“If I set Rufus’ hair on fire, do you think I’ll be excused from having to stay for the rest of the night?”
Angeal side-eyed Genesis from where they both stood near the wall of the large ball room. “I believe the Turks would have something to say to you about such an attempt. With bullets, I believe.”
“As if I could not easily outpace anything they try against me.”
Angeal turned his head at the sulkiness in Genesis’ tone and confirmed that yes, the man was indeed pouting.
“You may find it more profitable to go after Scarlet’s hair instead.” Sephiroth cut in as he walked up to them, champagne flute in hand. “I believe she has more flammable products in her hair, and the worst she would do is sick her latest robot on you.”
Genesis hmmed consideringly.
“I thought you weren’t one for champagne, Sephiroth,” Angeal said in a desperate bid to change the subject before the two of them could get into their usual competitive spirit and seriously strategize who at the annual Shinra yule party would be the best candidate for third degree burns to the scalp. They didn’t need a repeat of last year, or the year before that, or the one before that.
“Hm? A young trooper happened to go by with them on a tray.” Sephiroth said far too casually as he glanced over at something across the gaudily decorated room.
“They’re still collaring the troopers into being the wait staff at these functions? I would have thought they had learned their lesson after that bumbling klutz almost took out Heidegger’s eye with the cocktail shrimps last year.” Genesis shook his head in mock despair. “Well, perhaps we shall actually have some entertainment this year.”
Sephiroth hummed absently in agreement, eyes still trained on something far across the room as he sipped too quickly at his champagne.
Angeal tsked at him. “If you drink that too fast, the bubbles will go up your nose.”
“Yes, Sephiroth.” Genesis wagged his finger mockingly. “Remember what happened to the puppy at the inaugural ceremony for that new airship last month. What was it called?”
“The ‘Highwind’, I believe.” Angeal said absently. “Where is Zack, anyway? He promised he would be on time for once.”
“I kept telling you to get him a wristwatch for his yule gift.” Genesis said.
“I didn’t bother because I knew he wouldn’t have worn it.” Angeal replied.
“It’s probably for the best.” Genesis said. “He’s not very careful around technology. How many times has he had to request a replacement PHS from the tech department?”
“I believe I have found your protege, Angeal.” Sephiroth interrupted.
Angeal swung his head around to look in the direction Sephiroth was pointing. Zack was indeed in attendance, but was obviously distracted by one of the troopers going around the room serving the drinks on a tray, as he had a flute of champagne in each hand and was gesturing wildly with one as he chatted with the server.
“Do you think he knows that trooper? I’ll have to get him to introduce me.” Genesis said as he eyed the trooper up and down.
Apparently Sephiroth agreed, if the way he was staring was any indication. The young man currently holding Zack’s attention certainly cleaned up well in the black pants, crisp white dress shirt, black bow-tie, and black waistcoat that all the other troopers were outfitted in for the party.
“I’m afraid introductions will have to wait, gentlemen. The President is about to make his speech and wishes for you to be on stage with him.” Tseng said in a low voice as he slid up behind them.
Genesis scowled as the three of them followed the Turk behind the stage.
* * *
“I’m serious, this stuff is so much better than the crap they served last year!” Zack exclaimed as he swung the glasses in both his hands around haphazardly, almost hitting a passerby in the ear.
“Well I don’t really drink champagne, so I wouldn’t know.” Cloud said as he handed over yet another flute of champagne to one of the guests, not noticing how the guest’s fingers tried to linger on his own as he pulled back his hand. At this rate he would have to go back to the kitchen for yet another round of drinks, and the party hadn’t even gotten into full swing yet. “Does everyone always drink so much at these parties?”
“Eh, the drinks are pretty much the only things going for these things.” A slim redheaded young man said as he picked up the last glass from the tray Cloud held outstretched before him. “Well, except for the cute servers.” He winked audaciously.
Cloud rolled his eyes, Reno had jokingly flirted with him since the day they met. It was as natural to the guy as breathing, so Cloud never took it seriously.
“Reno! I thought Tseng stuck you on babysitting duty in Junon.” Zack greeted the other man happily.
“The ‘baby’ decided he didn’t want to miss the party for some reason, so here I am.” Reno snorted as he glanced over to where Rufus was chatting up a buxom young lady in a revealing cocktail dress.
“I feel your pain, man.” Zack said. “Hey, Cloud, where ya going?”
“Refills.” Cloud said shortly as he made his way through the crowds to the swinging kitchen doors.
“Does he seriously think people are coming up to him for the champagne?” Reno asked as he eyed Cloud’s backside in those well-fitting black slacks.
Reno shook his head sadly.
* * *
Cloud wondered how this was even his life. First he fails the Soldier exam and had to join the regular army, then he finds out that every year the rookies get frog-marched into waiting on the executives and other mucky-mucks at the annual company yule party. Worse yet, it was all ‘volunteer’, so he wasn’t even getting paid for putting up with this crap. If he was a lesser man, he’d be tempted to spit into the drinks.
“Hey, blondie. C'mere and siddown, take a load off.” A portly middle-aged man in an expensive suit slurred as he patted his lap.
“Excuse me?” Cloud gaped.
“You heard me. C'mere, your feet must be sore, 'cause you’ve been running around my mind all night.” The man tried to wave Cloud over sloppily.
“It’s only six-thirty.” Cloud glared. “And I have work to do.”
Not taking a hint from Cloud’s frosty tone, the man grabbed Cloud’s elbow. “C'mon, don’t be like that, baby.”
“What the hell did you just call me!?”
“There you are, darling! I wondered where you disappeared to!” Warm hands grasped Cloud’s shoulders and pulled him backwards into a solid chest.
Turning his head in surprise, Cloud gaped up at the newcomer, Genesis Rhapsodos. Soldier First Class, theatre-lover extraordinaire, and famous for breaking as many hearts as he does heads when he’s in a temper. Which, admittedly, has been less often lately. If Cloud believed the gossip mill, it was because he was in a relationship with some mystery lover that no one knew the identity of. Personally, Cloud’s money was either Angeal or Sephiroth, Genesis’ fellow First Class Soldiers.
Genesis shushed Cloud with a finger to the shorter man’s lips. “Yes, me. I’m sorry for taking so long to get back, but it is absolutely mad how crowded it is in here. I lost you in the masses until I was up on stage and had a higher vantage point. I hope you aren’t too angry with me for leaving you alone for so long.”
“I, ah,” Cloud glanced down at the drunkard’s persistent grip on his elbow, and the mental lightbulb clicked on. “No, no, I forgive you, uh, honey. I just had to duck into the kitchen for more drinks to serve, everyone’s thirsty tonight.”
“Not for champagne, anyway.” Cloud heard Genesis mutter under his breath, but couldn’t make sense of it. What else would people get thirsty for if not something to drink?
Genesis pinned the unlucky drunk with a cold glare. “In the spirit of the season, I feel I must tell you that if you do not relieve my companion of your sweaty grip, I will have to insist on relieving you of your fingers.”
“Wha? Wassit to you? Cutie here and me were have a conversashun.” The poor man must have been solidly drunk indeed to not recognize one of the most famous Soldiers in the company.
“And now you are finished.” Genesis growled low in his throat. Cloud gulped quietly as he could feel the vibrations from the growl reverberate in his chest, pulled back as closely as he was against Genesis.
Reno popped up and saved the confrontation from reaching a messy conclusion. “Yo man, that guy over there is serving scotch imported from Bone Village. Ya gotta come try it!” Wrapping an arm around the drunkard’s shoulders and winking at Cloud, Reno lead the drunk man away towards the buffet spread.
Cloud smiled gratefully at the redheaded Turk as he disappeared into the crowd with his drunken cargo. Looking up at Genesis, he sighed and said, “I had it under control, but thanks for the rescue anyway.”
Genesis gently spun Cloud around by his shoulders, looking at him up and down from up close. Hmm, those pants were very well-fitting. He would have to thank whoever dug them up for the blond trooper. “You cetainly did, but somehow I don’t think the Human Resources manager would appreciate being brained with a tray full of champagne glasses.”
Cloud’s eyes bugged out. “That was the HR manager?”
“Shit, I’m toast. I’m finished. I’ll never work in Midgar again.” Cloud paled as he mentally listed off any jobs he’d still be eligible for after he got kicked out of Shinra. Nothing up plate would be viable, he’d have to move to the slums. Oh, man, he’s heard stories from the barracks about what happens to people down there…
“Don’t waste a thought on it, dear. That man was so drunk he won’t remember a thing that happened tonight, I guarantee it.” Genesis consoled the distraught trooper.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because unfortunately, that man has a habit of doing this every year.” A low voice behind Genesis broke into their conversation. “And every year he never remembers what happened when he wakes up the next day.”
“Angeal!” Genesis turned to the other man in delight. “Look who I have just met.”
“Cloud, it’s nice to see you again,” Angeal nodded at the trooper in greeting. Sephiroth quietly followed behind Angeal.
“It’s good to see you too, Angeal.” Cloud said. “Er, I hope you’re having a good evening, sir.” He said to Sephiroth, who quietly nodded in assent as he sipped at the dregs of his champagne glass.
Genesis gaped at Angeal and Cloud. Spinning towards Angeal, he said, “Do you mean to tell me you two have already met? Angeal, why did you not say anything when we were talking earlier?”
“You didn’t ask me.” Angeal said glibly.
Genesis sighed in defeat, knowing that he would never beat Angeal in an argument when he was in this type of mood. “Well, now that I have done my good deed for the month, I believe it’s time to depart from this company of boors. Is our exit strategy in place?”
“Reno is handling it as we speak. I believe he found an appropriate scapegoat in that man he was steering around a moment ago.” Sephiroth said as he picked up another glass of champagne from the tray that Cloud managed to keep steady during the whole ordeal, placing his empty glass back on the tray.
Angeal glanced around. “Looks like Kunsel and Zack are in their positions as well. We should get closer to the kitchen doors for our getaway.”
“Care to join us, Cloud?” Genesis invited. “These lunkards are so soused they wouldn’t notice a the absence of a single server.”
Cloud hesitated, momentarily torn between staying and completing his (crappy) job or spending time with the three most admired people in the entire country. “You have reservations someplace? Is it okay for me to tag along?” He asked curiously.
“It’s nothing special. Every year we sneak out from the company yule party as early as we can get away with and have a nice dinner somewhere a little more private than, well, this.” Angeal explained as he gestured at the room.
“This year we’ve elected to go for chocobo wings and beer at a small pub Zack recently discovered. The food is quite good.” Sephiroth said.
Cloud frowned uncertainly. “Are you sure I won’t just be in the way?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Cloud. A friend of Zack’s is a friend of ours.” Angeal assured him. “And he’ll be meeting up with us at the pub later once he’s finished causing the distraction with Reno and Kunsel.”
Cloud smiled at them tentatively. “Well, alright then.” Looking around, Cloud swiftly handed the entire tray of champagne to a bald man in a dark blue suit that happened to be passing by at that moment. “Here, you look like you need these to get through tonight. Enjoy!”
Cloud couldn’t tell the man’s expression too well behind those dark sunglasses, but it seemed he was all too happy to accept the free drinks, if a little bewildered.
Turning to the other three, Cloud loosened the annoying bow-tie and stuffed it into his pocket. Running his finger around the collar of his shirt, he smiled and said, “Shall we go then?”
The three smiled back at him in return.
“I was right, this year is most certainly entertaining.” Genesis purred.