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“Yuffie! It’s so cute!”

Cloud paused at the door, surprised to see Tifa, Marlene and Yuffie crouched around the bar laughing and cooing at a cage on the bar.

“He’s all yours, kiddo.” Yuffie said, grinning, “Happy birthday!”

Marlene looked up, spotting Cloud by the door and waved him in, “Look at what Yuffie got me for my birthday, Cloud!”

The bird in the cage was white with a yellow crest and little red spots on either side of its head. As Cloud approached the bar, the bird launched into a trill of familiar whistles. Cloud’s eyebrows arched up, surprised, “Is that..?”

“The song from the chocobo races at the Gold Saucer?” Yuffie laughed as the bird bounced around the cage whistling, “Totally. That’s why I bought it in the first place. I’m more of a cat person myself, but this bird is smart. A perfect present for Marlene.”

“You sure you’re up for the responsibility, Marlene?” Tifa asked, “You’ll have to feed it every day and make sure the cage is clean…”

Marlene nodded, “I promise, Tifa. I’m going to call him Choco, like your yellow chocobo!”

“She’s a responsible kid. It’ll be good for her.” Yuffie clapped Marlene on the shoulder, “Well, I’ve got to run. Reeve gave me a couple days off, so I’m going back to Wutai for a bit. You have any issues, give me a call!”

Tifa gave Yuffie a hug, “Be safe.”

“Always.” Yuffie agreed. She scooped Marlene up in a hug next, “See ya later, Marlene.”

Marlene laughed, “Thanks again, Yuffie. I love him! He’s so cute!”

“You’re welcome, kiddo.”

Cloud had long since learned that it was easier to let Yuffie hug him goodbye than it was to try and stop her. He suffered significantly less full body tackle hugs than he used to. He opened up his arms and let the petite ninja embrace him, “Hopefully you don’t have too much trouble with your father.”

“Nah. He’s really started to mellow in his old age.” Yuffie snickered and headed for the door, “See you when I get back Tifa, Marlene, Cloud!”

As the door shut behind her, Marlene’s new pet burst into the chocobo song again. Cloud really hoped that it knew some other tunes, or that sound would get old quickly.

Thankfully, the bird hardly sang at all. Cloud had heard it tell Tifa she was a pretty lady and ask Marlene and Denzel for crackers, but the chocobo tune seemed to be for special occasions. That suited Cloud just fine until several days later.

“Hey, Cloud-“

Cloud held up a finger as he tried to finish adding a column of sums in his log. He could hear Marlene’s delighted giggle as Choco whistled the chocobo song. A couple having lunch in the bar laughed and clapped at the trick.

When he was finished, he set his pencil aside and gave Tifa an apologetic look, “You needed something?”

“Sorry Cloud,I didn’t realize you were working.” Tifa murmured, “It’s no big deal.”

Cloud frowned as Choco started to sing again. He never usually did that twice in a row. He shook his head to dismiss the thought and looked back at Tifa, “It’s nothing that can’t wait. I think Red overpaid me again. He always tries and I usually catch him before I leave. I want to know how much to give him back when I see him next.”

“You know he’s not going to take it.” Tifa said, laughing, “He’s as stubborn as you are, Cloud.”

There it was again, the bird was whistling away to both the customers’ and Marlene’s delight. Cloud frowned and climbed to his feet, heading for Choco’s cage. Marlene and Denzel stopped washing dishes and watched him as he leaned in close to the metal bars, “What are you doing, Cloud?”

Sure enough, the bird started to whistle again. Cloud waited until it stopped and then said his own name. Choco started back up again.

“I’m going to kill Yuffie.” He muttered, fingers already dialing Yuffie’s number. He turned the speaker on while it started ringing. Tifa and Denzel shared a look of confusion over Cloud’s head.

“You got Yuf-”

“You trained Marlene’s pet to whistle the chocobo song whenever someone says my name.” Cloud said without letting Yuffie finish speaking.

She was silent for a moment and then said, “Yeah, I did. Told you he was a smart bird.”

That surprised a laugh out of Tifa. She immediately covered her mouth to try and stifle it. Denzel was watching Cloud, wide-eyed. Marlene was staring down at the bird in fascination. Choco cocked his head to the side as she nearly pressed her nose to the bars, “Um… Cloud.”

Sure enough, Choco immediately burst into song. Cloud could feel his eye twitch as Yuffie joined Tifa in helpless laughter.

“Best… two-hundred… gil I’ve ever spent!” Yuffie gasped out between bouts of laughter, “It took me three months to teach it that! I had to listen to the chocobo song on repeat so many times! It was worth every second.”

Tifa excused herself to the back room. Cloud could hear her immediately start laughing again. He wanted to be angry at Yuffie, but he could not help but be impressed. Not that he was going to admit that to her, “There are days when I wish I would have left you in the woods outside of Junon.”

“Nah. You bunch of serious, sad sacks need me for fun.” Yuffie’s tinny voice protested over the phone’s speaker, “The plus side is that he’ll probably pick up other songs if Tifa leaves the radio on in the bar and you have a neat bar trick now. Win a couple of free drinks off of people!”

Cloud let out a small chuckle, “You’re lucky you’re in Wutai.”

“Why do you think I came here in the first place?” Yuffie asked. Cloud could hear the grin in her voice, “I’m not stupid. By the way… Barret hasn’t been by yet, has he?”

Cloud turned to look back at the bird suspiciously, “No… why?”

In some of the worst timing that Cloud had ever seen, the door to Seventh’s Heaven crashed open to reveal Barret with an armful of boxes in brightly wrapped paper. Marlene rushed towards him, “Daddy!”

“Barret, you look like a bear wearing a marshmallow!”

The bar was silent for a moment before Tifa lost herself to another round of laughing in the back room. The customers, all but forgotten in their booth, started laughing as well. Even Denzel could no longer help himself.

Barret stared at the bird in bewilderment, “The hell did that bird just say to me?”

Even Cloud could not help the smile on his face. He could hear Yuffie gasping on the phone, too far gone for words. Marlene grinned and led Barret to be introduced to her new pet.

Chapter Text

When they both arrived in front of Angeal’s office door, each coming down the hall from the opposite directions, Zack and Genesis could not help but laugh at each other. It was at least twenty minutes too early to abandon work for the day. Neither of them felt terribly guilty about skipping out before they were scheduled. Cloud had finally returned from a three week mission of patrolling the snowy hills around Icicle Inn and they were dying to see him.

Joining their relationship and getting to know the men that he had once idolized had rekindled Cloud’s dream of being a Soldier. None of them wanted to jeopardize his chances with charges of favoritism, so they tried to keep their relationship quiet until they were away from prying eyes. Of course, that meant that only Zack had been able to call him and the two conversations had been bland and polite because of Cloud’s lack of privacy. Genesis had been able to listen to one of them, but Sephiroth and Angeal had not spoken to Cloud at all. They were all glad that he was home at last.

Traditionally, they all tried to take leave on the day that one of them returned from a long mission, spending the day together catching up before a dinner of the returning boyfriend’s choice. Sometimes they were luckier than others. This was not one of those times. Urgent matters and questions piled up rapidly the day before Cloud was due back until only Sephiroth could follow through with his planned time off. The ass had given them all a smug grin and promised to make sure that Cloud felt welcome until they arrived.

Zack threw open Angeal’s office door and he and Genesis dragged the man from his chair. He only gave a half-hearted protest about being responsible before falling into step between them. He had missed Cloud terribly and there was nothing that would not keep until morning.

They paused outside of Sephiroth’s apartment, surprised to hear the quiet instrumental clip of the intro menu for one of Cloud’s favorite movies. The blonde had watched it so many times that they knew the sound by heart. It seemed to be playing on loop over and over.

Angeal opened the door slowly, unsure of what they would find. They were all surprised by the sight that greeted them. Sephiroth and Cloud must have been watching the movie at one point. Cloud had tucked his legs under him so he could sit close to where Sephiroth rested against the arm couch. One of Cloud’s arms was curled around the bend of Sephiroth’s elbow and the other rested on top of Sephiroth’s clenched hand.

At some point he must have fallen asleep, his head nestled into Sephiroth’s shoulder. Sephiroth sat rigidly, his shoulders and torso stiff. His breath was careful, chest barely moving with each inhale and exhale. The others winced, moving into the apartment to free Sephiroth. He had never been fond of snuggling up to his other boyfriends unless he was tired out first. The few times that Genesis or Zack had tried it, Sephiroth had been obviously uncomfortable so they left him alone. He usually sat apart during movie nights, content to occasionally hold someone’s hand or run his fingers through their hair. He never sought out cuddles from any of them and none of them had ever fallen asleep on him before.

Sephiroth’s head moved gradually when he heard the heavy footsteps of his boyfriends. Instead of looking uneasy, his lips were turned up in a tiny contented smile. His face was utterly relaxed, at odds with his tense posture.

Zack realized it first. Sephiroth was holding as still as he could so as not to disturb Cloud’s rest. He could not help but let out a charmed, “Aww…”

It was a quiet sound, but enough to jar Cloud from his sleep. He inhaled sharply, blinking to bring his vision into focus. He eased himself away from Sephiroth with a sleepy smile, “Sorry, Seph. I didn’t mean to…”

Cloud turned his head to follow Sephiroth’s glare. He jumped when he saw Zack, Angeal and Genesis watching them with fond, amused smiles. He turned back to Sephiroth a little panicked, “How long was I asleep? Seph, your poor shoulder… you should have woke me up!”

“I did not mind.” Sephiroth murmured, stretching his arms over his head, “You were tired.”

“It’s just as well.” Genesis said, coming to stand behind the couch where he could lean down to kiss Cloud hello, “Now you are well rested and we’ll be able to spend the evening catching up. I missed you.”

Cloud chuckled and leaned into Genesis’s kiss. Zack and Angeal came over to greet him as well, letting Sephiroth get up and turn off the movie at last. He went into the kitchen to dig out the various delivery menus they had acquired over the years so Cloud could choose dinner.

He heard Genesis and Angeal follow him into the kitchen as Cloud and Zack moved deeper into the apartment so Cloud could get cleaned up after his nap. Angeal grabbed a beer from the fridge, taking a seat at the table.

Genesis leaned against the counter, studying Sephiroth as he dug through a drawer in the kitchen for the menus, “You hate cuddling. You never let any of us snuggle up to you on the couch.

Sephiroth glanced up sidelong at Genesis, “Are you jealous?”

“A little, yeah.” Genesis admitted, “Why did you let him get away with it when we can’t?”

“No one ever said you couldn’t. You just don’t care for how restless I get… we were watching the movie and then he fell asleep.” Sephiroth shrugged and brought the menus to the table for Cloud to look through, “He was exhausted, so I left him.”

“He’s such a light sleeper, too.” Angeal chuckled, “No wonder you were being so still. If he had woken up, he would have been too stubborn to go back to sleep. So how long did you sit there?”

“An hour.” Sephiroth replied, “Perhaps two. It was… worth it.”

When Angeal and Genesis both fixed him with questioning looks, Sephiroth sighed and said, “I realized today how much he trusts me. I could kill him without effort and yet he feels safe enough to fall asleep in my arms. There are very few who could claim that and he is the only one of you who would have no chance to protect himself should I try to do him harm. Today, I wished to enjoy that trust.”

“That might be the saddest, sweetest thing I have ever heard.” Genesis said, crossing the space between them for a kiss.

Genesis could feel the smirk on Sephiroth’s lips as he began trailing kisses along his jawline toward his ear, “Besides, I do not believe I neglect any of you. I prefer our usual dynamic…”

Sephiroth’s teeth nipped at Genesis’s ear, a move that always made the man’s toes curl. He hummed his approval until Sephiroth began to draw away again, “Of course, if you would prefer cuddling on the couch-“

“You can be a real bastard sometimes.” Genesis muttered, wrapping his hands around Sephiroth’s hips to draw him close again, “I suppose I could understand your view. Cloud does inspire a certain softness in a person.”

Angeal snorted as he set his beer bottle back on the table, “Speak for yourself.”

Genesis turned to gawk at his oldest friend. Even Sephiroth fixed him with a surprised look.

A blush crawled across Angeal cheeks, but he simply scowled at the other two, gesturing at the way they were standing together, “What? You two can grope in the kitchen, but if I make one off color comment-“

“Ooh… Angeal’s getting pervy, huh?” Zack teased as he and Cloud reemerged into the kitchen.

Cloud gave Angeal a knowing smile and quickly perched himself in his lap, “Angeal’s never pervy… he’s suggestive.”

“I knew I loved you for a reason.” Angeal said, wrapping his arms around Cloud’s waist, “So what’s for dinner?”

Cloud’s face lit up, “Oh that’s right! I forgot. Hmm…”

He ignored the Gongagan menu that Zack not-so-subtlety nudged in his direction. Digging through the menus he pulled out a folded paper that looked newer, “I could go for some Junon style pizza.”

“Pizza it is, then.” Genesis declared, pulling out his phone so they could place their order, “The usual?”

Everyone nodded, settling in around the kitchen so they could get the details of Cloud’s latest mission. They all enjoyed their military careers and the excitement that missions brought, but there was nothing quite like coming back home again.

Chapter Text

It was adorable sometimes, the way that Cloud forgot that Zack could easily hear everything he said when only one room separated them. Zack dug through the refrigerator for drinks and snacks, pretending he was not eavesdropping on Cloud and Sephiroth in the living room.

“It’s just unfair, sir.” Cloud was saying quietly, obviously trying to keep his voice too soft for Zack to hear, “He just wants to be able to say he can beat you at something, even if it’s just video games… like anybody would believe him anyway.”

Zack could hear the amusement in Sephiroth’s voice, “I imagine you are meant to back up his claims… and you are supposed to call me Sephiroth when we are off duty.”

“This is practically cheating.” Cloud muttered, ignoring Sephiroth’s admonishment like he always did, “You’ve never played a video game in your life and he plays them all the time.”

There was a moment of quiet and Zack was sure that Sephiroth struggling to keep the laughter from his face. Cloud sounded so indignant over the whole thing. Sometimes he was as honor bound as Angeal on his worst days. Not for the first time, Zack wished that his mentor could have met the man that he had come to love so.

“So what do I need to know to preserve my dignity?” Sephiroth asked and Zack could hear him picking up a controller.

“I loaded up an older game.” Cloud said, “It should be a little easier. The buttons on the left control motion and this button makes the guy jump. The point is to get him from the left side of the level to the right without getting hit by the monsters. There are items that you get if you break the boxes.”

Zack could imagine the way Sephiroth wrinkled his nose when the shrill, tinny sounding music started up, “The song is annoying.”

“I think that’s intentional.” Cloud said with a chuckle, “To make it harder to concentrate. You’ll learn to ignore it.”

He knew he should take the drinks and bags of chips back into the living room, but Zack waited anyway. This was the most comfortable Cloud had managed to be around Sephiroth yet. Cloud had idolized the Soldier General for so long that he sometimes forgot Sephiroth was a person, too. While he had looked forward to enjoying Sephiroth’s lack of skill while he figured out the mechanics of the game, letting Cloud teach Sephiroth the finer points of platformers was worth the loss.

Zack crept to the door to peek out at the pair. Both had their eyes fixed to the screen. A tiny wrinkle between Sephiroth’s eyebrows was the only sign of his frustration as he attempted to make the character jump over an obstacle again and again without success.

“The trick to it is to jump on that block first. He’ll bounce right over the gap and the wall.” Cloud pointed to the side of the screen.

Sephiroth’s eyes jumped as he rapidly calculated the angles before taking Cloud’s suggestion. His success only made him frown harder, “The physics of this game are illogical.”

“Yeah.” Cloud agreed with a grin, “And if that bothers you, you’re going to hate the game Zack wants to play.”

It only took a few seconds more for the victory fanfare to play over the speakers, indicating that Sephiroth had cleared the first level. Cloud was beaming up at him, seemingly forgetting that it was the Sephiroth he was clapping on the shoulder.

It was so rare to see Cloud this relaxed and open. He had never seen someone who carried the weight of the world like Cloud did. The brightness of his blue eyes and the wide smile on his lips made Zack’s breath catch. Cloud was never more handsome than he was when he smiled like that.

Zack was moving before he could help himself, crossing the space between the kitchen and the couch in a few easy strides. He set the drinks and snacks on the table so he could cup Cloud’s jaw in his hands, “This is it right here. This is my favorite face of all the faces.”

He could feel Cloud chuckle against his lips as he claimed Cloud’s mouth for a kiss. Zack hummed in approval. Cloud’s kisses were the best.

When they separated, there was the barest hint of a blush across Cloud’s cheeks, but he had not stopped smiling. He did duck his head shyly when he realized that Sephiroth was regarding them both with amusement.

Zack had no such reservations, having been forced to watch Sephiroth with both Angeal and Genesis once upon a time. He threw himself on the couch between them, handing Cloud his favorite soda and controller, “So you ready to do this thing?”

“I believe I have an adequate enough understanding to try.” Sephiroth replied, smirking at Zack.

“You should have never helped him, Cloud.” Zack said, laughing at the guilty look that crossed his boyfriend’s face, “He sees stuff like this as mathematical equations and his hand-eye coordination is killer. Once he figures out what all the buttons do, we’re so screwed.”

“At least it’s a fair fight now.” Cloud grumbled, loading up the game Zack had proposed in the first place, “This isn’t like a battle. I’d rather lose on even footing than win because we forced someone to start at a disadvantage.”

Zack and Sephiroth shared a glance over the top of Cloud’s spiky hair. Sephiroth quirked an eyebrow, “He sounds like Angeal at his most insufferable.”

“I think the same thing all the time.” Zack nudged Cloud when he made an affronted noise, “You should consider that high praise. Now pick your character already!”

Chapter Text

It started early, with a large, gourmet breakfast on a cart outside the door of his apartment. Whoever had knocked on the front door both hit it hard enough that he and his three roommates heard it and moved quickly enough that there was no sign of them when Orrin threw open the door.

“The fuck?” He reached down to pick up a card resting on top of a covered bowl of fruit, “To Cloud and his roommates. Eat up. Just signed with an A. You been holding out on us, Strife?”

Cloud came to the door and took the note from Orrin’s hand. He recognized the handwriting, a smile coming to his lips. Angeal had made him breakfast as a surprise.

Liam came up and clapped Cloud on the back, “Told you two that Cloud was seeing somebody. He’s had that same dopey smile on his face for weeks now.”

“Shut up or I’m not sharing.” Cloud shoved the note into his pocket and moved out into the hallway to push the cart into their small apartment. He spotted containers with all of his favorite foods. His mouth watered at the sight of the fluffy biscuits, knowing that the golden jar beside it was Banora blossom honey.

Arlo wrapped an arm around Liam’s throat playfully, to cut off whatever response had already been forming on his lips, “That smells amazing. I’ll gag both of you just to get some of it. No crappy mess food for us today!”

Cloud chuckled at the antics of his roommates and looked up and down the hall. He knew his sweet boyfriend had to be nearby. Angeal often told Cloud that he loved his smile and would do just about anything to see it. Cloud grinned, glancing both ways since he could not spot the man and said a quiet thank you. Angeal’s hearing was enhanced enough to hear it from anywhere he might be hiding.

Orrin grabbed a daisy out of the cup of them that sat on the cart and shoved it into Cloud’s hair. His bedhead was serious and the daisy’s stem stuck, much to the roommates’ amusement and Cloud’s dismay, “Seriously though, Strife, what’s the occasion?”

Cloud shrugged and shoved Orrin back into the apartment, “I have no idea.”

Breakfast was delicious and easily fed the four of them with leftovers beside. His three roommates grilled him for information and teased him endlessly about his new love. They did their best to try and guess who had caught the eyes of their shy blonde roommate, but Cloud refused to give them any hints.

He was not about to admit to dating the four most powerful Soldiers.

Arlo helped him gather the dishes while Orrin showered and Liam tried to find enough foil and cling wrap to keep the leftovers, “Seriously, Cloud, you have no idea why your new honey made you, and the roommates they’ve never even met, a homemade breakfast? Seems like there should be a reason.”

Cloud shrugged, “He’s a hell of a cook. Maybe he’s just being nice or I dunno… romantic? I mean we haven’t been together long enough for an anniversary or anything.”

“Well, pass my compliments on to the chef.” Liam said, shoving one last piece of apple in his mouth, “I haven’t eaten that well in a long time.”

“Ditto.” Arlo agreed, “You’re a lucky fucking guy.”

Cloud grinned again, “Yeah, I am.”

They were running late and had to rush to make it in time for their morning shift. Cloud was not prepared for the bag of dumb apples that fell out of his locker. He swore under his breath, grabbing the bag before it fell to the floor and rubbed his sore head. Genesis had obviously been there.

He looked up and gulped in surprise. A bottle of apple brandy sat on his top shelf with a lavender colored ribbon wrapped around the neck. Cloud quickly shoved the bag of apples back in front of it. That bottle of liquor was ridiculously expensive and absolutely against the rules. He grabbed what he needed out of his locker and slammed the door shut, praying no one had spotted it. His squad mates would break into his locker to steal it and any of his COs would write him up for having it with his gear while he was on duty.

Genesis loved to play dangerously. He had probably intentionally left his gift in hopes that Cloud would get caught with it and have to try and explain his way out of it. Cloud growled more obscenities under his breath and started planning his revenge. He’d enlist Zack’s help. The dark haired Soldier was always up for a spot of mischief, especially if it involved Genesis.

When he turned, he found himself pinned under the wicked glare of a Second Class Soldier named Foster. He had met the man while training with Zack a few times. He had seemed nice enough before, but today was a much different story, “Got something interesting in there, Trooper?”

“A bag of apples that nearly gave me a concussion, sir.” Cloud said, gritting his teeth stubbornly. He would not lie to a superior, but he was not going to give himself up easily either.

Surprisingly, Foster began to laugh. His look turned knowing, “Banora apples are damned tasty though, hm? I know a certain Commander or two who share your fondness.”

Cloud stared in shock as Foster gave him a sly wink, “I need you to run an errand for me, Strife. I’ll inform your commander that you’ll be oh… twenty minutes late or so while you take care of it. Can’t just leave things sitting around, you know. Don’t bother checking in with me when you get finished, just catch up with your squad.”

“I will, sir.” Cloud felt his shoulders slump in relief, “Thank you.”

“Get to it, then.” Foster dismissed him with a wave, his voice dropping to a quieter tone, “And happy whatever it is you’re celebrating with them.”

Cloud nodded, bewildered. He had no idea what had gotten into any of them. He grabbed an empty backpack that he kept in his locker, in case of an emergency mission and shoved the bottle and the apples into it. He pulled one of the lavender skinned fruits out and handed it to Foster on his way out the door. Foster chuckled and quickly started munching on the treat.

Back in the apartment, Cloud hid the bottle of brandy in his room. That was definitely not something he would be sharing. He did add the apples to the bowl of fruit on the table. Genesis had left him plenty, after all.

Cloud could not wait for lunch. He intended to hunt down one of his boyfriends to demand an explanation. They all had admitted a certain enjoyment in spoiling their newest love. He had been pampered since he had been invited to join their relationship. Zack had assured him that he had received the same treatment, once upon a time. This just seemed to go above and beyond what seemed normal for them.

He was on guard duty for Urban Development that day with Arlo. When he caught up to his roommate, he waved away Arlo’s questions before they could be asked, “I’ll tell you later.”

Cloud loved working for Urban Development. The people who worked there were nice enough and never gave their guard a hard time. They also never needed anything. It was the easiest floor to patrol. After his strange morning, it was a relief.

He and Arlo had been on duty for about three hours when the first Cadet showed up with a balloon. He thrust it at Cloud and said, “This is for you.”

Cloud let his gun hang from the shoulder strap and reluctantly took the balloon. This had Zack’s name all over it. The Cadet threw him a teasing salute and jogged off. Arlo stared at him like his head was on fire. Several members of the Urban Development department chuckled as they went about their work.

With a shrug, Cloud tied the string into a loop and slid it over his wrist. He would have to wait and see where this particular gift went. He did not have wait long.

Five minutes later, another Cadet came down the hall with a balloon clutched in his hand. He held it out for Cloud without a word and fled as soon as Cloud had accepted it. Arlo stifled a laugh, but helped Cloud loop it around his wrist.

Every five minutes for a full hour, a new Cadet brought another balloon. The spectacle drew a crowd from Urban Development as well as a few secretaries from neighboring floors. Bets were exchanged over the color of the next balloon, leading to cheering and cursing when the next Cadet appeared. Each time, Arlo dutifully added the balloon to the string.

Cloud was glad for his helmet. It gave him a degree of anonymity and provided him cover for the furious blush covering his face. He was not sure if he wanted to kiss or kill Zack, Genesis and Angeal. They were all usually so careful not to make their relationship too obvious in public. Cloud still harbored dreams of Soldier and none of them wanted to compromise his chances.

He let out a groan when he spotted Zack strolling down the hall with a small stuffed chocobo in his hands. The gathered crowd laughed and cheered at his arrival. Zack grinned and began to ham it up, waving and blowing kisses. One of the sillier interns pretended to swoon into a coworker’s arms and was promptly dropped on the floor, drawing laughter from everyone else.

“Look what I found for you, Spike.” Zack said, grinning impishly, “Looks like you’ve got a hot lunch date, you lucky dog.”

Cloud looked down at the note clutched in the chocobo’s beak, likely held there with tape. Zack’s own hurried sprawl invited him to lunch. Not that anyone else would recognize it as Zack’s handwriting. Zack took the balloons from Cloud’s wrist and tied them around the plush toy, “I’m dismissing you guys early so Cloud can take his gift down to his room. I’m sure you won’t mind, right Tuesti?”

The head of Urban Development was chuckling from his doorway, “Not at all. This is the most entertaining thing that’s happened here in a while. What’s the occasion, Trooper?”

“I’m about to find out, sir.” Cloud said, glaring at Zack even if he could not see it through the helmet’s visor.

“It started this morning at breakfast.” Arlo added unhelpfully, “Strife’s got a new sweetie who has been showering him with affection.”

Reeve grinned and headed back into his office, “Lucky you.”

Zack shoved Cloud toward the elevators, “Better get a move on. You don’t want to be late!”

Cloud grumbled under his breath, cursing Zack for embarrassing him like this. He got into the elevator, ignoring the Turks who started snickering when they saw him trying to pull all the balloons in after him. The bald one finally took pity on him and helped so they could get the doors closed.

By the time he got back to his apartment, he was fairly certain he wanted to kill his boyfriends. Sephiroth was the only one he would spare. For a moment he was terrified as he tried to imagine what lengths Sephiroth go to in an attempt to outdo the others. It was enough to make him want to hide out in his room for the rest of the day.

His cell phone buzzed with a message from Zack. Apparently, they were all waiting for him in Sephiroth’s apartment. With a wry grin, he left his helmet and gear on his bead and headed back out. Despite the embarrassment of the morning, he could not deny that they were the sweetest men on the face of the planet. The day had been fun, despite it all. He was eager to see what had caused them to shower him with gifts.

The door to Sephiroth’s apartment opened before he could knock. The silver-haired man drew him inside quickly with a small smile. His smile always made Cloud melt. It was such a rare expression on the stoic man that Cloud always felt special when it was aimed at him.

He stopped when he saw the Happy Birthday banner hanging crookedly from the ceiling. Zack was grinning and practically bouncing in his eagerness. Genesis looked smug at his shock and Angeal was doing his best not to chuckle. Sephiroth had ordered lunch from Cloud’s favorite restaurant. A chocolate cake with a big candle sat in the middle of the table with his name written in frosting above it.

Sephiroth wrapped his arms around Cloud’s shoulders, “Surprised?”

“Confused.” Cloud replied, “My birthday’s not until the nineteenth, guys.”

Cloud immediately felt bad as the smiles melted off everyone’s faces. Angeal and Genesis turned to glare at Zack who immediately held his hands up, “I swear his file said the eleventh! Sephiroth, back me up here! You saw it, too.”

“I did.” Sephiroth agreed, letting Cloud go so they could join the others around the table.

Realization dawned on Cloud making him laugh, “Oh no… you guys had my paper file? The one with my original application?”

“Yeah. We pulled it for… reasons.” Zack cleared his throat, “Anyway, Seph and I saw that your birthday was coming up and we all decided to surprise you.”

“I filled it out while I was on the boat from Nibelheim!” Cloud said with a groan, “I was motion sick the whole way and the waves tossed the boat. The stupid thing was practically unreadable! I got it straightened out in the electronic file, but no one must have bothered changing the original.”

“I thought it was odd that you never mentioned it was coming up.” Angeal said handing Cloud a plate. They all filled their plates and began to eat.

Cloud blushed, “I was going to say something in a couple of days. I just wanted to go out for a quiet dinner or something. I didn’t expect anything like this!”

Genesis leaned in and brushed a kiss against the top of Cloud’s head, “We love to spoil you, sweet. I’m sorry about the apples that fell on your head. I got a good scolding from Foster.”

“I’m just glad he didn’t bust me for the brandy. Are you trying to get me written up?” Cloud grumbled good-naturedly. He pointed his fork at Angeal, “My roommates are going to drive me up the wall trying to figure out who I’m dating so they can beg for more breakfast. It was delicious, by the way. Compliments from everybody.”

He leveled a glare at Zack, “I might never speak to you again. Cadets to bring me balloons? Really?”

“Best idea I ever had.” Zack said, grinning unrepentantly.

“I’m getting you all back on your own birthdays. Something big and flashy and awesome.” Cloud teased, his embarrassment fading at last, “Come on, out with it. When are your birthdays so I can prepare properly?”

There was a tense moment where Angeal, Genesis and Zack shared an uncomfortable look. He had unwittingly put his foot in it. Hesitantly, Cloud turned to where Sephiroth was scraping the last of his food up with a fork. It was obvious that the issue had to do with the silver haired General.

Sephiroth huffed and rolled his eyes, setting the plate aside, “There is no need to be strange about it. He could not have known. Cloud, I do not have a birthday.”

“We just love him extra all year round.” Zack said leaning over and nuzzling his cheek against Sephiroth’s shoulder.

“Is that all? Well, that’s easy enough to fix.” Cloud said cheerfully, setting his own plate aside.

The four Soldiers turned on him with expressions of surprise. The usual reaction to Sephiroth’s lack of a birthday was one of sadness or awkward sympathy. Cloud’s smile seemed odd in comparison. Sephiroth arched an eyebrow at the blonde, “Oh?”

“Sure.” He reached out and took Sephiroth’s hands in his own, “I seem to have two birthdays. You should take one. Your birthday can be the eleventh and mine will be the nineteenth. What do you think?”

Sephiroth’s smile was slow and so full of warmth that Cloud blushed. Sephiroth kissed the back of Cloud’s hand, “I think that sounds wonderful. Thank you, Cloud. I believe it is the best birthday present anyone has ever given.”

“Why didn’t we think of that?” Genesis asked, “Sephiroth, you should have simply picked a day years ago! We could have celebrated whenever you liked.”

“I prefer this, I think.” Sephiroth replied, “It seemed silly to choose a day for myself. Unnecessary. This feels… special.”

Zack laughed, “We’ll just have to make up for all the missed years, starting right now.”

“That’s right, birthday boy…” Cloud teased, leaning into Sephiroth’s shoulder, “How do you want to celebrate?”

Sephiroth fixed him with a heated look before scooping him up over his shoulder and heading back toward his bedroom, “I have several excellent ideas…”

“Seph! Wait!” Cloud cried, laughing, “I have to go back to patrol in five minutes!”

“You have been cleared from duty for the rest of the day.” Sephiroth said with mock authority, “Someone take care of it.”

Genesis began to laugh loudly. Zack did his best to stifle his own laughter behind his hands. Only Angeal managed to remain composed, although he was grinning broadly, "I guess I’ll go tell his commander that Sephiroth borrowed Cloud for the afternoon.”

Chapter Text

After an evening of spoiling Sephiroth on his very first birthday, the fivesome relaxed on the couches in Sephiroth’s apartment. Cloud suddenly remembered something from the afternoon that he really wanted to know. He tilted his head so he could look up at his silver-haired boyfriend without moving out of his arms, “So what were you and Zack doing with my paper file in the first place? If you wanted to know my birthday, you could have just asked… or looked in the electronic files.”

When Sephiroth did not immediately answer, he turned his gaze to the trio on the other couch, “Zack?”

Zack chuckled and scratched the back of his neck, “Oh… uh… the birthday thing was just a coincidence…”

“I went to Lazard to offer my personal endorsement for you to join Soldier.” Sephiroth murmured against the top of Cloud’s head, “While I cannot give an official recommendation due to the nature of our relationship, my opinion will still hold sway.”

“We just thought it was weird.” Zack added sheepishly, “I mean, you’re always talking about when you make Soldier and you train so hard, but you never go to the testing or anything.”

Cloud wilted a little, eyes immediately going to the floor, “Oh.”

Angeal and Genesis shared a look of concern. When Genesis opened his mouth to ask for details, Zack shook his head in warning but Cloud saw it out of the corner of his eye. He just gave them a wry smile, “Nah. It’s okay Zack. I’m on a five year disciplinary sanction that keeps me from applying for Soldier. I guess that extends to getting recommended, too.”

“What!?” Genesis cried.

Angeal blinked in bewilderment, “That doesn’t seem like you, Cloud.”

Cloud actually laughed at that, “I had anger issues, when I was younger. I used to fight at the drop of a hat and had a really short fuse. It started in Nibeheim… the adults were really unkind to my mom and me… gave me a real problem with authority. I didn’t have any friends my own age either. There was a bunch of stuff and in the end I was so glad to leave. I thought things would be different when I got here, but I never really learned how to make friends. I was painfully shy and struggled to do well at anything I tried.”

“You were fourteen.” Sephiroth reminded him gently.

“I thought I could take on the whole damn world at fourteen. I was small and weak and it made me so angry.” He forced himself to relax and settled back against Sephiroth’s chest. Sephiroth ran his fingers up and down Cloud’s arm in an attempt to soothe him, “The other Cadets would get mad because I couldn’t keep up. I was holding them back… but if anyone said anything like that in my hearing, I’d snap and start throwing punches. I may have also told off a couple of my commanding officers… and possibly a Soldier or two. I also used to sneak off at night. I was trying to break into the gyms to practice extra, but no one ever believed that.”

Zack blushed guiltily, “I read a couple of those reports, Cloud. I couldn’t help myself… and damn man.”

Cloud grinned at him, “You broke up a few of my fights, Zack. You don’t remember?”

“What!? No! When?” Zack sputtered, pulling away from Angeal to peer at Cloud.

“It was a string of fights right before I got kicked out of the program. I think you were still a Third.” Cloud said, shaking his head over the memory of his younger self, “I don’t even remember what started it, but I threw myself at three guys and they kicked the hell out of me. Whenever we met up in the halls after hours, we got after each other. You caught us three times in one week.”

“That was you?” Zack said, trying not to laugh, “I would have never recognized you! Your face was so screwed up. I assumed your hair was like that because of the fighting…”

“Leave off the hair already!” Cloud said as he covered his eyes with his hands, “I was such an idiot. For what it was worth, I really did try to straighten out after the talk you gave me, but the biggest guy out of the other group wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept pushing and pushing until I lost my temper again. I hate bullies.”

Zack grinned, “I think I read that report. Was that the one that called you a chocobo headed mother-“

Angeal reached over and covered Zack’s mouth with his hand, “Enough!”

Cloud was surprised to feel Sephiroth chuckle, “I found your response amusing, even if it was juvenile. Witnesses state that Cloud told Davenport that his mother deserved to feel some satisfaction in her life.”

Genesis looked at Cloud sharply, “Finn Davenport? That Third that called you a chump and punched you in the hallway last week?”

“He didn’t call me a chump.” Cloud said, groaning, “He said took the first letters from the previously mentioned insult. C-H-M-F… sounds like chumf when you say it out loud. He actually found me a couple years ago and apologized. He felt bad that he got me kicked out of the program. We’re not friends, but we have an understanding now.”

“An understanding.” Genesis scoffed, “He walked up to you, called you that ridiculous thing and then hit you far harder than he should have in the arm. You waited until he walked past you, turned and kicked him behind the knee so he would stumble, and then kneed him in the side of the thigh.”

“There’s a great pressure point there. I also told him to tell his mom hi for me.” Cloud said, grinning brightly, “One day, when I’m a Third too, we’re going to have it out once and for all and then we’re going to get over it. We’re grown men now and I needed the wakeup call. I needed to learn some discipline. I’m a better person for it. The five years are almost up and come January, I’ll start testing for Soldier again.”

Sephiroth pressed a kiss against the top of Cloud’s head, “I could probably convince Lazard to lift the restriction early. He assured me that I was not the first to recommend you.”

Cloud smiled and gave him a brief kiss, “Nah. I’ll take my punishment in full. That way no one can say I didn’t deserve it when the time comes. Thank you for offering though.”

“So anyway, yeah, I grabbed Cloud’s file from records to see what the real story was. You know they never copy the full incident reports into the electronic file.” Zack said, bringing the conversation back to where they started, “When I put everything back together, I noticed his birth date on the application. It really looked like an eleven!”

“It did.” Cloud agreed, “Today was wonderful. Thank you all. Don’t do it again, please.”

Zack, Genesis, Angeal and Sephiroth all laughed and refused to promise anything, much to Cloud’s amused dismay.

Chapter Text

“I want to help.”

It was hard not to laugh at the mulish expression on Cloud’s face. He faced down the three Soldier Firsts outside of Angeal’s door with his arms firmly crossed across his chest. Zack bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, although his lips still twitched up in a smile. Sephiroth hid his mouth behind his hand. Genesis did not bother, chuckling outright at Cloud’s stubbornness.

“Were it any of the rest of us, we would let you.” Genesis reached out and caressed Cloud’s cheek, “We’d be glad of it, frankly… and once you’re a Soldier, you can take care of Angeal as often as you like. Until then, you’ll just have to wait it out. I promise, I will take excellent care of Angeal.”

“Of course you will. That’s not what this is about.” Cloud’s arms dropped to his sides, “I just don’t understand. If Angeal needs somebody, I’d like to be there. I mean, okay, so you get sick. I can hold back hair and bring soup or whatever you need.”

Zack scratched the back of his neck with a grin, “’Sick’ is a euphemism, Cloud. We’re don’t get ill. Mako has strange effects on people. After a day or so, everything goes back to normal and no one has to be the wiser.”

Cloud opened his mouth to keep arguing when there was a crash inside Angeal’s apartment. Loud music began to blare from the speakers in Angeal’s living room. Genesis swore softly, “I thought I had those disabled. I better get in there. Zack, you still have the damn video… just show it to him. He’s not likely to run off and tell anyone. He loves Angeal as much as we do. If he’s going to remain in this relationship, he should see us in good time and bad.”

“Angeal’s gonna be so embarrassed.” Zack muttered, but he tossed an arm around Cloud to keep him from darting into the apartment when Genesis opened the door.

Sephiroth wrapped a hand around the back of Genesis’s neck to draw him in for a brief kiss, “Be careful.”

Genesis rolled his eyes, but leaned into the General’s touch, “I will be fine as long as I do not try to nap. I have plenty of caffeine stashed away in there. We’ll see you tomorrow once Angeal is feeling more himself.

“Nothing shall forestall your return?” Sephiroth teased, allowing his fingers to brush soothingly agains the nape of Genesis’s neck for one last moment.

“Really? Loveless? At a time like this?” Genesis asked, turning his nose up, “How inappropriate of you.”

Zack snickered and tossed a wave over his shoulder, “Night Gen.”

“Goodnight my darlings.” Genesis blew them a kiss before turning to face the door. He drew in a deep breath, squared his shoulders and opened the door just wide enough to slip inside. Angeal’s booming voice greeted him over the music. He sounded strangely… chipper.

Cloud stared at the closed door, more than a little concerned when he heard Genesis throw the locks. They hardly ever locked the doors. The only apartments on this floor belonged to Angeal, Genesis, Sephiroth and Zack. No one ever had the nerve to bother them.

Zack tugged at him again, “Come on, Cloud. Let’s head down the hall to my place. I’ll show you what’s going on. You coming, Sephiroth?”

Sephiroth fell into step beside the two of them, the smirk on his face downright devious, “I never miss an opportunity to see it.”

“It is pretty damn funny… not that I’ll ever say that in Angeal’s hearing.” Zack glanced down at Cloud, “See, mako does strange things to your brain. It’s different for everybody, but every Soldier has a reaction. The higher your mako levels, the more extreme the reaction. Thirds and Seconds get a little weird, but usually they stay in their rooms and people ignore them until it’s over. Since the four of us have the highest mako levels in Soldier, well, our reactions are a little more extreme.”

Cloud frowned sharply, “You get dangerous?”

“Genesis does… kind of.” Zack shook his head, “Just wait until after and then we’ll talk about it. See, Angeal doesn’t really have any recollection of what happens. We tried to explain it to him, but he refused to believe it. He actually thought we were lying to him. So, last year we recorded him.”

Sephiroth opened the door to Zack’s apartment, heading for the television. Zack led Cloud to the couch, “It was too damn funny to get rid of, so we kept it. If one of us is having a bad day, we sneak in here and watch it. Just don’t tell Angeal. He’ll tear my apartment apart to find it.”

Cloud watched as Sephiroth pulled an unmarked case from underneath Zack’s entertainment center. He put the small disk into the player and quickly took up a spot on the couch beside Cloud. Zack was already chuckling before the video began to play.

The video started on an extreme close up of Angeal’s eye. His eyebrow was drawn low as he stared into the camera. Sephiroth leaned closer to Cloud, “We hid the camera, afraid that he would break it if it was discovered. We’re still not sure how he located it.”

“Sure didn’t stop him.” Zack added, grinning as Angeal’s face moved downward out of view, “I think it might have encouraged him, actually.”

Once Angeal’s face was out of the frame, Cloud realized they were looking at Angeal’s bedroom. He recognized the dark wood furnishings and the golden brown walls. No light peeked in through the curtains, so Cloud assumed it had to be night. Both of the lamps were on, making it easy to see a lump beneath the blankets on the bed. He spotted a bit of Genesis’s red hair spread out over a pillow.

Angeal crawled around the corner of the bed, most of his body hidden behind it. Cloud could hear him fiddling with something in the silence of the room. Suddenly, a catchy song filled the air. It was loud and fast, with a heavy beat. Cloud had no idea what the lyrics were, but it really did not matter.

“What is he wearing?” Cloud asked, staring in surprise as Angeal jumped up from behind the bed.

Zack was laughing too hard to answer. Sephiroth smirked and said, “We believe them to be sunglasses that Angeal stole from Rude. No one knows how he got them, but they are identical to the Turk’s favorite pair.”

Cloud watched in shock as Angeal jumped back and forth from one foot to the other with his hands waving above his head, a maniacal grin on his usually reserved face. He was clad only in a grey flannel sleep pants and a pair of sunglasses that had not been on his face when the video started. His attention abruptly focused on Genesis’s sleeping form.

He threw himself onto the bed on his knees, pumping his arms in the air in time to the beat and shaking his hips. Zack’s laughter turned into pained gasps as he clutched at his stomach. Sephiroth sank back against the couch, shoulders twitching as he fought against giving in to his own amusement.

Somehow Genesis slept through the whole thing. Angeal ripped the covers away and began to shake his sleeping boyfriend, bouncing on his knees all the while. Genesis kicked a foot at Angeal, reaching for a pillow to cover his head.

When Genesis refused to engage him, Angeal leapt off the bed and started spinning in circles before the camera jumping in time with the driving notes. When the chorus began again, Angeal scooped up the pillow that Genesis had used to cover his head and began to bludgeon the redhead with it.

“Damn it, Angeal!” Genesis roared over the music.

Cloud snorted, immediately covering his mouth to stifle it. This set Sephiroth and Zack off into fresh laughter. Zack nudged him and gasped out, “It’s alright, Spike. Laugh!”

Angeal abandoned the pillow, putting one hand on Genesis’s hip to vault over him and back onto the bed. As he began to bounce again, Genesis turned over and groped for the edge of the blanket to pull it back over his head.

The music slowed as another verse began. Between their laughter and Genesis’s muffled cursing, Cloud still could not make out the words. The music was so loud that the speakers crackled anyway. Angeal stopped jumping long enough to wrench the blankets back off Genesis again. He leaned near to Genesis’s ear and began to sing.

Genesis swatted at him, doing his best to get back to sleeping, so Angeal turned to the camera and kept singing to it instead. Cloud giggled at the way Angeal threw his arms out in broad, sweeping gestures. He touched his sunglasses and wiggled his hips again. The whole scene was ridiculous and completely out of character for the stoic First. The whole thing was oddly endearing.

When he bored of singing to the camera, Angeal set to pouncing on Genesis again. Finally at the end of his rope, Genesis turned back over and kicked Angeal squarely in the chest. The bigger man fell off the other side of the bed, his feet going over his head as he tumbled to the floor. There was a resounding crunch and the music died abruptly. Genesis sat up, head whipping back and forth as he tried to figure out what was going on. From behind the bed, Angeal’s wild laugher filled the air.

The video cut out from there. Zack wiped at the tears streaming from his eyes as he fought to get his amusement under control. Sephiroth pulled Cloud against his side, “Do you see now why we would hesitate to leave you with Angeal for the night? It’s not that he would intentionally hurt you, he simply has no control over himself in that state. Even if he hit you with a pillow, it could still do some damage.”

“He’d never forgive himself if you got hurt because of him.” Zack added, “We don’t want him to be in that position. It’s not his fault that he gets like that and the three of us can take a little abuse.”

Cloud nodded his agreement at last, “Throwing up and sick I could handle… I don’t think I could help him when he gets like that. So… you all get that way?”

“Nope.” Zack said, broad grin on his face, “I get naked. As soon as I’m out of the lab I start losing clothing. I’m usually naked by the time I hit the elevator if somebody doesn’t get to me.”

“There’s no stopping him either.” Sephiroth added, leering at the dark haired First, “He spends nearly a whole day that way. We usually all take the day off.”

Zack wiggled his eyebrows at Cloud, “I apparently have a thing about being in public, too. If I’m not suitably distracted, I try to go out in the building like that. Don’t know why. That’s one you can definitely help with.”

Cloud blushed but nodded eagerly, “Gotcha. What about you, Sephiroth?”

“I’m far less interesting.” Sephiroth said, a smug grin on his face, “I stay up for three days straight following mine. My mind goes into a kind of overdrive, soaking up information like a sponge. I spend the time learning a new skill.”

“What he’s not telling you is that he’s very open to suggestion about what he learns.” Zack grinned wickedly at Sephiroth, “The last time, I convinced him to pick up knitting. He made each of us a sweater.”

“The really soft ones?” Cloud asked, giving Sephiroth a pleading look, “I always try to steal the copper colored one that Genesis has. It’s so nice.”

Sephiroth pressed a kiss to the top of Cloud’s head, “Perhaps I could dig up that particular skill for you.”

“Genesis acts like the star of an action movie. We actually get the Turks to help us with his.” Zack snorted and shook his head, “He usually ‘breaks out’ of the lab, complete with a fight scene with the Turks. Since he’s unarmed, Rude and Reno usually give him a pretty good fight. Then, he heads down to the basement, steals a motorcycle and takes off at reckless speeds into the wastes.”

“Where he rendezvous with the rest of us for a weekend adventure.” Sephiroth added, his lips quirked up in a fond smile, “The Turks follow and provide suitable drama and explosions where required. It’s actually quite fun.”

“We think it has something to do with his love of theater. He gives us fake names and backstories and everything. If we don’t play along he decides we’re imposters or spies or something.” Zack propped his hands behind his head and leaned back with an exaggerated stretch, “Last time I was the stunningly attractive love interest in his story. Angeal was totally jealous.”

Sephiroth chuckled, “That’s only because that’s usually his place in the story.”

Cloud let out a little huff as he processed all the new information about his boyfriends. A thought struck him, “I wonder what I’ll be like when I make Soldier.”

Zack eyes lit up as he studied Cloud. Sephiroth looked pleasantly surprised, “You’re still interested, knowing what you do now?”

“None of it seems that bad. I mean, some of it sounds embarrassing. I don’t know how well I’d take it if I felt the urge to get naked and run around the building…” He glanced shyly up at Sephiroth and Zack, “I might be alright with it if I had you guys to take care of me as well as you take care of each other.”

Zack reached out and ruffled Cloud’s hair playfully, “You know we would.”

Sephiroth squeezed his shoulder, “Gladly.”

Cloud beamed up at them both. They always knew just what to say to make him feel wanted.

Zack gave them both a considering look, “Well, Angeal and Genesis are out for the night. What should we do with ourselves?”

“Um…” Cloud could feel himself blushing, but glanced up at the television anyway, “Could we watch it one more time?”

Zack started to laugh again. Sephiroth was already reaching for the remote to start the video over.

Chapter Text

This has been deleted and moved to its own expanded story! Didn't want to lose the comments. <3

Chapter Text

When his roommates declared that he really needed to “unclench for a change” and have some fun after their three week long slog through the deserts around Corel, Cloud did not argue. He honestly was not sure who he had surprised more, his roommates or himself. He had never been very social and had no idea what to do at a dance club, but it was apparently how everyone in Delta Squad unwound after a particularly difficult mission. With Cloud’s recent promotion and transfer to Delta Squad, he had no excuse.

Besides, the desert sucked and he wanted a drink.

He had drawn the line at getting dressed up, opting for a pair of freshly washed black fatigue pants and one of the navy tank tops he usually wore under his uniform shirt. His roommates had rolled their eyes, but no one bothered to argue when he stepped out of his room. Cloud was prickly and stubborn and none of them wanted to risk him changing his mind. They were dying to see the quiet man let loose for a change.

Cloud had followed their lead, stopping to do a celebratory shot at the bar. Even he had been impressed as the scantily clad bartender lit the tops on fire. The flames reached higher than he expected, bright in the near darkness of the club.

When one of his squad mates yelled out his name as a toast, the others quickly following behind, Cloud snatched up his shot, blew out the flames and drank the heated alcohol down. The others followed, cheering and pounding him on the back as a belated welcome to the squad. The heat burned a slow path down to his stomach and Cloud felt muscles that he did not even know were tense go loose. He endured the good natured teasing of the others when he smiled at the feeling and let them lead him out onto the dance floor.

The music was loud with a heavy beat that was impossible to ignore. Cloud had never really been much of a dancer, but a quick glance around him was enough for him to pick up on the rhythm. He stayed close to the people he knew, dancing with others nearby if he caught their eye. It was more fun than he had expected.

Several songs later, someone near him stumbled. Cloud was forced back as the person tried to regain their balance, nearly falling over his own feet. He was surprised when a large pair of hands caught him. The man behind him was still dancing, his hands playfully twisting Clouds hips as they helped him keep steady. Once his partner was sure he would not fall, he gave one last squeeze and let go again.

Cloud glanced over his shoulder, surprised to see Angeal Hewley’s grinning face. The Soldier First winked at him before turning back to his own companions.

He tried to look casual as he turned back to his own group, but he knew he was failing miserably. Angeal Hewley, Elite Soldier First Class was at a dance club in Midgar. Despite his size and muscular build, the man could move. He was not the only one. Cloud was sure he had seen the dark spikes of Zack Fair and a flash of silver that could only have been Sephiroth’s hair.

Thankfully, his squad mates were ready for another round of drinks. He let them tow him back to the bar for more alcohol. He talked a bit and laughed more, at ease for the first time since he had left home. Still, he waved the others off when they went back for more dancing. He was still too hot to enjoy himself and opted to grab an empty stool at the edge of the bar in a darkened corner. He ordered himself a cold beer and relaxed.

People watching was nearly as much fun as dancing. Everywhere he looked he saw people smiling and laughing. Some sang along to familiar songs. His own group was near the speakers, making Cloud doubly glad that he chosen to hang back. The music was loud and being that near to the source would have given him a headache.

He spent a few moments studying the Soldiers. Angeal moved his hips in ways that should be illegal. It was so at odds with how he had imagined the man and sinfully sexy. Near him, Zack was more bouncy and moved with enthusiasm if not any particular skill. He circled Angeal and Sephiroth dancing briefly with anyone who looked at him for long enough. Sephiroth was stiffer but found the rhythm easily enough. It was not that much different than sword work, in a way. He stayed close to Angeal and Zack when he was near enough. They were only missing Genesis Rhapsodos to complete their group.

Cloud had just set his empty glass on the bar when he felt someone press up against the back of him. A fingertip slowly danced over his collarbone and along the side of his neck, making him shiver. Soft lips brushed up against the shell of his ear as a voice whispered, “There you are. I have been looking for you all night.”

Before he could even make a noise of surprise, his lips were claimed in a kiss. Cloud’s mind went blank, entirely focused on the feel of firm lips moving over his. Hands closed over his shoulders turning the bar stool so he faced the stranger. He was too close for Cloud to make out more than a bit of pale skin and some dark hair.

It was a mistake. There was no way this man was looking for him. Obviously he thought Cloud was someone else. The smart thing, not to mention the right thing, to do would be to pull away and inform the man of his mistake. It was dark and there was an excellent chance that the man had been drinking, mistakes were easily made.

But it had been months since Cloud had the time, let alone the interest to find a partner. The man in front of him was more than willing and smelled so damned good. When his callused fingers slipped around the back of Cloud’s neck and up into his hair, Cloud decided to just go with it. He would deal with the fallout afterwards.

With a growl, Cloud wrapped his hands around the stranger’s slim hips and tugged him into the cradle of his thighs. When the man in his arms made a noise of approval, Cloud took the opportunity to deepen the kiss. Despite the stranger’s eagerness, Cloud refused to rush. He explored the man’s mouth thoroughly, reveling in the sharp taste of alcohol and the sweetness of whatever it had been mixed with. He pulled back, nipping playfully at a soft lower lip.

The hand in his hair tightened and Cloud let out a little gasp at the feeling. He worked his hands under the stranger’s shirt to run his hands over the warm skin above the waistband of his pants. The skin was much warmer than Cloud had anticipated. Even for someone drinking and dancing at a club, the temperature was almost feverish or…

Slowly, Cloud began to ease back. He needed to see who was in front of him. The man whined in protest, doing his best to entice Cloud in for another kiss. Cloud nearly gave in when a smooth, deep voice made him freeze.

“Genesis. It is you skulking in the corner. Delta squad is getting rowdy and I believe they’re celebrating a new member. You know how that will go.” Sephiroth’s chuckle was warm and teasing, “Angeal has gone to collect… Zack.”

Genesis brushed his nose against Cloud’s, pressing one last kiss against Cloud’s lips, “Don’t be ridiculous, Sephiroth, I have Zack right here.”

For the first time, Cloud got a good look at the man who had approached him. The redheaded commander’s eyes widened in surprise, but he neither looked horrified nor disgusted as Cloud had feared. Instead he was more curious than anything. His eyes narrowed as he studied Cloud’s face more closely, “Well. Hm.”

There was a moment of strained silence between them. Cloud scrabbled for something to say. An apology would sound stupid, and really, Cloud had no idea how Genesis could have confused him for Zack Fair.

Angeal and Zack pushed their way into the corner and Cloud’s stomach plummeted. If Genesis had confused him for Zack, there was a good chance that the usually cheerful First was going to be less than pleased by what had happened. He had no chance against a Soldier First. Zack was going to kill him.

Zack grinned at Sephiroth and Genesis, “What’s going on?”

“Genesis is making new friends, apparently.” Sephiroth murmured.

Genesis scowled over his shoulder before turning his gaze back to Cloud again, “I should have known better. You are a much better kisser than Zack.”

“Hey!” Zack protested.

That was not the reaction Cloud had expected. He watched in surprise as Genesis dismissed Zack with a roll of his eyes, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Cloud Strife.” Cloud replied with a wry smile, “I’m Delta squad’s new member.”

Angeal grabbed Genesis’s shoulder and pulled him back a step, “You were molesting a Trooper?”

“I don’t believe I care for your tone.” Genesis said, jerking his shoulder away from Angeal’s grip. He cast a pointed look at Zack, “You make it sound as if he were a subordinate… or a cute animal.”

“Genesis…” Angeal said warningly.

“He had no idea who I was. That was plain enough by the way he went tense when Sephiroth said my name, so it’s hardly coercion.” Genesis looked Cloud over again, his eyes lingering on Cloud’s bare biceps appreciatively, “If he’s in Delta squad, he’s obviously legal. You have no right to pass judgement on me.”

Cloud felt a twinge of annoyance at the way Angeal looked him over and dismissed him as quickly. The man had seemed so friendly before, “Like any of that makes it better.”

“What are you… my mother?” Genesis sneered, “Or his?”

“Hey!” Cloud growled, temper getting the better of his common sense, “Do I get any say in this?”

Genesis quickly looked back to him. His gaze dropped sheepishly. Angeal looked a little smug, seemingly sure that Cloud was about to put the redhead in his place.

Instead, Cloud reached out and caught Genesis’s jaw in his hands and drew him in for another kiss. Maybe it was the alcohol making him brave or the way that Genesis had argued in Cloud’s favor, but he wanted to steal at least one more kiss from the man. He could feel Genesis stiffen in shock a moment before eagerly melting back into Cloud’s touch.

Cloud pulled back panting a bit, letting his forehead rest against Genesis’s. The other man gave him a heated smirk, “Oh yes, I believe I will keep this one.”

“Damn.” Zack muttered with a whistle.

Cloud felt his cheeks color at both comments. He glanced at Zack, guilt finally catching up with him, “Sorry… he was looking for you, after all. I don’t want to steal your-”

“Oh! Uh… no. It’s not like that with us. Don’t worry. I’m only upset that he found you first, cutie.” Zack said with a wicked grin, “I take back my previous protest, Gen… I think you might have been right.”

Genesis grunted an affirmative, tugging on Cloud’s hands, “I have a lovely apartment back at headquarters. The view of the sunrise is really quite nice… would you like to see it?”

Cloud could not help the laugh that escaped him, “Smooth. You pick up guys at the bar often?”

“This is my first attempt.” Genesis admitted with an easy smile, “How’s it going?”

Cloud let Genesis pull him off of the barstool. He wrapped an arm around Genesis’s waist and fell into step with him, “I guess you can ask me again in the morning.”

Chapter Text

Angeal hated to interrupt Cloud’s sleep. The blond never seemed to get enough of it. Once he was asleep, he slept soundly, but he often had difficulties relaxing enough to fall asleep at a reasonable hour. He swore that snuggling up with one of the boyfriends helped and they were all more than happy to have him join them.

Angeal had vague fuzzy memories of Cloud climbing into his bed late the night before, so he knew it had been one of those nights. He was loathe to wake him. It was one of the few mornings that they were all in the building, so Sephiroth offered to make them breakfast. Angeal knew that Cloud would be disappointed to miss breakfast. It was the only reason Angeal was considering waking him at all.

He had already gotten up and taken a shower, leaving Cloud to sleep as long as he could. If they were going to be on time for breakfast, he needed to wake up the sleeping blond. Cloud was always handsome in Angeal’s eyes, but there was something about the way that he relaxed in his sleep that always made Angeal’s heart clench. He loved the softness in Cloud’s face, something he rarely showed while he was awake.

Cloud had rolled over onto his side in his sleep, his wrists crossed in front of his face to block the light of the sun. Angeal chuckled and moved around the bed so he could get comfortable while he tried to wake Cloud. Considering how deeply his young love had nestled into the blankets, Angeal expected it to take a while.

Angeal stretched himself out behind Cloud, propping himself up on an elbow so he could easily speak into Cloud’s ear, “Cloud…”

Cloud’s face scrunched up and he turned it into his pillow so he could ignore Angeal. Angeal chuckled and reached up his free hand to brush Cloud’s hair back from his forehead, “Sweetheart, it’s time to get up.”

“Nnn.. ’s not.” Cloud grumbled, the words muffled by the pillow.

“We’ve got to be at Sephiroth’s in twenty minutes.” Angeal said, nuzzling against the back of Cloud’s head to try and coax him into wakefulness.

“Mmhmm…” Cloud inhaled sleepily and relaxed against the pillow again, “Tw'nty minutes th'n.”

Angeal waited a moment, sure that Cloud was waking until the blond let out a snore. It was adorable, but they really did not have the time. He moved his hand from Cloud’s hair to his shoulder and shook him gently, “Come on Cloud. You want breakfast ri-”

“Shh… ‘ngeal.” Cloud reached back over his shoulder and groped for Angeal’s wrist. He clumsily dragged Angeal’s hand down his arm and tucked it against his chest, wrapping both arms around it to keep Angeal from pulling free again.

They needed to get up and get over to Sephiroth’s apartment. Zack, Genesis and Sephiroth would be waiting for them. It would be easy to pull out of Cloud’s grasp and usher him out of bed, but as he felt Cloud’s breath start to even out again he decided that everyone else could wait. He could think of several occasions where Genesis, Zack and Sephiroth had all monopolized Cloud’s time.

Shifting his wrist slowly, he covered Cloud’s hand with his own and burrowed his nose into Cloud’s hair again. He felt Cloud press a sleepy kiss against the inside of his wrist, “Mmm… smell good.”

Angeal could not help but chuckle, “Go back to sleep, Cloud.”

Cloud made an inarticulate sound of agreement and did just that. Angeal knew that Zack or Genesis would be quick to come looking for them when they failed to turn up for breakfast. They could deal with convincing the him to get out of bed. Angeal was content to catch a few extra minutes of rest in the meantime.

Chapter Text

Training out in the wastes sounded like a great idea to both Cloud and Zack, until the piece of garbage vehicle that the motor pool assigned them stopped dead on the cliffs. Zack’s signal was sketchy at best, so rescue was still several hours out, if anyone bothered that night at all.

That was why Cloud, exhausted and filthy, with more than his fair share of training bruises crawled under the thing to see if he could get them home. Zack had wiggled his much larger body in the space beside him, more curious than useful as he had no vehicle knowledge to speak of.

“So where’d you learn about vehicle maintenance, Spike?”

“Got bored back home one year.” Cloud replied poking at connections and pipes that had no discernible meaning to Zack, “There was this truck that was just rusting at the edge of town. I thought it had been abandoned, so I set out to see if I could figure out how to make it work again. I found some books and by summer I managed to start it up.”

Zack let out an impressed whistle and reached out to touch a tank that appeared to be leaking something. Cloud smacked his hand away, “Turns out one of the guys in town owned it. He came running out and carrying on about how I was going to ruin his baby and to quit touching it. He actually pretended like there was never anything wrong with it.”

“That’s screwed up.” Zack said, scrambling to follow when Cloud wiggled out from under the car, “So what happened?”

Cloud chuckled and tossed the tools he had been holding into the rusty toolbox they had dug out of the trunk, “I let him drive it a couple of weeks and then reversed what I had done to fix it in the middle of the night.”

Laughing, Zack pulled Cloud into a headlock and rubbed a hand through his grimy blond hair, “You little shit.”

“Didn’t matter anyway. He told everyone it was out of fuel and the nearest filling station was Rocket Town.” Cloud grunted as he freed himself from Zack. He did not even bother to try and neaten his hair. Between the training and the mess under the truck, it was a lost cause,“ Without parts, this thing’s a pile of scrap. It’s probably not even worth the trouble. We’d be better off just grabbing our stuff and heading for Midgar on foot.”

“Aw man.” Zack whined, even if he went to grab his sword and gear from the back seat, “It’s going to take forever to walk to Midgar from here.”

Cloud went around to the passenger side to grab his own gear, “I’m not interested in being out here at night without the necessities and I need a shower. I’m walking.”

Zack was quick to catch up to him, “Yeah yeah, like I’m going to let a Trooper show me up… even one as stubborn as you.”

That made Cloud chuckle. He nudged Zack with his shoulder, “Your turn.”

Zack considered his options. He had not realized how much fun it would be to trade stories from home with someone who really got it. Humming in thought, a memory came to him, “Well… there was this one time I brought a touch me to school and it turned everyone into frogs…"

Chapter Text

“You, the cute one.”

Twelve identical helmeted heads turned, trying to decide who Genesis Rhapsodos was referring to. It was all Cloud could do to try and look as confused as the rest of his squadmates. He was just glad that there was a helmet and scarf to hide the blush crawling up his neck.

When Genesis and Angeal had appeared to request Trooper backup, Cloud had no doubt they were coming to steal him away for something that was most likely unrelated to a mission. It was bad enough that they were using their rank to single him out, but Genesis always had to take it too far. The least he could have done was use Cloud’s name and say something that would make him look good to his superiors. Instead, “cute” was the best Genesis could come up with.

There was a nervous giggle somewhere to his left. Followed by a bit of laughter behind him. Either they had all figured it out or they thought Genesis was joking. With their uniforms and helmets, Troopers all looked more or less identical. Cloud was honestly not sure how Zack and Genesis always managed to pick him out of the crowd.

Genesis did not so much as crack a smile. The laughter died abruptly and no one moved.

A red gloved hand flicked in Cloud’s direction, the simple gesture elegant and dramatic at once. Continuing to feign ignorance, Cloud shared looks with the two Troopers on either side of him. His temper was starting to rise and he clamped down on it before he said or did something stupid.

When Cloud continued to stubbornly ignore Genesis’s gesture, the redhead sighed, “I’m pointing right at you. The one in the middle. Come.”

Cloud could no longer pretend. The snickers around him were more knowing now. Of course, Genesis had called Cloud the cute one… as if that were all that could be said for him. Blood rushed in his ears and he curled his hands into fists. Once Genesis and Angeal were done with him, he would be forced to endure a night of convincing his squadmates that Genesis was joking and that he had really been on a legitimate mission with him and Angeal.

He was getting tired of lying to his squadmates.

Genesis never considered the consequences of things. He enjoyed being the center of attention and tried to put himself there as often as possible, fighting with Sephiroth and quoting that stupid old poem. He never considered how hard that little scene was going to be on Cloud. All he cared about was flirting with Cloud in front of a crowded room. He thought it was cute when Cloud squirmed. Their duties and his plans meant nothing if Genesis could have some fun-

“Was that really necessary?”

Angeal’s quiet, disappointed tone pulled Cloud out of the flash of anger. He had fallen into step between them without realizing he had moved away from his squad at all. He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to fight the urge to snap at both of them. Angeal could sound as disappointed as he liked. He had not stopped Genesis either.

“It was a joke, obviously. Who could be cute in on of those uniforms? Besides, Cloud doesn’t mind. We’re saving him from drudging in-”

For the first time, Genesis noticed Cloud’s tense shoulders and clenched fists. The surprise in his expression was genuine. Letting out another breath, Cloud forced himself to relax. Genesis was selfish and a bit of a child sometimes, but he honestly thought he was helping Cloud and having a bit of fun at the same time. It was not okay, but it also was not worth blowing up in the hallway over.

Genesis gently led him into an alcove, trusting Angeal to keep an eye out for eavesdroppers, “Cloud… I didn’t realize. I wasn’t-”

“I know.” Cloud said, rolling eyes and trying to head back toward Angeal so they could get on with it, “You’re coming up with a plausible explanation for all that before I head back to the barracks, by the way. There’s only so many times I can tell them our missions are classified before it sounds like bullshit.”

Before Cloud managed to take a step past him, Genesis pulled him in tight for a hug. The last bit of tension bled out of Cloud’s muscles as Genesis murmured apologies against his hair.

When they separated, Angeal was frowning at them over his shoulder, “You’ve been having trouble, Cloud?”

“When I come back, they ask about the mission. I can’t tell them what we were really doing, so I just say it’s classified.” Cloud shrugged off Genesis’s hand and headed back into the hall so they could get moving, “It’s not a big surprise that no one believes me anymore.”

Genesis snorted as they started back down the hall, “It’s none of their concern. If you say it’s classified, that’s all they need to know.”

Temper flaring again, Cloud snapped, “Right. Which classified mission is it today, sirs? Emergency burger run or helping Zack find a lost gaming controller and then helping him stress test it?”

Both the Soldiers looked a little stunned. Cloud could see that Genesis was working himself up to say something, so he started down the hall toward the elevators without them. This was not the place to have this fight. When they caught up with him, Genesis was silent. His face was set it a thoughtful frown, but he did not offer an apology or justification.

“It’s Sephiroth.” Angeal said, while they waited for the elevator, “Hojo added something to his treatment today. He asked for you.”

The last bit of anger Cloud was clinging to abruptly died, “Oh.”

Genesis looked him over, “That doesn’t change that this is an obvious problem. We need to talk about it, Cloud… all of us.”

Cloud nodded his agreement. Even he had not realized how badly the situation upset him until his temper had snapped. He enjoyed the extra time with all of them, but he also wanted to be a Soldier one day. They needed to find a balance… after he helped Sephiroth.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth hated coming to Junon. He generally avoided missions near oceans in general. When he was forced to Costa del Sol or Mideel, he simply refused to come out of the inn after the mission was complete. People always brushed it off with any number of excuses. His black leather uniform would make the heat unbearable. His fans in swimwear were intolerable. Sephiroth never needed to say a word to justify himself and enjoyed the quiet of the inn until the transport arrived.

Junon was a different matter. When the fishing village had refused to submit to Shinra, the corporation had haggled for rights to build their own city nearby. The leaders of lower Junon had never imagined that meant Shinra would build above their city.

That meant that Sephiroth could not expect his usual story to stand. The city was so far from the water, that it was hardly considered ocean front. While the others Soldiers on the mission disembarked from the airship and loudly admired the view, Sephiroth braced himself. Unless he leapt from the opposite side of the airship, there was no way to avoid it.

He knew he could simply close his eyes and not look. It would be easy enough to follow the Soldier in front of him using his other senses until the danger was behind him. To Sephiroth, not seeing the danger was far worse than facing it. Squaring his shoulders, he hid his face behind an unreadable mask and climbed down onto the deck.

His eyes immediately began scanning the electronic wiring and metal beams under the landing pad. The ocean glinted far beneath him, a sickly green-grey under the clouded sky. As if called by his thoughts, Sephiroth’s nemesis leapt out of the water.

The dolphin’s body was dark, shedding mako tainted water as it flew through the air. Sephiroth froze watching the creature come closer and closer. Its shrill, shrieking voice made his ears and teeth ache… although he was forced to admit that it might have something to do with how tightly his jaw was clenched.

The beast’s height had improved greatly since the last time he had been in Junon. Just as Sephiroth began to shift to draw his sword, it’s upward momentum ran out. The dolphin turned into it and began it’s descent into the ocean. Sephiroth felt the seething hatred of its coldly intelligent gaze stay on him as long as possible.

“Cool! Did you see that dolphin, Seph?”

Sephiroth jerked when Zack’s hand clapped him on the shoulder. Sephiroth was not sure who he had startled worse- himself or his dark-haired companion.

Zack let out a wheezing laugh and rubbed the back of his head, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt your train of thought. You were wound up pretty tight… what’s up?”

The lie came smoothly, as it always did when someone caught on to him, “It appears someone is training that creature to jump to unnatural heights. If it could transport a rider, it would be an unexpected way to get an assassin to a high profile figure.”

“You’re joking, right?” Zack asked, squinting to see if he could see the dolphin again, “There’s paranoid and then there’s dolphin assassins.”

"I’ve been brought here to inspect security.” Sephiroth said, brushing off the insult. He did not care what Zack thought, so long as he did not realize what the real issue was. Zack would tell anyone who would listen, “It’s unlikely, but I’ve seen that dolphin on previous visits. That is certainly the highest it has ever jumped before.”

Zack made a noise that might have been agreement or merely interest. He shrugged, “I guess, maybe if you jumped at the last second and caught the bar there. I’m not even sure I could do that… but I could go find the trainer and give it a try, if you want? Even if it doesn’t work, it’d be a blast to try.”

Sephiroth shuddered at the thought. He imagined the evil thing nearing the apex of his jump and then bashing Zack’s head into one of the crossbeams until it cracked. Zack would fall into the water and drown and the dolphin would-

“Unnecessary.” He said at last, cutting off his nightmareish thought before it could get away from him, “Come along. I would like to be home tonight, if possible.”

Zack fell into step beside him, “You’ll get no complaints from me. Junon smells weird.”

This was always the hardest part. By the time they boarded the airship again, it would be too dark to see the demon that plagued him. There were few places in the city that were at risk of a breach and he could look those over in a matter of hours if he was not distracted.

Of course, if the Shinra officials thought they were getting him into the underwater reactor again, they were sadly mistaken.

Chapter Text

One Missed Call - Zack

Cloud dismissed the notification and let the phone drop back into his lap. Of course Zack would call. They had been together when Cloud got the call. Zack had stood waiting while Cloud listened to the doctor talk. He had also accepted it when Cloud said he needed to take a walk. He had only asked that Cloud take his phone and check in from time to time. That had been hours ago and Cloud had not so much as sent a text to his boyfriend since walking out of his apartment.

He stared out over the desert that surrounded Midgar from the unfinished highway. Cloud had ignored the warning signs and tape blocking the way so he could sit right on the edge of the concrete, his legs dangling over the side. No one would think to look for him there. It was a good place to get his head on straight. The sun was starting to set, making the sandy cliffs look far less desolate than Cloud knew them to be. If he were not so conflicted, he might call it pretty.

In his lap, his phone began to buzz again. Cloud ignored it until it stopped and then picked it up to see.

One Missed Call - Angeal

Cloud dismissed that one as well. The clock showed six minutes had passed. Thirty seconds for Zack to worry and wait for a call. Two minutes for Zack to rush to the gym where Angeal was working with some Thirds. Three minutes for Zack’s frenzied explanation to annoy him enough to take the thirty seconds to dig out his own phone and call Cloud himself.

He knew he was being unfair… that he should answer or respond. He just was not ready for Zack’s assurances that they could find a way or Angeal’s comforting arms and words. He wanted some time to be angry and hurt. To feel like he wanted to before he had to put a good face on it.

It was only two minutes before Genesis called. He called twice in rapid succession. Cloud barely had time to dismiss the missed call notification before Genesis’s smiling face appeared on the screen with the red and green call tabs. For a moment he wanted to accept the call… to tell them to fuck off and leave him alone a while… or maybe to let bully Genesis bully him into coming home. The ringing stopped and the picture faded before he was forced to make a choice.

One Missed Call - Genesis

It was too much. Zack, Angeal, Genesis, they were all Soldiers. If he had failed, he could have accepted that. There was always more work to be done in the face of failure. He could train harder, adopt a stricter diet to put on the muscle he would need to keep up with the other candidates. Swordwork and materia were no trouble when you were in love with the four most talented fighters in the army. There was no way to train for mako incompatibility.

There was a good chance that his mind would not survive the Soldier infusions. Cloud had worked tirelessly the others to prepare his body for the exams, never once considering that his mind would fail the last test. The amount of mako was so small that the scientist handling the test had waved Zack off. It usually took an hour or so and the candidate was well able to walk out on his own.

Cloud had blacked out during his. When he came to, the scientist had assured him that, while unusual it was not necessarily a bad sign. He promised to call after the Science Department ran a few additional tests. It was during the follow up call that the man had explained Cloud had barely been conscious and had been babbling nonsense as the mako worked through his body.

Additional testing on samples Cloud had provided proved that while mako had been absorbed by his body at an accelerated rate, it also left his mind unstable. This did not mean he would be rejected outright, but there were a number of risks that made the process exceedingly dangerous. He could lose memories - moments here and there or his entire life and personality. He might even fall into a coma and never awaken.

If he succeeded, he would be a remarkable Soldier, on a level with all of his boyfriends. If he failed, he might not survive it. The Science Department would accept his decision either way.

His phone buzzed briefly one final time, a text message and not a phone call. Cloud glanced at the screen again and opened the message from Sephiroth.

I understand the situation and have explained it to the others. They will leave you to think now. We will be at home if you need someone to talk to and will support you regardless of the choice you make. -S

That was the truth of it. For all that they would offer their advice or opinion if Cloud wanted it, they would respect his choice once it was made. If he decided to choose on his own, they would not be upset and they would be there for him. It was enough to bring a smile to his face for the first time in hours.

Cloud punched in a reply: On my way now.

When he walked through the door to Sephiroth’s apartment he was greeted with relief and smothered in hugs and kisses. No one said anything about the test results, instead admonishing him for not letting them know he was alright. Cloud accepted their scolding with good humor. If the situations were reversed, he would be just as upset.

Only Sephiroth said nothing. He understood the necessity of a good solitary brooding from time to time. Cloud murmured his thanks into Sephiroth’s ear.

Sephiroth drew back, carding his fingers through Cloud’s hair, “Whenever you’re ready, we will be here.”

Chapter Text

It was something that Angeal had tried to explain to him, back when he had been too young to understand. They had been climbing down from the helicopter after a particularly long and difficult training mission, both eager to get cleaned up and fed on something that did not come out of a sealed pouch. Zack remembered looking back at his mentor and thinking that the soft expression on Angeal’s face seemed out of character for the man.

He had spent months learning how to read the non-expressions of Angeal Hewley. He always knew just how much trouble he was in by the downward slope of Angeal’s heavy eyebrows or how funny Angeal really thought his shenanigans were by which side of his lips quirked up in a smile. He had never seen anything like the silly little smile and faraway look in his eyes in the time he had known Angeal.

Zack was not sure what to make of it, “What’s with you, Angeal?”

“I’m just glad to be home.”

Home had always inspired thoughts of jungles and uncomfortably hot days. It definitely did not make Zack feel as warm and fluffy as Angeal seemed to, “You got big plans, or something?”

Angeal chuckled, “Not really. Clean clothes, a warm meal and some more or less pleasant company.”

“Sounds boring.” Zack teased stepping into the elevator with Angeal and pushing the buttons for their floors.

Angeal had been quiet while the elevator dropped. Thoughtful. When he spoke again, the words were heavy with something that Zack had not understood until long after Angeal was gone, “If I have one wish for you, Zack, it’s dozens of boring nights. As many as you can squeeze in.”

Without waiting for a reply, he thumped Zack on the shoulder and stepped out onto his floor. Zack could just make out the silhouette of two figures at the far end of the hallway, one dark, one bright and both waiting near Angeal’s door. He saw Angeal raise a hand to them in greeting as the elevator doors shut again.

Strangely, Zack never felt the loss of Angeal more sharply than he did while riding the stupid elevator down from the helipad. It was just one of the many little things that he had taken for granted while the man was alive.

As painful as the memory of that night was, Zack was glad for it. He understood now what Angeal had been trying to explain to him. He was sure that if he could see his own face, his expression would be soft and silly, maybe a little more eager but only because he always wore his heart on his sleeve. His steps quickened as he headed down the hallway toward his apartment.

He smelled cooking meat and vegetables, only a little singed this time, before he opened the door. He could make out the sound of a television show he could not stand mingled with the laughter of a man he did not think he could live without.

The hurt, the loss, the burnt dinner and bad television, none of it mattered when that blond head tipped over the back of the couch, a pair of bright blue eyes seeking him out. Zack carelessly dropped his gear so he could press an upside down kiss to his boyfriend’s smiling lips. He loved coming home.

Cloud wrinkled his nose as they separated, “You smell.”

“Manly.” Zack replied, striking his best heroic pose, “I smell like a hero.”

“Like a hero who got dumped into some questionable mud by a chocobo.” Cloud turned so he could lean his arms against the back of the couch and get a good look at Zack. His eyes skimmed over Zack’s body, checking him for new wounds or visible scars.

“Good to see you too, ass.” Zack tried and failed to sound annoyed, even as he kissed Cloud again, “Is that edible food I smell?”

“More or less.” Cloud grinned, “Good enough that I didn’t have to call for pizza this time. I washed your comfy flannel pj’s too. They’re on the bed for after you get out of the shower.”

Zack waved a hand over his shoulder as he headed back for the bedroom, “Alright, alright, I can take a hint! Be out in a few.”

He could hear Cloud turn off the television and head into the kitchen to warm up dinner. They knew each other so well, even though they had only been together a short time. There were days Zack wondered how he could have been so lucky to find Cloud in the mess his life was rapidly becoming.

No matter how dark things became or how badly a mission ended, Cloud was there to help lift his spirits. Zack was always there to help Cloud work off the tension and anger when the blond Trooper slammed into the apartment. His own missions with Shinra were beginning to weigh on his conscience as more and more shifted from Soldier to the Army.

Zack wished he could tell Angeal that he understood now. He knew that no matter how many boring nights he had with Cloud, there would never be enough.

Chapter Text

Tifa could not shake the feeling that the dark haired man at table nine was trouble. It was nothing he had done, or said, but he still screamed bad news. He had come in and ordered a drink, retreating to his table and not moving again. His drink was long gone and the ice had melted into a watery rum mix at the bottom of the glass. Despite that, the man had refused another drink or any food.

He had not been rude, or threatening. Wednesday nights were hardly packed, so she could not even push him along to make room for someone else. Each time she checked on him, he had politely responded that he was just fine. He seemed content to simply watch the patrons of the bar, occasionally picking a song from the jukebox.

If not for the mako glow in his eyes, Tifa would have left him alone entirely.

Enough was enough. Cloud had returned from his delivery run and enough time had passed that Tifa was reasonably sure he was out of the shower. If the dark haired Soldier decided to cause trouble, Cloud would be down in a flash to help her handle it.

The man smiled as Tifa approached the table again. She could not help but return it as she flipped open her order pad, “Alright, stranger, there’s got to be something I can tempt you with.”

“Actually, there is.” The man’s voice was clear with hints of teasing, “The blond that headed upstairs a little while ago-”

“Hmm… sorry. The blond’s not on the menu.” Tifa said, cutting him off, “Got a great Icicle area lager that’s real pale. Kind of like a blond.”

“That doesn’t sound half bad, actually,” Instead of the anger she had expected, the man laughed and held up his index finger, “How about this… get one of those and whatever the blond likes to drink and send him over here with it. We can share a drink while we chat.”

Tifa was not sure if she was more annoyed or impressed by his nerve. Very few people stood up to her these day, let alone in her own bar. She wanted to tell him to get lost, but part of her worried where the stranger would wait for Cloud next if she turned him away. At least here, he had backup in case this was a headache hiding behind a handsome face.

There was also something familiar about him that Tifa couldn’t quite place. It was like a forgotten word sitting on the tip of her tongue. When his glowing eyes turned vaguely pleading, she folded, “I’ll make you a deal, stranger. I’ll call him down, tell him that you’ve been waiting for him. If he wants to talk to you, fine. If he tells you to get lost-”

“You’ll get no argument from me, nor will you see me again.” The man agreed, his expression turning oddly grim, “Trust me, if he doesn’t want to talk to me, the last thing I’d want to do is hang around here.”

With one last glare, she turned and headed for the stairs, calling Cloud’s name. She had two glasses of the Icicle lager on a tray before Cloud hit the top stair. He took the tray when she thrust it at him, “Teef?”

“The guy at table nine has been waiting for you for two and a half hours.” She said, voice quiet. A glance at the man in question showed him nervously raking his fingers through his hair, his forehead nearly touching the table, “I’m pretty sure he’s a Soldier. His eyes have the glow, you know? I told him if you said no, that he had to go. Just say the word.”

Cloud peered at the man, his face twisted in a little frown of confusion, “That’s alright. I’ll take care of it.”

Cloud crossed the room in a few quick strides. He set the tray down with a little more force than necessary, the beer sloshing a bit in the glasses without spilling over. The Soldier jumped a little, turning his head so he could see Cloud. His eyes skimmed up Cloud’s body, a wide smile stretching across his face with every inch.

Tifa could see the moment when Cloud recognized the stranger. His arms dropped from where he had them crossed across his chest. She could see the muscles working in his jaw as he tried and failed to say something. Tifa only wished she could see Cloud’s face to see if this was good shock or bad shock.

From the way the man jumped up and enfolded Cloud in a hug, Tifa guessed it was good shock. Cloud was fairly average height for a man and extremely well muscled, but the dark haired Soldier dwarfed him easily, “Hey there, Spike.”

“Zack…” Cloud’s voice was choked with disbelief, buried against Zack’s chest.

Tifa could hardly believe it. Her memories of Zack were fuzzy at best, blurred with age and grief, but she could hardly believe that she had not recognized him on sight. To be fair, Cloud swore up and down that Zack had died so she had no real reason to guess it might be him. Of course, after how regularly the Lifestream seemed to spit out people, Tifa wondered how she could be surprised at all.

Chapter Text

“Gen, this is…”

“Amazing? Perfect? Terribly, terribly romantic?” Genesis supplied when Cloud seemed unable to find the words. He rubbed his thumb in small, soothing circles on the small of Cloud’s back as they paused in the doorway of the ruins of Aeris’s church.

Genesis was more than pleased with the sight before them. Twilight had fallen over Midgar, casting everything into shadow, just as he had imagined that morning when he started decorating the place. Genesis had meticulously wound strings of twinkling lights around the pillars and through the rafters. He had even looped a length around the Buster Sword, imagining Angeal’s disgruntled grumbling as he did so. Larger candles enclosed by mismatched glass jars were scattered on every flat surface to give the whole place a rosy, idyllic glow.

He had spent the better part of the afternoon at Seventh Heaven, slaving away over a romantic meal for the two of them. It had been hard to ignore Tifa’s teasing commentary and Yuffie’s wild speculation, but it had been a small price to pay to have a stove that he knew would not be subject to the power outages that rolled across Edge from time to time. Being a hero and friends with the leader of the WRO had its perks, regardless of what Cloud and Tifa said and Genesis had no problem using that to his advantage.

As he packed everything up to head for the church, Tifa had patted Genesis on the forearm with a peculiar look on her face, “Look, Genesis, just… take it easy on Cloud, okay? He’s not really used to this sort of thing.”

He had bitten back a scathing reply and wished her a good night instead. As if someone had to be used to being wooed to enjoy it. It was hardly his fault if none of Cloud’s other romantic interests had gone out of their way to romance him, but he was not going to hold back because of it. Really, he was beginning to suspect that no one in Avalanche had a romantic bone in their bodies!

With a chuckle, Genesis urged Cloud down toward the blanket he had spread on the floor beside the water’s edge. A bottle of wine chilled in a bucket of ice with two glasses waiting to be filled. Dinner was made up of dainty little bites of things that he knew Cloud enjoyed. Genesis had planned to pamper his sweet blond lover, holding him close and feeding him dinner between kisses. He had missed Cloud during his last delivery and wanted to make sure he knew how glad Genesis was to have him home.

Genesis had not counted on the vaguely bewildered look on Cloud’s face as he tugged the blond down onto the blanket beside him. He filled a glass with chilled wine and held it out to Cloud, trying not to watch too closely as the blond gulped down an apprehensive mouthful without really tasting it. Considering the age of the vintage, that was practically a crime. He sipped from his own glass savoring the taste and letting Cloud gather himself.

“So, uh, what’s the occasion?” Cloud asked with a nervous chuckle, “I didn’t forget something important, did I?”

“Not at all, sweetheart.” Genesis replied, reaching out and tangling his fingers with the fingers of Cloud’s free hand, “I knew you were coming back tonight, so I decided to surprise you… just because.”

Cloud made a noise that was somewhere between appreciation and relief, his shoulders relaxing a bit. He was still drinking his wine a little too quickly, drumming his fingers against the glass in agitation. He gave Genesis a wan smile over the edge of his wine glass when their eyes met again.

Finally, Genesis let out a sad little chuckle, “You hate this, don’t you.”

“I don’t hate it.” Cloud replied quickly, tipping his head back to look up at the lights, “The lights are… pretty and the candles are nice… I bet the food will taste great! Your cooking is always so good.”

“Mmhmm…” Genesis said, his face and tone disbelieving. That was what Tifa had really been warning him about. It was not that Cloud was unused to it, Cloud simply did not seem to appreciate it the way that Genesis had hoped he would. He knew he should not be surprised. After everything he had been through, not to mention the way he had been raised, Cloud was a man of simple tastes. Still, Genesis could not help but feel a little stung at the half-hearted praise.

As if he knew what Genesis was thinking, Cloud flushed and ran his hand through the hair at the nape of his neck, “It’s all great, really, it’s just a bit… much. You didn’t have to do this, you know?”

The worry and hurt in his chest melted away to the warmth he usually felt around Cloud. The man seemed so bold and sturdy most of the time, it was easy to forget how shy he became when someone really focused attention on him. Genesis caught Cloud’s hand, pulling it to his lips, “Of course I didn’t have to, I wanted to. Occasionally, I feel the urge to spoil you, dear heart… and you will let me, because you’re a darling that way.”

Cloud’s lips twitched upward in a smile as Genesis’s lips brushed over his scarred and callused knuckles, “You’re crazy… you know that right?”

“Cloud!”

“Not to mention bossy.” Cloud added, pulling his hands away so he could cup Genesis’s cheek. The caress was so at odds with the playful insults that Genesis began to laugh in spite of himself.

“Shut up, I’m a delight!” Genesis growled, dragging Cloud across the blanket, “Come here and let me feed you, you ungrateful savage. I know you don’t eat well enough when you’re on the road.”

“Yes sir.” Cloud teased, turning so he could rest his back against Genesis’s chest. He obediently opened his mouth and nipped at Genesis’s fingers teasingly when he held up a mushroom stuffed with a tasty spinach dip. His little murmur of appreciation was heartfelt, even if his earlier words had rung a little false.

Genesis chuckled, letting his chin rest on top of Cloud’s head, inhaling the scent of his freshly washed hair and a hint of his cologne. Tifa must have given Cloud warning that he was up to something, “Now, I want to hear all about your trip. Tell me everything.”

The tension went out of Cloud’s body at last as he relaxed against Genesis. Between sharing bites of dinner, Cloud told Genesis every interesting thing he could think of about his trip to and from Corel. While it was hardly the romantic evening he had planned, Genesis found himself appreciating it all the same. Cloud did make an effort to be appropriately admiring once he stopped worrying and even admitted that the lights and candles were even better after full dark. It was one of the many things they would have to compromise on, but Genesis doubted it would be difficult. Things rarely were between them.

Chapter Text

Coming into Zack’s apartment was always a bit of an adventure for Angeal. Zack was one of the most uninhibited people Angeal had ever met, a strange trait for someone who had joined the military as young as Zack had. He had often remarked that he considered Angeal family and, while it was a sentiment that Angeal found endearing, it also meant that Angeal had walked in on Zack doing all manner of strange things.

For once, Angeal was not too worried about what he would find behind the door to Zack’s apartment when the younger man bid him to enter. He was supposed to be meeting Zack’s new boyfriend, Cloud Strife, over dinner, so he expected that Zack was putting the finishing touches on the meal or making a mad rush to straighten up the apartment before they arrived.

“I’m glad you got here first, Angeal.” Zack’s voice came, not from the kitchen as he had expected, but from the living room, “Would you come tell me if this looks even?”

Angeal kicked off his boots and followed Zack’s voice. The young man was adjusting the edge of a heavy black picture frame to hang straight. Zack glanced back expectantly, but Angeal could not take his eyes from the large hole in the wall in the middle of the empty frame.

“Zack… I don’t… what did you..?”

Zack’s grin was wide with a touch of mischief, “Not me. Turns out my sweet little blond boy has a serious temper.”

There was a small black tag just under the right corner of the frame, like something straight out of an art museum, “‘Our First Fight’; Medium: Fist, Drywall.”

“You and Cloud had a fight?” Angeal asked, wincing when Zack nodded with more enthusiasm than someone should when thinking about a disagreement with a person they cared about, “He put his fist through the wall?”

“That wasn’t the point, obviously.” Zack said with a fond chuckle, “He just got so wound up and we were yelling and then, bam! Once I stopped being so freaked out- I mean, his hand was through the wall- it was really, really funny.”

Angeal shook his head, torn between amusement and disbelief, “What were you fighting about?”

Zack laughed, running his hand through his hair, “Honestly, by the time we got his hand cleaned up and healed, I had completely forgotten what started it. We’ve been friends a while and making the switch to dating kind of put a strain on things. I don’t really see a difference… I mean, I’ve always thought he was good looking and funny. Now, when I think about kissing him, I can just do it without all the angst and unrequited longing. Calling him my boyfriend didn’t really change the way I felt about him. Cloud takes everything so seriously though! I swear, he’s got to have this weird little checklist stashed someplace with all the things we shouldbe doing because we’re boyfriends now.”

Angeal made a noncommittal noise in his throat. Zack had a habit of thinking out loud as he tried to get to his point. He watched the younger man gently run a finger over the top of the picture frame with a lopsided grin, “It was actually kind of a relief to see him let loose, you know? He’s been sort of uptight recently and careful about what he says and how he says it. It’s like he’s afraid I’m going to dump him if he disagrees with me now.”

“Sounds like he cares about you a lot.” Angeal said, clasping his protege on his shoulder with a fond smile.

A flush crawled up his neck and he shrugged Angeal off with a bashful chuckle, “Yeah, yeah. I’m pretty fond of him myself, but I miss him being a sharp tongued smart ass sometimes.”

Angeal studied the framed hole, “You sure this is a good idea?”

“It’s a terrible idea.” Zack said with a beaming smile as he shifted the frame a bit again, “It’s also very much something I would have done before. I guess you could say I’m taking a stand.”

Before Angeal could say anything else, the door opened, “Zack?”

“In the living room, babe!” Zack backed away from the wall to lean against the back of  the couch, “Angeal just got here. You hungry?”

Angeal was surprised by the short, lean blond that came into the living room. He looked sweet and unassuming, definitely not the kind of person who would put his fist through a wall during an argument. He tried not to watch too obviously as Cloud greeted Zack with a kiss hello, “Starving. I was on patrol in Sectors Two and Three today. Didn’t even get lunch.”

Cloud turned to introduce himself to Angeal, but his eyes caught and held on the framed hole in the wall. He froze, staring at it in mild horror, “Zack!”

Zack’s grin was unrepentant as he pushed off the couch and wrapped Cloud up from behind. He rested his chin on top of Cloud’s spiky hair, admiring his handiwork, “Yes?”

Angeal watched Cloud’s face flickered with a number of emotions, jumping from distress to anger, to disbelief and then finally to amused resignation. He sagged back against Zack’s chest a moment before shrugging him off and shifting the frame slightly to the right, “If you’re going to do something this stupid, at least hang the frame straight.”

“Angeal! You were supposed to tell me if it was crooked!” Zack complained, doing his best not to laugh around the words.

“Don’t try to make me your accomplice.” Angeal said, lips twitching upward in a smile, “It’s nice to meet you, Cloud. Zack talks about you constantly.”

Cloud turned and took Angeal’s outstretched hand with a smile, “Nice to meet you too, Commander Hewley.”

Zack could hardly contain himself, watching the two most important men in his life meet at last. Cloud went adorably pink as Angeal demanded that he do away with the formality for the night. Unable to contain himself, Zack slung an arm around each of their shoulders and steered them toward the kitchen, “I’ve been slaving all afternoon to make sure you had a delicious, home cooked meal tonight. Let’s eat before it gets cold.”

“You know, Cissnei told me what we were having when we passed each other on the elevator…” Cloud said slyly, trying and failing to conceal a smile.

“I didn’t say that I cooked it.” Zack replied cheerfully, “I like you guys too much for that. All I’ll say is that you never want to owe a Turk a favor, not even a little one like this. I’m pretty sure half of the 'errands’ I ran for her were actually for Reno. Man, the stuff I had to go pick up…”

It was just what Zack had envisioned all day long… a warm kitchen full of laughter with a delicious meal on the table. His sweet blond love was charming his former mentor with ease, with Angeal recommending a coffee shop in Sector Two that was known for getting quick lunches to Troopers and Soldiers on patrol. Zack was also sure that he and Cloud would work out their early relationship jitters now that he had taken the first step to get them really talking again.

That could come later, though. For now he would sit back and enjoy the night, surrounded by the family he was creating in Midgar.

Chapter Text

It had been a long week. A quick, simple mission to Kalm and back had taken four days, most of which had been spent trapped in a freak rainstorm and then the subsequent sucking bog that the wastes of Midgar became when drowned in that much water. They had not been able to radio for backup, the equipment had been damaged beyond use in the sudden downpour, so they had been forced to complete the mission and hike to Kalm in the nasty weather. Thankfully, Shinra sent a truck out to pick them up, but Cloud could still feel the mud squelching between his toes with each step as he made his way up to the Soldier floors.

Cloud had sent Zack a message when Midgar appeared on the horizon to let him know that the mission was finally over and he would be home within the hour. He hoped that his boyfriend had dinner and some dry clothes waiting for him. He was not expected to report for duty until the next afternoon and he fully intended to enjoy the downtime to the fullest. Cloud pushed open the door to the apartment he shared with Zack, immediately pulling it shut again to block the ice spell that had been flung at his head.

“Shit! Cloud?”

Slowly, Cloud peeked around the door again. The smoldering remains of their couch glowed in the unusual dimness of the apartment. The carpet in the living room was horribly singed and some of the furniture that had surrounded the couch definitely looked worse for wear. There was another blackened pile in front of the couch that Cloud could not immediately identify. He peered at it until he saw an unburnt corner of blue and grey flannel and what looked like a leg from one of the kitchen chairs.

In the middle of the chaos, Zack stood with his hands up in surrender. The ice materia still glowed faintly from what had obviously been repeated castings of a low level ice spell, “It’s not what it looks like.”

“It looks like you made a giant blanket fort in the middle of our living room,” Cloud said, flatly, coming the rest of the way into the room when it was clear that Zack was finished casting for the time being, “…and put candles in it, burning down the couch while trying to set the mood.”

Cloud dropped his muddy gear on the floor of the entry way, arching an eyebrow at Zack to dare him to deny it. Zack chuckled and scratched the back of his head nervously, “Okay. It is what it looks like, but I was trying to surprise you! You remember the second day of the mission when you sent me a message saying that you didn’t want to be an adult anymore and you just wanted to make a pillow fort and watch cartoons with cookies..?”

Cloud had been trying to unknot his boots so he could free his waterlogged feet at last, but froze at Zack’s words, “There were cookies?”

Zack’s voice was small, “…yeah?”

“But not anymore?” Cloud asked, his tone dangerously calm.

“Well… they were in the fort… so…” Zack swallowed hard and started edging around him toward the door, “But it’s okay! I’ll go get more when I go out to get us new pillows.”

Cloud buried his face in his hands and groaned, “New pillows?”

“Wouldn’t be much of a pillow fort if there were no pillows in it, right?” Zack’s eyes were wide and pleading, “It’s alright, Cloud, I’ll fix it. Why don’t you just go take a nice, long, hot shower… or even better a bath! Soak out the aches of the mission. I’ll be back in no time with pillows and cookies and-”

Cloud caught Zack by the front of his shirt when he made a dash for the door. He dragged his taller boyfriend down until they were eye to eye before kissing him hard. He broke off the kiss as suddenly as he had started it and shoved Zack toward the door, “I missed you, Zack.”

“Welcome home, babe.” Zack grinned and winked at him, “Be back in a sec.”

Cloud peeled himself out of the damp armor and sodden boots, doing his best to ignore the wreckage of the living room. His brain did not have the capacity to deal with it. He did pause briefly to glance at the ruined remains of the couch before heading for the bathroom, “Damn it. I liked that couch.”

Chapter Text

Sephiroth started stripping off his gloves the moment he closed his apartment door behind him. It had been a hell of a day, more tedious than anything, but he longed to trade his uniform for a pair of comfortable pants and throw himself face first on his bed until he was needed again in the morning. His plans were to be as unproductive as possible until then.

Of course, that changed when he realized he was not alone.

Sephiroth moved cautiously down the hall toward his bedroom. He was not too concerned about stealth, as the intruder was not making any attempt to hide his presence, but he wanted to be sure he was ready for whatever surprise was waiting for him.

In retrospect, Sephiroth was not sure he could have been prepared for this particular surprise. Cloud Strife was stretched out in his bed, naked. He had artfully draped a sheet over his hip, but it left very little to the imagination.

Not that his imagination needed any assistance. Sephiroth had been immediately attracted to the blond Trooper when Zack had introduced them. Sephiroth had bumped into the pair as they exited the Soldier training room and while the meeting had been brief, the image of bright blue eyes and a damp shirt clinging to the lean muscles of of Cloud’s chest and shoulders lingered in his mind for days after.

In the weeks that followed, Sephiroth ran into Cloud often… usually because he was with Zack. He enjoyed his time speaking with the Trooper, more than he probably should if he was honest with himself. The man was charming and quirky, quick-witted in a quiet way. He also had a bit of wicked humor that had been an unexpected joy.

He thought he had been discreet. Cloud was a Trooper with aspirations to become a Soldier. There had also been a fair bit of obvious hero worship in his gaze on the night they had met that had only faded a bit as the time passed. Both of those things would inevitably lead to complications, so he had ignored Zack’s pointed offers to help them get to know one another.

The desire to pounce and take warred with his common sense. From the stories he had heard from Zack, Cloud had always seemed a bit uncertain of himself in most things. No matter what he had achieved, he never seemed to believe it made him good enough. The Cloud that Zack had described would never turn up naked in someone’s bed without being invited.

“Is there a reason you’re naked in my bed?”

The smile on Cloud’s face, so warm and self-assured immediately melted away. He sat up, pulling the sheet to cover himself. A small part of Sephiroth mourned the loss of the sight of the lean, muscled chest and abdomen, “I… uh… got your note this afternoon.”

Sephiroth quirked an eyebrow, “My note?”

“Yeah, it was wrapped around the keycard to your apartment.” Cloud said, pointing to the clothing folded on top of Sephiroth’s dresser, “How else would I have gotten in here?”

“It’s been done before, though you hardly look like an assassin.” He had been trying to crack a joke, but Cloud rising embarrassment and his own tightly wound control left it to fall flat. Cloud flushed and Sephiroth felt his eyes following the color as it spread down his neck and to his chest. He turned quickly to find Cloud’s pants and the note.

On first glance, even Sephiroth would have thought it was his handwriting. The letters were evenly spaced with the particular little flourishes that he put on his s’s and t’s.

When I return home this evening, I want to see you naked in my bed. Do not make me wait.

Of course, if he were trying to set up an intimate meeting for the two of them, he would not have put it in writing and certainly not in the way it had been worded, “How… long have you been here. This note is not particularly clear on when I-”

“It’s been a while…” Cloud shrugged, “I’ve spent afternoons in much worse places. Your bed is really comfortable.”

Sephiroth could hardly argue with that. He had spent a lot of gil to ensure that it was so. He folded the note again and put it in his own pocket, “I did not write that note, though, it is a remarkable forgery. I can hardly fault you for being fooled.”

Cloud sank back onto the bed, horrified. He pulled the sheet more firmly around him, “Well. This is awful.”

“I’m afraid you have Zack to thank for this.” Sephiroth said, unsure of how to comfort Cloud without embarrassing him further, “He is the only one, besides myself, with the keycard to my apartment.”

“You’re not too attached to him, are you?” Cloud asked, fists tightening in the fabric of the sheet, “I mean, I’m sure there’s someone else who could make a decent second in command, right?”

“As much as I would like to, I can’t let him shoulder all the blame… even if his meddling was a bit much this time.” Sephiroth sighed and sat beside Cloud on the edge of the bed, “Zack has known me for some time now. When he realized I was fond of you, but would do nothing about it for my own sake, he obviously took matters into his own hands. It was wrong of him, but not completely misguided.”

Cloud glanced up at him sidelong, “Fond of me?”

This time Sephiroth allowed himself to be openly admiring as he looked Cloud over. When his eyes met Cloud’s again, the warm smile had returned to the blond’s face, “Oh. Okay. Well, what now?”

Sephiroth set Cloud’s pants in his lap, “You will put your clothes back on before we do something foolish. I will change into something more comfortable and we can spend the evening actually getting to know one another… let things follow their own course?”

“Sounds good to me.” Cloud stood and gathered the rest of his clothing from the dresser, “I… uh… guess I’ll just go to the bathroom and get changed.”

Sephiroth pointed to the door that connected directly to the bathroom. When he reached the door, Cloud paused, glancing back over his shoulder at Sephiroth. With a small, sly smile, he dropped the sheet. Sephiroth only got the briefest glance of the smooth, pale skin of his back and the muscular curve of his backside before Cloud closed the door, but it was enough to ensure he wanted to see more.

“That was cruel.” Sephiroth said, grabbing the sheet from the floor and tossing it back on the bed.

“Well, Zack always  says I’m kind of a shit.” Cloud called through the door, “It’s probably a good thing to know about me.”

Sephiroth chuckled and pulled out his PHS. He typed a quick message to Zack, “You are in for a world of pain tomorrow. I’m going to let Cloud have you first, and then you can deal with me afterwards.”

Zack’s response was quick and to the point.

“Still worth it. Have fun!”

Chapter Text

Genesis had never put much stock in Angeal’s student, Zack Fair. He had potential, certainly, but so would anyone that Angeal spent time with. His childhood friend was an excellent teacher with the patience of a saint. That was not to say that Zack was without his own merits, he was kind-hearted and amusing in his own ways… talented with a blade, if a bit of an idiot with materia sometimes. He made Angeal deliriously happy, which was a positive mark for him if there ever was one. He also knew some of the most remarkable people.

Aeris Gainsborough might have been able to fool others into thinking her a normal girl, but it had taken only one look for Genesis to see that she was something extraordinary. She had spent much of her life hidden away in the slums and had Zack not stumbled ass backwards over a railing during a mission gone wrong, she would have likely remained hidden away for much longer. As glad as he was that Zack had survived his fall into the slums, Genesis was gladder still that a frenzied Angeal had dragged him along on the search for his missing protege.

The old church on its own had been a marvel. It was an ancient building that must have been a beautiful piece of work in the days when it had been new. The outer facade was built of a white stone that managed to shine even in the dim artificial light of the slums. Most of the stained glass windows had survived and were lovely, intricate pieces of art, if a bit dirty. Had Angeal not grabbed him by the coat sleeve and hauled him inside, Genesis would have happily spent time trying to decipher the story each window told.

Of course, the inside had charms all its own. The high vaulted ceilings, now sporting a Zack shaped hole in the center, gave the room an open, airy feeling that was very unusual for the slums. Even the artificial light that streamed through the windows seemed brighter and more like sunlight. The inside were a shambles. Tattered banners still hung from the walls, remnants from a long forgotten holy day that had once been celebrated here. Most of the pews had been damaged or torn up completely, but Genesis hardly noticed that at all.

At the heart of the church, the floorboards had been removed to make room for a garden. That alone should have tipped Genesis off to how unique Aeris was. Nothing grew in Midgar. Even Angeal, gifted as he was with money to burn on the best supplies and seeds in the city, had a hard time keeping plants alive in his apartment on the plate. The obvious health of these flowers, not to mention the sheer number of the blooms, spoke of an extraordinary skill… one Angeal had taken note of once he finished ensuring Zack’s continued health and well-being by shoving his tongue down the man’s throat.

Zack had made promises to come back and thank her properly for taking care of him after the fall. She had denied doing anything besides talking to him and shaking his shoulder a bit, but Genesis knew the signs of magical healing better than anyone. From the charge in the air, Genesis suspected that Zack’s injuries had been severe. He let her keep her secrets, assuming that she was just trying to save Angeal unwarranted worry. What was done, was done, and Zack had lived. It was not likely that Zack was going to intentionally throw himself from the top plate into the slums again.

So when he gave her a knowing look as they said their goodbyes, the fear he saw reflected in her striking green eyes was an unpleasant surprise.

Genesis liked it even less when he saw that same fear in her eyes the next time they met a few days later.  He had taken a monster clearing mission in the slums to help clear his mind and avoid a meeting with Lazard regarding the appropriate use of summon materia in the VR Simulation room. The damage had actually been done by Sephiroth, but since he was the only one in possession of a Bahamut summons in the building, no one believed him. He flat out refused to take the blame for Sephiroth’s screw ups.

The whole eaters had been unpleasant to hunt but not a difficult fight by any means. It was the Hell House that took him by surprise. It was still dispatched easily enough, but the exploding attacks had already done their damage, destroying his coat sleeve and burning his arm. In his rush to escape the building, Genesis had left his usual healing materia and potions behind. He had been prepared to bear the pain until he reached his apartment until he noticed the flutter of a sundress and chestnut curls hidden behind a broken down crane on the side of the road.

“Miss Gainsborough?”

For a moment, it appeared as if she planned to ignore him. Then, she stepped out from behind the crane, a basket of flowers clutched to her chest, “Hello.”

Her voice was wary, whole body poised for flight. It was a strange departure from the playful, giggling young woman he had met only days before. Genesis found himself more disturbed by the change than he should be. He tried to keep his voice light, “Trapped by the monsters on your way between sectors?”

“Mmm… they usually go away if you wait for long enough.” Aeris shrugged, “Still, I’m lucky you happened by. You’re pretty strong, huh? Able to fight off that many monsters?”

“That was hardly a challenge.” Genesis waived off her compliment, hissing when the air hit his forgotten burns.

Aeris gasped, “Your arm!”

Genesis sneered at his wounds, more annoyed with himself than anything, “A lucky strike, to be certain. Not really anything for a Soldier, like myself, but hardly pleasant. Of course, fool that I am, I ran off to play hero without my healing supplies. I don’t suppose you would be so kind?”

The fear was instant, almost instinctual. Genesis did not understand it nor did he care for it. He could see the way her hands tightened around the basket of flowers, “You’re a Soldier?”

“I thought that much would have been obvious.” Genesis sketched a mocking bow, “Soldier First Class, Genesis Rhapsodos… humbly at your service. Now, if you please, my arm? Or at the very least, might I borrow your materia and take care of it myself?”

“I don’t… I can’t-”

Genesis rolled his eyes, “Don’t be coy, Miss Gainsborough. I don’t care why you keep it a secret, my motivation is purely self serving.”

“I mean it. I don’t have any healing materia…” Aeris shrugged, “I wouldn’t know what to do with it, even if I did! I’ve never used a materia before in my life.”

“Then how do you explain Zack’s miraculous recovery.” Genesis asked. She appeared honest enough, but the thought was absurd. Genesis knew what he had sensed that day. Healing magic had been used. She was only denying it now that she knew he was a Soldier. That was a strange reason to fear him.

…and yet, all the color had drained from her face. Ashen and shaken, her voice was soft, barely above a whisper, “It was an accident… he startled me when he fell.”

Both she and Genesis spotted the Turk at the same time. He could see the moment she decided to run and caught her elbow with his unburnt hand. There was more to this than met the eye and he was not going to let her go until he understood it. Pitching his voice so the Turk could hear him, he said, “Don’t worry, Aeris. I’m more than enough to protect you from the monsters around here.”

His tone was warm and familiar, teasing even. Anyone around them might have assumed they were the dearest of friends… more even. After one long moment, she nodded, “Alright.”

He let his hand move from her elbow to the small of her back, guiding her back toward Sector Five. Beneath his hand, he could feel her spine straightening, obviously trying to screw up her courage. When she spoke again, her lips barely moved, “My mother told me that Soldiers would come for me one day. The only reason I haven’t run is because I know I can’t outrun a Soldier in the open like this… but if you think I’m just going to let you take me to Hojo-”

“Let me assure you.” Genesis said smoothly, cutting off her rant before she could draw more attention to them, “My mission parameters included clearing out the monster nest in Sector Six. I have no interest in stealing interesting young women away and giving them to that sociopath. That’s what the Turks are for. Since one is following us, I suggest you calm down and pretend like I’m your utterly charming hero.”

“Rude won’t bother us.” Aeris replied quietly, “I gave him the slip coming out of Wall Market, but now that he knows I’m okay, he’ll give me some space.”

Genesis quirked an eyebrow down at her, “You’re on a first name basis with the Turks?”

She only shrugged and gave him a pretty, vacant smile, “I heard they recruit for Soldier, too. Maybe they think I have what it takes,”

“You’d do better to speak with me. I am Sephiroth’s right hand man, after all.” Genesis’s smile was dangerous, “In fact, I’d like to have a nice long, uninterrupted, conversation with you.”

“That kind of sounds like a date.”

Genesis snorted. He could not decide if she was that naive or if she was trying to provoke him. He shook his head and decided to play along, “Very well. A date, then.”

There was something mischievous in Aeris’s eyes as she lead them toward a busy group of buildings, “I know just the place, but you’re buying the ice cream.”

He should have known then that he had more than met his match. She was playful and silly, speaking with nearly everyone along the way about any number of topics, but Genesis suspected that it was an act to throw off the Turk. She also managed to talk someone out of a potion along the way and handed it to him without looking at him. Given the mistrustful looks he got from some of the citizens of the slums, he suspected that they would not have given it, had they realized it was for him. He took it gratefully and applied it to his burns with a sign of relief. After that, it only seemed fair to go along with her request for ice cream and, though he had grimaced at the very idea, he followed her to a nearby park at her request.

It was not until he was perched on top of the slide beside her that he realized the strategy in the choice. There was nothing nearby to hide behind. If anyone attempted to listen to their conversation, it would be obvious. Genesis could see where Rude had settled in to watch them, some distance away. If they were careful, he would not be able to make out a word.

“You’re hiding from Shinra.” Genesis said bluntly. It was not a questions. Aeris did not deny it, “If you’re going to hide, there are better places to be than the slums of Midgar.”

“The only reason they don’t drag me back kicking and screaming is because they think I’m a nobody.” Aeris said, hiding her lips behind the ice cream, “As soon as I try to run, I become somebody again. It’s safer to be nobody and hide.”

“Hiding will get you nowhere… except captured one day. The smarter option would be to learn to fight back.” 

She laughed, “Right. I’ll just head over to the gym in the Wall Market and ask them to teach me to fight. I bet the weapons shop next door will have a pair of bladed knuckles that will match my outfit perfectly!”

Genesis snorted, “That would be a waste when you have one of Shinra’s finest materia users at your disposal.”

Her amusement died, for all that she kept smiling. When she spoke again, her voice was strained, “I told you, I don’t know how to use materia.”

“I am offering to teach you, you silly girl.” Genesis nudged her foot with his own booted one, “I would recommend accepting quickly. I’m a fickle man, ask anyone, I’ll lose interest and forget all about you, if you don’t.”

Aeris met his gaze, mistrust warring with the desire to learn, “How?”

“I’ll think of something.” Genesis said, waiving the concern aside with his free hand, “Is that a yes?”

“It’s a mistake, is what it is.” She grumbled but she nodded all the same.

It had been laughably easy to get rid of the Turks. Aeris’s knowledge of their schedules and their habits was a little unsettling, but he was more than willing to use it to his advantage. They spent the afternoon in her church, talking about nothing and anything. At the time that Reno usually swapped in on a Tuesday afternoon, Genesis headed for the station. Unless he was willing to go nearly all the way around the pillar or wait several hours for the next train, Rude would have no choice but to follow him to the Sector Seven station.

It was even easier than expected. While he was not so bold as to walk with Genesis to the train, he did little to conceal himself, probably assuming that Genesis had been unaware of his presence the rest of the day. Maybe he just did not care. Turks were occasionally careless that way, not because of a lack of skill, but simply because they they enjoyed making a statement. Assassins owned by the most powerful man in the world had very little to fear, after all.

A few blistering words in Veld’s ear demanding to know why the Turks found it necessary to follow him and threats of retribution if it ever happened again, and an opening to train Aeris was created.

Of course, he waited some time before he used it. They spent a number of perfectly mundane afternoons together. At first, Genesis feared he would grow bored with the inactivity, but he instead came to crave his afternoons in Aeris’s company. There was something soothing about watching her work in the garden. He spent more than one happy day lying across a bench and studying the way her fingers wound through the flowers. He always left feeling revitalized in a way that he could not quite put his finger on.

Sometimes they spoke, often of frivolous things. Aeris was not well read or particularly educated, but she had a quick and clever wit that Genesis appreciated. She also enjoyed his reading of Loveless, though she refused to discuss characters or themes in any kind of meaningful way. Genesis suspected she did it to get a rise out of him, rather than because she had nothing to say on the topic.

Finally, some weeks later, Genesis did a sweep of the area around the church. If they had Turk watchers, they were so well hidden that Genesis could not find them. He and Aeris took a walk toward Sector Seven and, when they were sure they were actually alone, Genesis led her past the train station to the area where all the unused and damaged trains were dumped.

It had taken some time, not to mention a few laughably bad attempts and a pair of pants that had been burnt beyond repair, but Aeris picked up magic faster than any Soldier recruit Genesis had ever seen. Each week he brought more rare and varied types, but almost nothing gave her pause.

They day she revealed the secret of Zack’s recovery, that she could cast healing magic using only her own will as a sort of limit break, Genesis was rendered speechless. She could not, or would not, explain the phenomenon, but Genesis did not fault her. However, that was the day that he realized that he had nothing more to teach her. For all that it had been a joke used to hide her surveillance by the Turks, he almost wished he could recruit her for Soldier.

Not that he would, but that was part of a separate matter that he staunchly refused to acknowledge… even in his own mind.

Watching her cast was like poetry in motion. The materia was so responsive in her hands. He still could not understand how she accomplished it. No matter how hard he worked he could not match her speed or her control. They moved from stationary targets to nearby monsters and she adjusted to working beside him like it was effortless. Only Angeal and Sephiroth had ever managed that before her.

For the first time in his life, he did not mind being second best at something. Maybe it was because magic came to her as easily as breathing. Maybe it was because she was lovely, lit by the glow of whatever element she summoned to do her bidding.

“Genesis, if you keep looking at me like that we won’t make it to a bed.”

The reason was irrelevant. She was the match he had always wanted. He quirked an eyebrow at her as she straightened her dress after their last fight with a group of monsters, “My dear, you say that as if we’ve ever had need of a bed before.”

The blush that bloomed on her cheeks was a surprise. The words that followed even more so, “Well, maybe we do now… or we should… or-”

Aeris rolled her eyes and made a noise of annoyance at the back of her throat. She spun and marched over to him, yanking him down by the leather cross straps on his chest so she could reach his mouth. The kiss was brief and clumsy, over before his mind even registered that she was kissing him. Instead of the embarrassment he expected, Aeris met his gaze with her own defiant one. She was waiting for him to refuse her. Maybe a better man would, but he was not that man.

The goddess descends from the sky, wings of light and dark spread afar,” He cupped her chin and kissed her back properly, with a deliberate slowness that had been lacking in their first. When they parted, he could not help his smirk, “She guides us to bliss, her gift everlasting.”

Aeris’s laughter was a little breathless, “That was cheesy, even for you.”

Genesis made a noise that was neither acceptance nor denial and released her face with an absent caress. He would not insult her by questioning her decision. She was a woman who knew her own mind, after all. Instead he gestured down the path they had been walking, “Shall we continue?”

Her smile was bright and mischievous, “Probably should. I feel a sudden need to get back to the church.”

Immediately, Genesis wondered what would be waiting for them. He also realized that Aeris had been planning that little display for some time. He watched her walk ahead of him, a bit of extra sway in her step, “Minx.”

“Maybe, but you wouldn’t have me any other way.”

Her giggle was lost in the roar of a nearby monster. He stepped up beside her, readying his blade, and realized she was not wrong.

Chapter Text

“Apparently, Reno volunteered to take the new paperwork showing our domestic partnership status up to Hojo himself to add to Sephiroth’s medical file.” Zack said, grinning from his place on the carpet at Angeal’s feet, “When Reno finally left again, Hojo was still cursing and had moved on to throwing things.”

“Well, of course. This mean that he has to be careful what he does during Sephiroth’s checkups. If he comes back late or with any oddities we can go after Hojo legally now.” Genesis chuckled from his spot on the other couch, “Shinra Sr. is going to have to start putting a leash on him… that’s going to be easier than dealing with all four of us. Well done, my darling. I wish we had thought of this years ago.”

Sephiroth’s smile was a touch smug, “Well, I’m not sure I could have gotten away with walking into legal and demanding they recognize my four domestic partners years ago.”

“It helps that the documents were iron clad.” Zack added leaning over to nudge Genesis’s leg playfully, “Reno said that legal spent hours trying to find a way to invalidate them.”

Genesis snorted, “My father was landlord of Banora… of course I know how to put together a legal document.”

“I’m just glad that everything’s out in the open.” Cloud murmured. He smiled when Sephiroth tugged him closer, so careful of the areas on his body that still sported bandages from his injuries, “I thought I’d be more worried, once we went ‘public,’ but knowing that they can’t keep you out of the infirmary if I ever get hurt on a mission again is worth any amount of grief I get from… well… anybody.”

It was a sobering memory for them all, desperate hours after an infantry mission went wrong while they waited to hear if Cloud would survive the emergency surgery. Cloud had been hit by a shrapnel blast when one of his squadmates had tripped a hidden explosive device during a patrol in the slums.

A girl had been trying to develop explosives to combat the monsters that had nested near her home. She had thought it a failure and left it behind when she went home. While Cloud’s squad was trying to wipe out the nest, the device detonated.

The materia that his squad’s healers carried had not been powerful enough to push out the bits of molten metal. Instead, Cloud’s flesh had tried to heal over it. It was a nasty injury that could have killed or seriously crippled Cloud if he was not treated immediately.

As their relationship had been private, none of them had been allowed access to Cloud. The mission had been Infantry only, so not even their status as First Class Soldiers could help. Zack’s friendship with Cloud gave him reason to hang around the infirmary for word, but the doctors and nurses had been tight lipped about the whole thing until Cloud was well past danger. It had been agonizing.

Worse still were the two days that followed where Cloud had not been allowed visitors. Cloud had finally threatened to get up and leave, stitches be damned, if they did not let Zack come in and say hello. Things were easier after that, but they still had to hear the details of the injury and treatment that followed from Cloud himself because they were not considered family. When Sephiroth suggested they apply for domestic partnership, they had all immediately agreed.

“You tell me if anybody gives you too much grief.” Zack said, playfully punching his fist against the palm of his other hand, “I can publicly come be your overprotective boyfriend now. There’s a couple of guys you’ve told me about-”

“Don’t you dare.” Cloud replied, trying and failing to hide a smile, “I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

Genesis and Sephiroth chuckled at their antics. While nothing much had changed in the week since they had made their public statement in the legal office, the fact that they were no longer hiding their relationship made everything seem a little easier.  Everyone smiled and laughed a little more.

Everyone except Angeal. Zack leaned back against Angeal’s shins so he could tilt his head back over Angeal’s knees and look up at his face, “You’ve been awfully quiet the last couple of days, ‘Geal. What gives?”

Angeal blinked hard, startled from his introspection, “Hm..? Oh. It’s nothing.”

“That’s not your nothing face, dear.” Genesis admonished gently, “You’ve been so pensive recently. What’s on your mind?”

Angeal’s expression was so conflicted that Sephiroth finally said, “You aren’t having second thoughts, are you?”  

“What? No! Of course not.” Angeal’s response had been immediate, and the relief on his boyfriends’ faces made him feel a little guilty. He rubbed his hand along the side of his face and neck, “Kinda the opposite, actually.”

Now that he had their attention, Angeal knew he could not back down. He smiled down at Zack first, laughing when Zack turned and pressed a teasing kiss to his kneecap. He turned his attention to the opposite couch where Cloud and Sephiroth were cuddled up together with Genesis leaning against the arm of the couch, his feet across their laps. These men were his life and he could not imagine living without them.

“Let’s get married.”

The stunned silence in the room only lasted a moment before pandemonium erupted. Zack let out a whoop of joy and all but threw himself in Angeal’s lap. Both Cloud and Sephiroth questioned if they could do that, Cloud tone more surprised and Sephiroth’s speculative. It was Genesis’s reaction that Angeal was watching most closely. After a few sputtered, inarticulate noises, Genesis asked, “Why bother?”

Zack turned to glare at Genesis, “And you claim to be the true romantic in our relationship.”

“No, I mean, what would marriage bring to our relationship.” Genesis scowled, snapping the copy of Loveless that had been in his lap shut for emphasis, “We’ve had to hide our feelings for each other for years because of outdated, traditional relationship roles like that. Why should we bother to conform now that everyone knows?”

“It’s not about conforming, Gen.” Angeal said, trying not to grin at the arguments that Genesis had made since there had just been the two of them, “It’s about being committed to each other. Just picture it, the five of us going somewhere quiet and special to us… making vows to care for each other… a pretty silver ring for your finger.”

Zack laughed outright, “In Gongaga, we carve them from the horn of a Heavy Tank. I love you guys, but please don’t make me me wear one. They’re such a pain in the ass to carve.”

“They’re gold in Nibelheim…” Cloud’s expression was so soft and wistful that every protest that had been sitting on the tip of Genesis’s tongue immediately melted away.

“Oh hell… I suppose no one could accuse us of conforming to stereotypical norms if we’re having a five person wedding.” Genesis threw his hands up in defeat, “How does one even accomplish such a thing?”

Zack grinned, “I have some ideas… gotta talk to a girl I know first, but I think we can make this work.”

Angeal’s arms tightened around Zack’s waist, “So that’s it… we’re doing this? You guys want to marry me?”

“That sounds so weird!” Zack protested, but he was quick to kiss Angeal anyway, “I’m in.”

Genesis unfolded himself from the couch and crossed to join them, Sephiroth and Cloud right behind him, “Let’s do it. I already promised to spend my life with you on cold, heartless legal documents. We may as well have some fun with it.”

Cloud dropped down into the empty space beside Angeal and Zack, nudging Zack aside so he could kiss Angeal, “I’m so glad that you said something.”

“Me too.” Angeal laughed as Genesis and Sephiroth tried to find space to sit on the tiny loveseat, “I’ve been thinking about it for a while now… even before all this happened. It just seemed silly and sentimental, so I never said anything.”

“You should have!” Zack said, Cloud echoing his agreement a moment later.

“So, when are we doing this?” Angeal asked.

Zack grabbed his PHS to check his schedule, “I can go talk to my friend tomorrow afternoon? I’ll see when she would be free so we can pick a date. You guys will love the place I have in mind.”

“No uniforms.” Genesis declared, “I want to see my husbands-to-be looking sharp… and I want pictures.”

Cloud frowned, “I don’t actually have a suit or anything-”

“We’ll go together.” Genesis said, dropping a kiss on top of Cloud’s head, “I know this wonderful little shop in Sector Two….”

“I don’t know that Midgar has a traditional wedding band, but I will see if I can find something that will suit us.” Sephiroth said, “Something with silver and gold, but strong enough to stand up to our lifestyle.”

Genesis laughed, “Can you imagine the jeweler’s faces when the Sephiroth comes in to shop for wedding bands? The tabloids are going to have a field day! The PR guys are going to have a fit when we refuse to let them be involved.”

“I guess that leaves me to come up with a cake.” Angeal said with a teasing smirk at his lovers, “Now where could I possibly find one that was good enough…”

Zack and Cloud’s faces were openly pleading. The faintly hopeful looks in Genesis and Sephiroth’s eyes were not lost on him either. He rolled his eyes, “I was kidding. I’ll bake something.”

The others laughed and talk turned to details. What kind of suit would look best on Cloud and the differences between a wedding in Gongaga and a wedding in Nibelheim. Angeal watched and listened, glad that they had made him speak up at last. He wanted these men in his life for always. The title hardly mattered, but the idea of calling them all husband definitely had a certain appeal to it.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth’s thoughts were disturbingly jumbled as he came back to consciousness. He did not recognize the bed he was resting in nor could he place the room itself. It was definitely not the Nibelheim Inn, nor was it the Shinra Mansion. Nibelheim was small, there were not many other places he could be… and yet…

He realized quickly that it was the scent of food that had roused him. Sephiroth could immediately tell that it was not the heavy roasts and stews that Zack had been trying to force down his throat for the past few days. The spices were more pungent and the meat smelled fried, not roasted.

“So, on a scale of one to ‘bonkers-talking-to-yourself,’ just how crazy are you?”

Sephiroth’s head snapped to the side, startled to find Zack watching him. The tone of his words was light, but there was a seriousness in his eyes that told Sephiroth just how wrong things had gone.

“I don’t…” Sephiroth’s mind scrambled to find words or put events in order, “Where are…?”

Zack’s lips quirked up to the side, “Hm. We’ll call that a four. Significantly less weird lectures and demands to see your ‘mother’, but you’re still obviously not all there. Here, you can have my food. I’ll run downstairs and grab another plate while you and Cloud talk.”

Cloud. Sephiroth’s eyes searched the room until he found his young, blond love sitting on the other side of the table. He was hunched over his plate, doing his best to avoid Sephiroth’s gaze. The fact that he had not immediately searched out Cloud upon waking spoke to how disturbed his mind really was. Maybe Zack’s teasing was more serious that he had even realized. The events following their trek up Mount Nibel were hazy at best. He recalled a throbbing headache that would not abate and the discovery of the unpleasant contents of the reactor, but after that things began to fall apart.

Zack ducked his head down so Cloud could not avoid looking at him, “We good, Spike?”

Cloud nodded, “Sure. Go on.”

Nudging his plate across the table, Zack said, “Feed your boyfriend while I’m gone, yeah?”

Zack ducked out of the room without waiting for Cloud’s reply. The silence that fell over the room was tense. Cloud’s fear was practically a tangible thing. In the months that they had been together, Cloud had never feared him. He had been nervous, once upon a time, but never afraid. The fact that he was so obviously afraid now meant that whatever Sephiroth had done had been monstrous.

“Can you sit up?”

While he had been lost in thought, Cloud had closed the distance between them, Zack’s untouched plate in hand. His blue eyes were focused on the blanket that covered Sephiroth, carefully ignoring the questions in Sephiroth’s eyes.

Sephiroth carefully pushed himself up into a sitting position. His entire body ached, but he did his best to hide his discomfort. He accepted the plate with a quiet word of thanks, but when he reached for Cloud’s hand as well, Cloud stepped back out of his grasp, “Oh. I forgot to grab his fork… hang on…”

Not willing to let Cloud retreat that easily, Sephiroth asked, “Where are we?”

“Rocket Town.” Cloud replied, grabbing Zack’s discarded fork, “It didn’t seem smart to keep you in Nibelheim, all things considered. Rocket Town was the next closest place we could get to.”

“I see.” Sephiroth said, a lie if ever there was one, but the instincts to hide his weaknesses was so ingrained now that he could not help himself. It was something Cloud despised about him and he had been working hard to be more honest when they were alone, “I’m lying… that doesn’t make any sense to me. What happened? Why couldn’t we remain in Nibelheim?”

“You don’t remember?” Cloud turned back to face him, holding Zack’s fork with both of his hands so he could spin it between his fingers.

“I recall going to the reactor but I’m not sure how I made it back to town after.” Sephiroth admitted, “I recall a library… and Zack repeatedly bringing me food when I wasn’t hungry… and…”

He tried to remember more, but the thoughts were fleeting. When he managed to pin one down, the rest slid away like water. There had been books in the library that infuriated him, but he had no idea why. He had memories of Cloud and Zack but they had not been with him, they had been hovering nearby… a distraction. That thought seemed downright absurd. If they were distracting, it was in the best sorts of ways. Zack and Cloud were all that he had left, Zack as a dear friend and Cloud as so much more.

There were also the strangest memories of heat and flame, but not of anything burning, “Was there a fire, Cloud?”

When he turned to look at Cloud again, the blond was trembling. It was more than Sephiroth could stand. He set the plate of food beside him on the nightstand and started to pull the blankets back. He knew already that he would be shaky on his legs, but he had learned to hide that well enough over the years, “It’s obvious that whatever happened has shaken you… and is my fault. I will go downstairs and-”

“I almost lost you.” Cloud said brusquely, the plastic fork in his hand snapping under the sudden tension of his grip, “If you think you’re leaving my sight in the next few days you’re-”

The words were bitten off, probably, Sephiroth realized, because he had been acting crazy very recently. Cloud growled and threw the broken fork into a nearby garbage can with more force than necessary. He came back and yanked the blanket back over Sephiroth’s body, setting the plate in his lap again, “You’re going to have to figure out how to eat that with the spoon, I guess.”

“Alright.” Sephiroth agreed, taking the offered spoon and knife, “Thank you.”

Cloud nodded and stepped away again, but this time he sat at the foot of the bed, his hand resting on Sephiroth’s ankle. He finally met Sephiroth’s gaze and Sephiroth realized that Cloud had not been afraid of him. He had been afraid for him. Dark circles under the eyes spoke of more than one sleepless night. There was still fear hidden beneath his guarded expression, anger and relief too, but it was obvious that Cloud was trying to give him time to figure everything out before they discussed his feelings.

“No, there wasn’t a fire.” Cloud said, “…but there almost was one. That’s how we figured out you weren’t okay. You… tried to burn the town to the ground. Zack realized you were about to cast fire on one of the buildings and tackled you. I… knocked you out with the butt of my rifle. Sorry.”

Sephiroth cleared his too tight throat, “It sounded warranted. You have nothing to apologize for.”

“We were kind of hoping you could tell us what was going on.” Cloud admitted, his thumb rubbing circles on Sephiroth’s leg, “After we left the reactor, you pushed us away. You went down into the basement in the mansion and stopped talking to us… stopped eating and sleeping… you really don’t remember?”

“Only in bits and pieces that make no sense.” Sephiroth set aside the plate again. He knew he should eat, but he had no real appetite to speak of.

“It’s alright.” Cloud gave him a small, tired smile, “Now that you’re awake and more like yourself, we’ll figure it out. Everything will be alright.”

Sephiroth was not sure which of them Cloud was trying to convince. He opened his arms, relieved when Cloud went willingly into his embrace. He needed this, needed Cloud. He buried his face in Cloud’s hair and pulled him close. Cloud wiggled his way beneath Sephiroth’s blankets so he could get closer still.

He listened to Cloud’s even breaths and focused on the motion of his hand as it stroked over Sephiroth’s hip soothingly. He used it to focus on the present and banish his fragmented memories to the deepest corner of his mind… because they were not all terrible. There had been a voice scattered among his broken thoughts, female and loving, ready to give him things he had always dreamt of. The cost had been his past, had been Cloud and Zack and the burning of Nibelheim, but the promised reward was a future where he would never want for anything ever again.

And part of him still longed to leave Rocket Town and go back over the mountain to claim that future.

Chapter Text

The mood of camp was unaccountably grim, much to Genesis’s surprise upon arrival. Usually when he brought his forces to regroup with Sephiroth’s, spirits were high. The Soldiers were glad to be back among friends in a camp with both Commanders and the scant protection that brought when they were so deep in enemy territory. His men were shuffled off into different groups where Sephiroth’s squad spoke in hushed tones. One Soldier, a Second who had been serving as Sephiroth’s aide intermittently since they arrived in Wutai, made a beeline for him.

“Commander Rhapsodos, I’m glad you’re here.”

Genesis made a noncommittal noise in his throat, gesturing for the Soldier to lead the way. He wanted to make a joke at Sephiroth’s expense, the man was occasionally far too brusque with his subordinates, but something told him that this was not the time. They moved through the rows of tents, stopping before one that Genesis recognized as Sephiroth’s because of the battered corners. The man had always been terrible at setting up tents in the field.

To Genesis’s surprise, the Second left him with a nod instead of ushering him inside the tent and announcing him as usual. Uneasiness settling in his stomach, he let himself into Sephiroth’s tent.

After the reception he had received, Genesis had expected to find Sephiroth mortally wounded or in a terrible rage. Instead the silver-haired commander sat behind a makeshift desk, sorting through reports and communication from Midgar. His whole demeanor was relaxed, calm, and as in-control as always. Genesis glanced behind himself at the now closed tent flaps in bewilderment.

“Genesis, welcome back.” Sephiroth’s voice dragged Genesis’s attention back, “Successful mission, I assume?”

“It was. Fort Kerrotret fell easily enough. We had some injuries, but nothing that we couldn’t handle.” Genesis fixed Sephiroth with a pointed look, crossing his arms across his chest, “Your mission?”

“Also a success.” Sephiroth replied coolly, ignoring Genesis’s implications, “It was not until the morning after that we encountered any real resistance. We were ambushed on the way to this new site.”

Genesis arched an eyebrow, “Casualties?”

Sephiroth shook his head, “No. Some injuries though.”

Genesis waited for Sephiroth to continue, but the other man said nothing more. With an exasperated growl, Genesis said, “It’s plain to me that something went wrong.”

“I was injured.” Sephiroth finally admitted, his face a perfectly blank mask that Genesis had not seen in years.

“Is that what has everyone in such a state?” Genesis snorted, “Surely after working with you this long, they had to be aware that even the Great Sephiroth bleeds like the rest of us. I thought you had shattered any illusions they had when you took on latrine duty that one time or at the very least the day you slid into that bog and spent the afternoon covered in muck until we could get to a river and clean up.”

When Sephiroth did not admonish him for bringing up the humiliating memories or join him in laughing at the outrageous hero worship of the lower classes, Genesis looked at him more closely. Sephiroth’s features were too calm, too perfectly composed. His skin was usually pale, but there was a touch of unnatural whiteness to his pallor that Genesis had missed in the dimness of the tent.

He narrowed his eyes at his friend and rival, “Sephiroth, what is it?”

Sephiroth’s tightly gripped composure cracked in the face of someone who actually knew him. He stood slowly and limped around the desk, towards his cot. Genesis stared, he had never seen Sephiroth move with anything less that consummate balance and grace. To see the man do something as undignified as limp…

He stood and supported Sephiroth as the taller man lowered himself onto the cot. To his surprise, Sephiroth rolled up the left leg of a pair of the loose black cargo pants that most of the First-Class Soldiers favored. Genesis had not seen him wear them in years, not after he had adopted the leather uniform he was so well known for. There was a bandage wrapped around most of his lower leg. Genesis slapped his hand away, taking the end of the bandage and unrolling it himself.

The bloody cloth revealed an ugly cut that snaked from the front of his lower leg, near the ankle, up and around the outside of his knee. It was deep and brutal, cut nearly to the bone. The edges of the cut were red and swollen and Genesis was sure that infection had already set in. He stared at it, dumbfounded, until a noise of pain from Sephiroth snapped him out of it.

“Are you insane!?” Genesis hissed, popping his combat materia out of his bracer and searching for the materia he needed for a deep and complex healing, “Has being around men who treat you like a God made you forget that you aren’t one? Why did you not take care of this!?”

“I tried.” Sephiroth said through gritted teeth, “It hurts so badly, that I could tell I was not healing it correctly. There’s a weakness in my ankle and foot which means that there was likely damage to the peroneal nerve. This was confirmed by one of the medics with my squad.”

Genesis probed at the edges of the wound gently, checking for the extent of the damage, “And he did not heal it because…”

“He feared he would cripple me.” Sephiroth replied, hissing as Genesis cast a sense spell on the wound. The magic stung, “If he did not have confidence in himself, neither did I.”

“Of all of the unbelievably, idiotic-” Genesis glared up at Sephiroth, “When did this happen?”

“Yesterday morning.”

“You’re a moron. Worse than a moron. I am excellent with words and I can’t think of anything descriptive enough for your stupidity.” Genesis said flatly. The sense spell confirmed the severity of the injury. It was bad, worse than he had initially thought, not that he would tell Sephiroth that, “…and once this is taken care of, you will tell me who this medic was. I’m going to flay him alive. If he isn’t fit to serve in the field, he needs to be replaced with someone who is. What if I had been delayed? Would you have waited until your leg rotted off-”

Sephiroth’s hand closed over his shoulder, tightening in pain when Genesis shifted his leg to lay flat on the cot, “You’re the only one I trust to do this.”

The rest of Genesis’s rant died in his throat. There was something so raw and trusting in Sephiroth’s eyes that Genesis forgot to breathe for a second. Their rivalry had always stood between them, keeping them from having a true friendship. The unabashed conviction in Sephiroth’s expression was new and strangely humbling.

Genesis swallowed hard and focused on the wound again, “I’ll have to cast a poisona on it to help with the infection before I try to heal the nerve and muscle damage.”

“I know.”

Flexing his hand over the wound, Genesis added, “It’s going to burn like hellfire.”

Sephiroth’s hand, still on Genesis’s shoulder tightened again in annoyance, “I know.”

“Break my shoulder and I’ll kill you myself.” Genesis warned, only half teasing, “Take a deep breath and get ready for pain.”

Sephiroth’s control was legend, but Genesis was still impressed in spite of himself when Sephiroth made no sound. He knew first hand how much it hurt, having a day old wound cleaned and healed. Despite how often he said he wanted to see his rival finally laid low, watching Sephiroth writhe in silent agony brought him no real pleasure. He covered Sephiroth’s hand where it was fisted in the collar of his red jacket, waiting while the poisona did its work. Sephiroth slumped forward and let his forehead rest against the back of Genesis’s hand.

“Tell me when the pain stops and I’ll sense it again.” Genesis murmured, brushing Sephiroth’s hair back from where it was sticking to his sweat-soaked face, “I’ll make sure this is done properly.”

“Thank you, Genesis.”

Genesis sniffed, trying to pull up his usual haughty indifference, “It’s purely self-serving. What challenge would you present me if you were permanently maimed. I can hardly claim the title of Hero if I take it from you when you’re not at your best.”

The sheer absurdity of the words made Sephiroth laugh, a brittle rough sound that unsettled Genesis more than he cared to admit. Finally, he leaned back from Genesis and drew in a deep breath. He nodded at Genesis’s unspoken question, watching as the green light of the sense spell probed into the wound again.

They were in for a long evening, but Genesis vowed to himself not to waste Sephiroth’s newfound trust in him. If the man believed in him so strongly, the least he could do is prove worthy of such belief. He squeezed Sephiroth’s wrist in warning before starting on the complex healing spells that would fix the damaged nerves.

Chapter Text

“Steady, Angeal.“

Sephiroth and Genesis tightened their grips on Angeal as he tensed, ready to charge into battle after his protégé. Just beyond their hidden rock alcove, Zack Fair stumbled under a barrage of bullets. He grunted, the wounds bleeding sluggishly, but quickly righted himself and dispatched another wave of attackers. If any of them had doubts about Zack’s loyalty or his skills, this fight ended them.

Angeal forced himself to let his muscles relax, waiting for Sephiroth to give them the signal. He was going to rip apart any member of the Shinra army that remained, “They’re killing him.”

“They’re trying, anyway.” Genesis said with a sardonic half smile. He glanced sidelong up at Angeal, “Give him more credit. He’s a First now, Angeal, probably more if Hojo had him for an extended length of time. If he were alone, perhaps he would succumb, but we are not going to let that happen.”

“We have to let Zack handle as many of them as he can. Once we enter the fight, there can be no survivors.” Sephiroth reminded Angeal, watching as a well-timed gravity spell pulled a helicopter from the sky, “It would be better if some of the Infantrymen who run can say that Zack single-handedly defeated everyone Shinra sent against him.”

“We need that element of surprise if we’re going to do anything we have planned.” Genesis said, wincing as Zack was knocked flat by the butt of a rifle, “But he is starting to look-”

“I see it.” Sephiroth said, cutting him off. Zack pushed himself to his feet and charged in again, “He’s driven by something and the Army’s numbers are dwindling. We wait.”

Angeal growled something under his breath, the mako in his eyes flaring up dangerously. Sephiroth just ignored him, knowing that Angeal would wait for his signal. As expected, after the helicopter crash, all but one of the helicopters retreated. Several members of the Infantry fled, as well.

The few who remained were determined. When Zack missed a dodge, the bullets drove him to a knee. Sephiroth watched as he drove the Buster Sword tip down into the ground and drew his hands together before him. Green light flickered around his knees from the cracks in the dry, dead earth but fizzled before they could heal his flesh. Sephiroth recognized that it was the limit break Zack had developed after meeting the flower seller, and it had failed.

Sephiroth swore under his breath and nodded to Angeal and Genesis, “Now.”

Angeal was a dark blur against the dreary landscape, dispatching three of the remaining Army members before anyone realized there was a new threat to defend against. Genesis turned himself to the remaining helicopter, letting his wing unfurl so he could take to the sky. Sephiroth set to keeping anyone with a mind to retreat from getting too far. The final moments of the battle were violent, but brief.

When the last Infantryman had fallen, Angeal let his blade drop in the dust and hurried to where Zack had collapsed, “Zack.”

His breathing was ragged as his body struggled to heal the damage caused by the bullets, but Zack still gave Angeal a weary smile, “Angeal, man, I am so glad to see you.”

When Zack reached up with a shaking hand, Angeal clasped it between his own, “Take it easy, Zack.”

“I was worried, you know, that you wouldn’t be here.” Zack wheezed, his fingers weakly squeezing Angeal’s, “That you wouldn’t forgive me. I wouldn’t have blamed you.”

“You’ve got to stop talking, Zack.” Angeal murmured, pulling a potion from his pocket, “We’re going to get you stabilized so we can go.”

Zack laughed, the sound quickly giving way to a bout of rough, bloody coughing, “Go? Where are we going, Angeal? We’re dead.”

“Not yet, we’re not.” Genesis said, landing on Zack’s other side. He knelt and focused a complex healing spell on Zack’s chest, “Ripples form on the water’s surface, the wandering soul knows no rest.

Zack cried out in pain as several bullets were pushed back out of his body by healing skin and muscle. As soon as he stopped panting, Angeal forced the potion down his throat. Zack’s enhanced healing kicked into overdrive like painful fire racing along his veins.

“We need to move.” Sephiroth reminded them, standing watch at the edge of the cliffs.

“Sorry, pup.” Angeal murmured, slinging Zack over his shoulder as carefully as he could, “We need to go now. Just hang in there.”

Zack immediately began to struggle, “No, Angeal, wait. We can’t leave-”

“The Turks are going to be here any second.” Genesis replied, “We need to be gone before that happens. You can rest once we’re safe.”

“Cloud!” Zack pushed against Angeal’s shoulder weakly, “I’m not going to leave him. Let me down!”

To their surprise, the blonde crawled out from behind a stone outcropping. He could not get to his feet, but he painstakingly dragged himself along on his hands and knees, he spoke softly, in a broken voice, “Za-ck.”

Zack began to struggle harder and with renewed strength, “Cloud! He’s talking and moving and… Angeal let me the fuck down!”

“Would one of you grab him so we can leave?” Angeal snarled as he tried to keep Zack from falling without damaging any of the healing wounds.

Sephiroth was the nearest. He strode toward Cloud, reaching down to pluck him off the ground. As soon as his hazy blue eyes landed on Sephiroth, he froze. His voice was a low, desperate rasp, “No. Nonononono…”

Sephiroth snatched his hands back. Genesis moved past him and scooped the terrified blonde into his arms, “I’ve got him. Let’s go.”

They moved at inhuman speeds across the wastes. Once he was sure that Genesis did indeed have Cloud in his grip, Zack relaxed against Angeal’s chest. Angeal felt his throat tighten, it had been so long since he had last seen Zack and those years had been cruel to him. Angeal tightened his grip on the sleeping man, “It’s alright, Zack. We’ll take care of you and your friend, now.”

Angeal had set himself up a small farm at the base of mountains that made up the Mithril Mines. The area was remote, difficult to reach by anyone without Soldier strength and speed, but still near enough to Midgar and Kalm if he needed supplies. It was not much, but it was his, built with his own two hands.

He had not been home in months, but it would be warm and dry and would have the space and supplies to house four Soldiers and a recovering Trooper. He let Genesis get the blond settled in the living room. Somewhere along the way the young man, Cloud, had fallen back into a bit of a stupor. Sephiroth, with his more scientific mind and Genesis’s knowledge of materia would better help the young man and his mako poisoning.

Angeal took Zack straight to his bedroom. The bed was still neatly made, so Angeal set the sleeping Zack on top of the blankets. His wounds were healing quickly enough, but he was still filthy. A full wash would be out of the question until Zack woke, but Angeal grabbed a cloth and some water to clean away the worst of the dirt and dried blood while Zack slept.

He checked on Genesis and Sephiroth. The silver-haired warrior had left to chop firewood and make himself scarce. All he would say was that the blond’s reaction was more than warranted and they probably should not be in the same room until the blond was more aware, for everyone’s safety. Genesis was already working on food for the five of them and shooed him back to Zack’s side when he tried to take over.

Angeal was not sure what had happened in Banora with Zack and Genesis, Genesis still had not spoken of it in detail, but he was different than he had been even before the illness. These days, Genesis was softer-spoken and went out of his way to do small acts of kindness wherever he could. He was still brash and arrogant, but it almost seemed like a false front put up to keep everyone from realizing how much he had changed.

Angeal decided not to argue. He wanted to be at Zack’s side when he awoke, anyway. He pulled in a chair from the kitchen table and sat beside the bed to wait.

It did not take long. Only minutes after the last of the bullet wounds closed, Zack’s eyes opened again. Angeal did not rush him, waiting while Zack stared at the ceiling and gathered his thoughts.

When he spoke, Zack’s voice was rough with exhaustion, “Either the afterlife is much weirder than I thought it would be… or I’m not dead.”

Angeal let out a little laugh. He had missed Zack’s offhand wit, “It’s not heaven, but it’s home.”

Zack turned and looked at Angeal. His expression was guarded, “So it’s for real. You’re alive?”

“So are you.” Angeal smiled and patted his shoulder, “So are all of us… I guess.”

Zack pulled away from his touch. It was subtle, disguised as sitting up, but Angeal could feel the tension in Zack’s shoulder before he twitched away, “Yeah. Crazy. I expect there’s a story about all that?”

Angeal climbed to his feet, heading toward the door so he could get clean towels from the linen closet in the hall, “That can wait. You probably want to get cleaned up. Genesis is already cooking… I bet you’re starving after-”

“No.” Angeal turned back to find Zack getting out of bed, “I want to know what’s going on. You should have been dead for six years. Sephiroth died in Nibelheim almost five years ago. I don’t know for sure about Genesis, but he was in pretty bad shape when Cloud and I had to leave him. What the hell is going on?”

“That’s fair… you deserve to know.” Angeal said, gesturing for Zack to sit again with his hands, “Just relax and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know, but you shouldn’t be up yet.”

Zack scowled at him, straightening to his full height and Angeal was surprised to see how little a difference in height there was between them now, “I’m not an invalid or-”

The words were bitten off, but they hurt just as much as they would have if Zack had finished the sentence. Harder still, Angeal knew Zack was right. He had no right to scold Zack as if they were still student and teacher. Zack blew out a breath, “Just… talk. What happened?”

“I didn’t die in Modeoheim, obviously.” Angeal said resting a hand against the bedpost at the foot of the bed, “That part is a long story… but after everything that happened with Genesis’s degradation and Project G, Genesis and I knew that we couldn’t be part of Shinra any more. We wanted Sephiroth to join us. Together, the three of us would be able to ensure that Shinra would never do to anyone else what they had done to us. When we got word that Sephiroth had a mission in a place as remote as Nibelheim, it seemed like the perfect time to try and sway him to our cause.

“Genesis and I split up to avoid detection… we were supposed to meet in Nibelheim to talk to Sephiroth together.” Angeal said, “We didn’t know the specifics of Sephiroth’s creation, but we figured it couldn’t have been all that different from our own. We were going to tell him everything. Once he agreed we were going to go straight to Midgar and tear Shinra apart, brick by brick.”

Zack crossed his arms across his chest, “What about me?”

“Genesis didn’t trust you… and neither did I.”

Angeal regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. Zack’s face closed off, expression going hard as stone, “Right. Obviously.”

“He was sure you were a Shinra spy placed to watch me or to get close to me so I would stay loyal to the company. I argued with him, said that you couldn’t be what he was claiming…” Angeal looked away, “So, in Modeoheim he made an Angeal copy and sent it to you to see what you would do. When you killed it… what was I supposed to think?”

“Were you even watching the same fight?” Zack asked, with a bark of humorless laughter, “It attacked me, begged me to kill it, said that it was the thing that created suffering. I thought I was honoring your wishes.”

“I understand that now. I had no idea how much Genesis’s illness was affecting his mind, how it twisted his words and actions…” Angeal sighed, “All I saw was you and how easily you-”

“Easy!? That looked easy to you?”

“You know what I mean.” Angeal growled. He stopped when he saw the black fury in his once student’s expression.

Zack closed the distance between them, getting in Angeal’s face, “And when it died, and I cried over its body… did that look easy too?”

Angeal’s gaze slid away. Zack shoved him, “Right. You didn’t bother to stick around for that part. You lied to me. You made me think you were dead, no, worse… you made me think that I had killed you… all as some part of a sick test that Genesis cooked up. How could you? I trusted you, cared about you. You meant so much to me. I took everything you said about honor and dreams to heart, and for what!? They obviously don’t mean a damn thing to you.”

When he stepped back and grabbed the Buster Sword from where it rested against the wall, beside the bed, Angeal flinched. With a sound of disgust, Zack threw it on the floor at Angeal’s feet, “You may as well have that back. As soon as we’re cleaned up, Cloud and I are gone. I don’t want anything more to do with you.”

Angeal would have let him go. Surprisingly, Zack stopped at the doorway all on his own, even if he did not look back, “Why even bother to save me now?”

“I thought I had figured out what was going on in Nibelheim.” Angeal replied quietly, “I got there while the embers were still hot… Turks and scientists crawling all over everything. I saw them packing you and your friend up on stretchers, so I hid and listened to a few Turks call and report to HQ. It seemed pretty straight-forward. You had been ordered to kill Sephiroth and Hojo had helped you get it done.

“I came back here, alone, and settled in. With Sephiroth dead, Genesis missing, Banora gone and you loyal to my enemy… I really didn’t have anything left. A few weeks back, Sephiroth washed up off the coast of Junon. I had happened to be out that way on a supply run and found him. I brought him back, nursed him to health, and he told me the real story. There’s something in Nibelheim that drove him to madness. He said that Genesis had pushed him over the edge instead of telling him the truth. He said you were the one trying to help hold everything together and that you had done your best to put him down when he became a danger to innocent people.”

Zack still did not turn back. Angeal wanted to go to him, wanted to fix things, but after everything that had happened, he was not sure they could be fixed, “I kept my PHS. When the mail came in that you had been KIA in Nibelheim, years after the Nibelheim mission had failed, I realized I was wrong… about everything.”

Neither spoke for a moment. Finally, Zack sighed and shook his head, “I’m going to check on Cloud. I need to make sure he’s okay.”

This time he walked out without stopping. Angeal let him go. He stooped down and picked up the blade at his feet. The edge was scuffed and pockmarked where it had deflected bullets. There was dirt and dried blood caked in the intricately carved detailing near the hilt. It was definitely not the pristine sword that he had once carried as a symbol of his honor and pride as a Soldier. In a way it was fitting, he supposed.

Angeal let his forehead rest briefly against the flat of the blade before slinging it over his shoulder. It clicked into place against the magnetized sheath he had not yet removed, a heavy weight settling familiarly against his back. He would wear it again, a reminder of just how far he had come from the day he had first picked up the blade, for good and bad. In the face of so much uncertainty, there was something about the familiar burden that was comforting. For the first time in years, he felt like himself again… like the person he wanted to be.

And that person would never just let Zack Fair walk out of his life.

If it took the rest of his life, he would find a way to set things right with Zack. He had no idea how to do it or where to even start, but he was not going to let Zack take Cloud and leave without putting up some kind of fight. He straightened his shoulders and strode out of the bedroom, finally ready to start fighting back.

Chapter Text

When he had handed his sword off to Cloud, Zack had honestly believed he was dying. Considering the severity of his wounds, it had been a valid conclusion to come to. He had not been able to save Angeal or stop Sephiroth. He had done what he could for Genesis, but he had been forced to leave the man behind. Cloud had been the only person that he had actually managed to keep alive and if he was able to use the Buster Sword to stay that way, then handing it off was the best final act that Zack could imagine.

In those last moments, Zack found himself fixating on strange, insignificant details. He had lived in Midgar for a good portion of his life, but he could only remember a few times when it had actually rained over the city. He had always wondered why they had chosen to build Midgar in a desert, but when he realized he would not have to fight monsters in soaking gear, he quickly came to appreciate it.

The rain was cool and felt nice against his skin. He had been filthy and sun baked for so long he had forgotten what it felt like to have clean skin. If he was honest with himself, he could not be sure his current state could count as clean... but as he was about to die it probably did not matter.

Zack’s skin started to tingle and he could feel it as the wounds sluggishly stopped bleeding… or maybe it was simply that he was losing feeling in the area of the bullet wounds. He was too tired to make the distinction. He had always thought dying would be harder or more painful, but in the end it seemed a lot like going to sleep.

That was, of course, until he woke up again.

The sun was nearly setting when Zack opened his eyes again. The rain had washed away the worst of the blood from the cliff, but there were still helmets and armor scattered around him. Zack sat up slowly, expecting pain, or at least to be stiff after an afternoon passed out on the hard ground. Instead, he felt invigorated. His shirt and armor had been shot to shreds, but the skin of his chest was perfectly unmarred. If it had not been for his ruined clothing, he would have guessed the whole afternoon had been a dream.

The reality was that night was fast approaching and he was unarmed and alone in enemy territory. He took what he could from the scattered supplies that remained from his stand-off against the Army. One of the nearby helmets would cover his face and give him some anonymity. There was a uniform shirt in a pack that had been dropped that was only a little tight in the shoulders. The green scarf covered the collar of the ill fitting shirt well enough. His own pants were the wrong color, but as long as no one looked too closely he would be fine. If they were in a position to look any closer, Zack would have bigger problems to deal with.

He drew a pair of short blades from where they had sunk into the rain softened ground. They were pretty standard quality, if a little damaged from the last battle, but they would keep him from being eaten by a monster until he could get his own sword back from Cloud. Just thinking of his blond friend, finally awake again after all this time, was enough to make his heart lurch. He had hoped for it for so long, spent almost a year talking to a comatose body, just hoping that it would be enough to bring him back. Now that Cloud was back with him, they could finally work on putting an end to Hojo, so what happened in Nibelheim could never happen again… all he had to do was find Cloud.

It had not been hard to pick up Cloud’s trail. For quite a way, the edge of the Buster Sword had been dragged through the mud. The line lilted drunkenly to the side from time to time, but slowly it seemed that the path disappeared. The bootprints that had been beside it grew deeper and steadier until they disappeared onto the dry packed dirt of a footpath. It was pretty obvious at that point that Cloud was headed straight for Midgar.

Zack worried about finding his friend in the sprawl of the city. It would be too easy for Cloud to get lost, or worse disappear. If Cloud did have any contacts in Midgar, there was no way to be sure that they were still safe after all this time. It was the same issue that he had been considering before their transport back to the city had been attacked. His exhausted mind had decided that a plan would come to him after he had gotten a decent night’s sleep in a relatively non-hostile area, but even after his odd power nap on the cliffs, he was no closer to a plan. He could only hope that if he asked around for a blond in a Soldier First uniform carrying a large broadsword, someone would be able to point him in the right direction.

The guards watching the checkpoints at the sector entrances were an unwelcome surprise. By the time he realized there was someone waiting for him, there was no way to turn back without looking suspicious. Thankfully, they did not question him. One guard peered at the name stitched onto the insignia on his bicep and marked it onto a list.

“We figured that any survivors had long since made it back.” The other murmured with a nod of respect, “Most everyone who came through earlier went back to regroup at H.Q. Unless you’ve got orders, head back and find your C.O. They were running special trains up earlier to get the wounded back for treatment, so you might still be able to catch a ride.

In his pocket, his phone let off the beep that signified he had a new message. The first guard let out a little chuckle, “Bet that’s probably orders for you.”

Zack clapped one of them on the shoulder as he passed through the checkpoint, pulling out his phone with the other hand. It was another message from Kunsel. He moved into an alley where he would have some privacy and opened it.

Subject: I can’t decide what would be worse; From: Kunsel

Casualties are still coming in from the massacre on the cliffs today. They’re saying those research samples were found just outside of the city by an Infantry patrol. Official word is both samples were eliminated. Nobody in Soldier even heard about it until after it was all said and done… not that a lot of us are left these days. Still, seems to me that a Soldier should have been assigned to handle it, especially once I stopped by the infirmary and saw the number of injured Troopers.

I know the look of a cut from the Buster Sword. Either you are one of the escaped samples or you’re dead and it stole your sword. Look... if you’re still out there, I want to help.

It was a mistake, if not an outright trap. Zack was sure of it. Still, unless he went to Aeris, he did not have a better plan, and he wanted to be sure that Shinra was not still hunting him before he went to see her. If Kunsel really was on his side, it would be useful to have a contact inside of Shinra to help with his search for Cloud. He sighed and tapped out a reply.

You sure about that?

---

If he had any real concerns about Kunsel and his loyalties, they died when Kunsel looked at him for the first time. It had been a while since he had looked at himself, but from the expression on Kunsel’s face, he must have been much worse off than he thought.

Kunsel made him put the helmet back on and put his own back on, before leading him to the nearby train station. When alarms and flashing lights started blazing half way through the trip up, only Kunsel’s grip on his forearm kept him from drawing his sword. Even that was barely enough. For a sickening second, Zack was sure that Kunsel had betrayed him.

“It’s the new security system. Relax . There’s an ID imbedded in your insignia that will get you past it.”

Zack grit his teeth and waited. Even once lights and noises stopped again, Zack could not bring himself to feel guilty. He could not see Kunsel’s eyes beneath his helmet, but Zack could still feel them watching him, “Damn, man, I’m not sure I want to know what happened to you…”

“And you want to know everything about everything.” Zack said with a grim chuckle.  

Zack was surprised when Kunsel directed him down a sidestreet toward Sector Four instead of toward Shinra H.Q. It must have shown, despite his face being covered, because Kunsel explained without waiting for Zack to ask, “Once Sephiroth was KIA and you disappeared, I realized that it might be smart to start formulating an escape plan. I’ve got an apartment with enough supplies to keep someone for a while. You tell me what the hell is going on and you can stay there as long as you need to.”

Zack thought on it a moment, but there really was no safer choice, “I get to take a shower before we do anything else.”

“Are you kidding?” Kunsel asked, his lips quirking up in a smile, “That was going to be one of my requirements.”

He spent an obscene amount of time showering, just glad to finally be clean for the first time in years. Zack checked over his body again, surprised to find that not one of the bullet wounds he had taken had left a mark. He also grimaced when he realized he could practically count each rib. He had been working so desperately to keep himself and Cloud alive, but they had done without a lot. Honestly, he was surprised he had lasted as long as he had against the Army with how malnourished he was.

When he finally climbed out, there was a new First Class uniform folded on the counter. He remembered the day he had finally been promoted, so excited to put on the uniform until he understood the implications. A small part of him longed for the simpler days when he had been a Second Class Soldier, with Angeal to watch out for him.

Kunsel frowned a bit when Zack stepped out of the bathroom, “Sorry, man, I’m sure the last thing you probably want to wear is that uniform, but-”

“Don’t sweat it.” Zack waived his apology off, “It could be a dress, as long as it was clean.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for when I go shopping,” Kunsel teased, “Come on, I ordered up some dinner while you were getting cleaned up. Why don’t you bring me up to speed while we eat?”

They passed the food back and forth, Kunsel waiting until Zack had taken his fill before taking any for himself. Zack guessed he was not the only one who realized he was too thin. He was more grateful than he could say to his old friend. He ate slowly, but steadily, telling Kunsel about Nibelheim and what had come after.

He could see Kunsel’s temper grow shorter and shorter, until he pushed his plate away during Zack’s description of the ambush from that afternoon. He finished the story with a wry chuckle, “I passed out from blood loss and woke up several hours later without a mark on me. Honestly, if my shirt hadn’t been shot to shreds, I would have guessed the whole thing was a dream… plus, I followed Cloud’s trail into Midgar.”

“There haven’t been any reports of a blond First Class Soldier popping up anywhere…” Kunsel murmured, pulling out his phone and checking through his messages, “I’m guessing he got past the checkpoint and went to ground.”

“I hope so.” Zack sighed and finally pushed his own plate away, “He was in a bad way, Kunsel. If he relapses or if the wrong people find him…”

Kunsel came back to the table and squeezed Zack’s shoulder, “I’ll put the contacts I trust on alert. If anyone bumps into your friend, I’ll let you know. What are you going to do, once you find him?”

“No idea.” Zack scrubbed his hands over his face, “We were coming to Midgar to get him help for the mako poisoning. I… wanted to see Aeris again, too, but it’s too dangerous. She’s been writing me letters all this time. The last one made it to me by dumb luck… and it really was the last one. It sounds like she’s ready to move on and maybe I should let her. She could do better than a fugitive running from Shinra.”

“You’re a better man than I am.”

Zack’s chuckle was dark and broken, “Right.”

“Listen, I think it would be best if you tried to get some extra sleep.” Kunsel nodded down the hallway toward some closed doors, “The door on the left is the spare bedroom. Get some sleep in a real bed and I’ll start doing some recon. I’ll put in for some leave, too, so I can restock this place without anyone getting suspicious. I’ve spent my leave here for a few years now, so it’ll be a good cover.”

Zack stopped Kunsel before he could put his helmet back on and head for the door, “Listen, I appreciate what you’re doing for me. You’re putting yourself in some serious danger here-“

“If Sephiroth, Genesis, Angeal and you are all dispensable, I’m already in danger.” Kunsel gave him a lopsided smile, “I’ve been looking for a reason to quit for years. I have a half dozen legitimate plans to disappear without a trace from Shinra. I’ve just been waiting for… I don’t know, something. I guess your coming back was that something. Let’s get you back into shape, find Cloud, and get the hell out of here.”

“That sounds like a plan, if ever there was one.” Zack agreed, letting the man usher him off to bed.

True to his word, Kunsel came back with a bag packed for a week of leave and enough food to feed them both. He helped Zack come up with a believable disguise and gave him a fake identification card, in case he needed to take a train or was stopped by a patrol. During that week, they made plans for their life after Shinra. Kunsel had laughed a bit at Zack’s suggestion of becoming mercenaries, but agreed that monster hunting and private security work were both becoming very lucrative fields. All that they needed was to find Cloud.

That ended up being far more difficult than either of them expected. Even with Kunsel’s considerable network of contacts and Zack’s ongoing search of the city by foot, he never managed to find Cloud. Kunsel had confirmed that the same checkpoint that had admitted him had noted a strange Soldier enter the city, but they had been trained to not disrupt Soldiers on missions and this Soldier had the air of someone who was not to be disturbed. The trail went cold after that and neither of them had been able to pick it back up.

It was several months before things changed - a reactor explosion in Sectors One and Two, the plate falling in Sector Seven, and a frantic, late night phone call from Kunsel to tell him that Cloud had stormed the Shinra building to rescue several research samples. He was halfway to Shinra H.Q. when Kunsel sent a second message about the death of Shinra Sr.

Pinned to his desk by the Masamune, if Palmer’s to be believed. Not entirely sure I do, but are you sure that Sephiroth is dead?

Your friend is being blamed. If he doesn’t get out of the building, he’ll be executed.

Zack gave up all pretense of a disguise and moved toward H.Q. with all the speed of a Soldier.

It was too little, too late. By the time he arrived, the building was surrounded by Infantry and Soldiers, waiting for anyone to come out of the doors. Before Zack could even attempt to come up with an idea, there was a fantastic crash as a window on the side of the building exploded and a motorcycle and truck flew through the air and onto the highway. There was no mistaking the head of spiky blond hair on the driver of the motorcycle.

He was not surprised when Kunsel appeared at his side a few minutes later with the emergency pack he kept at H.Q. in case he had to leave in a hurry, “Scarlet is going to deploy one of her new robot weapons, if the Army doesn’t catch them first. They’ve got a head start, but if you hurry, you might catch them.”

Kunsel handed Zack a blade, one of the standard Soldier broadswords that Zack had used until Angeal’s death. He sheathed it on his back and slung the supply pack over his shoulder, “Come with me, man. Everything will be up in the air with the president’s death. It’d be a good time to get lost.”

After a pause, Kunsel said, “I think this is going to be bigger than we realize. If Sephiroth really is back, Shinra’s going to have the best chance at figuring out where he’ll go next... and if Cloud is the one who threw him into the mako pit, he might be holding a grudge. I’ll feed you information and once you’ve caught up with Cloud, let me know. We’ll meet up, get a drink, and start our monster hunting business.”

Zack seized his friend in a fierce hug, “Thanks, Kuns.”

“Yeah, yeah, you big lummox. Get going.” Kunsel shoved him off with a chuckle, “Be careful.”

“Aren’t I always?” Zack asked with a grin.

Kunsel shook his head, “Do I need to remind you how I found you a few months back?”

Zack did not bother replying, jogging off toward the highway instead. By the time he reached the end of the unfinished road, there was a smoking pile of scrap metal and the two abandoned vehicles. There was also a rope hanging from a sturdy looking beam that dropped to the ground outside the outer wall of the city. It was as likely a place to start as any.

---

It seemed like no matter what he tried, Zack was always just behind Cloud and his group. They had stayed for a few hours at the Kalm Inn before leaving again. The girl at the chocobo farm had sold them supplies to catch a chocobo so they could get through the mines.

It went like that for weeks. Zack would start closing in on Cloud and his traveling companions and then suddenly the trail would vanish. Thankfully, Kunsel was quick to give him a lead so he could try to catch up. Zack would have never guessed that Cloud would be gutsy enough to sneak onto the president’s heavily guarded ship to Costa del Sol or that he had been thrown in a desert prison under an amusement park out by Corel.

He lost them completely in Rocket Town, arriving just in time to see Cloud go overhead clinging desperately to a plane. When Kunsel informed him that Cloud was headed for Wutai, he decided to change strategy and head back to Midgar to wait for Cloud to come to him. It was plain that his friend could take care of himself and he had built a team that would back him up. As much as Zack would have liked another chance to face Sephiroth he was not sure if he would try to help him or kill him… and that kind of indecision would just end with him on his back, bleeding out again.

Several days after he had arrived back at Kunsel’s apartment, the man returned to the apartment grim faced with Tseng in tow. The usually graceful man’s gait was awkward and pained. He let Kunsel help him get settled into a chair with obvious relief, a package clutched against his chest.

“I tried to save you and Strife.” Tseng said bluntly, “I had to be careful how I ordered it and keep up appearances by making it look like we were pursuing you... I took for granted that everyone knew that I would not willingly assist in delivering you to Hojo. Shuriken, obviously, did not.”

It was not exactly an apology, but Zack could hear the regret that tinged the words. He was startled when Kunsel set a bottle and several glasses on the living room table. Kunsel handed Zack a glass without meeting his eyes. Even without having it near his nose, Zack could smell the alcohol. It was the potent liquor meant for a Soldier’s metabolism.

Slowly, he turned to face Tseng again. Unlike Kunsel, Tseng looked him right in the eye, “Aeris is dead. She was killed by Sephiroth last night.”

Zack drank back the liquor without tasting it, hand out to Kunsel for another immediately, “I’ve been trying to find her since I got back to town… I went by her mom’s place and the church but- I just assumed they used the distractions to finally get away from Shinra-”

“Cloud rescued her from Hojo that night when he broke into the lab.” Kunsel added, softly as he refilled Zack’s glass, “She was one of the research specimens. I didn’t realize it until Tseng told me.”

Tseng’s gestured vaguely at his chest, “I’ve been doing my best to keep an eye on her, but Sephiroth incapacitated me. By the time Elena caught up to Strife, Aeris had already been killed.”

Zack drank the second glass more slowly waiting for the alcohol to numb the pain that had sprung up in his chest, “I always thought I would have time later… once I wouldn’t be a danger to her. She was already so leery of Soldier and Shinra and I didn’t want to bring them to her door. Now she’ll never know-”

Tseng held out the package to Zack, “She wrote you a letter every two weeks or so after your phone died and asked me to make sure you got them. I only wish it hadn’t taken so long.”

Zack took the letters with a trembling hand, “Thank you.”

He stood without another word and retreated back into the spare bedroom to read the letters and grieve. The relationship he had with Aeris was complicated, not quite friends... not really more, but with the potential to be everything. He had never really questioned his decision to come back to Midgar for her, despite how stupidly dangerous it had been. Something inside him knew that he needed to see her, that she could help him and Cloud, and yet once he had arrived he made excuse after excuse for why he could not go to her. Now it was too late.

The letters were so like her that it made him ache. Her words were clever and funny, telling stories of things that had happened and updates on the garden and her fledgling business. After the first year, the letters changed. She told him her secrets, probably because she knew the letters were not actually reaching him. She talked about her birth mother and heritage, and the years spent growing up in Hojo’s lab. She wrote a whole letter about how beautiful the sky was above Midgar and how she could hardly believe she had once feared it. Some letters speculated on his mission, making up wildly heroic stories about the things he had to have been doing. Eventually they wound down to the letter that had been delivered by the Angeal copy.

Zack dug it out of the drawer where he kept the few belongings he had while on the run and added it to the others.

Before the grief could begin to fade, things spiraled out of control. A meteor appeared in the sky, growing nearer and nearer by the day. Kunsel told him that the science department was estimating a week before the meteor crashed into Midgar.

To his surprise, Tseng came to Kunsel’s apartment almost daily. He had laughed a bit at Zack’s shock and admitted that he was being kept from doing anything really helpful because of his injuries but that keeping them briefed made him feel a little less useless. When he told them that Tifa and Barret were to be executed as a scapegoat for Meteor, Zack was ready to run off to Junon as backup.

Tseng had only waved away his words, “I have long ago come to the conclusion that those two are immortal demons. Scarlet and Heidigger could no more kill them than they could stop Sephiroth or that meteor. They’ll be fine. My people are under orders not to hinder their escape. If anyone can save us, it’s Strife and his band of misfits.”

Instead they made evacuation plans for getting people out of Midgar and listened to the daily update of Avalanche’s activity. Cloud had gone missing after the meteor was summoned but turned up in Mideel. They spent several days frustrating the Shinra Executive Board by stealing the huge materia that they had planned to launch at the meteor in a rocket. It was clear that they were going to go after Sephiroth to try to stop the spell that was bringing Meteor closer and closer.

In the meantime, Kunsel and Tseng traded information and plotted together. Zack spent a lot of time in the slums cleaning up after the unnatural surge in monster activity while he waited for Cloud to do whatever he was going to do.

The Weapon attack on Shinra HQ had been unexpected. Tseng had disappeared for nearly a full 24 hours before reporting back that Rufus Shinra had survived and that it was time to start moving people out of Midgar.

The final hours of Meteor’s descent were a mess. Retired Turks appeared all over the city to help with the evacuation. Many of the citizens refused to leave, believing that Midgar was the safest place for them, despite being the center of the impact zone. Those who would go were loaded up onto any working motor vehicle and told to keep driving until they could not drive further.

The skies darkened steadily as Meteor began to block their view of the sky. A glowing light created a barrier between the city and the rock, but eventually it became clear that it was not enough to stop it from coming down. Zack stood and watched knowing that he had done all he could, the rest was up to Cloud and his friends. 

When the Lifestream burst from the ground and began to push Meteor away, Zack was sure he could smell fresh cut flowers. He was not even a little surprised that Aeris would find a way to help save them, even in death. When the Lifestream sank back into the ground the sky was clear again. Midgar was in shambles, but humanity had survived.

---

Things were a mess for weeks after Meteorfall. Survivors were pulled from the wreckage daily and the uninjured were doing their best to build some kind of temporary shelter. They stayed near to Midgar because they could salvage building materials and tools from the remains of the once great city. People quickly grew tired of referring to the settlement at the edge of Midgar, and shortened it to simply Edge. Once the phone system was brought back online, Zack found Kunsel and together they put their Soldier strength and speed to work.

Tseng sent them several updates from outside of the city. Rufus had decided it was best to lay low, but sent money, food and medical supplies from Junon to Edge to help with relief. Slowly, things began to settle into a new normal.

That’s why it was such a surprise to find a text from Tseng one day, several weeks later. It was just an address that ended up leading him to a bar in a section of Edge that he had not been to yet. It looked sturdier than some of the neighboring buildings and decently busy. Zack asked someone exiting the building about it and was surprised to find that it was a bar and restaurant owned by Tifa Lockheart and Cloud Strife.

Zack had not let himself think about finding Cloud in the weeks after Meteorfall. He told himself there were bigger things to take care of and that there would be time to catch up later, but in quiet moments he admitted to himself that he was afraid of how Cloud would react. After all this time, if Cloud was not happy to see him or, worse, had forgotten him, Zack was not sure he would recover. He had lost so much over the years, he was not sure he could stand to lose Cloud, too.

Of course, he had felt the same way about Aeris and lost her anyway. Zack forced himself to ignore the fear and step inside.

The man he had stopped said that Tifa owned the bar, but it was still another thing to walk through the door and see her delivering plates to a table. He did not realize he had stopped in the doorway until she looked up and said, “Welcome! Sit wherever you like. I’ll be with you in a second.”

Zack picked a table in the corner with a good view of all the entrances to the room. It was a habit he had picked up during his days on the run and he doubted he would ever shake it. Instead of wallowing in sad memories, Zack focused on Tifa instead. He could hardly believe that she was the same plucky girl who had led them up a mountain in a cowgirl costume. She also seemed to be working alone, Cloud nowhere to be seen.

When she turned toward his table, Zack braced himself for the recognition. He was shocked when she gave him a pleasant, if tired, smile, “What can I get you?”

She did not realize it was him at all... probably a blessing in disguise. He was not sure if he should tell her who he was or wait for Cloud to come back and reintroduce them. Their parting had not exactly been friendly, with her screaming about how much she hated Soldier and Shinra for what had happened to her father and Nibelheim. There was a good chance she would throw him out before he managed to find Cloud at all. In his panic, Zack just ordered his usual from nights when he had gone drinking in Midgar.

Tifa retreated to the bar to fill his order and Zack let himself breathe again. It would not be that hard. He would just enjoy a drink and wait for Cloud to show up. He lived at the bar, so even if he was not there now, he would need to come back eventually. Zack could wait.

Even drinking slowly, it did not take long for him to empty his glass. Tifa stopped by to offer him refill, but Zack’s rolling stomach made it plain that it was not a good idea. The wait was agony and Tifa’s repeated visits to the table made it plain that she found his lingering to be suspicious. He was nearly ready to give up and leave when Cloud hurried in and up the stairs.

Zack’s chest felt tight. He could not decide if he were relieved or terrified. Either way, it was time to get this over with. He gave Tifa his best, most charming grin when she came at him again with her order pad, “Alright stranger, there’s got to be something I can tempt you with.”

“Actually, there is.” Zack nodded toward the stairs, “The blond that headed upstairs a little while ago-”

“Hmm… sorry. The blond’s not on the menu.” Tifa said, expression going from pleasant to steely in a blink, “Got a great Icicle area lager that’s real pale. Kind of like a blond.”

“That doesn’t sound half bad, actually,” Zack held up a finger teasingly, “How about this… get one of those and whatever the blond likes to drink and send him over here with it. We can share a drink while we chat.”

Zack was sure that Tifa was going to deck him. Her grip on the pen and pad were tight, making her leather gloves creak. He could see her struggling to decide whether or not to humor him. In a way, he was grateful that she was there to keep an eye on Cloud while he had not been able to. Zack had no doubt that if he had been a real threat, Tifa would have kicked him clear to the edge of town. 

Finally, she leaned her hands on the table, “I’ll make you a deal, stranger. I’ll call him down, tell him that you’ve been waiting for him. If he wants to talk to you, fine. If he tells you to get lost-”

Zack was quick to reassure her, “You’ll get no argument from me, nor will you see me again. Trust me, if he doesn’t want to talk to me, the last thing I’d want to do is hang around here.”

When she turned away, Zack sagged a bit in relief. He ran his hands through his hair, trying to keep calm. He had a horrible feeling that Cloud would not recognize him either. He had been pretty out of it while they were running and mako poisoning could ruin a brain. If after all this time Cloud did not even know him, Zack was not sure what he would do.

The thud of the tray hitting the table made Zack jump. He turned and found Cloud glaring down at him. He had not seen a look that confrontational since back when Cloud was an angry little Trooper. The thought made Zack grin.

Cloud’s arms dropped to his sides, eyes going wide. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, not able to get out whatever he wanted to say, but it was clear that he knew exactly who Zack was.

It was too much. Zack jumped to his feet and wrapped Cloud in a hug, “Hey there, Spike.”

“Zack…” Cloud’s arms went around him, face tilted against his chest, “I thought you were dead.”

“You and me both.” Zack murmured, burying his face in Cloud’s hair and breathing deep. He had forgotten how comforting a smell that was from the nights they had been together on the run. The clean scent of his soap only made it better, “Still not exactly sure what happened, but I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

They stood for a moment longer, before Cloud pulled back to look up into Zack’s face, “I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, let’s have a drink and catch each other up on what’s happened since that day on the cliffs.” Zack’s smile was lopsided and fond, finally where he needed to be, at last, “We’ve got nothing but time… now that I’ve found you, I’m not going anywhere.”

Chapter Text

Cloud could not recall the last time he had woken feeling so well rested. He had grown used to being dragged out of bed by a squad leader or his bunkmates at a stupidly early hour of the morning during his time as an Infantryman, but that did not mean he liked it. Today, however, he had been left to wake on his own. It took a moment for his sleepy mind to realize it, but as soon as he did, he forced himself to full wakefulness.

The bedroom he was in was completely unfamiliar. The walls were painted a cool grey color. The furnishings were simple, but elegant and expensive looking. Cloud pushed himself into a sitting position, marveling for a moment at how comfortable the mattress was. It was no wonder that he had slept so deeply, the bed was remarkably soft with pillows that were softer still. If the situation were not so strange Cloud would have been tempted to sink back into the bed, just to lie back and relax.

He was surprised to find himself shirtless when he pushed the blankets aside. Cloud always wore a shirt to bed, in case they were called out on an emergency mission. It was easier to get dressed that way. He rolled over to climb out of bed and immediately let out a yelp as his hair pulled against his scalp. Cloud lifted his hand again, releasing the hair he had unwittingly pinned to the bed… the very long, very silver hair.

Any lingering sleepiness cleared immediately. Cloud’s hand followed the path of the long silver strands, confirming it was actually attached to his head. That was when he realized that those hands were not familiar either. Cloud examined the calloused palms and fingertips in surprise before turning them over to examine the backs. Cloud’s own skin was fair, but it was not this pale.

Cloud climbed out of the bed, some distant part of his brain recognizing that he was too tall. He shivered when his hair tickled the bare skin of his back. He knew what was going on, but part of him could not process it until he had seen it with his own eyes. He headed into the hallway, opening doors until he found the bathroom.

Despite expecting it, Cloud startled when Sephiroth looked back at him in the bathroom mirror. He lifted a hand to touch his face, marveling when the Sephiroth in the mirror did the same. It was a face that he had admired for so long. Cloud let his fingers trace the high cheekbones and sharp jawline. His lips quirked up in a small smile that should have looked familiar, but just looked odd on Sephiroth’s face. He wrinkled his nose, an equally strange expression.

He had seen his fair share of Soldiers since joining the Army, but the mako glow in Sephiroth’s eyes was still a little shocking. Cloud leaned in closer to study the slightly elongated pupils, but a sudden pounding on the front door made him jump back guiltily.

He stepped back into the hallway, but stopped short of the door. There was no way he could let someone see him like this… not just because he was dressed in only a pair of sleep pants, but because he was not actually Sephiroth. If anyone realized that Shinra’s greatest Soldier was not currently inhabiting his own body, there would be trouble. He held his breath, hoping that whoever had arrived would assume the apartment was empty and leave.

“I heard you moving in there.” Came a sharp voice from the other side of the door, “You can’t avoid us all day, Sephiroth.”

A second, deeper voice added, “Either you let us in or we tell Lazard that you haven’t answered a single message today and he gets us authorization to override the security codes on your door and we come in anyway…”

Cloud panicked. He had no idea who was in the hallway or what Sephiroth would have said to make them leave. He cleared his throat and said, “I’m… not feeling well. It would be better if you came back later… or tomorrow.”

There was a moment of silence and Cloud held his breath again.

“That’s it, I’m calling Lazard.”

Cloud rushed for the door, surprised by his speed. He barely managed to stop himself from slamming into it. Quickly he unbolted the locks and pulled the door open. He recognized the other two Soldier Firsts immediately. Genesis Rhapsodos looked annoyed, his hands on his hips as he took in Cloud’s lack of clothing. Angeal Hewley arched an eyebrow, but punched the end call button on his cell phone.

“Sephiroth, what are you doing?” Genesis asked, scowling at Cloud’s sleep pants, “It’s nearly nine. We have plans. Why aren’t you dressed?”

Paranoid that someone would see them, Cloud grabbed Genesis by the elbow and towed him into the apartment. Angeal followed, shutting the door behind him. Genesis pulled his arm free, eyes narrowing suspiciously, “What’s going on here?”

“I-” Cloud stopped talking as quickly as he started, unsure of what to say.

Angeal caught Cloud’s chin and forced Cloud to meet his gaze. Cloud was not sure what he saw, but his eyes went wide in shock, “You’re not Sephiroth.”

Cloud swallowed hard but shook his head. He jerked his chin free when Genesis started to laugh, although he was quick to look back when Angeal started chuckling too. He scowled at them both, “What’s so funny?”

“That stubborn ass swore up and down for years that he didn’t have a soulmate.” Genesis crowed, throwing himself onto the loveseat in the living room, “He kept saying that with the sheer number of people who have see him during parades or when he’s been on missions, his soulmate would have found him years ago if they existed.”

“It is a little satisfying to see all of his statistics and probability prove useless.” Angeal murmured with a hint of wicked humor.

“As it should be. Soulmates are fate, not a math problem to be worked out.” Genesis turned his inappropriately gleeful smile back on Cloud, “Tell us, who are you? Where is Sephiroth right now?”

Cloud studied them both for a moment. According to the rumors, the three were close friends. If anyone could help him, it would be them, “I’m… Cloud Strife, a Specialist in the Infantry, but I can’t be- this isn’t-”

Genesis snorted, “Unless you can swap bodies with people for fun, you are and this is.”

“Genesis…” Angeal scolded, taking Cloud by the elbow and steering him back toward Sephiroth’s room, “You don’t remember seeing Sephiroth at all yesterday?”

Cloud started to shake his head. When he had first come to Shinra, he had dreamed of meeting Sephiroth. The man had been his hero and was the majority of the reason Cloud had chosen to join the military in the first place. The fact that he had not so much as seen the man in all the time he had been there had been a lingering annoyance, when he allowed himself to think about it.

He cut the motion off abruptly when he realized that he had seen Sephiroth the day before. It had been fleeting, Cloud squad was headed toward the stairs to drop their gear after patrol and when he had looked longingly at the elevators, the doors had closed on Sephiroth. Cloud had not even considered that Sephiroth could have been looking at him. He had forgotten the moment entirely with the long jog up the stairs, the memory of it drowned out by his squad leaders voice arguing with some of the senior squad members about the merits of climbing the stupidly long staircase after patrol as one last bit of cardio.

“It was barely a second.” Cloud said, voice dull with shock, “He couldn’t have possibly been looking at me.”

“He must have.” Genesis insisted, “That’s all it takes. First eye contact and a good night’s sleep. We have to go find him, he’s got to be going out of his mind. I can’t believe he hasn’t torn the building down to get back up here.”

“Genesis has a point. Sephiroth has a number of wonderful qualities, but patience isn’t always among them.” Angeal looked at Cloud thoughtfully, “If he’s not up here, that means that someone has detained him… probably because they don’t believe him.”

Cloud could only imagine the way any of his commanding officers would react if he had walked up to them and declared that he was Sephiroth stuck in a soulmate switch. He shuddered, “We need to go now.”

“Why don’t you get dressed first?” Angeal said, trying and failing to suppress a wicked smirk,  “Sephiroth has a couple sets of his uniform in the closet. It’s a little complicated, but see if you can figure it out. It’ll be better for everyone if they don’t realize anything has happened right away. Genesis and I will run interference for you until we find Sephiroth.”

Cloud nodded his agreement with a smile, “Alright. Thank you.”

Genesis shook his head, “I don’t think I’ll ever harass Sephiroth about smiling again. Not that there’s anything wrong with your smile, Strife, but it is downright unsettling to see it on his face. Perhaps I’ll take a picture before you switch back… it would be excellent blackmail.”

“Ignore him.” Angeal advised, pulling the door to Sephiroth’s room shut as he stepped back out again.

Cloud found the uniform easily enough, but putting it on was a bit more troublesome. The pants were simple, if a little snug, but tucking the legs into the tall leather boots was more trouble than it was worth. He was completely at a loss when it came to the belt, harness and pauldrens, so he gathered the whole mess and brought it back into the living room.

The straps and buckles were simple for Angeal and Genesis, who wore similar gear with their own uniforms. He ran his hands over everything, making sure it was reasonably tucked into place. He scowled down at Sephiroth’s bare chest. It might be perfect, but for the first time in his life, Cloud wished he could not see it. He did not understand how the man could stand to walk around on display like that.

With one last sigh, Cloud shrugged and glanced up at the others, “Okay?”

“Well enough.” Genesis replied, “Just do your best to look bored and annoyed and no one should be able to tell the difference.”

“Let us do the talking if we can.“ Angeal added, moving to take his place at Cloud’s right shoulder, “Any idea where he might be?”

Cloud shook his head, “If he tried to blend in, he might be patrolling the Sector Four slums. If not he could be anywhere. It might be best to head down to my bunk and see if anyone has seen… well… me.”

“I hope he’s being troublesome, because I don’t have any desire to go searching the slums for a squad of Troopers.” Genesis murmured, moving to cover Cloud’s left shoulder, “Lead the way.”

The hall was empty, to Cloud’s surprise. Angeal quietly pointed out his own apartment door and Genesis’s further down. They shared it with a few other high ranking Shinra officials, but Cloud did not recognize the names. Genesis swiped a keycard and Cloud found himself thankful that they had come along. He would have never guessed that the elevator needed a keycard to grant entrance. He was sure Sephiroth had one somewhere but it would have taken him forever to find it.

They rode the elevator down to the Trooper barracks. With his borrowed enhancements, Cloud could hear the voice of his squad leader berating someone before the elevator reached the floor. From the look that passed between Angeal and Genesis, he knew they heard it too.

When the doors opened, Cloud could see a bit of a crowd had gathered down the hall, around Herrick and himself… and that was unsettling. Cloud knew his own body well enough to see the frustration that was carefully hidden from his face. There was a tension in his neck and shoulders and a stiffness to his back that Cloud knew too well. He glanced over at Angeal meaningfully and then back to where Sephiroth stood in his body.

“I thought that you’d grow out of this, Strife.” Herrick said, looming over Sephiroth and taking advantage of Cloud’s shorter stature, “Plenty of people come to Shinra with thoughts of becoming a Soldier… but be realistic. I mean, look at you. You’re not cut out for it, you’ll never be cut out for it, and meeting Sephiroth will not change that.”

Cloud felt a guilty flush heat his face. He had wondered more than once, when he had first failed to make Soldier before joining the Army, if talking to Sephiroth would have changed anything. He had imagined meeting the man often enough, even dreamed of doing something important enough to catch his eye. He would have never acted on it, though, and didn’t realize that his squadmates had ever noticed anything.

“Honestly, I should have let you go and make a fool out of yourself. It would have taught you a lesson,” Herrick shook his head, disgust twisting his features into something ugly, “…but I wasn’t going to let you make me and the rest of the squad look bad. Get over this silly fantasy. Soldier doesn’t want you and Sephiroth sure as hell wouldn’t have any use for you.”

Finally, Sephiroth’s expression broke. As his own expressions had looked odd on Sephiroth’s face in the mirror earlier, the cold sneer looked absurd on his own features. While the effect was somewhat lost, Cloud could only imagine how menacing it would be on Sephiroth’s face. Apparently, it was familiar to Angeal and Genesis because they both stiffened beside him.

“Oh hell…” Angeal muttered.

His voice was quiet, but loud enough to draw the attention of some of the Troopers nearby. One yelped and scrambled to attention. Quickly, others noticed and did the same, shifting back and making a path from the Soldiers to the conflict. Herrick looked relieved and embarrassed all at once, straightening his spine, “Sirs.”

Sephiroth did not even bother pretending. He strode over to Cloud, wrapping a fist around the leather cross straps and yanking him into a kiss. Despite his obvious anger, the kiss itself was restrained. Cloud threw an arm around his waist to steady them both, meeting Sephiroth’s kiss with enthusiasm, just as ready to be back in his body as Sephiroth seemed to be. Between one blink and the next, he felt the leather straps under his hand and the silvery hair tickling his face.

Surprisingly, Sephiroth’s lips lingered a moment longer before he drew back. If he were anyone else, Cloud might have suspected that Sephiroth was reluctant to stop. He ignored that line of thought before it could go any further. Soulmates they might be, and that was too strange to consider, but that did not necessarily mean anything.

It was funny to watch Sephiroth settle back into his own skin. Cloud may have done a decent approximation of Sephiroth’s cool, unruffled demeanor, but seeing Sephiroth in person, Cloud wondered how believable he would have actually been if put to the test.

Then, that sneer returned and it was as terrifying as Cloud had imagined it would be. A small part of him enjoyed the shock and horror in Herrick’s face when Sephiroth turned on him, “Would you care to continue our conversation now that I’m feeling more like myself? You seem to be intimately acquainted with my thoughts… I would be interested to hear more.”

A bit of sweat beaded on Herrick’s forehead, but he stood his ground, “No sir. I didn’t mean to presume, sir.”

Sephiroth scoffed, “I will be relieving Strife of duty for the remainder of the day, at least. Should anyone have any questions, direct them to me.”

He did not wait for responses, walking toward the elevator. Angeal and Genesis fell into step with him, as if nothing odd had happened. They only paused when they realized Cloud was not with them. Sephiroth glanced back over his shoulder, a eyebrow arched, “Cloud?”

There was something about the way Sephiroth said his name that made him feel warm. It was a far cry from the impersonal way he had just said his last name. It gave Cloud the push he needed to close the distance between them. Angeal and Genesis were already waiting at the elevator, holding the door. When he was near enough, Sephiroth’s hand closed over his shoulder. Cloud could not decide if Sephiroth wanted to touch him or was keeping him from running.

Once they were safely tucked into the elevator, Genesis turned on Sephiroth with a gleeful chuckle, “So how was your morning as a Trooper?”

“Long.” Sephiroth said flatly, “I woke up hours ago, unable to go anywhere above the forty-ninth floor.”

“And Cloud’s peers seemed pretty… unsympathetic.” Angeal added, giving Cloud a vaguely apologetic look.

Sephiroth only shrugged at that, “I was awake long before any of them. That was the first interaction I had with anyone in Cloud’s squad. I thought it might be best if I kept to myself until I could reach Cloud. I was actually on my way to try and find Zack Fair in an attempt to get in touch with you, Angeal, since it was obvious that you had not realized something was amiss.”

“Well, that’s because somebody only just woke up.” Genesis teased, “We came to try and figure out why you missed our spar and found him still half asleep and barely dressed.”

Cloud could feel himself flush, “It’s a comfortable bed.”

“Especially compared to the lump of concrete and stuffing you sleep on.” Sephiroth agreed, his thumb rubbing gently against the back of Cloud’s neck, “I suppose I can’t blame you.”

Cloud fought off a shudder, dismissing the absent caress as an accident. He was quick to remind himself that not all soulmates had romantic relationships. Platonic soulmates happened every day. Even if Sephiroth were somehow attracted to him, there was no way he could have possibly known how sensitive his neck was.

Then it happened again, slower and more deliberately. There was no way that Sephiroth could have missed the goosebumps that broke out over his skin. He glanced up at Sephiroth out of the corner of his eye, surprised to see a wicked, knowing smirk quirking up the corner of his lips, “I kept myself amused for the most part. There’s an old training area I used to hide out at when I didn’t want to be found. It’s still just as abandoned now.”

“Only you would spend the morning in someone else’s body training.” Genesis muttered, shaking his head.

Cloud was hyper aware of the way Sephiroth’s fingers curled gently around the curve of his neck and shoulder, his thumb brushing up and down along his spine. He shivered a bit, arousal starting to curl in his stomach. There was something in his tone that made Cloud sure Sephiroth knew exactly what he was doing, “It was… educational. Cloud is my soulmate and if I know his body, I can help him.”

“I don’t envy you, Strife.” Genesis said, “You’re going to be sore.”

Cloud’s gaze jerked up to where Genesis was watching him. He swallowed hard when Sephiroth’s thumb dipped underneath the neckline of his shirt, “What?”

“When we first came to Midgar, Genesis and I thought we were ready for Soldier. We were already stronger and faster than most of the people we knew.” Angeal chuckled fondly, “Sephiroth really whipped us into shape.”

Genesis tilted his nose up in a well rehearsed sneer, “If Shinra was finally going to provide him a challenge, he might as well make it worth his time.”

The elevator chimed and Cloud could see the Soldier floor beyond the opened doors. Angeal smiled at them and stepped out, “We’ll… leave you to figure it all out, I guess.”

“Don’t break him, Sephiroth.” Genesis tossed over his shoulder, “You only get one, after all.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage.” Sephiroth murmured, and Cloud had a sneaking suspicious that the low, silky voice was more for him than Genesis and Angeal.

As soon as the doors closed again, Cloud jerked himself out of Sephiroth’s grip, “I wish I could hate you.”

Sephiroth made an amused noise in his throat, “Maybe you shouldn’t have lazed around in my bed all morning.”

“At least I was sleeping.” Cloud growled, feeling his face heat up, “I can’t believe you-”

“It was an accident.” Sephiroth said, cutting Cloud off before he could say something he would be embarrassed about later, “I was cleaning up after training and I couldn’t help but notice how… sensitive the skin is there.”

“Right.” Cloud’s voice was flat and unamused. He did not doubt the story, his body ached pleasantly, the way it did when he was able to spend a good amount of time devoted to training. That did not excuse Sephiroth from intentionally trying to wind him up in front of Angeal and Genesis.

Despite the nerves rolling in his stomach, Cloud forced himself to look up at Sephiroth and was surprised by the raw longing in his soulmate’s eyes, “You… really thought you didn’t have a soulmate?”

“It seemed improbable after all these years.” Sephiroth arched an eyebrow at him, “You’re not surprised?”

“I didn’t expect to wake up in your bed this morning, but I had always imagined that it would be you.” Cloud could feel himself blushing, “People in Nibelheim tend to pair with other Nibelheimers and I hated most of my neighbors. The day my ma explained that my soulmate could be anywhere in the world, I saw your picture in a newspaper… a little part of me always expected it to be you.”

The door opened on Sephiroth’s floor, breaking up the moment between them. Sephiroth gave his head a little shake and gestured for Cloud to lead the way, “Come. We can order some lunch and get to know one another. There are definitely some things we will need to decide before word gets out.”

“We better hurry then, my squad has big mouths.” As they fell into step beside each other, Cloud chuckled absently and spoke more to himself than to Sephiroth, “Though, anything that comes after this will be completely worth it as long as I always have the memory of Herrick’s face when he realized he had been dressing down the Sephiroth.”

The laughter that escaped Sephiroth was unexpected. Cloud could feel the blush crawling up his neck, but could not help but smile anyway. He had made Sephiroth laugh. Sephiroth was glad to have him as a soulmate.

“Do you have a preference for lunch?” Sephiroth asked.

“I’m not picky. If you think the barrack’s beds were bad, you should try eating in the mess.” Cloud’s fingers itched to reach out and touch his soulmate. He jammed his hands into his pockets instead, waiting as Sephiroth punched a code into the lock outside his door, “What do you usually have?”

Sephiroth smirked at him over his shoulder, “Whatever I want.”

His words and expression were so haughty that Cloud was stunned into silence for a moment. Then he saw the twinkle of wickedness in Sephiroth’s eyes and snorted, “Now you’re just showing off.”

“Maybe a little.” Sephiroth agreed, drawing Cloud forward into the apartment with a hand at the small of his back, “Come, we can decide inside.”

The warmth of Sephiroth’s touch spread from the base of his spine, even through all the layers of cloth and leather separating them. If Sephiroth’s hand lingered longer than strictly necessary or Cloud leaned into the touch, neither of them remarked on it. There would be plenty of time to define and explain everything later. For now it was enough to sit too close to each other and debate the merits of Wutain verses Mideelian cuisine for lunch.

Chapter Text

 

“I’m just saying, slum patrols seem irrelevant.” Connor muttered kicking a can into a pile of rubble, “The people who live down here don’t need our help unless something crazy happens and even then, Shinra calls out the Soldiers.”

Beside him, Sawyer snorted, “You’re complaining about that? Personally, I’m glad that we don’t usually end up in the thick of the crazy. I like all my limbs right where they’re at, thanks.”

Cloud rolled his eyes as his squadmates bickered. This was the third time this month that he had heard this same argument. He was glad that slum patrols had been so quiet. If there was any real trouble waiting for them in Sector Five, it would have heard Connor and Sawyer a mile away.

Privately, he longed for the day he would make it into Soldier. Zack, Genesis, Angeal and Sephiroth talked like it would happen any day, even though Cloud knew he was not eligible for consideration for at least four more months and that did not guarantee that he would be selected.

As annoyed as he was to hear Connor’s familiar whining, the man was not wrong. Their missions were little more than a show of power. Of course, venting his frustration on a whole eater always helped. If they would shut up, Cloud was sure he could find one.

Something buried in the junk pile just in front of Sawyer caught Cloud’s attention. He reached out and signaled for Lucien to hold beside him and grabbed Sawyer by the back armor strap. Connor came to a stop next to Sawyer, “Strife what-”

Cloud held up a hand for quiet, turning his head so he could focus on the sound that had originally made him pause. It sounded like a clicking that was fairly steady except for the odd off rhythm thunk.

He realized what he was hearing a moment too late. He yanked Sawyer back by the armor strap, throwing him into Connor and Lucien and away from the bomb. The shrapnel burned as it bit into his leg, hip and shoulder. Cloud’s rifle dropped from numb fingers. His leg crumpled under him, unable to support his weight.

“Shit, shit… Lucien-”

Lucien was already shoving past Sawyer and Connor, materia glowing green in his bracer, “I got it. Sawyer, call for backup. Anton’s squad is in Sector Seven. They should be able to get here in a few minutes. Connor, get over here and brace Cloud.”

Cloud grunted when Connor helped shift him onto his back. Connor was careful to not touch any of the areas where metal had been buried in his skin, but every part of his body screamed in pain. He could feel the blood welling up and spilling past the shrapnel, soaking into his ruined uniform.

“Cloud, focus on me.” Lucien said, leaning forward until he was clearly in Cloud’s field of vision, “This is going to hurt, but we need to get the worst of it out so we can heal you up.”

Cloud swallowed hard, trying to keep his eyes on Lucien instead of his own body. He had only been healed from a serious wound once, and the bullet had gone clear through his shoulder. The feeling of knitting flesh was horrible and painful. Watching it happen would be so much worse. Cloud reached up and gripped Connor’s wrist with his clean hand. His squadmate took that as a sign to hold him down.

The healing was worse than the injury itself had been. Cloud thought he had been ready for the pain, but nothing could have prepared him for the searing agony that ripped through his shoulder, hip and calf. Cloud screamed, unable to bite it back. Connor had thrown all his weight down to keep Cloud from bucking him off, barely succeeding. Beside them Lucien started cursing viciously.

“The fuck is going on over there Lucien!?” Sawyer yelled, hand covering the mouthpiece of his phone.

“The materia they gave us is useless!” Lucien spat, “Probably just spawned. The skin’s all healed over the shrapnel instead of pushing it out. We need to get him back up topside before he goes into shock. We can’t wait for Anton to catch up.”

Lucien and Connor started to rig a stretcher while Sawyer finished up the call. Cloud could not seem to catch his breath. He could feel sweat rolling down his skin but he felt colder than he could recall being in years. Even Nibelheim winters had never felt this cold. He could feel his hands start to tremble.

“Tell me something, Cloud.” Lucien called over his shoulder as he lashed a blanket to a broken pipe.

Cloud could not focus on his thoughts clearly, “I don’t… what-”

Connor grinned at Cloud, even if it looked a little strained, “Tell us about that girlfriend of yours.”

“I d-don’t have a girlfriend.” Cloud’s teeth began to chatter and he clenched his jaw to stop it.

Sawyer joined them just in time to help shift Cloud onto the makeshift stretcher, “Your boyfriend, then. We know you’ve got someone you spend your downtime with.”

Maybe it was the blood loss or the fact that he was not sure he would survive to make it back to HQ, but Cloud felt the his usual inhibitions slip, “Shows w-what you know. That’s boyfriends.”

“I’m not surprised.” Connor’s laughter was tinged with panic, “As much of a pain in the ass as you are… it’d take more than one person to keep you in line.”

The trip back above the plate was a haze of pain that Cloud barely recalled. He kept up a steady stream of words, prompted by his squad mates, about the men he loved. When asked about it later, he could not remember a single thing he had said.

He had vague memories of being moved from the stretcher onto a bed in the infirmary and being treated with a potion made from dazers that was meant to numb the skin that had healed over his wounds. That did little to dull the pain of the shrapnel being removed. Unconsciousness was a blessed relief.

When he awoke again, the chaos had subsided and he was alone with the beeping of the machinery that monitored him. He lifted the blanket and moved the collar of his shirt, surprised to see the wounds had been neatly stitched.

“We thought it best to let the skin heal naturally for a day or two before we tried materia again.” Not as alone as he thought, Cloud looked up in surprise to see a woman checking the monitors and scribbling notes on a clipboard, “You were a mess once we got all the shrapnel out and the magic wasn’t taking very well. It happens sometimes if you’re healed too rapidly  in succession, especially with the way your body handles mako. We’ll patch you up before you leave in a day or two.”

Cloud slumped back against the bed, “A day or two?”

“Trust me, you’ll need it.” The nurse smiled at him, “You feel okay now, but you’ll be out again in no time. Your body needs the rest anyway.”

Before he could say anything else, Cloud was distracted by some commotion out in the hallway. The nurse heard it, too, “I’m just going to see what’s going on and let the doctor know you’re awake. Hang tight.”

As soon as she opened the door, Cloud could hear Zack’s voice, “-heard him in there! If he’s awake, I need to see him.”

“Zack?”

“Cloud!” He could hear the sound of a scuffle just outside of the door, “He’s asking for me. Let me-”

“First Class Fair, control yourself or, Soldier or not, I will have you removed.”

Cloud was not sure who was talking to Zack, but he was a little impressed in spite of himself. When Zack wanted something, he could be intimidating. It was easy to forget he was a Soldier when he turned on the charm.

As the nurse slipped back in the room, Cloud saw a bit of spiky black hair behind her before the door was firmly closed, “Was that Zack?”

“I don’t think he’s left since you were brought in.” She said, smoothing her scrubs and trying to regain her composure, “The commanders and General Sephiroth even came here to try and talk sense into him, but he wouldn’t go. The doctor will keep him-”

“I want to see him.”

She gave him a tired smile, “You  won’t be cleared for visitors until tomorrow at the earliest.”

Cloud scoffed, “Let me rephrase that… either you let him in or I will go out to him.”

“Strife-”

Rolling his eyes, Cloud got an elbow underneath himself so he could push up and out of bed. It hurt like hellfire, but he was remarkably stubborn when he needed to be.

The nurse yelped and gently pushed him back into the bed, “Okay! Okay. Just stop. I’ll let him in.”

Zack was already opening the door before the nurse could get Cloud to settle down. She threw her hands up and left them alone. As soon as the door was closed, Zack cupped Cloud’s cheek. He looked Cloud over, eyes lingering longest on the bandages that remained.

Cloud covered Zack’s hand with his own, “I’m okay.”

“I’m glad one of us is.” Zack said, voice cracking a bit on the joke. He leaned down and pressed his forehead against Cloud’s, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life. Kunsel told me that you were being rushed to the infirmary when patrol went wrong, but no one would tell me anything else. Angeal, Sephiroth, Genesis, we all tried to get info on your recovery but they just kept telling us it wasn’t a Soldier matter and they could only give updates to family-”

“Zack, breathe .” Cloud rubbed his nose against Zack’s.

Zack chuckled and nuzzled Cloud, “Sorry. It’s been a rough couple of days.”

“Days!” Cloud yelped, nearly headbutting Zack. He took a good look at his boyfriend as he straightened up to avoid Cloud’s flailing. His expression was pinched looking with dark smudges under his eyes that spoke of at least one sleepless night.

“They knocked you out after the surgery so your body could rest.” Zack said pressing Cloud back down gently so he didn’t pop any stitches, “All they’d tell us is that you came through okay and that we could see you when you were released. It was Connor who finally told us what happened… and you might owe him a beer or two because Sephiroth and Genesis were a little-”

“Intense?” Cloud tried and failed to bite back a smile.

Zack nodded with a quirked eyebrow, “You know how they are when they get surprised and when he called us your boyfriends, well, it was a lot to take in all at once.”

The smile dropped off Cloud’s face so fast that Zack could not help but laugh. Cloud punched him in the shoulder, “This isn’t funny, Zack! I- I-”

“Outed us to your squadmates?” Zack suggested, wiggling his eyebrows. When he realized how upset Cloud was, he toned it down, “Cloud, it’s okay. It’s kind of been a relief, you know? We all talked about it after and, yeah, we could cover it up. I’m sure your squadmates could be persuaded to keep their mouths shut or we could play it off, but why bother?”

Cloud swallowed hard, “I’m pretty sure we have a list somewhere.”  

Zack cupped his cheek again, “I almost lost you. We almost lost you. Suddenly, there wasn’t a single reason on that stupid list that meant anything. I’m pretty sure Genesis lit it on fire, actually.”

“Yeah?”

Zack’s chuckle was a little watery sounding, “We said we’d wait for you. It’s your decision to make, too, but we’re tired of worrying about what anyone else thinks.”

Cloud turned his head and nuzzled Zack’s calloused palm, “Can you call the others? I want to see them.”

“I texted them when I heard the nurse talking to you.” Zack grinned when the door opened behind him, “Honestly, I can’t believe it took them this long.”

“President Shinra tried to keep us from leaving a meeting.” Angeal growled. He, Genesis and Sephiroth quickly moved to join Zack at Cloud’s bedside.

Genesis was quick to scoop up one of Cloud’s hands, bringing it to his lips, “Never again. You will be coming back to my apartment, where I am going to wrap you in some sort of protective bubble and keep you constantly in my sight.”

“Considering our line of work, won’t that put me in danger a lot?” Cloud asked, teasingly.

Sephiroth threaded his fingers through Cloud’s hair, “I think you’re at least a week from being able to make jokes about this.”

“He’s being generous.” Angeal muttered, taking Cloud’s other hand, “I’m not sure this will ever be funny to me.”

Cloud looked at the men he loved. If Zack looked worn, Genesis, Angeal and Sephiroth looked worse. Genesis was always impeccable looking, but there was a dullness to his hair and skin that Cloud had never seen before, not even when he had spent weeks on missions. Angeal looked bone weary, the circles under his eyes far more pronounced than Zack’s. The less said about the unusual paleness of Sephiroth’s skin, the better

“I’m sorry.”

There was an immediate chorus of protests from all of them. Angeal squeezed his hand, “The way your squadmates tell it, you’re a hero.”

“Sawyer practically swears you threw yourself on the bomb to save him.” Genesis eyed the bandages warily, “Knowing you like I do, I wouldn’t be surprised if you did.”

Cloud snorted, “It wasn’t like that. I threw Sawyer into Connor and Lucien to get them out of the way. Just didn’t have time to get into cover myself, so I took the brunt of it.”

“Well, be prepared. Their version has been getting around.” Zack patted him on the leg, “You’re going to get special treatment whether you like it or not.”

“Official report said that a girl in the slums was trying to clear out a monster nest with some homemade explosives.” Angeal’s expression was the angriest Cloud had ever seen it, “When she couldn’t get it to detonate, she assumed it was a dud and left it in the junk pile where you found it.”

Cloud wanted to be angry, but he could not summon up the energy. He let out a little sigh, “Better us than some kids or something, I guess. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the materia had been better. My skin healed over the shrapnel and they had to cut it out once I got back to HQ.”

Everyone winced at the thought. Genesis’s eyes flashed with fury, probably at the idea of sending anyone into the field with underdeveloped equipment. He was known to be the premier materia specialist in the company and he took that title very seriously. Cloud wished he could be a fly on the wall when Genesis ripped into whoever was responsible for materia distribution for the Infantry. If nothing else, Cloud was glad it would never happen to anyone else.

Sephiroth resumed running his fingers through Cloud’s hair, “There’s talk of a promotion, maybe even a recommendation to Soldier. Lazard wants to meet you once you’re on your feet again.”

Cloud was not sure what to say. It was everything he had hoped for when he first came to Shinra. Having Genesis, Angeal, Sephiroth and Zack there to share it with him, made it better than he could have imagined. He swallowed hard against the prick of tears he could feel in his eyes.

Genesis smiled down at him, “I think we’re wearing you out, sweetheart.”

Zack leaned around Genesis and pressed a kiss to Cloud’s forehead. When he straightened again he gave Genesis a sharp grin, “Let’s go harass the doctors a little until they agree to let us take Cloud home tomorrow.”

Genesis pressed one lingering kiss to Cloud’s knuckles before he let Zack lead him away, “You’re thinking small… Between the two of us, I bet we can convince them to let us take him tonight.”

Angeal rolled his eyes and kissed Cloud goodbye quickly, “I’m going to make sure they don’t upset anyone. We’ll see you soon.”

Finally, only Sephiroth remained. He stroked Cloud’s hair a little longer and Cloud felt his eyes growing heavy, even though he had only been awake a short time. Just before he fell asleep again, he heard Sephiroth murmur, “I thought I understood, that I had prepared myself to lose one of you if something ever went wrong. I was such a fool.”

Cloud wanted to say something, but he could not win against the lure of sleep. Sephiroth kissed his forehead and Cloud could feel a smile on his lips, “I love you, my Cloud. We’ll be back soon to take you home.”

Chapter Text

Angeal and Genesis left Cloud at Sephiroth's door, once they were sure no one would stop him. Each of them handled their trips to the Science Department differently. Genesis slunk off to parts unknown once he was free, although he was extra cuddly once he felt more like himself. He tended to cling to the first boyfriend he found for several hours.

Angeal was always tense after his sessions. It was not unusual for Angeal to pluck one or two of his enhanced loves out of whatever they were doing for an emergency massage. He needed the extra strong hands to work out the knots Hollander always seemed to tie him in.

Sephiroth just wanted peace and quiet after he got home. His one request was that one of them watch over him while he rested. He did his best not to interfere with the duties of his significant others, even if he had a preference for who stayed with him. Very rarely though, he wanted who he wanted and that was that. Cloud had no idea what Hojo had done, but it must have been bad for Sephiroth to pull rank to get Cloud out of patrols.

Cloud toed off his boots inside the door, stripping out of his uniform as he went towards Sephiroth's bedroom. There was a chair in the corner where Cloud dumped his gear as quietly as he could.

From the bed, Sephiroth grunted something unintelligible and lifted the corner of the blanket so Cloud could join him. Cloud slid in gladly, letting Sephiroth's arms pull him in close. They shifted together to get comfortable, but Cloud could feel Sephiroth's frown against his shoulder, "You're tense."

"I'm better now that I'm here." Cloud assured him, "Give me a minute and I'll be okay."

Sephiroth pressed sleepy kisses against the skin of Cloud's neck and shoulder until Cloud laughed and relaxed at last. With a small, pleased noise Sephiroth settled in and immediately went to sleep.

It took Cloud some time to follow him, thoughts still weighing heavily on his mind. He was not sure what he could do about the situation with his boyfriends. He enjoyed spending time with them. He knew he was being wasted on building patrols and guard shifts, but that was what he needed to do move forward with his career. Not even Sephiroth could use his rank to help Cloud get ahead.

Not that he would let Sephiroth do anything like that. If he was going to succeed, it needed to be on his own merits.

That’s what made the situation he was in so much worse. He loved Zack, Angeal, Genesis, and Sephiroth, but running off with them was doing damage to his reputation. He could not even really defend himself because he was doing all the things his squad whispered about and worse. Not for the reasons they thought, but that didn’t make it look any less like he was sleeping his way into the Soldier program.

Of course, no promotion or prestige was worth giving up the love he had found with them. He was glad he could be there when they needed him, but it might be time to discuss what qualified as a need. He fell asleep in the middle of compiling his list.

When he awoke, he was alone. Cloud wrinkled his nose in annoyance. The only time Sephiroth left bed early on a day like this was if someone else entered the apartment. That meant that everyone was probably already there, talking about what had happened that afternoon and making decisions on how to handle it while he was still sleeping.

Cloud was surprised by how quickly the anger curled in his chest. He found himself wondering how long he had been denying this was a problem. They never intentionally treated him like a subordinate, but they were all men who were used to making decisions for the good of a team. They probably had already come up with a dozen new ways to pull Cloud off patrols without drawing so much attention to it. Before today Cloud probably would have gone along with it, but now he knew he needed more.

Once he thought he had his temper under control, Cloud headed out of the bedroom. He could hear the others in the kitchen and smelled food cooking. It was later than he had realized. He tried to focus on the fact that he would have a home cooked meal instead of the fact that his squadmates were going to be extra obnoxious when he got back after lights out. He was mostly successful.

He stopped at the doorway and looked in. Sephiroth and Genesis were at the table talking quietly. Angeal was holding a spoon up so Zack could taste whatever was cooking. It was Cloud’s favorite kind of night. Even with as angry as he was, he could not ignore the feeling of home it gave him.

Sephiroth noticed him first, standing and drawing him into the room with the others. Cloud smiled as Sephiroth pressed a kiss to his temple, “Feeling better?”

“Much. Thank you for coming to me. Though, it sounds like we need to talk about that.” Sephiroth pressed him down into an empty chair at the table.

Genesis was already pouring him a drink, “I owe you an apology. I forget sometimes that you haven’t had the time to develop a reputation to protect you, the way I have. I promise to be more circumspect in the future.”

“We’ll all be better about it going forward.” Angeal added, setting the finished meal out on the table, “I don’t think we realized how hard it would be for you to explain after the fact.”

Zack slid into the seat beside him, nudging Cloud with his shoulder, “We also need to give you better cover stories. I’ve got three or four awesome ones that-”

Cloud held up a hand to stop them. It was just as he had feared, they had already assessed the problem and solved it in their own minds… all without consulting him, “I’m glad you guys have talked about it, but I have some thoughts about it, too."

He had the immediate attention of the others, and that gave him the courage to say what he needed to, “I know that you don’t see what I do as important. Compared to what you do, maybe it’s not… but it’s how I’m going to reach my goals. If I’m going to be a Soldier one day, I don’t want anyone to be able to say I didn’t earn it.”

“People will talk.” Genesis said, the same frown on his face that he had worn that afternoon.

“Genesis-”

Genesis waived Angeal off, “I’m not saying Cloud’s wrong, he’s not, but unless he plans to keep us his dirty little secret, people will say all manner of nasty things about how he made Soldier.”

“As long as it isn’t true, I won’t care.” Cloud snapped.

Cloud could hear Angeal suck in a breath. Across from him, Genesis’s jaw dropped open in shock. He could see Zack’s hand flex out of the corner of his eye, obviously wanting to reach out to him. As soon as the words were out of his mouth he wanted to take it back, but there was undeniably a small part of him that was glad he had said it.

It was Sephiroth who finally broke the silence, “Do you really feel that way?”

“There was a day, a while back, when my squad got ambushed by a hell house. While they were trying to regroup and heal, some whole eaters attacked them. Two of the guys were so far gone, they had to be patched up by the medics at HQ because the squad didn’t have the stamina to handle fighting and healing. It wasn’t too bad, everyone was back in the barracks by the time I got back, but...”

“You spent the day with me and Zack.” Angeal said quietly.

Cloud nodded, “I was glad to see you. I had missed you, but would it really have been so bad if we waited until I got off patrol that night?”

This time, Zack did reach out and cover Cloud’s hand with his own, “How do we fix it?”

“I don’t mind when it’s days like today.” Cloud glanced up, finally meeting everyone else’s eyes, “If you need me, I’ll be here for you. Otherwise, you’ll just have to learn some patience.”

Genesis quirked an eyebrow at him, “Have you met us?”

Angeal shoved Genesis, making the others laugh. Cloud grinned at him, throwing a piece of his bread roll at him, “I have nothing but faith in you.”

Everyone murmured agreements and apologies, promising to do better in the future. Conversation lightened up after that. Zack and Genesis worked together to come up with a wildly inappropriate story about the fake mission they had been on for Cloud to tell his squadmates. When Cloud got up to leave right after dinner, no one protested. Cloud kissed the others goodbye, but was surprised when Sephiroth followed him out into the hallway, "May I walk you back to the barracks?"

Cloud smiled, "You don't have to do that. I'm alright. Promise."

"After spending the day indisposed, I would appreciate the excuse to stretch my legs."

"I guess I can't argue with that." Cloud gestured toward the elevators and easily fell into step beside him.

The walk back to the barracks was quiet. Sephiroth was always careful of what he said in public under normal circumstances. He seemed to be extra cautious after their talk that evening. Their conversation was pleasantly bland. Anyone who heard it would be bored to tears. It warmed Cloud to his toes.

He waived at Sephiroth as he opened the door to his barracks, but Sephiroth’s voice stopped him, "Cloud, a moment?"

Cloud turned back, hand still on the handle, "Hm?"

"I only wanted to... thank you again, for today." Sephiroth said.

Cloud's eyes widened and he attempted to pull the door shut. Sephiroth held a hand up to stop him, arching his eyebrows knowingly, "Not only for your service but for your discretion. It is not often that we can find a member of the Infantry that is both skilled enough to keep pace with the Soldier elite and aware the danger of gossip. I wanted to be sure you were aware of my appreciation."

Cloud hoped Sephiroth could see the gratitude in his eyes. Sephiroth was giving him a cover that no one would question. His voice was unmistakable and with the door open, all his squadmates would be able to hear it clearly, "It was my pleasure to be of service, sir."

"I've told you in the past that such formalities were unnecessary." Sephiroth's lips curled in a teasing smile, "Especially after today."

Even Cloud could hear a sharp intake of breath and a few other hissed warnings for quiet. He had to bite down on his cheek to keep from laughing. When he was in control again he replied, "I'll work on that, sir."

Sephiroth let out a dramatic little sigh with just the right amount of wistfulness to be believable, "While I look forward to you joining our ranks, I will miss having a reliable Specialist available."

Cloud could feel his face redden. Sometimes Sephiroth could be worse than Genesis. From the smirk on his face, he knew he had set Cloud up for trouble of a different sort than Genesis had. Cloud glowered at him, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, sir. You probably won't have to worry about it for awhile."

"We'll see." Sephiroth murmured, "Have a good evening."

"Yeah, you too." Cloud lingered one last moment before turning and heading into the room at last. He had not been expecting the entire barracks to be staring at him, "Oh, uh, hey guys."

The questions came rapid fire from his squadmates, "Was that the General?"

"Oh, yeah, he walked me back in case anyone questioned me about being out so late." Cloud shrugged, heading for his bunk, "I told him it'd be fine but-"

"So what was that whole thing with the Commanders about this morning?"

"Gen- uh... Commander Rhapsodos is a jerk?" Cloud flushed and started pulling off his uniform to get ready for bed, "It's part of a theory of his. Let's just say when he says he could say anything and get away with it, he's right... I'm just glad he didn't request my assistance in verse."

"Damn, man... you're on a first name basis with all of them?"

Cloud grunted something unintelligible and climbed into bed. This was certainly nicer than his usual interrogations, but he still did not want to talk himself into a corner, "Guys, I'm exhausted. Can we… ”

He could hear the rustling of everyone else as they settled back in bed with various grumbled agreements or complaints. Once things quieted down, he let out a little sigh of relief. He was not exactly looking forward to breakfast, but it was worth it. He felt lighter than he had in a while after his talk with the others. Genesis was right, eventually their relationship would get out and he would face a certain amount of ridicule. He would just have to be that much better on missions between now and then. Cloud knew he could do it and that his boyfriends would be behind him every step of the way.

Chapter Text

Under any other circumstances, the gobsmacked looks on the faces of the Soldiers and personnel he passed on his way to the VR Room would have been at least a little amusing to Angeal Hewley. Though, to be fair, under any other circumstances he would not be charging toward said VR Room in nothing but his swim trunks.

He still was not entirely sure what was going on, but he had gotten good enough at deciphering Zack in a panic to realize that there had been a training accident with his unenhanced trooper friend, Cloud. The fact that Zack did not feel confident that he could handle it on his own was enough to make Angeal abandon the pool and immediately head to the training room.

As soon as the door opened, Angeal grabbed the emergency kit off the wall and headed through the control area and into the simulation room. Zack was crouched over the still form of his friend, hands hovering awkwardly over his chest. He was obviously afraid to touch him and injure him further. Cloud was unnaturally still, but Angeal could see the steady rise and fall of his chest.

“Oh man, Angeal…” Zack scrambled back to make room for his mentor, “I don’t know what happened. Things were going fine, Cloud didn’t even get hit by anything! One second he was talking and getting ready for the sim to start and the next his eyes rolled up in his head and bam! Even I wasn’t quick enough to grab him before he fell and I think he hit his head pretty hard. I checked to see if he was breathing and everything, but I was afraid to move him-”

Angeal nodded absently, waving off the rest of his former protege’s rushed explanation. He knelt beside Cloud to check the young man over for himself. He put his fingers against Cloud’s throat, checking the steady beating of his pulse. Almost immediately, he felt Cloud begin to stir under his hand. His eyes fluttered open, blinking slowly as he tried to bring the world into focus.

Holding up a hand to keep Zack from pouncing on his friend, Angeal leaned close to keep Cloud’s attention on him. Cloud frowned and murmured, “Angeal?”

“That’s right. How are you feeling, Cloud?” Angeal ran his hands over Cloud, checking for injury or the cause of his sudden loss of consciousness. He did his best to remain professional and ignore the way Cloud’s muscles tensed and shifted under his fingers. It was not the first time he had noticed the changes in Cloud’s physique, caused by his training with Zack, but there was a distinct difference in seeing a peek of toned muscle here and there and feeling them with his own two hands.

Cloud groaned, trying to get his hands under himself to push up into a sitting position, “Sore. I don’t- what…?”

Angeal pressed him back down gently, “Easy. Do you know where you are?”

The slight glassiness of Cloud’s eyes was more than a little worrying, but he looked past Angeal to the walls and ceiling of the training room, “We’re in the VR room?”

Surprisingly, when Angeal nodded Cloud’s whole body relaxed, “Oh. Good.”

Angeal was already slotting the sense materia into the bracer he had grabbed from the emergency kit when Cloud’s eyes closed again. He could feel his stomach sink in worry, even as he tried to keep Cloud talking, “Hey, why would that be good?”

“Just means I was more tired than I thought.” Cloud murmured, “I was doing some extra training after drill and then I ran into Zack after I got cleaned up. He offered to spar with me, so of course I said yes. Things get a little fuzzy after that, but it makes sense. I was tired before I went with Zack… must have been exhausted when I finally fell into bed.”

The sense materia showed his mana stores had been depleted dangerously low. Angeal was not surprised that he had dropped a few minutes into the spar with Zack, “You remember going to bed after sparring with Zack?”

“No, not really, but I must have.” Cloud’s eyes opened slowly and he gave Angeal a warm smile, “This is a dream, after all.”

Somewhere behind them, Angeal heard Zack make a choked noise of surprise. He sat dumbfounded as Cloud took the hand he had used to direct the sense spell and tangled their fingers together,  "A dream?“

"Mmm… obviously. We’re here, in the training room, and you’re leaning over me looking like that…” Cloud’s eyes trailed over Angeal’s bare chest and shoulders appreciatively, “I mean, sure, usually you have more clothes on during this dream, but only at the start-”

Angeal finally snapped himself out of his shock and put his free hand over Cloud’s mouth to keep him from saying more. He could hear Zack’s inarticulate noises of distress or amusement and wanted to spare Cloud the embarrassment of describing what appeared to have been multiple sex dreams involving the two of them in any more detail.

“Cloud, you’re not dreaming.” Angeal said, making sure the young man’s eyes were focused on him, “You worked yourself to exhaustion training and collapsed in the VR room. Zack called me to come make sure you were okay.”

When Cloud did not immediately respond, Angeal pulled his hand away from Cloud’s mouth and squeezed the hand he still held, hoping it would give him some small measure of comfort. While he knew he should not say so outright, he was more than a little flattered by Cloud’s attention. He hated to think that Cloud would be embarrassed by the admission, but he also knew it was unavoidable.

“An-Angeal… uh… Commander Hewley…” Cloud’s fair skin flushed bright red, “I’m so, so sorry! I didn’t- I mean…”

“Relax, Cloud. It’s okay.” Angeal bit down hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling, but he could feel the corners of his lips twitch up regardless. He used the hand he was still holding to pull Cloud up to his feet, “You don’t seem like you have a concussion, but you should rest for the remainder of the day. I’m going to have a word with your commander about putting you on light duty tomorrow, too.”

“Yessir.” Cloud muttered, dropping Angeal’s hand as soon as he had gotten his feet under him. He turned his gaze down to the ground and refused to meet Angeal’s eyes.

It was a mistake, he knew it was, but Angeal could not help himself. He rubbed his hand along the side of his neck self-consciously and said, “…and Cloud, if you- I mean if there’s something I can… hm. If you ever need anything, you can always come talk to me.”

Despite his best efforts, Angeal knew that had come out far more suggestive than he had intended. He would be lying if he did not admit that more than a few of his own fantasies that featured the blond Trooper in the weeks since Zack had introduced them. He had thought Zack’s incessant praise of his new Trooper friend was just Zack being Zack… he always believed the best in the people he cared about. Surprisingly, Cloud was everything Zack had said and more. He also had the most beautiful eyes that Angeal had ever seen.

Cloud’s head jerked back up, face slack in surprise. He searched Angeal for hints of mockery, blushing when Angeal only gave him a crooked smile. He let his eyes skim over the Trooper’s body in appreciation, glad to be able to admire him openly for a change, inordinately pleased when Cloud’s blush deepened and he smiled back.

“Okay, this is getting weird.” Zack grumbled, effectively ruining the moment, “Quit perving on my friend!”

“I don’t…” Angeal frowned at Zack, “Is ‘perv’ a verb?”

“It’s not even a real word.” Cloud growled, shoving Zack, “…and shut up.”

Zack grinned wickedly at Cloud, “You’re telling me to shut up? At least I’m not the one admitting to having naughty dreams about-”

Cloud whirled around and threw himself at Zack, trying and failing to cover the taller man’s mouth. Angeal smothered a chuckle with his hand watching the two of them wrestle a moment before stopping them, “Cloud was just unconscious. You probably should take it easy, remember?”

“Aw, man… you’re right.” Zack frowned and immediately let Cloud out of the headlock he had the younger man in, “I wasn’t thinking. Come on, Cloud, let’s go get a good meal into you. I might have an ether in with my field pack, too. Then, we’re going to have a long chat about knowing your limits and not pushing yourself too hard just because you want to train with me.”

Angeal could tell by the stubborn set of Cloud’s jaw that it was not going to be an easy conversation for either of them. When their eyes met, Angeal winked at Cloud before slipping back out the way he had come. As he walked back down the hall, he fished his PHS out of his pocket and sent Cloud a message inviting him to dinner sometime. The response was almost immediate.

I’ll send you a message tomorrow if I survive Zack’s lecture.

Angeal chuckled and typed out his reply, It’ll be a doozy. He learned from the best, after all.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth had always been told that he could not get drunk. It was a fact had been confirmed by numerous Soldiers under his command, mako burned off alcohol so quickly that they barely registered a buzz. Of course, that did not stop some of them from trying.

It was still a bit of a surprise when Angeal and Genesis appeared at his door with several bottles and a bag of other assorted ingredients one night. He had let them in, but could not help the arched eyebrow at the armful of liquor Genesis carried.

“Not all of us drink solely to seek inebriation.” Genesis sneered, “A dumbapple brandy this fine should be savored.”

Angeal shoved him through the door, “The drinks he makes with it are pretty good. My mother got me a bottle for my birthday last month, but hung onto it because she knew I was going to be in Banora this week. Thought I’d come share now that I’m back.”

Sephiroth closed the door behind them, “Appreciated.”

They watched as Genesis arranged the bottles and ingredients on Sephiroth’s kitchen table. He filled a large metal cup with ice and tipped in various red liquids from several bottles of different shapes and sizes in no real pattern that Sephiroth could discern. He also added a measure of maple syrup, which seemed odd.

Angeal must have noticed the look on his face, “Trust him, it’ll be good.”

Genesis lifted one of the wide-mouthed glasses and twisted it by the stem. Ice slowly crept around the outside edge of the bowl. It took enormous amounts of control to direct a spell with that kind of precision, and Genesis was wasting it on a drink that would not even have the normal effect on them. He repeated the same trick with the remaining two glasses before shaking the liquor in the first cup and straining it into the waiting glasses. 

Angeal took two of the three, handing one to Sephiroth and lifting the other in Genesis’s direction, “Thanks Gen.”

Genesis touched his own glass to Angeal’s gently, “Happy birthday.”

Sephiroth did the same before taking a sip from the glass. The drink was fruity and rich, but sharp. He could taste a bit of apple and the sweetness of the maple syrup with something smoky he could not place. The combination made his face twist a little involuntarily but he thoroughly enjoyed the way the warmth traveled down his throat to his stomach.  

Genesis let out a little hum of appreciation. Angeal just smiled, “Reminds me of home.”

“We can sit in the living room.” Sephiroth said, leading the way, “Tell me how the mission went.”

“And how things are at home.” Genesis added with a wry smirk, “I may not want to go back any time soon, but I do occasionally get nostalgic.”

Angeal was happy to indulge them both. He gave Sephiroth a far less formal report than the one that was waiting on his desk for the morning before transitioning into stories from home for Genesis. The people and places they discussed meant nothing to Sephiroth, so he continued to enjoy his drink.

Each sip brought more of the heady warmth, moving out from his core to his fingers and toes. His mind floated, distantly cataloging the discussion between Angeal and Genesis but focusing more on the sound and rhythm of their voices in the moment. If this was how he felt with the mako working against him, it was no wonder Soldiers often lamented the loss. He imagined it felt that much better unhindered.

“Sephiroth?”

The was an odd disconnect between his desire to look at Angeal and his body’s cooperation. Sephiroth frowned. That was a problem, though only if he were actually on duty he supposed. He forced himself to focus on Angeal’s face. His vision swam a bit despite his best efforts, but he also had a hard time finding the appropriate concern, “Hm?”

“You’re a little flushed.” Angeal said, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, “You feeling okay?”

“Mmm.” Sephiroth knew he was smiling, but he did not bother to hide it as he might usually, “I feel fine.”

Except that there was something off about his speech. He had not intended to place quite so much emphasis on the fine. His tongue felt a little clumsy in his mouth. He tried to chase the feeling away with another sip from his glass.

“Huh.” He could feel Angeal’s eyes studying him, “How have things been around here?”

“Sephiroth, I think you should tell him.” Genesis said, obviously amused by something.

Sephiroth snorted into the glass, “That’s because you enjoy the sound of my voice.”

Angeal choked on his drink. Sephiroth was sure that if Genesis’s eyebrows arched any higher they would fly off of his head. He had not intended to say that out loud, but that did not make it less true. He shrugged, “If it helps, I find your voice to be pleasant as well.”

Angeal looked at Sephiroth’s glass in bewilderment. Sephiroth glanced down at it as well, dismayed to find it empty, “Hm. Unfortunate. Would it be impolite to ask for another?”

Genesis did not let Angeal answer, “Absolutely not. Give it here and I’ll make up another batch.”

“I think I will join you.” Sephiroth replied, trying to unfold himself from his chair, “I want to learn how to make it myself. I think…”

To his surprise, his legs refused to hold his weight. As quickly as he stood, he dropped back into his seat. He glanced down at his knees and then back up at his friends, “I think my legs are broken.”

Genesis began to laugh. He placed his glass down on an end table and covered his face to try and muffle the sound. Angeal just continued to stare, “Gen, he’s drunk.”

Sephiroth scoffed and struggled to get to his feet, “Soldiers can’t get drunk.”

The room tilted sharply and he had to clutch the chair to keep upright. He frowned sharply at the ground, “I think the structural integrity of the building is compromised. The floor is moving.”

Angeal was beside him in a moment, steadying him. Sephiroth found himself appreciating how strong Angeal’s arms were as he leaned into his friend. He rarely let himself be this close to another person. It was surprisingly pleasant. He breathed deeply, nose catching hints of Angeal’s soap or cologne. He had never noticed it before but could not help it now, “You smell nice.”

Genesis had nearly composed himself, but Sephiroth’s blunt statement sent him into fresh howls of laughter. Sephiroth glared at him but was quickly distracted by the color blooming on the side Angeal’s face and neck, “Now you’re flushed. Are you okay?”

“This is the best gift ever.” Genesis gasped.

“It’s not even your birthday.” Sephiroth said. He turned to look at Angeal again, “Unless you’re enjoying this?”

To his surprise, Angeal laughed, “Actually, I am a bit. Come on, let’s sit down.”

He let Angeal lead him back to the couch, easing down into the space that had been between Genesis and Angeal. Beside him, he could feel Genesis’s shoulders shake with occasional chuckles. Sephiroth glared at him, “Stop laughing at me.”

“I’m really trying.” Genesis wheezed, “I had never imagined this could happen. I had assumed you would have super tolerance and not even get a buzz…”

Annoyed by Genesis’s obvious amusement, he leaned over the other man and stole his drink. He managed to drink half of the remaining liquor before Angeal gently took it from him, “You should probably take it easy, Sephiroth. Trust me.”

“I do trust you.” Sephiroth said, “I trust both of you.”

Both Angeal and Genesis were quiet a moment. Sephiroth did not mind. When Angeal had stolen Genesis’s glass back, Sephiroth had been pulled against his shoulder again. Angeal was warm and solid under his cheek, so he was not overly inclined to move. He let his eyes close, oddly sleepy.

Above his head, Angeal glanced at Genesis, “No one can ever know about this.”

“Of course not.” Genesis agreed, taking his glass back from Angeal, “Can you imagine?”

Angeal chuckled briefly at the thought. After a few moments of quiet, broken only by Sephiroth’s deep and even breathing, “Though… the occasional drink between friends would be alright, I guess.”

“Absolutely.” Genesis said, innocent smile on his lips, “What kind of friends would we be if we didn’t help him find his limits?”

Slowly, Angeal tried to shift Sephiroth off of his shoulder. Sephiroth growled something unintelligible and latched onto Angeal’s arm. He looked at Genesis in a mix of surprise and embarrassment, “I... guess I’m not going anywhere until he sobers up a bit.”

Genesis gave him a knowing look, “Happy birthday to you.”

The blush was back, “Shut up.”