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Bitter Honey Sugar Sweet

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               It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but all of his partners showed varying degrees of surprise as the blonde enigma all but passed out on the couch. Surely the exposure to such a high stakes adrenaline rush, coupled with being well-fed then led back to a comfortable couch to relax in was just too much for the blonde’s nerves.

               Zack himself whistled quietly at the sight of the defenseless ‘exotic entertainer.’ He squatted down where Cloud was breathing softly against the arm of the couch and checked him over with curious eyes before officially announcing him, “Dead to the world.”

               Angeal only looked vaguely surprised at the news as he helped Genesis out of his duster, taking it from him and heading to the closet to put it away. Genesis on the other hand waltzed over to stare down at him as well, crossing his arms as Angeal’s voice carried.

               “I’m more surprised he even made it through dinner. He was in such a state of shock throughout the meal I doubt he realized just about every action he was doing was on autopilot. At least he managed to feed himself before passing out.”

               “It seems he has had a very trying night indeed, even compared to the life he has lived so far. Speaking of that, by the way, do tell what all transpired that caused the infamous General Sephiroth to strut around shirtless with his medallions and sword gleaming for all of Shinra to see. Does your little act tonight follow why Cloud here was stripped of his clothing?”

                Angeal came back over, crossing broad arms and staring down at him and Zack, who winced in turn around a sheepish smile.

               “Yeah, I’m dying to know as well. Your curt, ‘There was a bomb, but it has been handled,’ and ‘Don’t question Cloud when we get back,’ have had me on edge all night, to put it lightly.”

               Zack whipped around to look at him, incredulous.

               “That’s all you told them?”

               Bored, he answered, “More or less. I decided we could get the whole story from you once you obtained it from him. I trust I left you alone long enough for you gather what you needed.” He made it clear he wasn’t asking that like a question before going on once Zack jerked his head in understanding.

               His jade eyes narrowed as he explained, “I also had my hands full parading around while also keeping all questions regarding the bomb to a minimum. If not for my intervention, your little blonde friend would be in a far less hospitable location, enduring far more interrogation than I am sure you subjected him too.”

               Zack’s expression was grim as he nodded once again in understanding. Angeal and Genesis exchanged a look but wisely didn’t intervene.

               “Thanks for that, Seph.”

               “Do not thank me yet. If Cloud is a danger, I will have him arrested and interrogated. By the Turks themselves if I must.”

               Zack stood and faced him.

               “It won’t come to that.”

               Sephiroth eyed him coolly for a long, long moment, before easing further back in his chair in a way that his partners would describe as ‘deceitfully relaxed.’ That being because there was nothing about his words or possible actions that could be considered, ‘not in control.’

               “That is why I questioned you as soon as we came in. I left the immediate matter up to your judgement, and your judgement alone… But now that hour has passed. Give me your report.”

               For someone else, he might have added an incentive not to lie to him, but he had no worries in regards to Zack. It also had nothing to do with the fact Zack was one of his lovers.

               Zack stood straight and crossed his arms behind his back, subconsciously falling back into a learned behavior while Genesis sat down in the other arm chair, and Angeal sat on the arm of it, eyes intent on his once-upon-a-time student.

               The younger ravenette hair man collected his thoughts before speaking.

               “It was a set up. Cloud was being played.”

               “From the beginning, Fair.”

               Zack hesitated for a moment, but steeled himself.

               “It’s a bit of a long story, but the basics are that AVALANCHE sought out Cloud. Someone Cloud really cares about was being targeted. Basically, his childhood friend became a hostage without realizing it. If Cloud didn’t deliver something for them, she was likely going to be hurt.”

               Angeal seemed puzzled.

               “Why on Gaia would Cloud be targeted of all people?”

               Zack stared at Angeal slightly uneasily before his mentor narrowed his eyes. “What, Pup?”

               Zack sighed, “I’m not a puppy anymore, ‘Geal… Well, according to Cloud he may have been targeted because of… you or Genesis.”

               “Oh?

               Genesis lifted an eyebrow at that claim, but Zack hurried on before the fiery lieutenant could add his own statement to Zack’s report.

               “Someone, most likely apart of AVALANCHE, saw Cloud and Genesis on that date at the Golden Square – or someone saw Angeal carrying Cloud that night he took a hit to the head. Hell, if Cloud was being watched after being with Genesis they also might have seen him Angeal. It’s like you guys have always told me, when your 1st Class, people notice you.”

               Genesis pursed his lips as Angeal glared at the carpet.

               “So… Your saying we put a target on Cloud’s back?”

               The stress rolling off Angeal was palpable now, but Zack focused on trudging on. With or without his comfort, Angeal was definitely going to be brooding on what he had said for some time now.

               “That’s what Cloud thought, anyway. He said he wasn’t certain which one of your guys had been tracked back to him, but he basically got the guy he was speaking to on the phone to confirm that’s why they needed him.”

               Cloud suddenly shifted with a quiet groan, almost as if he could sense the suddenly tense atmosphere. Almost without thinking, Zack turned and stroked Cloud's spikes back in a soothing matter. He could feel his heart squeeze slightly when Cloud subconsciously nuzzled against his hand.

               The others paused as well to watch as Cloud was soothed back into a comfortable rest as Zack draped a throw blanket over him.

               Genesis in particular eyed him until Cloud settled before speaking.

               “Kudos for him to keeping his cool enough to gather information while being blackmailed. That’s not a skill that is lost on me.”

               His features were oddly calm, and Zack wasn’t exactly comforted by that all things considered. Still, he turned back to Sephiroth.

               “Spikey here was caught between a rock and a hard place. If he didn’t do what they wanted, his childhood friend might have gotten hurt. If he did do what they wanted…”

               “…then he would therefore become an accomplice of AVALANCHE, a traitor to Shinra, and a traitor to your trust.”

               Sephiroth filled in the missing pieces easily enough.

               Surprisingly, Zack said nothing in defense of his friend, nor did he try to argue Sephiroth’s point.

               “Cloud called me and asked if I wanted to meet-up with him somewhere Friday night. Looking back now, I know he was leading me on to get me to invite him to this banquet…” Zack’s face was oddly expressionless as he spoke, even for giving a mission report. “I know he actively betrayed my trust. I also know he had to choose between two evils… I’m not going to stand here and say that isn’t a big deal, but I’ve also decided I’m not going to blame him for any of this.”

               Genesis was drumming his fingers along the armchair, irritable.

               “I see how this scene is all coming together now, and I hope the fifth act of this little play is at least more entertaining then the performance thus far.”

               Angeal eyed his friend curiously for a moment, before his gaze hardened.

               Zack understood what Genesis was alluding to. Betrayal was no small feat, nor was it something Genesis would tolerate.

               But Zack wasn’t giving a report to clear Cloud’s reputation.

               He was simply stating the facts.

               “The night was going great, despite everything… But, well, a trooper came and got me and told me one of the sleezy CEO’s was troubling some of the waitressing staff and he needed backup as to not make a scene…” Zack paused then, eyes focusing on something only he remembered. “…it isn’t unusual for troopers to come ask me for help. I’ve tried to follow after Angeal’s example, after all… No offence Gen-Gen.”

               “Hrn.”

               “…but I did think it was weird that a trooper would come bother me when I clearly wasn’t patrolling. Either way, the trooper and I got separated – or maybe they ditched me because the whole thing was part of AVALANCHE’s plan. I can’t say for sure. Either way while I was distracted, Cloud apparently got approached by his childhood friend at the function. He has no idea how she got in but, she got into the function and told him he was unknowingly carrying a bomb.”

               Angeal’s expression became downright harsh, then.

               “A bomb really was brought into the banquet then? How on Gaia’s green earth did it get that far into Shinra’s upper floors without detection?”

               “Oh, that’s definitely my fault Angeal. If anyone has to take the blame for that, it’s me.”

               Zack said it so seriously that every eyebrow in the room raised.

               “What?” Zack looked annoyed. “It’s true. Cloud was hanging off my arm, and I was definitely keeping him close. There was no way anyone was going to trouble or pat down Cloud when he was with me, I mean come on, I’m a 1st Class like you guys now.”

               Sephiroth pinched the bridge of his nose before conceding Zack’s illogical point, for now, and waving him on. Though he did make a mental note of it.

               “…anyway, Cloud’s friend, without seemingly recognizing him, told him he was in danger but she said she would ‘stop the plan,’ or something to that extent. I can’t say how that all turned out… But Cloud headed to the balconies once he realized what he was carrying.”

               Genesis eyed Angeal and they both shared a nod before the auburn haired man spoke.

               “I told Ange the windows were shaking.” Angeal admitted, “I could feel a tremor, though it was slight enough that I almost thought it was because of Heidegger’s incessant laughter.”

               “Continue on, Fair.”

               Zack turned and stared at him.

               “I mean, should I? You were there during the next part before I arrived. I think maybe you should give the report now.”

               Sephiroth cast him a Look, but Zack faced him without flinching.

               “Sephiroth?”

               Angeal’s inquiry caused him to sigh.

               “Very well, then… I had gone out onto the balconies to get some fresh air. I had just received a text from you, Zack, asking if I had seen Cloud, when he came out onto the balconies. Because I was beside the sides of the door, and he did not look back, he didn’t see me as he closed the door. Since I was already unnoticed, I decided to observe him.”

               “That is called stalking, Sephiroth.”

               “Quiet, Gen.”

               “Cloud approached the railing, and I could tell something was amiss. He moved as though his body was stiff, and before long he began to climb over the rail. I sent a text to you Zack, telling you of his location with an order to come quickly.”

               “And I’m glad you did, Seph, seriously.”

               “It became immediately obvious from Cloud’s posture and stance on the edge that he meant to throw himself from the building.”

               “Gods.”

               Zack spoke then.

               “Cloud found out the bomb was sewn into his dress and he didn’t know how to get it off him without setting it off. It wasn’t like he could very well see it, and even if he could, he probably wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. All he knew was that it was supposed to go off around midnight when the Old Prez addressed everyone.”

               Sephiroth addressed his oldest friends then.

               “So his solution was to jump so that if the bomb detonated, it would at least not take everyone else with him.”

               “I thought I was going to puke when he went over the ledge like that.” Zack looked ashamed to admit it, but continued on. “I went to leap after him, but Sephiroth basically threw me backward and dove himself. Which, by the way, rude. If I hadn’t stopped my momentum you would have thrown me through those glass doors back into the building.”

               Sephiroth eyed him in annoyance.

               “Should I apologize for saving your friend, and by design yourself? Last I checked, you never grew a wing, Fair.”

               Zack pouted.

               “No… No you shouldn’t have to apologize… I just wanted you to know.”

               Angeal stood up then, and Zack shrank slightly.

               “Let me get this straight. Cloud had a bomb strapped to him, and he threw himself off the building… and you tried to jump after him?”

               Zack shrank down slightly further with a grimace.

               “Look, ‘Geal, I’m not a SOLDIER Cadet anymore… and I didn’t even know about the bomb yet!”

               “I know you well enough to know that wouldn’t have stopped you.”

               Zack conceded this with a wince, before muttering, “‘sides, Sephiroth didn’t let me anyway.”

               Angeal whirled on Sephiroth then, who found himself whole-heartedly displeased to now be the center of that infamous scolding Hewely-stare.

               “And yes, that’s only because you Sephiroth, jumped after a bomb in his place.”

               “Again,” Petulant, Sephiroth reiterated, “should I apologize for saving the life of Zack’s friend, or not?”

               Angeal, if anything, increased the potency of his glaring.

               “Ange, dearest, I have personally Firaged you and our dear Sephiroth on multiple cases. I have even blasted you in the face on more than one occasion. Given, I have never been aiming to kill my two deeply beloved, but I digress. It would take a bomb capable of leveling the Shinra building or something equally outrages to actually stand a chance at killing us… What? Don’t you glare at me too. I’m right, and you know it.”

               Angeal, now in full-blown glaring mode at everyone in the room turned away and stalked to the other side of the room, seething. He began to pace out his frustrations.

               Sephiroth figured Genesis would give some lip about Angeal’s helicoptering ways, but he remained silent and focused on him and Fair. Meanwhile, Zack just winced seeing his mentor so obviously wound.

               Leave it to Angeal to cow them all to some extent.

               Sephiroth decided to take charge once again.

               “Well, as you can imagine, I and Cloud lived. I jumped after him and carried him back to the balcony, where he then informed Fair and I of the situation. I weighed the options available, and then discarded Cloud of his dress and carried the bomb off to an unmanned construction site. I had plenty of time to do that, and travel back to the balcony before the bomb detonated… Which I suppose proves its detonation had at least been delayed, if not stopped. Be it from shoddy craftsmanship, or outside interference, I cannot say at this time.”

               Though he had been wondering about it. Perhaps it merely was a case of being poorly put together, or maybe Cloud’s dress or the fall delayed the signal. Maybe, just maybe, there was even merit in the ideal that Cloud’s friend might have delayed the detonation. Though this was all conjecture at this point, and thus, moot until further evidence could be supplied…

               That being said…

               Sephiroth stood.

               “Afterwards I donated my shirt for Cloud so no one would catch myself or Fair alone with a man in lingerie. Then I staged that entrance to buy Fair time to slip away with Cloud, where he proceeded to get Cloud here and interrogate him.”

               “I didn’t have to interrogate him, Seph. He told me everything.”

               Another moot point, as far as he was concerned.

               Genesis eyed him.

               “You’re going somewhere.”

               “Yes.”

               Zack seemed puzzled.

               “Wait, that isn’t all… Shouldn’t we talk about our plan against AVALANCHE? Cloud also mentioned something really sketchy was about to be going down at the HoneyBee Inn that weird Don Corneo guy runs. It looks like Cloud’s childhood friend might be in the middle of all this, so shouldn’t we–”

               “Act at your own discretion, Fair.”

               The younger ravenette haired man seemed further confused, before frowning.

               “What’s with that…? And stop calling me Fair, I’m not giving you a report anymore. You have literally slept with me.”

               “That I have, but I have no plans to treat this incident as something that is already done with.”

               Zack’s gaze hardened.

               “…so what, you’re planning on turning Cloud over to Shinra after all?”

               Sephiroth did not make it a habit of underestimating others. As such, he was not surprised at Zack’s deduction.

               Even though it was not completely accurate.

               “At this time, I have no clear reason to. I am simply going now to make sure I won’t have to have a reason.”

                Zack’s frustrated gaze followed him as he headed toward the door.

               “What does that even mean, Seph?”

               “Heel, mutt.”

               Zack and Sephiroth’s gaze turned to Genesis.

               Genesis’ cobalt eyes were brighter than usual, a testament that although he had been rather quiet, his mind was racing with all of this new information.

               Sephiroth doubted anyone but those currently present in this room would have been able to tell by his cool posture, however, as he continued to gaze after Sephiroth from where his chin perched on the back of his hand.

               “Our little silvernette is off to do damage control, isn’t that right?”

               As Sephiroth slid his tried-and-true black leather duster on, he rebuked, “More like managing the fallout at this point. I’ve been away too long already.”

               Then he was out the door.

               Angeal had stopped pacing a few minutes ago, but now he moved toward the door as well.

               “Zackary, make sure Cloud has a change of clothing when he awakes and he gets fed before he departs if I’m not back by morning.”

               Then the door shut, leaving three.

               Zack winced as he rubbed the back of his neck.

               “Haah. ‘Zackary,’ huh? Big guy hasn’t called me that in a while… But wait, where is everyone going?”

               Genesis sighed as he stood up, stretching his arm over his head.

               “Was it not apparent, puppy? They’ve gone to manage the situation, or direct it, I suppose. Perhaps we will luck out and not have the Turks knocking on our abode by morning if they do a well enough job.”

               Genesis moved to examine Cloud’s deeply sleeping face.

               “…and you should hope for their success, little sleeping beauty. After all, your beauty sleep depends on it.”

               The auburn-haired sword-mage turned to Zack then.

               “Well, I’ll leave the house-sitting duty in your capable hands, then.”

               “Wait, you’re leaving too? Seriously?”

               Genesis slid his coat on and as he opened the door. Before departing, he cast his bright gaze at Zack with a smile that was a little too wide.

               “Oh, I’m incredibly angry right now. I would not be good company. Ta-tah, Zackary.”

               Then the door shut, leaving Zack feeling miserable. Glumly, he muttered, “It feels weird when you call me by that, Gen. If you’re aggravated, just punch me. Sheesh.”

               Zack turned with a sigh, putting his fists on his hips as he gazed down at Cloud, who despite everything, still seemed to be sleeping peacefully.

               “I prolly should go after Gen-Gen before he starts setting things on fire, since Sephiroth isn’t here to fight him and ‘Geal isn’t here to temper him… But it’s probably better to let him and ‘Geal vent a little.”

               There was no way those two wouldn’t be royally upset by the situation Cloud found himself in. Even indirect, that was a heavy weight to bare… Let alone the situation with the bomb…

               Sephiroth was still a bit of a mystery though.

               He knew the man well enough to know when he was busy calculating something in that mind of his… and he’d spent a good portion of the hour staring intently at Cloud, all the while Zack could practically hear the gears in his head turning.

               He hoped the man he cared about was overriding the General in that think-space of his, because man, hadn’t Cloud been through enough already?

               “We’ll figure this out, Spike, don’t worry. I’ll have your back, okay?”

               Cloud gave no answer, but he did curl up slightly in response to Zack’s words, which the ravenette decided, that was a good enough answer as he ran his hand through Cloud’s spikes.

               “Now, how about I move you somewhere more comfortable, hm?”

               


               

               “Sephiroth.”

               The General stopped and glanced back over his shoulder where Angeal stood.

               Jade eyes regarded him warily.

               “If you plan on scolding me further…”

               “I’m still angry, but I have no attention of treating you like a misbehaving child any further. It would just be a waste of my time.”

               …and some people had the audacity to believe Genesis was the most biting in their relationship.

               Sephiroth sighed and continued on as Angeal fell into step with him.

               “I know you well enough to know you’ve already thought several steps ahead to achieve whatever you’re goal is.”

               Playing this game are we?

               “…and I know you well enough to know that you’re a man of action. You wouldn’t have followed me without following that odd moral compass of yours… What is it telling you right now?”

               If there was any conscience he felt he could listen to right now, it was Angeal’s.

               “My instincts simply told me to follow you, and I’d find myself going in the right direction.”

               Perhaps for the first time that night, Sephiroth felt himself smile softly. But only for a moment.

                “At the function tonight, I heard some interesting things before I stepped outside. Now I’m inclined to believe they could relate to Cloud’s situation from what I learned from Zack’s report. I’m off to gather more information… That being said, I have an assignment for you. In fact, you’re probably the best suited for it.”

               And Angeal had come of his own accord. It truly was as if he had sensed it. Really. Angeal never failed to amaze him.

               Seeing he had Angeal’s undivided attention, he stated, “We have traitors or at least fakes among our ranks. Find out who was stationed at this function tonight and check if they showed up or not. Find the spies.”

               Angeal’s expression was grim.

               “You think there is more than one?”

               “Despite Zack’s words, I feel as though it shouldn’t have been that easy for a bomb to make it all the way up here undetected. There is certain to have been a clue left somewhere. Find whatever lead is available.”

               Angeal turned off and started heading toward the security rooms before he paused. Sephiroth stopped as well, eyes narrowed.

               If anyone could find out if there was a fake trooper in their midst, Angeal could. He wasn’t called the ‘spiritual leader’ of SOLDIER for no reason. And yet, did the broader man have a problem with his plan…?

               Angeal faced him, and for a moment, Sephiroth found his face hard to read.

               “Sephiroth, thank you for protecting Zack. When he needed help, I’m glad he had you to rely on.”

               “Of course. We have made a pact, after everything, haven’t we?”

               Angeal’s gaze kept him from continuing on his way.

               “…yes, Angeal?”

               “…and thank you, Sephiroth, for not getting yourself hurt. I am glad you are well. Even if I have to temper my desire to throttle you and Zackary right now.”

               Sephiroth felt another rare smile tempt his face.

               He tapped his temple as he mused, “Be sure, I know full well you plan to scold me further despite your words. I have memorized each of your lectures, as you have drilled them into me as thoroughly as Genesis’ renditions of Loveless.”

               “Don’t exaggerate, Sephiroth. It’s unbecoming of a General. Now, get to work, SOLDIER.”

               With that he turned, and Sephiroth found himself chuckling quietly to himself as he headed toward the elevator. Leave it to Angeal to lift his mood…

               As soon as the elevator doors opened, he stepped inside and keyed in his destination before turning and leaning back against the steel wall behind him. Finally alone with his thoughts, he refocused on what was important.

               Really, now.

                All of this fuss, all because Zack fell in love with an enigmatic blonde dancer…

               Though, the memory of those baby blue azure eyes was something familiar to him somehow.

               They danced on the edge of his memories, temptingly.

               Perhaps when he was done with gathering the information he needed, he would know exactly why he also had a hard time taking his gaze away from the blonde who avoided his eyes whenever he could.

               Perhaps then, he would also understand this strange pit of guilt that settled heavily in his stomach whenever those pretty blue eyes finally glanced his way...