miles north of Seidou, not yet visited because it was deemed small and unimportant...until word reached ShinRa of a possible source of mako in the caves that lay on its outskirts. "Tomorrow."

"You're not making me stay here, are you?"

"I was thinking it might be better for you."

"I'm fine, really." Zack's chin was tilted up, his tired eyes looked into, and he smiled to reassure his wavering teacher. "I want to go. I'm only like this now 'cause I didn't have the potion today."

"What happened last night?" Angeal asked, shifting his hand to cup the boy's soft cheek.

"Nothing. It came...then I couldn't sleep for some reason, so I got more tired."

"Come sit with me." Once on the couch, Angeal gathered Zack close to rest on his chest. Zack's fingers idly, comfortably brushed back and forth on top of the commander's T-shirt, and an aching warmth burned in the skin beneath and nearly distracted Angeal from what he wanted to say. "Pup, do you like the shoorei?"

Zack started at that, his whole body jerked the way it sometimes did when he was falling asleep. Angeal wrapped his arms around him, needing to soothe him, needing to touch even if it could only be innocently.

"I like him," Zack mumbled. "He represents my soul mate, why wouldn't I?"

"It seemed to me that you're fighting it rather than accepting it."

Zack squirmed beneath the hands that massaged and pet him. "I'm meeting new people, aren't I? I just haven't found him yet."

"I want to see you happy, Zack. More than anything."

Don't make me cry, I'm sick of crying. "With him?"

"If that's what you need." It was an honest answer, regardless of the pain and want and jealousy it hid.

"Then you should let me go tomorrow. Maybe I'll finally meet the guy I'm supposed to - " A momentary choking sensation blocked the rest of the sentence, and Zack covered it by coughing. And quickly regretted doing so, because Angeal reacted by holding him tighter and kissing the top of his head, and that was going to cause problems if he kept it up. "I mean, that's why you brought me here, right?"

"Yes. I just worried that you might be having second thoughts...that you might not be wanting the shoorei and the one it represents..."

"But that's who I belong with, right?" Zack laughed sadly as Angeal's arms tightened protectively or possessively or both. "You pretend to be eager to give me away but you're not, are you?"

"I don't intend to lose you completely, even when you find him."

"But you're afraid you will?"

"I will always be afraid of losing you," Angeal said quietly. It wasn't the sort of thing Angeal would usually say, and Zack wondered if he knew he was speaking out loud. "No other fear I've ever had casts a greater shadow than that."

"I'm here, Angeal."

You are, I know. All of you, both the kid you were and the young man you are. But you feel far away, Pup, and you will, as long as this thing is between us. And stronger than the shoorei was the decision waiting for Angeal to make it, haunting them more than any ghost of the past or future could.

"I'll still be your student, and your Puppy. I wouldn't give that up."

"Thank you, Pup." Obeying his instinctive needs rather than his logic, Angeal pulled Zack closer, practically urging the boy onto his lap. "I love you, you know that, right?"

"I love you, too. Um, Angeal..."

"Hmm?"

"I don't think I should be...too close..."

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I just..." Zack's breathing had sped up; some primal, id-driven part of Angeal was pleased and turned on by the sound, and the feel of him. Always the feel. "I'm having some...trouble."

"I'll let go, if you want."

"I don't." Zack curled up, a touching sight as he shyly hid himself as much as possible in the secure embrace. "Do you want to?"

"...No."

"I know it doesn't mean anything," Zack murmured, mostly to himself, hardening his heart against the hurt that would inevitably strike him when this closeness ended and the awkwardness set in again like a wall between them. "It's okay."

"You mean everything to me."

"That's not an answer," Zack gasped, finding it hard to control himself. He shifted his legs to find a balance between stimulation and control. "You won't give me a real answer."

"I'm sorry, Pup." Angeal knew that the kisses he pressed to the hair and flushed skin were straining Zack further and he should stop, but the knowledge made him want to keep going. He could feel the tingle of Zack's arousal in his trembling body, and his own shamefully tucked away in his pants. "What can I give you? How can I make you happy?"

"D-Don't pity me - "

"I don't. I love you."

"Oh Gaia...Angeal..."

Having been finally hoisted onto his teacher's lap, sitting on his strong thighs, Zack spread his legs to ease the pressure on his aching, pulsing groin. The fabric of even his loose sleeping pants was already too much, already strained by an erection that felt good but worried him - Zack didn't think he'd ever been quite this hard. Certainly not in such a bizarre situation. As he frantically tried to think what to do, Angeal's hand landed on his thigh, first as though only to soothe, then pressed his tense limbs back together. The return of pressure on that sensitive place made Zack groan and whimper at once, and thrust his hips forward in search of relief.

"Unh, don't..." But his face fell against his mentor's chest and nuzzled, the heat of his cheek making Angeal's heart race. "Unh...I'm..."

"I know. It's okay." Against his better judgment, against all his logic and reason, Angeal continued to hold Zack's thigh so it kept stimulating him. "What can I do?"

"Gaia don't stop - " Zack was thrusting again, the motion slow but hard, and his fingers dug into Angeal's shoulder and chest. "Fuck, I need to..."

"I know you need to. That's it, it's okay."

"I don't want the shoorei, you know who I want." Zack's mouth was disobeying, blurting in his pleasure things he had intended to leave unsaid. "See, I don't even need to touch myself when you're...fuck, what am I - "

"It's okay." The intoxicating smell of Zack was never easy to resist; now the scent of his need and imminent release threatened to drive Angeal mad if he didn't kiss him, taste this sweet skin, something. Somehow he kept his hands above the clothes, his mouth safely buried in silken black hair. "I'm here, just...just..."

"Gaia, Gaia - "

He was close, Angeal could sense it. His eyes were glued to the heaviness in his student's ratty blue pants, the twitching cock that was near ready to burst. The commander's mouth was dry, his eyes burning as though in unconscious self-punishment, but it was not enough to deter him. Zack had a point; it was amazing that he could do this without stroking himself, that he needed only...My presence?

The troubling thought was quickly, mercifully, shoved aside. Nothing could distract Angeal from Zack's writhing and moaning; the commander even made an unwholesome noise of his own when Zack's nuzzling face tweaked an unhelpfully sensitive nipple. One of Angeal's hands had been cradling Zack's hip; now it jerked and slipped and accidentally slid up and under the T-shirt to touch Zack's bare stomach. Before he could yank it back, Zack's own hand held it there and arched beautifully, and Angeal told himself - over the sound of blood pounding in his ears - that it was an innocent touch, that Zack's purity could make even this debauched frenzy somehow innocent. But his slip must have pushed Zack over the edge. He thrust a few more times, arching his body into the air, then came with a loud, garbled cry.

Angeal caught the boy as he slumped bonelessly, cradled Zack in his exhaustion as though he were still a child and it was only natural to rock him this way. Angeal's own erection was persistent, but he had enough control, it could wait. And he felt a strange relief anyway, like Zack's orgasm had satisfied him as well. The commander held his student as close as he could, humming low, wordless comfort into attractively tousled hair, and Zack reciprocated, snuggling weakly into the embrace. Now that it was over, and the full shame of it not yet set in, the afterglow fashioned an illusory happiness all around them. It began to fade, all too soon.

He came just from being held by me. Pup, could it be that you really love - Refusal to think about that merely brought up other unhelpful thoughts. Angeal's senses made the smell of semen strong to him, and he had to fight the urge to rip Zack's pants down and lick every drop, push slick fingers into him and fuck him in that painless way until more came out, again and again until Angeal had drunk his fill. But it wasn't just want he felt, it was tenderness too, love and respect that helped him to resist. Maybe the kenjin was right. Pup...if you told me again you're sure, if you demanded one more time that I give you an answer...in this moment, I think I'd say yes. I don't know if I should hope you do, or don't.

You pity me, Zack was meanwhile thinking. The realization made him shiver; Angeal interpreted it as a chill and draped his discarded sweater around the boy before holding him again. Hovering is one thing, Angeal, but this? To damage your infallible honor just to get me off...you're giving me what you can because you can't give me all of you. Can't, won't. Does it really matter, when the result is the same? You just want to help me, and by letting you I'm using you.

"I'm sorry, Angeal."

"You have nothing to be sorry for, I shouldn't have..." Angeal instinctively held on at first when Zack began to stand, but he wouldn't truly restrain him; enough villains had done that. "Puppy."

Dammit, Angeal, I'm trying to give you what you want, don't look at me like your heart's the one that's broken.

"I'm gonna go to bed early, so I'm rested for the mission. Come tuck me in, 'kay?"

"Of...of course."

"I think I should probably shower first," Zack murmured, heading for the bathroom.

Watching him go, the weight of Angeal's love and want and hatred of this distance between them crumbled a bit of the stubborn fear he clung to for reasons even he no longer knew. Not completely shattered it, but broke enough. I will tell him the truth. As soon as we get back from the mission.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 35 - You Are Cloven Apart

 

It turned out to be a perfect day for a hike, weather-wise. The blue sky overhead arched cheerfully above them, contrasting beautifully with green canopies of leaves and hanging moss. The forest had been used for so much training that it was nearly clean of monsters, so everyone was able to be fairly relaxed, chattering and laughing as they went. It was a small expedition; great numbers were not needed to escort the 'gift', which was a team of three ShinRa techs and some equipment. The techs were to use their gadgets to locate underground water sources in Gansaku and return later to dig new wells for the town.

Even the kenjin, when consulted, agreed that this would be greatly appreciated by the town. And, he said, it was meaningful as well, because water represented life to his people. New water, new beginnings; it would bode well for future friendship. Aside from this encouragement, though, the old man had been unusually quiet and subdued. He was walking at the front of the group, near Angeal and Zack, having declined the Wutaian soldiers' offer to carry him, so Zack found it easy to edge closer and speak to him.

"I'm just fine, son," the kenjin answered his concern. "A bit worried, perhaps. Even though your mission here has been kept secret, I expected we'd have some contact or sight of the Koibito by now."

Zack understood. The kenjin wanted to find them, after all, and the truth of what had become of Setanta. "Did you know any of them?"

A pause before answering. "I met a few in my travels. I hope you need not encounter them, Zack...though that is of course what the mission is about..."

"We beat them before. And I'm a good fighter."

"You'll rival Sephiroth one day, your sensei tells me."

"Angeal...said that?"

The wise man smiled, but tensely. "Their battle skills are not the only thing to fear. They are known to do unspeakable things to prisoners. And they have knowledge of the use of herbs, which they of course use for wickedness."

"But these are a newer version of the Koibito. Maybe they're different from the ones you knew," Zack suggested hopefully.

"True. Their past defeats may have made them more dangerous than ever."

"Well...maybe the people of this town will have information about them, which they'll share once they become our friends! Have you ever been to Gansaku?"

"No. When last I was in this area, the village had been abandoned since a sickness wiped it out fifty years ago." The kenjin nodded his approval. "Lord Godo must have ordered it re-settled. That's good. Land that has known the company of humans must feel lonely when its companions have fled."

"You say some odd things," Zack laughed.

"Hmm. You are liking Wutai, Zack?"

"It's awesome. I mean, uh, 'Sugee da'?"

"Very good. So, what will happen when you find your soul mate, if you choose to accept him?" The kenjin looked away from the boy's frown; he liked the young man and it was difficult to prod him when he wore that sweet pout. Even if the prodding was meant to help him. "Would you remain here with him? Request a transfer here from Midgar?"

"I couldn't do that. I don't want to be away from Angeal." Zack spoke softly. Not just because of his mentor; he didn't much want to be heard by the three other 2nds (including Declan), the techs or the six Wutaian soldiers either. "I guess the guy would have to follow me, but it doesn't matter. I don't want anyone but...anyone else."

"Commander Hewley might well be amenable to staying here himself, if you chose to."

"I couldn't let him. I couldn't take him away from Sephiroth and Genesis. Genesis is his best friend."

"Rhapsodos, yes, I've heard of him, and we had an amusing chat while I was a guest in ShinRa's prison," the kenjin chuckled. "He's rather well-liked here."

"Ha, yeah, he could probably even charm the Koibito. Well, I don't think he likes them, though. I heard they paid a little too much attention to Sephiroth."

"I can well imagine," the old man said darkly. "Their lack of honor is a disgrace to all my people."

"But I was told they used to be good. What happened?"

"A difficult question. For one, the Koibitonin no longer place as much value on spiritual matters as they once did. They have become entirely concerned with flesh and the pleasure of it, and such imbalance can lead one into great depravity. Also, I believe the tribe's practice of unquestioning devotion to the leader is a factor. The chief that I met died before their defeat, and if his son is the present leader...well, I hardly knew the man. But enough to be worried. Tatake was emotionally unstable...even his father had concerns about what kind of chief he'd make."

Zack looked concerned. "If you know them, isn't it dangerous you to be traveling with us? They might think you're a traitor or something."

"Don't worry, son. I told ShinRa nothing that could be used against Wutai."

"They don't know that!"

"They have ways. Including a powerful draught that forces one to truthfully reveal what one knows about any suggested subject."

"That's horrible." Zack looked forlorn. "I'd never forgive myself if something happened to you."

"It's all right." He patted the boy's head, having told him once that such gestures were a privilege of the elderly. "Kenjin are still respected in this land, even by Koibito. I doubt that's changed."

"Are you ever gonna tell me your name?"

"Hmm, perhaps as a congratulatory gift, when I see you happily settled with someone you love. But names are not that important. I've had so many I can scarcely keep them straight," he added merrily.

Zack chose not to focus on the pain caused by that light-hearted remark about love. "Angeal says it's a miracle I remember my own name. And the army guys here call me 'Zakkusu', so I have to remember that too."

"We are like the materia you gaikokujin are so fond of," the kenjin mused. "We may be shaped, polished, called by whatever name seems most appropriate. But nothing can alter the truth of what we are."

"Materia can be fused, though."

"Just as hearts may be joined."

The trees were thinning. The slightly overgrown path they were walking was more well-maintained the further they went, indicating more frequent use. Their destination must be close. Yes, the woods soon gave way to dirt and thin grass, scattered trees that were seemingly cultivated for their odd pink fruit, and plots of tended earth where Zack guessed vegetables were planted. Angeal can talk to them about gardening, that'll break the ice. A large cluster of simple wooden houses were in sight now, built right next to the rocky face of a tall cliff...maybe the caves he could see entrances to were used for storage, or a water source?

Angeal called halt; a lone figure had left one of the structures and was hurrying toward them. As he got nearer, Zack saw that it was a young man, probably around his own age, with dark hair lightened to almost brown by exposure to the sun. He wore simple clothes embroidered with beads, and looked a bit nervous as he bowed low and removed from his neck a strap which held a large clay jar. His face was friendly, though, and he seemed eager to greet them. Pleased he had been trusted with this duty.

"I bid you welcome to our humble town of Gansaku," he said politely. "As is our tradition, before you enter, I offer you the cup of greeting. To new acquaintances, may they be blessed by Leviathan."

The young man put the jar to his own lips first, probably to demonstrate its safety, before offering it to Angeal with another bow. The commander sniffed it, waited a moment, and took a drink.

"Ah, that would be zaicha, I believe," the wise man guessed. "A strong tea, reserved for auspicious occasions."

"It is." The young man bowed especially low this time. "You honor us with your presence, kenjin-sama."

At the urging of the messenger - he introduced himself as Moreru, an apprentice wood-worker - the jug of tea was passed around to the whole party. Zack thought it was quite good, sweet and cool and completely refreshing after a long march, even just one gulp of it. The technological engineers, typically stuffy science types, only took tiny sips as though suspicious of anything as illogical as sentiment and tradition. But the other SOLDIERs took large, well-mannered swallows, and the Wutaians were apparently familiar with the drink and happily finished the rest. Only the kenjin declined, saying blithely "At my age, even cough medicine is overly stimulating. I'd rather not make a spectacle of myself, but thank you kindly." Moreru nodded with wide eyes, while Zack stifled a giggle.

"If you will follow me, the chief is eager to meet you."

They had gone less than twenty steps before it began. One of the three ShinRa techs collapsed in what seemed a dead faint, then the second, and the third. Declan and Lt. Akio were closest to them and at their side at once, but brisk shaking and light slaps did nothing.

"Are they all right?" Angeal called as he approached.

"They're breathing," Dr. Oren called seconds later. "I don't see any bites or marks. Perhaps they had a bad reaction to - "

Here the first Wutaian soldier swayed and dropped to the mossy ground, with the others following. "You! What was in that tea?" Angeal said loudly, but Moreru had disappeared. No, not disappeared. He was running into the widest cave entrance, and several men were running past him, toward them. More shouted and closed in from the party's sides, and the SOLDIERs quickly drew their swords. Angeal barely had time to issue brief orders.

"Draw them away from the wounded! Circle defense maneuver! Oren, Kenjin, stay clear, and escape if you see a chance. Zack, stay close. For SOLDIER!"

An automatic shout of acknowledgment answered him in multiple voices. Usually Zack became excited whenever Angeal trusted him enough to fight and didn't order him to retreat or hide, but this was all so surreal that Zack's only emotion was confusion. Why were the villagers attacking? Because they were ShinRa? Why could only men be seen...were the women and children hiding? Were the Wutaians and the techs okay? Dr. Oren was staggering and on his knees, was he? Declan caught Zack's eye, and his worry and solemnity snapped Zack out of his disconnected trance. Angeal and the others were counting on him, he had to focus.

The enemies were nearly upon them. It all slowed down like a damaged piece of film for a few endless seconds. Then Angeal deflected the swing of a curved sword, and this first blow of steel on steel ended the slow motion, and everything sped up. These unknown assailants didn't have the advantage of mako, but they were fast and there were at least a dozen of them. Zack went into battle mode, fighting faster than he could analyze, only vaguely aware of killing one, but they were all around, and one was wearing Declan down. Zack ran toward him, feeling like he was running through quicksand, thinking only of his friend and not watching his back properly.

"Zack!"

Angeal's voice, Angeal worried, but it was too late. The next instant, Zack's sword flew out of his hand with a loud 'clang', and someone was gripping his hair and holding a blade to his throat. Zack tried to remember, in the time he had, what Angeal had told him to do in this kind of situation.

"Don't move."

Yeah, that was one of the things he was supposed to do. Everything had gone suddenly still. Declan was wide-eyed and holding up his empty hands. Angeal dropped the Buster. Zack almost yelled at him for giving up, or at least for being disrespectful to the sword. But all he could do was try to convey an apology with his eyes; Angeal's answered him with worry and a plea not to do anything stupid.

The man who had ahold of Zack barked something the boy didn't catch to the others. At swordpoint, they began to herd their captives toward the village. The kenjin ended up walking next to Zack, and with a dark expression he whispered "Koibito." Zack's heart sank.

azazaza

The prisoners were lined up and held there while the unconscious men were dragged into what seemed to be the Koibito's encampment. Angeal had managed to stand right next to Zack, but the boy couldn't see his expression, because at the first chance he'd had, Angeal had hissed an order to keep his face out of sight as long as he could. Why, Zack wasn't sure, but he was listening. He figured it was the least he could do since it was his mistake that got them into this.

"Are they all right?" Angeal asked clearly, nodding toward the techs and Wutaians.

"They've been drugged, they'll be fine," a Koibito with bleached blond hair said disinterestedly.

"I am - "

"Hewley, one of the Trinity. We know."

Crap, they know who Angeal is. Not good.

"You killed many of our brothers," a cold voice hissed. Zack guessed it belonged to the Koibito who had caught him.

"No one else here was involved in that conflict," Angeal said calmly. "Furthermore, I am the only one present for whom ShinRa will pay a sizeable ransom. If you release the others as a gesture of good faith, I will remain and cooperate. I give you my word."

"Good faith?" someone sneered. "Why would we show good faith to ShinRa?"

I'm surprised they speak Continental...

"Besides, we don't want ShinRa's blood-stained money."

"What do you want?"

"Fukushuu."

Revenge. Crap. There's too many, I can't do anything without risking the others.

"If you want to hurt ShinRa, you need only me to do that," Angeal continued. "Logically, one prisoner is easier to manage than many."

"Oh, we don't mind guests. But why didn't you bring the silver demon?"

"Yeah, you interrupted us the last time we were getting to know him."

"Shut up," Zack hissed quietly. Angeal stiffened.

"What was that, boy?"

"You're mistaken, I spoke," Angeal said quickly.

"Did you?" The voice was languorous and slow, belonging to a man who turned around to face them for the first time. He had longer hair than the others, dark and attractively messy, and his clothes were more elaborately embroidered and beaded. His face would have been handsome had his black eyes been warmer. He was very tall for a Wutaian, just about Angeal's height, and Zack was quietly intimidated as he approached. "And what did you say?"

"I said 'Shut up'. Sephiroth does not deserve to be spoken of that way."

"Where is your other friend? The kinder one."

"Genesis is in Midgar. If you ask ShinRa, they will confirm this."

"And they will have a clue something has happened to you. I think not."

"This will be found out."

The man who seemed to be the leader - the others stood in a sort of salute when he passed - laughed coldly. "Yes, but not yet. A message is being sent to the others that you are staying as our guests for a few days. Godo is sending a message to them as well, confirming ours."

"Godo?!"

"You're surprised that a coward and a traitor can be threatened into cooperating? There will be no peace, no more treaties. We will liberate Wutai from bondage and, once that is done, we will crush ShinRa. You all fought us bravely. You all have the option of joining us."

"If you release the others, I - "

"How you harp on about that, Hewley. Who are you so desperate to protect?" The leader walked by, then stopped. "I didn't expect to see you again, Setanta. Have you come to preach weakness again?"

Setanta?!

"Peace is not weakness, Tatake," the kenjin said sadly. "I hoped, once, that you would realize this. I had such hope for you."

"So much hope that you've joined with the enemy, old dog? Is it your doing, that our own Wutaian brethren have turned traitor?!"

The sound of the kenjin being struck and falling to the grass made Zack's blood boil. Shouting angrily, he broke away from the line and knelt down, covering the old man with his own body. He heard Angeal whisper "No!", but it was too late. Well, at least he was still keeping his face hidden.

"What the hell is wrong with you?! Is it honorable to attack someone weaker than you?!"

"Brave boy. Stand up."

"Zack, I'm all right," the kenjin insisted.

"Not until you promise not to hit him again!" Zack knew he sounded childish, but was too furious to care.

Laughter all around. "Fine, fine. Stand."

Zack got to his feet, with his head tilted downward just as before. He wanted to apologize to Angeal, or at least give him a smile, but Angeal had told him before that if this sort of thing happened, they should pretend to be nothing but 1st Class and subordinate. Absurdly, Zack wished this guy weren't so tall, he hated being towered over by anyone but Angeal.

"Why do you hide your face from me?"

Zack couldn't think of a response. Angeal's tension was distracting him. The Koibito leader - Tatake, the kenjin had called him - noticed it too; he glanced at the commander and snickered. Angeal, calm down.

"Your name is Zack?"

No use denying it now. He nodded.

"Look at me. Did Hewley tell you not to do anything that would draw my attention? Is this someone important, Hewley?"

"No. A 2nd Class."

"Young, though. And a good fighter. Is he yours, Hewley? Has the stoic commander adopted our ways?"

"No," Angeal hissed.

You don't have to be mean about it, Angeal.

"Look at me. Now."

An ungentle hand went beneath Zack's chin and forced it up, giving the boy his first clear look at this enemy. Handsome, yes, but such cold black eyes. Zack stared into them defiantly, and was puzzled to see the man's expression soften. With what, he wasn't sure. Pity? Interest? Realization? Was this how it was for Sephiroth, this uncertainty about which emotion he was seeing? Whatever it was, Tatake was looking at him strangely.

Finally, Zack was let go. Tatake waved one of his men over and spoke softly to him in Wutainese. Zack only caught a few words - "kenjin", "boy", "separate", "truth". The kenjin was seized and pulled after the leader's retreating figure, and Zack didn't get a chance to protest before someone was restraining his arms behind his back and leading him away. Angeal was protesting, Zack tried to turn and reassure him, but a blindfold was slipped over his eyes and the boy's words were lost in his panic.

azazaza

Tatake paced back and forth in front of the chair and the man tied to it. The kenjin would have thought it was an intimidation tactic, but he observed that Tatake seemed genuinely disturbed about something. Not knowing what he could say that would improve this situation, he repeated what he had been saying since before they made him drink the truth-potion, and several times since they'd begun to wait for its effect.

"I have not told ShinRa anything, and I know nothing of them that would be helpful to you. I cannot help you in your war, son, even if I wished to."

"I want to know about the boy. Zack."

"Zack? Why?"

"I can tell when you're concerned for someone, Setanta. You were, long ago, for me."

"I still am."

"Then tell me about him. What is he to Hewley?"

"A subordinate. A SOLDIER of lower rank."

"This will be easier if you don't lie," Tatake growled.

"Zack is a 2nd Class SOLDIER and a sweet boy. He's no threat to any of you."

"I saw him fight. Those skills must be why he's a 2nd Class so young. How old is he, sixteen?"

"Nearly seventeen..."

"Good, your tongue is beginning to loosen." The old man's pupils had enlarged and he was speaking as though he couldn't help it. "Now, this is very important. I need to know everything about that boy."

I'm sorry, Zack...

azazaza

Zack had no idea how much time had passed. He knew he was alone, except for a guard who wasn't too close by - Zack could faintly sense his breathing and heartbeat. As far as the boy could tell, he was in a thick, spacious tent, his hands behind him tightly secured to a pole of some sort, kneeling on a soft, thick floor. His eyes were still covered, and as Zack waited for something to happen, he had only his own thoughts and feelings for company.

For awhile, Zack sat ramrod-straight, determined to present the image of a professional SOLDIER, a captive who would not be easy to break. He tried to keep himself ready for anything, his mind clear. But worry for his mentor rose up like nausea. Was Angeal hurt? Was he being tortured? Could he be - No, I would know. I would know, somehow. But the uncertainty sapped Zack's defiance, and for awhile he slumped and bowed his head, missing Gongaga, Midgar, Genesis, Sephiroth, Kunsel, Varley. Angeal most of all, of course.

At least I got to tell him. I wish he'd believed me, but if I die here, at least I told him.

Noises, voices, approaching footsteps. Zack quickly straightened and put on his most serious, adult expression. Someone was close, kneeling down. A hand held his chin still, and Zack recognized the touch. He squirmed as something solid and wet was pressed to his mouth.

"It is only water. Drink."

After a brief hesitation, Zack decided that there were easier ways to hurt him than poison, and even if the liquid was drugged...well, the messenger's tea had been no match for mako. Zack obeyed, and the water was cold and clean. When he finished, the cup was withdrawn and a thumb wiped the remaining wetness from his lips. Zack jerked away from this, and there was soft, indulgent laughter as his blindfold was removed and he blinked against the sudden brightness.

"What do you want?"

"Hmm. Too bad. I hoped you would recognize me, as I recognized you."

"What?"

"Not my face, maybe. What about my touch?" He ran a hand slowly down Zack's cheek, frowning when the boy recoiled. "Going to tell me no again?"

"Wh-What?"

"You don't recognize your soul mate?"

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 36 - For The Weeping Face

 

"Wh-What? You're...you're not..."

"I suppose I can forgive you. After all, you've only seen my messenger. Or felt, rather, not seen. Do I feel the same?"

Zack lunged back, but the soft rope around his wrists greatly limited his movement, and he could only circle the firmly-buried pole he was bound to. Tatake merely had to follow, and did so, with an expression that Zack now recognized. The one he had seen on so many people, the reason Angeal worried so much.

"Get away from me!"

"Why are you afraid? I've been waiting for you all my life. Just as you've been waiting for me."

"NO! You're not, you can't be!"

"Is this about me being rough with you? Well, what else could I do? You told me no, and I couldn't accept that."

Zack pressed himself back against the pole as much as he could, gasping in panicked breaths and exhaling a sob when hands seized his face and caressed it. One slid up to grip his hair, the other down to hold his chin, and suddenly a mouth was against his, the slimy pressure of a tongue. Zack tried to keep his lips closed, and angrily bit down when he couldn't anymore. Tatake sat back with no change of expression, only a flash of his black eyes, and slapped Zack across the face. It stunned him more than anything else, and a moment later Tatake was gently stroking his reddened cheek.

"Do not make me angry. I'd rather not harm your pretty face."

"Don't touch me!"

"So you're refusing me? No one refuses their soul mate."

"You're not!"

"Then how do I know about the shoorei?" Zack went silent, and a triumphant smile leered at him. "Yes. As soon as I saw you, I knew. I only had, then, to make the kenjin confirm that you had a shoorei, and that made me completely certain."

"No, you - " Synapses fired in Zack's brain; the area that stores memory flashed and his eyes widened again. "Tatake."

"I can't wait to hear you moan it."

"But...I remember now, Genesis mentioned you! He said you...you lost your lover in battle."

The Koibito's jaw stiffened, and for a moment Zack thought he would be hit again. "I did. And now the gods have sent me you, as a reward for my devotion."

"But...you're supposed to serve the god of love - "

"I do. What we've done together..." Fingers wafted through Zack's hair. "...what we will do...what would you all that but love?"

"It's not you." The boy was nearly pleading now. "Please, it can't be."

"You should be happy. If you meant nothing to me, I would take what I want from you without concern for pain," Tatake said lowly. "I can be very cruel, but not to my lovers. I will not be to you. All you need do is behave, and I'll make you very happy."

"No!" Zack aimed a kick, but Tatake dodged it and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Even if it was you, no!"

"Maybe you don't care what I do to you. But what about the prisoners? I don't need them."

"Are they okay? Is A-Commander Hewley okay?"

"For now."

"P-Please - "

"I suppose he's a valuable hostage. But killing him would be a wonderful blow to ShinRa's morale, wouldn't it?"

"Please!" Zack had been trying to avoid contact with Tatake; now he edged closer and looked with pleading into the black-hole eyes. "Please don't."

"Setanta told me Hewley is your teacher. What a caring student you are." The voice was chilly, so cold that Zack shrank back from it. "I suppose I don't need to execute him...yet, at least."

The pressure crushing Zack's lungs and heart eased. "And the others? You won't hurt them either, will you?"

"The doctor, the kenjin and the SOLDIERs are under guard. The Wutaians chose an honorable death rather than join us," Tatake said darkly. "I had no use for your technology experts. None of my men wanted them either, so they were disposed of quickly."

Eyes open, frozen that way, Zack sank heavily down toward the ground as a soft keening sound escaped his closed lips. All those lives, gone from Gaia as if they hadn't all been unique and precious, and the Koibito leader spoke of their deaths as casually as he would have the weather. He noticed Zack's shock, however, and traced the boy's face and frown with his fingers.

"You really are young. Life is only a prelude to death, as a SOLDIER you should know that. You have killed, haven't you?"

"...Yes." And always felt hurt by it afterward, always cried alone or sought Angeal's closeness until the memory of the corpse faded. "But only when I had to, to protect someone!"

"Just as I am protecting my people."

"No! You're trying to start a war with us!" Zack pulled his head free, but undaunted, the Koibito merely shifted his exploring hands to the body. "Stop!"

"ShinRa began it. ShinRa invaded, Shinra reduced the land and the Lifestream to commodities to be sold and taken and profited from. They deny Wutai her soul, and that itself is murder. Our revenge will not be complete until every man, woman and child associated with ShinRa is dead and their blood soaks the land in repayment."

"The people of Midgar don't have any control over what ShinRa does." Absurdly, Zack was almost grateful for this horrifying conversation, since it distracted him from the hands roaming beneath his shirt. "Neither does SOLDIER, not even Sephiroth!"

"You were the one who defended the silver demon's honor earlier, weren't you?" Tatake asked this but obviously already knew the answer. "If you know his capabilities so well, you must know him. And a 2nd Class SOLDIER would usually not. You must be very close to Hewley."

"We've worked together a while. I know A-Commander Hewley's closest friends, but - stop!" Zack renewed his struggles, hating these not-Angeal hands probing every sensitive spot on his upper body. "Get your fucking - !"

A painful grip on his hair shut Zack up. "You are making me angry, koi. When I am angry, I want blood."

That was urgent enough to make the boy overlook being addressed with the Wutaian term for a speaker's lover. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

A pleased smile, which was even more frightening than anger on Tatake's face. "You can tell me 'no' all you like, koi..." He wrapped his arms around Zack, held him close possessively and almost carefully. "...but not until I'm inside you," the man whispered into his ear.

Tatake laughed slowly and quietly as Zack stiffened, then began to tremble. His hands moved over the young body in the soothing motions that had worked on the few others he had claimed for himself among the unwilling. The small, wiry frame of this one indicated that he was still growing, but he would not get much bigger, and he would never be tall. Zack would always be small enough for him to intimidate and dominate, as long as he was properly trained. The shape of him made Tatake recall another body, one that had quickly become willing. A stab of pain, a memory of cold flesh. Well, this feisty little one would help him forget.

Zack's fear dampened his rage until his uniform pants were abruptly shoved down and a hand went between his legs. "No!"

As he began to stroke, the Koibito leader called out "Katsura!" and the one who had captured Zack entered the tent and bowed. His view of Zack was mostly obstructed, but he watched with interest anyway as he acknowledged his lord in Wutainese.

Tatake answered in the same tongue, deliberately speaking slowly so Zack would understand. "Choose a prisoner. Bring him here, and something to catch his blood."

"No, please," Zack wept. He hid his face against Tatake's chest to avoid Katsura's smirking eyes, not realizing how much this pleased his assailant. "Please, I'll do anything."

"Never mind, Katsura."

"My lord."

When they were alone again, Tatake pat Zack's hair, then grasped his chin and lifted it. "When are you allowed to say no to me, koi?"

"O-Only when you're..." The words felt like vomit, Zack couldn't say any more.

"Inside you. Good. I'll be as patient with you as I can, pet, but if you want to keep your comrades alive, you must remember my rules." A rough hand descended upon Zack's lower back, and began to slowly move south.

"N-!" The boy managed to stop short of finishing the word. "Please," he said instead, trembling and feeling horribly young and afraid. It seemed a lifetime since he had stepped from a noisy club into a night-sky-covered alley, led by a killer who looked at him with the same hunger this man did. But that was different, he'd been protected then...

The unfamiliar hand continued for a few moments, cupping the sculpted softness of each cheek, tracing the middle opening with fingers that lightly explored but didn't actually enter. Zack whimpered in terror but wouldn't let himself say no, and once Tatake realized he wasn't going to, he kissed the top of the boy's head and returned his hand to its previous position.

"Not yet," he murmured. "Not yet. I think you need something else first."

Over the next few minutes, Tatake was patient and quiet as he fondled, and when Zack hardened he had no idea what had caused it - the touching, the fear or the aching need he felt to see Angeal, be held this way by Angeal. When the climax came, Zack burst into tears instead of moans, and squeezed his eyes shut rather than see who it was that cleaned him up and rocked him until the hysteria passed.

azazaza

"Commander, sir? Do you think he's okay?"

In spite of the numb, dead feeling prevailing in his heart and mind, Angeal forced himself to look to his left and nod. He had been expecting the question for hours, felt it building up in Lieutenant Hunter until the 2nd could hold it back no longer.

"Zack is strong. I know he's all right." I would know if he were gone. My heart still beats, therefore he still lives.

"He got caught because of me. I distracted him..."

"Zack gets distracted often enough on his own, he doesn't require anyone's help." Puppy, please be safe. "You are not at fault, Lieutenant. At times like this, guilt is a dangerous distraction. Do not fall prey to it."

"Yes, sir. Why do you think they separated Zack from us?"

Don't make me think about that, don't. "It's a common tactic. Splitting up prisoners, making them wonder and worry about each other, is a form of intimidation."

"At least he didn't have to see...it would've really hurt him."

Angeal said nothing. The executions had been done in their presence, with their hands tied and weapons pointed at them just the same as now. The Wutaians had stood in a straight line, unwavering as they faced their deaths, and Angeal had made and maintained eye contact with each one until they were gone, honoring their bravery and loyalty with his refusal to flinch.

He had tried to do the same for the ShinRa techs, but they were men of science, not war, and when the time came they begged for their lives, yelled, bribed, wept. Their deaths were messy and loud, and though the older SOLDIERs stoically withstood it, eighteen-year-old Declan had fallen to his knees and choked out a rope of vomit. The Koibito had taunted him for this. One had brought him water in what seemed a gesture of kindness, but Angeal recognized the look in the man's eyes. He had guarded Zack too long not to recognize it. Thereafter he ordered Declan to stay near him, and the young man had agreed, courageously shrugging off the threat.

"Sir, if I can do anything, risk anything to help Zack, I will."

"Keep yourself safe," Angeal murmured. "Zack is my responsibility."

"With all due respect, sir, you can't tell me not to care about him."

"I know," Angeal said, meaning he was aware of the younger's feelings.

"It's okay with you?"

"I am pleased Zack is so loved, by so many," the commander said. It came out flat, toneless, like a memorized line from a bad play. It would've offended Genesis's artistic ears.

"He doesn't feel the same. Um, he told me about his soul mate...thing."

"Really?"

"I guess it's for the best. Zack deserves someone perfect for him, someone who'll just show up and be it, everything he ever wanted, you know?"

"No." He's mine and I won't let him go, not unless he looks in my eyes and swears that he no longer wants me.

"Sir?"

"No more talking just now, Lieutenant. Observe and listen."

"Yes, sir."

azazaza

Lazard opened the door with an expression of relief, one he had never directed before at his so-called rival. "Thank you for coming."

"Thank you for being fully-clothed," Genesis said airily, and gracefully pushed his way into the apartment. "And thank you for not decorating this place all in purple. Where is he?"

Lazard pointed across the spacious main room. There, in front of the largest window, was Sephiroth, pacing back and forth so rapidly that his long silver hair was constantly whipping around him, would have become tangled if that were possible. The general's long fingers were curled into white fists, his face was glistening in the moonlight and set with a tight frown. Genesis almost staggered from the tension he was sensing, and would have run right to him if Lazard hadn't taken hold of his arm.

"How long?"

"Almost an hour. I can't get him to sit down, and he won't talk. Also, I know this will sound crazy, but - "

Sparing Lazard the need to explain, a lamp close to Sephiroth's path lifted off its table and into the air. The general glared at it as he might a subordinate, it meekly returned to its place, and Sephiroth continued his frustrated pacing. Lazard looked at Genesis with wide eyes, and found him hardly surprised.

"Hmm, I haven't seen Seph do that since we were teenagers. He once smacked Hojo in the face with a microscope." Genesis smirked gleefully. "Purely by accident, of course."

"This is normal?"

"Seph and 'normal' have never gotten along well. Baby," Genesis called, "I think you're scaring the director."

"I'm not scared!"

"Seph, come sit down. If I try to tackle in these pants they might rip."

No answer, no acknowledgment but a derisive "hmph".

"I didn't want to call Dr. Hojo," Lazard said softly, though he knew Sephiroth probably heard. "Should I have?"

"Not unless you want this place set on fire. Besides..." Genesis flipped his silky auburn hair back into place. "Hojo would just bring trank darts. Which are fun to play with, of course, but not good for getting to the root of a problem. General!"

As though without realizing it, Sephiroth instantly halted in his tracks. Genesis sauntered over to face him, laying his hands on the younger's shoulders. As they were the same height, he could easily gaze into the silver eyes and see the poison green clouding them.

"Seph, what is it? You're scaring me."

That seemed to deflate Sephiroth, of stubbornness if not of tension. His shoulders sank a few inches, and one of Genesis's hands moved to smoothe back the waterfall of hair.

"I feel something unpleasant."

"Physically?"

"No."

Genesis hadn't thought so. Aside from a few minor battle injuries, Sephiroth's health had always been perfect, never so much as a cavity.

"Worried?"

"Doesn't worry require reasons?"

"Nah. It's not about Angeal and Puppy, is it?"

Sephiroth's face remained neutral, but his thin silver eyebrows lifted slightly. "You...also?"

"I had a nightmare last night. I haven't had it since Angeal went missing that day, when the caves around the Northern Crater collapsed," Genesis said softly. That was years and years ago, and Angeal had returned with nothing but scratches and a little frostbite, but Genesis had been inconsolable until he saw his friend for himself. Lucky that Dr. Hollander wasn't as fond of tranquilizer darts as his colleague.

"The one you don't remember anything of, except - "

"Dark. Except dark and bad. Yes." Genesis, tactile as always, squeezed Sephiroth and inhaled a deep breath of him. Vanilla, today. "I tried to contact the encampment, but their servers wouldn't respond."

"So you tried Godo next."

"How did you know?"

"I did the same," Sephiroth said. "I'm waiting for his response."

"Me too. Let's wait together, okay?"

Lazard, a little sad but relieved to see Sephiroth calmer, was just wondering if he should excuse himself - even though it was his apartment - when Sephiroth gestured him to come closer. He seemed to regret doing so, however, when he found himself sandwiched between two bodies on the couch. One person at a time clinging was strange enough. Being touched from all around like this was...what?

"Stop analyzing, Seph," Genesis ordered, determinedly pulling the silver head to rest on his shoulder. "Just feel and relax, okay?"

The general made a noise of displeasure at that, but when Lazard lifted one of the pale hands to his lips, he found it limp and unresisting. He wanted to say something loving but careful, respectful but comforting, but what came out was "How can you sit while wearing your sword?"

The other two both laughed; it was easy to pick out Sephiroth's soft chuckle as the quieter of the two. "I don't understand it myself."

"It's magical," Genesis said in his sing-song voice. "It was the last and only remaining work of a wizard swordsmith who died when we were kids."

"Really? Magical?"

"Mmm-hmm. If anyone but Seph uses it they get an awful headache. It feels a lot like being Poisoned, actually."

"I told you not to touch Masamune," the general murmured, finding it comfortable to have his hands both held, by both of them. "It doesn't like anyone else."

"Bitchy sword," Genesis grumbled. "My sword loves you."

"I have never wielded - "

"I was talking about my cock."

"Oh."

"'Oh', he says."

Lazard laughed softly, resting his chin on Sephiroth's shoulder close enough to have his nose tickled by a few stray strands of hair. His feelings for Genesis usually wavered somewhere between respect and bitter envy, but seeing Sephiroth's ease in the other 1st's presence softened this into genuine liking. Much as Lazard wanted Sephiroth to be only his, maybe this really was best for the general. Gaia knew he deserved more adoration than most people, and not just for his angelic looks. The director caught his rival's gaze over the body between them, and smiled. Genesis grinned back, mischievously, before lightly tugging Sephiroth closer.

"I love you more."

"I can send you somewhere where manga porn is unavailable, Rhapsodos."

"Oh, but then who would deliver it to you, Director?"

"I can kill you both and blame it on mako psychosis," a smooth voice warned from between them. Sephiroth never needed to raise his voice to intimidate, but this time there was a hint of playfulness in it.

"Hey, I'm not the one who was about to call Dr. Asshole up here."

Before Lazard could defend himself, the comm panel beside his computer beeped in three identical tones. Sephiroth was at it before the others had finished sitting up, typing in a long passcode and laying his hand flat on the screen to confirm his identity. Lazard politely stood back as the Priority-1S message came up, but Genesis went forward and read it over the general's shoulder. He spoke first, though Sephiroth was the faster reader.

"The gift-delivering party is staying in Gansaku for a few days? That doesn't sound like Angeal. Interrupting his training program? Taking Puppy out of the safety of the camp that long? Hmm."

"We never had any contact with that village," Sephiroth murmured. "All our intel on it came from Godo."

"We have Godo intimidated - "

"Perhaps we are not the only ones."

Genesis's hand covered his mouth, and a single word came, muffled, through it. "Fuck."

"I'm going."

"Not without me you aren't."

"To Wutai?" Lazard blurted out. "Without permission? The president will be furious, he'll send every Turk after you - "

"Angeal and Puppy need us," Genesis insisted firmly. As though that explained everything, and it did.

Sephiroth looked at the wavering executive director silently. But I only just got you, Lazard thought sadly, and the silver angel regarded him with pity, like he had heard it.

"Go," Lazard found himself saying. "I'll take care of it. Just keep in contact."

"Transport Pad 3, Seph, fifteen minutes," Genesis called, and was gone from the apartment in a blur of red and black.

It was never certain afterward who had stepped forward first. Lazard and Sephiroth only knew that they were suddenly close together, arms around each other and open mouths connected. It was a passionate kiss, desperate not for the sake of danger but for the inevitability of being apart. The general stopped first, but allowed Lazard's hand and tongue a few more moments to create memories of him. One more kiss, and the legend was backing up to the door.

"Be careful." It was clearly an order, a lover's, not an executive's.

Though it was usually the last thing he'd do at such a serious time, Sephiroth smiled, holding the expression until he was out the door and gone. Reassured by it, dazzled by the beauty he was privileged to see every day, Lazard only felt his heart stretching thin to watch Sephiroth go, rather than being torn out. That would only come if Sephiroth didn't return to him, and Lazard refused to let that be an option.

azazaza

"I think," Reno said dreamily, "I might've missed a meeting."

"Just tell Tseng I needed you. For...guarding."

"Why not just tell him the truth, that you've been clinging to me like a squid?" Reno teased. It was true, he was wrapped stubbornly in the vice president's arms on the wide bed, beneath a tangle of light blankets.

"Why not indeed?"

"Because he makes that stressed face. I think I might be driving him to drink."

"If it loosens him up, it's all for the best." Rufus pressed his lips to Reno's, and for a minute the silence was broken only by happy sighs. "Has he ever taken a vacation?"

"I've never even seen him out of his suit."

"Speaking of vacations, I was thinking - "

The bedroom door flew off its hinges and clattered to the marble floor like a flimsy toy. Reno was too stunned even for his Turk reflexes to take over, so like Rufus he could only stare dumbly at the unlikely sight hurrying through the doorway. Some sort of prank, or maybe exotic dancers convincingly dressed as two famous SOLDIERs? No, no one but the real Genesis Rhapsodos could knock down a superior's door and smooth back his hair like it was nothing, and no one but the real Sephiroth was this beautiful and terrifying all at once.

For a moment, the two pairs just looked at one another. Rufus's mouth fell open but made only flustered, questioning sounds.

"Quite so," Genesis said, as if Rufus had made an intelligible statement. "Excuse us, V.P., we were just looking for...aha!"

Genesis reached the luxurious bed in a few graceful strides, plunged his arm under the covers and got Reno's arm on the first try. (The 1st seemed briefly disappointed by this.) With a few embarrassing squeaks of protest, the young Turk was hauled, not harshly, onto the heated floor.

"Calm down, you've got nothing I haven't seen a thousand times. Very nice, though."

"Hey!" Rufus shouted, overcoming his shock for indignant fury. "What are you doing?! I'll call - "

"What? More Turks? Army? Don't make me laugh. Sit there and be quiet, unless you want your daddy knowing about your fraternizing with Turks. Or is it just the one?" Genesis tossed Reno's clothes to him. "Here, I suppose it wouldn't be fair of us to make you fly like that."

"F-Fly?"

"We need a pilot, and you're supposed to be the best."

"But - "

"No buts, dear. Except for yours, in the cockpit. C'mon, before Junior over there explodes and tattles on us. I don't want to fight until my nails are completely dry."

"You can't just do whatever you want!" Rufus interrupted Genesis's light voice. "You need permission to leave, you're ShinRa's - "

No one saw him move, but in an instant Sephiroth was at the foot of the bed, glaring and making the vice president sink down into it.

"Never piss Seph off in a room that isn't fireproofed," Genesis said gaily. "Remember that, V.P."

"B-But, Reno - "

"We have no desire to interfere with true love. We'll bring him back in like-new condition." Now that Reno was dressed, Genesis lifted the boy off the floor and held him under one arm like a long package. "Once we've cleared ShinRa airspace, do tell Tseng I'm sorry for stealing one of his people on such short notice."

"Hey, what the fuck - " Reno protested, trying to wiggle out of Genesis's grip.

"A screamer, I knew it. Let's go, Seph."

Still nude, still flushed from recent exertion, the vice president of ShinRa Inc. sat on his bed gaping, mouth opening and closing like a fish's as his boyfriend was carried away by two-thirds of SOLDIER's famous Trinity. Sephiroth exited first; the other stopped at the empty doorway and turned, which gave Reno a chance to smile and say "Don't worry, Turks are used to this stuff. I'll be fine."

"Of course he will be," Genesis added impatiently. "Whose company is safer than ours? We'll have him back in no time, V.P. And by the way, your father has been staring at my ass for years. If he tells you off for fraternizing, knock him onto his wide, hypocritical ass."

The intruders were gone as quickly as they'd come. The comfortable bed would soon grow cold without Reno. Vice President Rufus Shinra sat there for a long time, imagining the revenge he would take if his lover wasn't safely back in his arms soon.

They must be going to Wutai. Hewley is in Wutai. Shaking off the remnants of his earlier shock, Rufus grabbed his phone and dialed first Rude, then Lazard.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

NOT WRATH OF GODS
Chapter 37 - Had I Reached You On Earth

 

Zack Fair floats between sleep and waking, not exactly dreaming, not quite thinking. Perhaps his soul, in the aftermath of so much hurt, had escaped its body for a merciful little while, and while drifting in the ether, it still could not escape the horror of recent events. Thinking of his captor made him flinch, the memory of hands stung. And thoughts of Angeal led him into a fetal position, like he wanted to be smaller in order to make the misery less. There was no reprieve; even happy memories ached, because happiness and safety were gone, maybe forever.

Night had fallen over the Koibito encampment, a lifetime ago. Tatake had stepped out for a short while and returned with a bowl of stew that would have smelled good to Zack in another time and place. Protests fell on deaf ears, and Tatake seemed to enjoy spoon-feeding his prize the entire bowl. Zack probably did need the nourishment, but he could feel the meat and vegetables sloshing around uneasily in his stomach, and needed no convincing to accept water, hoping it would wash away the taste. Hoping in vain that Tatake would stop touching once he had drunk.

"I can't present you to the tribe just yet," the Koibito had said cryptically. "I don't think you're quite ready. So it's just us for now."

Zack had then been given another rule - he was not permitted to speak in the presence of others unless Tatake gave him permission. Willful disobedience, as always, would lead to the death of the SOLDIER hostages. Zack nodded acceptance, the only thing he could do.

"When are you allowed to tell me 'no', koi? Do you remember?"

"Only when you're i-i-" Zack tried to sound bored, dismissive, but the word and the future threat it implied stuck in his throat. His voice came out like a kid's, which Zack hated.

"Say it, pet."

A thumb traced Zack's lips, and he spat the rest of the sentence out in anger at it. "I-Inside me, sir."

"You will call me Master for now. At least until you've been trained." The boy looked away as his eyes filled. Tatake brought his sad gaze back with gentle hands. "Do not hide your face from me. Your eyes will tell me all things you dare not speak, and I won't be denied the pleasure that will fill them. What's this, koi, tears? Speak."

"May I see Commander Hewley? Master? Just so he can know I'm okay?"

"In time." Tatake's voice indicated an annoyance at Angeal's name being mentioned.

But at least he didn't become violent. He called for warm water and soft cloths, and gently wiped Zack's face clean of tears. As he started to remove Zack's uniform, the boy remembered from his reading one of the old traditions of the Koibito. In the mornings, warriors bathed alone, preferably in a river, to renew their covenant with the land and Gaia and to wake themselves fully. At night, especially after battle, lovers washed each other. Behind Tatake's lust was a sadness that might have indicated he was struggling with something, but Zack had little time to wonder what. He dared not fight even though his hands had just been untied, but he whimpered, and whispered "Please."

"Quiet, koi." Tatake took hold of Zack's wrists with one hand and held them above the kneeling boy's head. "It won't hurt."

Slowly, sensually, the warm, wet cloth stroked Zack's body all over, making him shiver and his skin prickle with cold as the water on it dried. Zack shuddered as it moved in sweeping circles down his chest, and in reaction his nipples puffed and hardened with a nearly painful sensitivity. The boy was on alert, sure he'd be violated again, but Tatake was merely thorough, and perhaps teasing, though the body he bathed showed no signs of interest. The Koibito moved him when necessary in order to reach everywhere, and once finished, used a soft towel to dry him off.

In spite of himself, Zack felt relieved. It was over, and the warmth of being dry was pleasant...then sudden movement, the wet cloth was in Tatake's hand again, and he was reaching around and down. Zack emitted a quiet scream as fingers pressed the slightly rough fabric into him, tried to scramble away as more and more was forced inside and deeper. But Tatake's arm surrounded him like an iron bar, holding Zack to a broad chest and lips that murmured in his ear.

"Ssh, you'll like this."

He didn't, but it wasn't hard to see why someone might. The roughness of the wet cloth was rubbing against what felt like a lot of sensitive nerve endings, and it was practically wrapped around the most sensitive part, making it throb and pulse like a panicked heartbeat. It was completely inside him now, with buried fingers thrusting against the trembling inner walls. Zack heaved and gasped into his captor's chest, wordlessly, like someone pushed past the limits of their own sanity. Heat and confusion and a raw, vulnerable feeling was sweeping through him, and even when the fingers retracted, his every breath shifted the hidden cloth and stabbed a wave of pleasure through him.

Zack was made to lay back on the blankets and luxurious animal skins, trembling and trying not to move as his wrists were tied again to one of the tent's supports. Tatake then removed his own sparse clothing, picked up another cloth and washed himself in much the same way. Zack noticed the brand on his stomach, older than the ones he had seen photos of, pink and faded and certainly no longer painful. The Koibito noticed his observation, and smiled.

"I was the first to receive it. Fitting, as it had been my idea to adopt a new symbol. Don't be nervous, koi, I don't intend to give it to you. I couldn't harm that pretty skin of yours."

"I won't join. I won't help you," Zack said, not thinking or caring whether he was allowed to say such a thing.

Tatake shrugged. "If you don't want to fight for us, that's fine. A waste of talent, perhaps, but I won't have to worry about you being hurt."

Worry? Zack gave him a cold, disbelieving scowl.

"Yes, koi, worry. Why wouldn't I be concerned for my soul mate?"

"You're not - "

"That's getting tiresome, pet. In your heart, you know I am." Once dry, the Koibito knelt down and hovered over Zack, drinking in the boy's fear and unwilling arousal. "And I know you, thanks to the thread that attaches your spirit to mine. I know you're not just any 2nd Class and I know Hewley is more than your commanding officer."

Zack forgot how to breathe for a few seconds. How could he...he couldn't, couldn't know about Zack's embarrassing crush.

"I...I don't know what you're..."

"A soul mate knows, koi. And I'm not pleased." Tatake took hold of Zack's chin, much more gently than the boy expected. "If I thought he'd even once overcome his cowardice and taken you, I would feed his flesh to the carrion birds."

Fierce love of Angeal and terror of losing him combined to light Zack's blue eyes into a brief and blazing green. He kicked at the body above him and hissed "Leave him alone! Or I'll - "

His legs were sat on, effectively pinning them. "Or you'll what, koi? A competent teacher would have made you more respectful. I don't think we need the honorable commander anymore."

The change was instantaneous, shifting the dangerous SOLDIER back into a scared, near-to-tears boy. "N-Please, I'm sorry - "

"Sorry what?"

"I'm sorry, Master. Please...just ransom him back to ShinRa, they'll give you anything and I promise I'll - "

"Be good, koi? That's all I want." The Wutaian bent over him again. "Lift your legs, put them around me."

Zack obeyed, trying not to hesitate, but feeling like he was trying to move through water. Tatake helped him, adjusting so that Zack's full-body smoothness was tightly against his own tanned skin, and a triumphantly smiling mouth lowered to meet Zack's. The boy didn't dare resist, but reciprocated with an unhappy awkwardness that Tatake could and did pretend was inexperience. When the kiss broke, the face remained close, its nose nuzzling Zack's and a palm pressing against the boy's backside. Zack quietly heaved in response to the increased stimulation inside. It was too much, like everything happening was too much, and it was with only relief that he exhaled when the wet cloth was withdrawn and the uncomfortable pleasure stopped. But...was Tatake then about to...?

"Not yet," the Koibito murmured into Zack's ear, and it jolted him that Tatake had known what he was thinking. His hands traveled leisurely over the body beneath him, unhesitatingly, as though he believed it to be unquestioningly his to explore. "Not here and now, not so informally. You mean more than that, koi."

Confusion and relief battled in Zack, until the voice added "Tomorrow night, perhaps", and he went cold with fear. Tatake felt the chill, and drew a thick blanket over them, settling beside Zack and pulling him close, drawing the spiky head to his chest. The position that Zack had only ever allowed with Angeal. Before he could think or stop himself, the 2nd cried out and struggled. A stern glare and iron arms halted his movement immediately.

"You are tired," the voice said, and true, he was. "Sleep. Unless you'd rather play?"

"N-Sorry...Master. I'll sleep." Every word he had to speak in feigned politeness to this monster tasted worse than anything Hollander had ever made him drink.

"Good. Behave, and I will let you see Hewley tomorrow."

"Really? I will, I promise..."

"I know. You will learn to obey me completely, koi, and to be happy with me. I will be patient. Look at me." Tatake stared through the dimness into his captive's eyes, marveling at their coloring and purity with a placid expression. "Listen carefully, pet. If you are good, Hewley will be treated well. If you are very bad..."

Tatake's every subtle movement was made very deliberately. He brushed fallen spikes out of Zack's face with a few gentle sweeps, let his hand descend to cup and stroke a warm cheek. He placed a brief but claiming kiss on parted lips before edging back and holding Zack's gaze to finish his threat.

"...then I will take you on top of his cold body."

If anything could possibly make such an utterance worse, the calm, unchanged expression and unblinking stare did it. It was almost a mercy that Zack's vision immediately blurred the sight of it away, tears that flooded and fell faster than he thought possible and a choking feeling that it was hard to breathe through. He sobbed into the neck his face was pressed to and lay like a broken doll in the arms that held and soothed him. Sleep eventually came not because he was exhausted but because he wanted so badly to escape this. And when the sun rose the next morning, Zack awoke in a panic, mistaking the calling of birds for panicked screams.

azazaza

The other captives were treated better than they had expected to be, fed and herded into a large, hastily-made tent for the night, where Koibito took turns watching them, armed and alert to every noise. Angeal couldn't risk speaking aloud to his second-in-command, but he caught Lt. Akio's eyes and indicated Lt. Hunter with a grave expression. Akio understood, and he and Angeal slept on either side of Declan, slumbering only lightly in order to keep an eye on him. Angeal only caught a brief, exhaustion-induced nap anyway. His arms ached from their emptiness, and his heart with fear for Zack. He knew Tatake would not have taken the boy out of their sight to kill him. He could only pray the Koibito somehow knew Zack's value to ShinRa and planned to ransom him...but that was a slim chance. Angeal had had Zack with him long enough to know how cruel men reacted to him.

Shortly after sunrise, the prisoners were fed again, and a little later marched to a river close to the encampment and allowed to wash themselves. "Keep your clothes on," Angeal whispered to Declan. "It's sunny enough, they'll dry quickly."

Where Zack would have questioned him with charming obliviousness, Declan pressed his lips together tensely and nodded. The Koibito who had been watching him - Yasude, they'd heard him called - was one of the guards who had accompanied them, and his staring and smile made it clear why. The rest of the prisoners were large and too much for a single Koibito to assault, but Yasude was no lightweight himself, and Declan, though bigger than Zack, was the easiest target available. No point encouraging something that they probably wouldn't be able to stop, if it happened...

Back at the encampment, they were made to sit where they had been the previous day, in a row on the grass with swords pointed at them in warning.